A historical whodunit
The titillation factor in true crime stories makes them catnip for podcasters and documentary filmmakers. The neat story arc — from fatal blow to courtroom denouement — provides a great frame for insights into a society’s values, fears, and assumptions. It was already a well-established genre back in the nineteenth century, when newspapers adeptly exploited its morbid appeal and many stereotypes: bullied woman, celebrity villain, genius detective, vengeful bitch, mendacious spouse. Values and stereotypes shift over time, however, and it is this evolution that makes Clara at the Door with a Revolver an intriguing new look at an old crime.
The clunky title of Carolyn Whitzman’s book hints at all the delicious details she is going to reveal about an 1894 murder in Toronto. Previous books and articles about the crime (and there have been many) have usually been written from the point of view of the subtitle’s “exemplary white son.” Drawing on genealogical research and extensive newspaper archives, Whitzman has instead made the “scandalous Black suspect” the focus of her tale, and she has demonstrated what an oppressively nasty and morally corrupt place “Toronto the Good” was if your family didn’t have British roots and you weren’t white, male, relatively wealthy, and ferociously Protestant.
The “scandalous Black suspect” of the subtitle was Clara Ford, a thirty-two-year-old single mother who scraped a living from a variety of cleaning, waitressing, and sewing jobs. Tall and striking, she had a close circle of friends who spoke of her honesty and humour. A Jewish tailor who once employed her said she was “always industrious and quiet, never missing time and often working after hours.”
But Ford had three strikes against her. She was Black (Whitzman’s research reveals new information about her parentage and background). She didn’t much like men, though she enjoyed wearing their clothes. And she stuck up for herself. Consequently, she had acquired a reputation for being eccentric and unpredictable — and became an easy target for malicious gossip.
The “exemplary white boy” was Frank Westwood, the handsome eighteen-year-old son of a successful English businessman. The Westwoods lived in a mansion overlooking Lake Ontario, in the recently developed suburb of Parkdale. Frank worked in a downtown department store owned by a friend of his father, had a circle of close male friends but no obvious vices, and regularly ate dinner with his family.
The “murder that shocked Toronto” occurred on a wet fall evening, after the Westwoods had all retired to bed. At around eleven o’clock on Saturday, October 6, Frank went back downstairs, lit the gas lamp in the hallway, and opened the door. Upstairs, his mother heard sounds, rushed to the landing, and looked down. Slumped against the wall and clutching his stomach, her son cried up, “Mother, I’ve been shot.” Within fifteen minutes, three doctors and three policemen were on the Jameson Avenue scene, but Westwood was dying. All he would say, according to the newspapers, was that his assailant had been a medium-sized, relatively heavy-set middle-aged man, sporting a moustache and wearing a dark overcoat and fedora. Westwood did not recognize him.
There were seven daily newspapers in the city in 1894, and a good crime, in Whitzman’s words, “was their bread and butter.” Reporters swarmed to the Westwood home, but there was little to write about as there was no obvious suspect. Instead, there were a quartet of underpaid, ineffective officers and a surge of speculation.
Whitzman has identified a “clear-cut villain in this melodrama,” a young man named Gus Clark, who also came from a middle-class family. Despite the fact that Clark was an alcoholic with a criminal record for burglary, the police never investigated him because his father and one of the detectives were linked through the Orange Lodge and the Liberal Party. Instead, Clark was able to divert their attention to Ford. Six weeks after the murder, she was nabbed by the police; after being questioned for eight hours, she confessed to the crime. Her motive, she explained, was to get even for continual racial harassment by Westwood and his friends, as well as a sexual assault by Westwood the previous summer.
The centrepiece of Clara at the Door with a Revolver is the contemporary coverage of the trial. Court hearings always make for good theatre: the stern judge on his dais (in this case, the notoriously bigoted George Denison), the anxious members of the jury, the avidly curious spectators. At Ford’s trial, which lasted a week, the odds seemed stacked against what the Globe chose to call, in a deeply offensive phrase, the “mulatto man-woman.” Various other papers painted her as a helpless child, an angry Black mistress, and a monster. The chances of her ever slotting into the conventional image of “good citizen” were virtually nil. The Crown prosecutor assumed this was an open-and-shut case.
Yet it was the police who found themselves vilified by reporters by the end of the week. Whitzman gives almost all the credit for this turn of events not to Ford’s lawyer, as previous writers have done, but to Ford herself.
Clara Ford was the first woman — and only the second person — to testify on her own behalf in a Canadian trial. Whitzman has patched together her testimony from newspaper accounts, demonstrating that Ford sounded lucid, composed, and honest. Her clarity and self-possession convinced a jury of twelve white men that she was forced into a false confession. The Toronto News now described Ford as “a friendless girl, who’d been subject to persecution all her life.” So the real shock of Frank Westwood’s murder that rippled through Toronto was not that a nice young man had died, but that an unconventional poor Black woman, who had confessed to firing her gun, walked free.
Whitzman applauds Ford, who “controlled her own destiny and wrote her own narrative,” but she notes that, “like a rubber band, society snapped back to its old constraints and injustices” within a few years. Misogyny, racism, and snobbery prevailed again, and, like most working-class women then and now, Ford largely disappeared from the written record. But Whitzman has given us a version of her story that has been scrupulously researched, is well told, and illuminates the value of changing one’s angle of vision when exploring historical events.