"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, March 13, 2017

A Murder in Toronto

Frank Westwood


Most murder cases have one or two unexpected twists, but it's a fairly rare surprise to come across one that consists of nothing but the unexpected. One such killing took place one otherwise quiet night in Toronto on October 6, 1894. Hang on tight, because this blog post will be a veritable murder roller-coaster.

If 18-year-old Frank Westwood hadn't been Canadian, you could have called him the All-American Boy. He came from a wealthy family who lived in a mansion in the suburb of Parkdale, overlooking Lake Ontario. He was handsome, athletic, and popular with both men and women.

One would think he was the last person in the world to meet doom at his own front door.

Frank spent the evening of the 6th with friends. He returned home around 10:30. The rest of his family was already asleep. He himself was heading off to bed when, at 11 p.m., he heard the doorbell ring. He went back downstairs to answer it. The instant he opened the door, the visitor shot him with a .38 caliber pistol. Frank just had time to shout, "Mother! I'm shot, I'm shot!" before collapsing.

His parents immediately rushed downstairs. Frank's father, Benjamin, went outside the door and looked down the street, but there was no sign of anyone. However, a Mrs. Card, who lived across the street, later told police that as she was arriving home at about 11 p.m., she saw a slender clean-shaven man in a light-colored coat standing in front of the Westwood home. At the time, she assumed it was Frank. After a doctor was summoned, Benjamin asked his son if he knew who had shot him. Frank insisted he had no idea.

The gravely wounded man told police that his attacker was a man of below-medium height and heavy build. He had a mustache, and wore a fedora and a dark coat. Frank swore the man was a complete stranger to him. (Note: this description contradicts the one given by Mrs. Card.)

The Westwood family home


Investigators suspected Frank was lying about not knowing the assassin. They felt he was keeping information from them. Detectives were particularly curious about an acquaintance of Westwood's named Gus Clarke. Not long before the shooting, Frank had warned the owner of a nearby boathouse that Clarke--a habitual petty thief--was planning to rob it. When Clarke learned what Frank had done, this had led to a bitter fight. Frank admitted to the police that he feared Clarke might "lay for me." When asked if he had any "scrapes" with girls, Frank denied it--a bit too insistently, some thought.

The police scarcely knew where to take their investigation. The gun used against Frank had not been found, they had only a vague description of the shooter, and except for Gus Clarke--who Frank insisted had not been his attacker--they knew of no one who had any motive to kill the young man. To make things worse for them, the public, terrified that a crazed gunman was in their midst, was howling for an immediate arrest.

Four days after being shot, Frank Westwood succumbed to his injuries. Shortly before he died, he made a formal statement. He continued to maintain that he did not know who shot him, but suggested that his murderer resembled a friend of Clarke named James Lowe. Unfortunately for the investigation, both Clarke and Lowe turned out to have watertight alibis for the time of the shooting.

It was looking as though the Westwood shooting would go down as an unsolved mystery, when on November 20, police dropped a bombshell. They announced the arrest of Frank Westwood's killer, and it was not a man, but a mixed-race ("mulatto" in the terminology of the day) 33-year-old seamstress named Clara Ford.



It was Gus Clarke who had steered the police in Ford's direction. He told them that she had made a play for Westwood, who rejected her advances. Perhaps she shot Frank in revenge. He added that Ford often carried a gun, and had a penchant for dressing in men's clothing. (She had previously been arrested for impersonating choirboys and police constables.) One Libby Black told police that she had once chatted with Frank Westwood. Afterwards, Clara, in a jealous fit of anger, told her, "If you speak to him again, I will do for you." Mrs. Black mentioned that Westwood had a mustache at the time.Investigators learned that Ford was hard-working, but hot-tempered. She had been fired from a restaurant job when in a fit of rage, she pulled a gun on her fellow employees. At another job in a tailor's shop, she once threatened a customer with a razor. Clara smoked hard, drank hard, and generally was about as far from the stereotypical Victorian lady as you could get.

Clara Ford in male clothing, "Toronto Star," Nov. 21, 1894 


When detectives questioned Ford, she claimed that at the time of the shooting, she and a 15-year-old friend named Florence McKay had attended a show at the Grand Opera House. (As a side note, it was rumored that the girl was actually Clara's daughter.) However, Florence told police that although she was supposed to meet Ford at the theater, Clara never showed up. A friend of Clara's named Mrs. Crozier told police that Clara visited her house on the fatal night. Clara had had a lot to drink, and was carrying her gun. The following morning, when the women--along with everyone else in Toronto--discussed the Westwood shooting, Clara commented, "Well, I'm glad I wasn't in Parkdale last night, or I'd be blamed for it."

When the police searched Clara's room, they found men's clothes, a fedora, and a .38 caliber pistol. She explained that she kept the gun for self-protection, and if she occasionally wore male attire, so what? That didn't make her a criminal.

Before long, however, she unexpectedly changed her tune. Clara bluntly declared, "There is no use misleading you any longer. I shot Frank Westwood." She added that they would understand why when they heard her story.

According to Clara's formal statement, Westwood and his friends had long been in the habit of harassing her. They would mock her skin color and threaten to turn her into the police for wearing men's clothing. Then, in the summer of 1894, Frank tried to rape her. She was able to fight him off, but, believing it was futile to expect the law to come to the defense of a poor "colored woman," she vowed to get her own justice. She did precisely that on the night of October 6. Clara said she felt no guilt over what she had done. She told the police that if Frank had treated one of their sisters the way he had treated her, they all would have done the same thing.

Clara Ford stood trial for murder in May 1895. Her story had won her a good deal of sympathy. If it was true that the seemingly clean-cut young man had a hidden dark side, few could blame Clara for defending her honor. It was speculated that perhaps Frank's inability to name his killer was really an act of remorse, an effort to protect the woman he knew he had wronged. However, there was no getting around the fact that the defendant looked guilty as hell, and it was seen as inevitable that Clara would have to pay the price for what she had done, no matter how justified her motive may have been.

To everyone's surprise, once Clara's lawyer, E.F.B. Johnston, launched his defense, it was beginning to look like the case against her was not as invincible as they had thought. Johnston pointed out that Gus Clarke, a career criminal, was hardly the most trustworthy witness. At the time Frank Westwood supposedly spurned Clara's advances, he was only thirteen years old. Libby Black was a hopeless alcoholic who was well-known to the police. The gun Clara owned was a cheap model that could be purchased all over the city for less than two dollars. There were likely many hundreds of them in Toronto. Oh, and Frank Westwood had never worn a mustache. Johnston then took the bold--and, at that time in Canadian law, nearly unprecedented--step of calling his client to the stand.

Clara's demeanor on the stand was calm and convincing. She now said that she was innocent of the murder. She barely knew Frank Westwood. Her confession, she asserted, was a falsehood forced out of her by the brutal methods of the police. The story of attempted rape was one invented by the detectives. She said, "Sergeant Reburn continued to press me to confess, and said that if I said Frank Westwood insulted me, nothing would be done to me...When in Inspector Stark's office he said that if I were a man, he would lock me up without a moment's hesitation. He took his watch out, looked at it, and said it was time I said something. He kept repeating I was in a net and could not get out. The more I denied, the more he pressed me to confess. At last, I said I did it." Clara said that once she had invented a "confession" that suited her interrogators, Detective Reburn warned her, "Now stick to this story. Be sure and do not alter your story."

Johnston had more surprises in store. He put on the stand the manager of Grand Opera House, as well as an usher and a constable who had been on duty at the theater. They all testified to seeing Clara in the audience the night of the murder. Additionally, Clara's landlady stated that the defendant had arrived home at 11 p.m. on the night of October 6. The Westwood home was several miles away, meaning that if this landlady was accurate, there was no way Clara could have shot Frank Westwood. In his closing argument, Johnston insisted his client was a helpless woman who had been framed by a law enforcement desperate to "solve" a notorious crime. He intoned dramatically, "If Clara Ford shot Frank Westwood, would she have dared to go into the witness-box and tell that story as she did?"

The jury agreed. After deliberating for one hour, they returned a verdict of "Not guilty."

Like many a freed defendant before and since, Clara made the most of her new-found notoriety. She now cheerfully told reporters that she had indeed shot Westwood. She appeared in a stage show, where she dressed in the clothes she had supposedly worn on the night of the murder. Johnston was so disgusted by his ex-client's lack of taste that he called her into his office and suggested it was high time she got out of town. Clara was more than happy to oblige. It was reported she joined a burlesque company called "Sam T. Jack's Creoles," and toured America, billed as "the damsel who had killed a man in pursuance of the Unwritten Law."



So, which of Clara's stories was the truth: the one she told the police, or the one she told the jury? If it was the latter, who killed Frank Westwood, and why?

5 comments:

  1. In seems unlikely that Ford shot Westwood, since the victim would have little reason for protecting his assailant. If he did attack her, he could always deny it, assuming he survived his shooting. A strange back-and-forth case, all right.

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    1. What puzzles me the most about the shooting is that if Frank was the specific target, it was an odd way to murder him. How would the assassin know he would answer the door? If some other member of the household had answered, would they have been shot instead? Or would the killer ask them to send Frank to the door (which would, of course, have allowed this family member to identify the shooter afterwards.) This is one of those cases with a lot of unanswered questions.

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    2. Good point. It may have, after all, been a case of mistaken identity: the killer shooting the wrong person, and Ford being caught up in it (and taking credit for it later to win a pathetic fame on theatre stages).

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    3. Undine says that the nature of the murder was odd "if Frank was the specific target". That is certainly true if we assume that the killer was thinking rationally. But if Clara Ford was a violent drunk who had a grudge against Frank Westwood because of a real or perceived grievance then she may not have been thinking rationally. It's very easy to believe that she might have had a few drinks and then embarked on an impulsive, ill-conceived murder attempt that she got away with through sheer luck.

      If it wasn't her the only plausible alternative seems to be an assassin who went to the wrong house, and if any of Westwood's near neighbours had such implacable enemies it would probably have come out by now.

      But Westwood's claim that he did not recognise his killer may also be sincere. He only had a brief glimpse of the person outside the door before he was fatally wounded. Did he really have any chance to see this person clearly? Would any useful memories have formed in a situation in which his conscious mind was overwhelmed with pain and the prospect of imminent death? It's probably a "no" in both cases.

      The most plausible conclusion is that Clara did it, Westwood didn't recognise her, and the true motives for this act - let alone the question of whether they were valid - will remain forever obscure (or perhaps, at the bottom of a glass).

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