The most puzzling unsolved murders are not necessarily the ones where no one has any idea who the murderer might have been. Often, the greatest homicide mysteries are where there is one obvious suspect, but there is not sufficient evidence to close the case, and the motive remains unknown.
The classic example of this sort of judicial riddle is Lizzie Borden. Here was a respectable, upper-class, well-behaved woman from a seemingly normal family, a genteel lady who showed no hint of violence before or after the event that made her famous. And yet, many of her contemporaries--not to mention the majority of crime historians--believed she committed the particularly brutal murder of her father and stepmother. However, there was not enough proof of this to convict her, and--if she was indeed guilty--it is unknown what inspired her to make the one-day-only transformation from secretary of the Christian Endeavor Society to Hatchet Queen.
And if she did not commit these murders, well...who did?
A hauntingly similar, but lesser-known case is the subject of today's post.
Our story opens inside the home of the Kinrade family of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. The date was February 25, 1909.
And the body lying on the floor was 25-year-old Ethel Kinrade.
The Kinrades were well-to-do and highly respected members of their community. By all accounts, they were a happy, affectionate family with no hint of scandal or serious discord. The father, Thomas Kinrade, was a school principal who was widely liked and admired. He was also landlord of some thirty rental properties in the town. Thomas and his wife Isabel had two sons and three daughters. The boys had homes and careers of their own, but the three girls, Ethel, Gertrude, and Florence, still lived at home.
Twenty-three year old Florence was the most offbeat member of this deeply conventional family. The attractive young woman had ambitions to become a professional singer and actress. Her family--particularly Ethel--disapproved of this goal, but they do not appear to have actively tried to stop her, either. She had spent much of the previous year appearing in various stage productions in Richmond, Virginia, and had only been home for about two months at the time of the family tragedy.
On what would prove to be Ethel's last day on earth, she had lunch with her parents and sisters. After the meal, the father returned to work, and the youngest girl, sixteen-year-old Gertrude, went back to school. Afterwards, Mrs. Kinrade and the two remaining daughters discussed the numerous "tramps" who had been harassing them by hanging around the house and repeatedly knocking on their door asking for handouts. Most unsettling of all, someone had tried to break into their home the previous evening. They agreed that Mrs. Kinrade should go to the police station and ask them for protection against such marauders. She left the house shortly after 3 p.m.
From that point on, Florence was our sole source of information about what took place inside the house. At her sister's inquest, she testified that she and Ethel prepared to go for a walk. After putting on her street clothes, Florence noticed she had a hole in one of her gloves, and went downstairs to get needle and thread to mend it. While she was there, the doorbell rang. It was a man, begging for food.
She agreed to get him something, but when she tried to close the door, he shoved his way inside the house and demanded money. Too frightened to argue, Florence went upstairs to get ten dollars she had in her bedroom. When she passed Ethel's bedroom, she "sort of whispered" to her sister to lock herself in. She could not tell if Ethel heard her or not. When she was in her own room, she hesitated, not sure what to do. Then, she heard "a noise like the house going up." Most of us, by this point, would be throwing open the windows and screaming for help, but instead, Florence said she merely went back downstairs and meekly handed the intruder the money.
Her account of the incident then went from merely "odd" to downright bizarre. She said she went into the parlor and opened the window, intending to jump out of it, but the man rushed in and grabbed her. She then by some means--she could not say how--made her way to the kitchen, where she ran out into the back yard. Although she was surrounded by neighbors, she said she was too frightened to cry for help or jump their three-foot-high fence to seek assistance.
Instead, she could think of nothing better to do than go back inside the house. When she went inside, she found the burglar standing in the hallway. She also saw her sister's body lying in the dining room. Stricken with horror, she ran past the murderer and out the front door. She fled into the home across the street, crying, "Ethel is shot--shot six times." The neighbor, a Mrs. Hickey, helped Florence call the police, and then her father. Mrs. Kinrade had left the police station only a few minutes before Florence phoned them. The mother discovered her daughter was dead by reading of it on a newspaper office's bulletin board.
When police arrived at the Kinrade home, they found that Florence's news had been all too accurate. Someone, it was clear, had been very, very anxious to see Ethel dead.
Through some error in communication, Thomas Kinrade was laboring under the belief that Florence had been the murder victim. When he arrived at his home, practically his first words were, "I expected that something like this would happen." It was not until he was shown the body that he realized it was another daughter who was dead. When he was later asked to explain his curious remark, he vaguely waved it off, muttering that he did not remember saying any such thing.
The police found Florence practically in hysterics, but she was able to give them a description of the killer. He was, she said, a man of about forty, medium height and weight, with a heavy brown mustache. She added that he seemed better dressed than the usual tramp.
From the very beginning, the police had no idea where to even begin their investigation. This was far from an ordinary burglary: the miscreant had not left after being given money, and he had taken nothing else from the home. Florence's description of the murderer's cold-blooded, yet utterly deranged behavior led many to assume that they were looking for a madman. Was he a homicidal lunatic, perhaps an escapee from the local asylum?
Or was there a personal motive? Although Florence was engaged to Clare Montrose Wright, a theological student in Toronto, she had also enjoyed the "attentions" of a fellow actor during her stint in Richmond. Had this rival swain, angered by rejection, come to Hamilton to get a murderous revenge on Florence, only to accidentally shoot the wrong sister?
However, the more police thought it over, the more they found themselves casting suspicious glances at Florence herself, particularly when she proved herself incapable of giving a consistent narrative of the tragedy. At some times, she said she had been in her bedroom when the shots were fired. At others, she said that she had witnessed the killing. Sometimes, she said that she had no idea if she had gotten outside the parlor window. Sometimes, she said she had gotten out, but was pulled back inside by the killer. Numerous other discrepancies in her testimony were noted. Her credibility took another blow when the autopsy revealed Ethel suffered four non-fatal gunshots to her head, and then, some fifteen minutes later, two fatal shots to her heart--a fact that did not coincide with any of Florence's accounts of what had happened. A coachman who was waiting outside a neighbor's house at approximately the time of the murder testified that he had not seen anyone enter or leave the Kinrade house until he saw Florence running out after the shooting.
The murder weapon was never found. Police learned that when she was in Richmond, Florence had carried a revolver for self-protection. However, she claimed that she had sold the gun before returning to Canada. Although she was unable to prove she was telling the truth about that, investigators were equally unable to prove she was not.
Police uncovered a number of interesting details about Florence, most of them centering around her very busy love life. Despite her engagement to Wright, she had, up until about two weeks before the murder, been corresponding with her Richmond gentleman friend, an American actor named James Baum. Her family disapproved of this relationship, and Mrs. Kinrade and Ethel had intercepted at least one of his letters. Baum himself testified at the inquest. He said that he had considered himself engaged to Florence. She had told him her parents had forced her into an unhappy marriage, but that she was now divorced. (This was, of course, complete fiction.) At the same time, she was writing to a man named "Harold," whom she had contacted through his matrimonial advertisement.
It emerged that Florence had lied to her family about her career. She had assured them that while away from home, she had only performed in church services (in those days, churches often hired singers.) In truth, she was working in the "immoral" world of the theater under the name of "Mildred Dale." Bizarrely--or, perhaps pathetically--Florence had compiled a scrapbook of wholly fictitious newspaper clippings describing performances she never gave and honors she had never received. As the Kinrade family attorney repeatedly pointed out, none of this had any known connection to Ethel's murder, but it certainly shed a somewhat lurid light on this ostensibly prim and proper Florence.
James Baum did tell the coroner's jury one very puzzling detail. He said that some unknown man had been stalking Florence when she was in Virginia. She had even shown him a threatening letter she had received from this menacing figure. On another occasion, an anonymous fan sent her chocolates. She threw them away, fearing they were poisoned. Did Florence really have a sinister "admirer," or was this more evidence of her talent for baroque fantasies?
Police also received reports suggesting that the pretty, talented, and outgoing Florence was the family "pet," while the quieter, plainer Ethel was relatively ignored as a stay-at-home drudge, condemned to a life of boring housework while her sister led a comparatively glamorous and exciting existence. Perhaps there were more family tensions and quarrels than any outsiders knew?
At the inquest, Florence was subjected to quite brutal questioning about her messy private life and her many decidedly odd accounts of her sister's death--the Crown lawyers and the Coroner all but directly accused her of murder. However, this interrogation accomplished nothing except sending her into increasingly wild fits of hysteria. (At one particularly melodramatic point, she collapsed completely, and was carried out of the courtroom crying, "I see that man. He will shoot me! He will shoot me!") Pretty Womanhood in Distress is always a popular role, and gained her much sympathy.
When the inquest ended, no one knew any more about Ethel's death than they did before. The jury ruled that "the deceased met her death by shot wounds inflicted by some person or persons unknown to the jury." They did, however, attach a rider stating that "owing to the fact of the unreliability of some of the evidence produced, the Crown is especially requested to continue its investigations."
That advice went unheeded. The investigation into Ethel Kinrade's death essentially ended with this inconclusive inquest. We have no idea who murdered the young woman, and it's a virtual certainty we never will. Florence's garbled and improbable testimony, as well as the medical evidence about the lapse of time between gunshots, brought a cloud of dark suspicion over her head which never really dissipated. On the other hand, it has been argued that it would hardly be remarkable for a sensitive, high-strung young woman to have incoherent memories of a sudden, horrifying situation. It was never proven that she owned a revolver at the time of the murder. And, of course, no one could produce any valid reason why she should brutally and cold-bloodedly gun down her own sister. But if, indeed, some wandering lunatic burst into the Kinrade home, only to fill one sister with bullets and leave the other completely unharmed, he vanished as quickly and mysteriously as he had appeared.
Shortly after Ethel's inquest, Thomas Kinrade quit his job, and the family moved out of town. Less than five months after the murder, Florence married Clare Wright, who had offered unwavering support during her ordeal. The couple moved to Calgary, where Clare abandoned his plans to become a minister and instead practiced law. The couple had two children before Wright died of pneumonia in 1918. After becoming a widow, Florence returned to the stage, where she had a fair measure of success. She died in Los Angeles in 1977.
It will always be wondered, however, if her most adept performance took place in her family home one February afternoon in 1909.