Maclean’s books: Excerpt from The Massey Murder

Biographer Charlotte Gray trades major figures for history’s forgotten faces in The Massey Murder
Jaime Hogge

Charlotte Gray, 66, is one of Canada’s pre-eminent popular historians and biographers, whose books on the likes of Alexander Graham Bell have all been critically acclaimed bestsellers. The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master, and the Trial That Shocked a Country, nominated for this year’s $25,000 RBC Taylor Prize—formerly the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction—marks a shift in focus for her.

Instead of major historical figures, it features Carrie Davies, a domestic servant and one of history’s invisible people, and Bert Massey, from the cadet branch of the family that produced, in Vincent Massey, the first Canadian-born governor general. But Gray has lately become “fascinated with the way true crime is the most wonderful vehicle for social history,” she says. “This case in Toronto in 1915, with its surprising verdict, shows the city and Canada on the cusp of enormous change.”


It was barely half an hour since the two shots were fired. In a bare attic bedroom, Carrie Davies had risen from the table where, in a state of eerie calm, she had just finished writing two notes. One was to Maud Fairchild, her married sister who also lived in Toronto. The second was to her friend Mary Rooney, another domestic servant who worked for Bert Massey’s older brother and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Massey. Carrie behaved as if in a stupor, oblivious to the furor outside in the street. When she heard a policeman’s voice, she thrust her hands into the arms of a shabby brown cloth coat and picked up the gun again. This time, she held it by the muzzle. Then she started downstairs.

At police headquarters at City Hall, at the intersection of Queen and Bay streets, where Inspector George Kennedy, Toronto’s most senior detective, had his office, Carrie admitted in her pronounced English accent that she had pointed a gun at her employer and pulled the trigger. Her motive for the killing, she sobbed, was that “he tried to ruin me.”

Sergeant Brown and Kennedy exchanged shocked looks. Brown had already told Kennedy that this was more than a routine crime, because the dead man was a Massey. Kennedy’s eyebrows had nearly lifted off his face when he realized he would be dealing with a family that was already a Canadian legend: the Masseys were respected for their fierce Methodism, appreciated for their public benefactions (Toronto’s Massey Music Hall and Fred Victor Mission were only two of the numerous Massey good works), and resented for their power. By the start of the 20th century, Methodists like the Masseys—along with the Eatons and the Flavelles—were on their way to becoming Toronto’s new capitalist class, an elite that challenged the city’s Victorian aristocracy in both wealth and snobbery. Bert Massey’s relatives lived in one of the grandest houses in Toronto, Euclid Hall on Jarvis Street, and Bert himself, as a child, had been dressed like a prince, in velvet coats and broderie anglaise collars.

Now this frightened young woman had uttered the sensational accusation, “He tried to ruin me,” and the two Toronto policemen realized that they had a major scandal on their hands. “Ruin,” in this context, meant only one thing: that Bert Massey had tried to have sexual intercourse with his maid. Reporters on the crime beat would swarm City Hall as soon as they got wind of the shooting—Kennedy could already hear a buzz of excitement in the front office. Moreover, at the time of the crime, Bert Massey had been unarmed and several feet from Carrie—an apparently law-abiding breadwinner returning from a long day at work. Carrie had taken him completely by surprise. Was she speaking the truth? And anyway, how many 18-year-old domestics knew how to fire a revolver? The two policemen stared at the wretched girl in dismay.

For three weeks, the sensational tale of the Massey killing gripped Toronto. On several days, the case received more coverage than a much more important story—the war in Europe. Thousands of young Canadian men had donned uniforms, crossed the Atlantic and, in the same February that Carrie faced the court, were preparing to risk their lives in the defence of the British Empire.

Now, within a city and country under stress, Carrie Davies’s actions played into contemporary disquiet about the dissolution of Old World standards of behaviour. Whatever did Carrie Davies think she was doing? Was this the kind of thing that would happen if people didn’t know their place, and women were given the vote? Did Charles Albert Massey’s death presage more fundamental shifts, perhaps—at best, Canada’s evolution towards its own unique national identity; at worst, a slide into social chaos within Toronto thanks to growing numbers of immigrants?

Excerpt from The Massey Murder by Charlotte Gray © 2013. Published by HarperCollins Canada. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.