Sherlock Holmes was at the top in Toronto in 1894.
The popular detective hypnotized readers with his pervasive logic and exotic crime-solving techniques, such as blood-spray analysis, ballistic tests, and toxicology, long before such methods were adopted by the real police.
So it was natural for a reporter from the now defunct Toronto World to reach out to Holmes’ creator, author Arthur Conan Doyle, about a particularly confusing murder in South Parkdale.
At the time, Conan Doyle was touring North America and was due to arrive in Toronto for a lecture at the end of November 1894 at Massey Hall, newly opened in June.
It was a time of transition in Conan Doyle’s life and career.
The author had outraged and terrified many readers by apparently killing Holmes in the December issue of the 1893 issue of Strand magazine, throwing the master detective off the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland during a fight with his arch-rival, Prof. James Moriarty.
In real life, Conan Doyle had grown tired of writing the Holmes character despite his immense popularity.
Conan Doyle arrived in Toronto on November 26, 1894 via Niagara Falls and stayed at the home of his friend, Dr. Latimer Pickering, in Cabbagetown.
Prior to his arrival, the World had already alerted Conan Doyle to the sensational Toronto murder case, which had not yet been resolved in court.
The murder – called “The Parkdale Mystery” in the Toronto press – involved the death of 18-year-old Frank Westwood, who was shot dead at 10.30pm on Saturday, October 6, 1894, while opening the front door of his family home.
The primary suspect was Clara Ford, a 33-year-old from Toronto’s rugged Ward district in the center, near today’s Queen and Bay streets.
Ford had already confessed to the crime and told police Westwood had ridiculed her dark complexion and then sexually assaulted her.
She then withdrew her confession, saying it had been forced by police
Westwood stayed in the hospital a few days before his death. At the time, he said he was shot by a man at the door whom he did not recognize.
It did not free Ford from suspicion as she was known for dressing in menswear, including posing as a cowboy, police officer and lecturer on socialism.
Her real-life story read like something out of a Charles Dickens novel.
She was born in the congregation and had been adopted as an orphan by Mrs. Jessie McKay, who died that spring at the sadly named Home for the Incurables in King and Bathurst streets.
When police searched Ford’s grotty lodging in the center, they found a cheap “bulldog” revolver that appeared to be newly fired.
A dark men’s suit that suited her was found in a suitcase in her room.
The World noted that Ford was not even close to being a proper Victorian lady.
She smoked, drank, shaved, and played the grain and kettle drum.
She had once worked as a servant; it did not help her career when she pulled a razor on a customer.
The Mail wrote that the murder case gave her plenty of attention after a sad, anonymous life: “A few days ago, her exploits were known by a relatively small circle. Today, she sits on a famous throne, discussed by thousands of busy tongues. “
Did she confess to the attention? Was her confession the result of police intimidation?
Whatever the case, she again declared her innocence as the trial approached.
Meanwhile, Toronto newspapers were fighting for new angles on the matter.
The World had sent Conan Doyle facts about “The Parkdale Mystery” before his arrival, and although his response did not promise much, it was good enough to be published on the front page of the newspaper.
It read: “Dear Sir, I want to read the case, but you may realize how impossible it is for an outsider who is ignorant of local affairs to come up with an opinion. Thank you, I am, with kind regards, A. Conan Doyle. “
Upon his arrival in Toronto, Conan Doyle sought to learn more about the case.
Years later, the reporter, the prominent Toronto journalist Hector Willoughby Charlesworth, wrote in his memoirs that Conan Doyle “requested that a reporter be sent to him who could tell him all subsequent developments (in the Westwood case). When I spoke to him, he said grinningly that he was the last man in the world to offer solutions to murder mysteries because in the Sherlock Holmes stories he always had his solutions ready before he started writing and constructing his narratives backwards from that point. also that fiction writers were not very good judges of evidence because they were used to creating facts that suited themselves, whereas detectives had to take them as they were. “
There were plenty who interested Conan Doyle in the case, even though he had grown tired of writing Sherlock Holmes mysteries.
“It’s a strange absorbing mystery, and I discussed it for a long time with my brother after reading it,” Conan Doyle said. “As for the current prisoner, Clara Ford, I can not come up with an opinion; I have never encountered such a case as hers. The system of closing a prisoner with an officer and cross-examining her for hours tastes more like French than English methods of justice. “
At the time the case was being processed, everyone who cared in Toronto knew that the victim was clearly the top crust, while Ford was a product of the city’s abdomen.
Westwood’s father, Benjamin Westwood, was a prominent manufacturer of sporting goods.
Their family mansion on 28 Jameson Ave. was called “Lakeside Hall.” It faces Lake Ontario, standing somewhere between the current Martin Goodman Trail and Lake Ontario.
Unlike Ford’s ghetto-like home, Lakeside Hall was a spacious 14-room mansion with a large lawn and private boardwalk.
The feasibility study had been particularly unsatisfactory.
One of the witnesses was WH Hornberry, whom the press mockingly called, “Parkdale’s Sherlock Holmes.”
Hornberry testified at the inquest that he had found a note on the grounds of the mansion that read, “If you do not – I will do it.”
Unfortunately, Hornberry said he threw the note away.
When the case reached court, Ford claimed she was in the Toronto Opera House with an eight-year-old girl at the time of the shooting.
Then the child’s testimony slipped, and she supported the police version of events.
The jury took only 48 minutes to make its decision after a four-day trial.
Maybe it was because Ford was an underdog compared to the rich victim.
Perhaps the jury was nervous about sending a woman with such an unfortunate past in the gallows.
Whatever the case, the audience in the courtroom cheered as they heard the verdict: “Not guilty.”
A cheerful crowd, including members of the jury and its foreman, followed behind her along Adelaide St. to York St.
Along the way, Ford approached them.
“I thank you for the way you stood next to me,” she told the audience. “This gives the boys from Toronto credit. I thank you all.”
Then Ford changed its history again.
“Once she was free, she was rude in admitting her guilt,” Charlesworth wrote in his 1925 memoirs.
“Her first step was to make sure she showed up at a penny museum in the clothes she had been wearing when she killed the young Westwood,” Charlesworth wrote. “This was too much for her adviser, Mr. Johnston. He sent for her and told her that but for him she would face the gallows; and that if there were any remnants of decency left in her, she would leave immediately. “Canada. She took his advice and joined ‘Sam T. Jack’s Creoles’… and was advertised in the western states as a girl who had killed a man under ‘the unwritten law’.”
Despite her new and very public confession, it was illegal to try her again for the same offense for which she had been acquitted.
The murder remains unsolved.
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