Review: The Massey Murder by Charlotte Gray

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In February 1915, a member of one of Canada’s wealthiest families was shot and killed on the front porch of his home in Toronto as he was returning from work. Carrie Davies, an 18-year-old domestic servant, quickly confessed. But who was the victim here? Charles “Bert” Massey, a scion of a famous family, or the frightened, perhaps mentally unstable Carrie, a penniless British immigrant? When the brilliant lawyer Hartley Dewart, QC, took on her case, his grudge against the powerful Masseys would fuel a dramatic trial that pitted the old order against the new, wealth and privilege against virtue and honest hard work.

Was a housemaid able to get away with murder (or at least manslaughter) because she was a virgin? The answer is yes, pretty much. Granted Carrie Davies is a sympathetic figure, but the fact remains that she killed a man who at the time was posing no discernible threat to her. While Bert Massey possibly did make an indecent pass at Davies, the mousey little maid’s story didn’t add up completely (why didn’t she leave? why didn’t she tell her sympathetic sister? how could she have been in a “state of panic” all day and not leave the house?) and Davies was acquitted more based on the fact that she was an “innocent” than the actual facts of the case. But the other side of this case is the fact that domestic servants really DIDN’T have any recourse against predatory employers. No rape convictions were ever upheld and for a society that said that a woman was “fallen” and untrustworthy if she wasn’t a virgin even in cases of rape, most women had no other way out.

What unfolds is a story about a woman who possibly got away with murder, but may have had no other choice based on society at the time. It’s also about Canada itself, a country trying to establish itself away from its British loyalty and make an identity for itself during the Great War. A maelstrom of prejudice, nationalism, prudery, misogyny and industrialization formed to cause an oddity in murder cases. A case that was a sign of its time, yet also a sign of things to come.

4 out of 5

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