Monday, October 31, 2011

Hallowe'en post: Yarmouth's first murder

I have erratically tried to post something Hallowe'en themed for each year of this blog (poo-pirates and Canadian cannibals being some of my previous efforts). This year, it didn't occur to me until the waning hours of the in the last continental time zone, so chances are no one will see it until All Saints Day. That said, a good murder tale always warms the heart, right?

In any case, the following is one of my earliest professional writing efforts, for the local paper in my former hometown. There is much in there I would not have written had I done it today, but the story itself was pretty interesting.

Yarmouth murder transfixed province
Mark Reynolds
"Murder, most foul! Murder in its cruellest and most hideous form," screamed the lead sentence of the February 28 1921 dispatch in the Halifax Morning Herald. It was to be the opening line of what would be one of Nova Scotia's most sensational murder trials, a case that would grip the attention of the province for the next six months.
"Yarmouth Captain Murdered as he enters home" was the headline. For a long time - though rumours, speculation and malicious gossip were to spread rapidly throughout the town - that one fact is practically all that was really known.
Captain George Henry Perry, 66, was a retired sea captain who had settled in Yarmouth to make a quieter living as a farming equipment agent. He was apparently well known and respected throughout Yarmouth, and lived with his wife Clara, and Eleanor, one of his four daughters.
The facts of this murder were clear enough. After eating a quiet dinner with his wife, daughter, and her friend Mansfield Ross on Saturday February 26, Captain Perry went out, without saying where he was going. Ross and Eleanor departed shortly thereafter to attend a movie, while Mrs Perry went to her room.
Ross and Eleanor returned at around 11 pm, only to discover Captain Perry was still not home. As it was his habit to smoke his pipe out in his barn, Mrs Perry asked Ross to go out back and check for him there. He discovered Captain Perry just outside the back porch, bleeding from three blows to the head, breathing his last. Ross immediately called a doctor, and summoned two neighbours for help. It was too late however. The doctor arrived at the Argyle street home an hour later, only to see the Captain die, too badly wounded to name his assailant.
It was very clear that this was a murder - the question was who? Robbery was initially suggested, but Captain Perry was not known to carry large amounts of money on him, nor did he have many valuables on his person.
As there was no sign of forced entry, it was determined that the murderer had lain in wait for the Captain in the back porch, which was usually locked.
The Yarmouth police force was not equipped to handle a case like this, and so Detective Horace Kennedy - who was something of a star sleuth with the Halifax police - was immediately sent to Yarmouth to lend his expertise. The Halifax Herald sent F.B. Edwards, one of their senior reporters, whose knowledgeable dispatches were as detailed and well informed as they were colourfully composed.
Upon his arrival four days after the murder, Edwards wrote in the Herald that Yarmouth was awash in rumour, and that, while he cautions that such rumour had no weight as evidence, "it is, nevertheless, interesting as displaying a vivid white light the intimate acquaintance with one's neighbors' affairs."
One's neighbours, in this case, were the Perrys. The inquest into the Captain's death revealed quite a lot of interesting detail that was to come out in trial. Most sensational was the revelation that Captain Perry had claimed that someone was trying to kill him months before his death. He told one friend that someone had left a poisoned cake out for him and that on another occasion, he had discovered that the steps leading to his basement had been loosened in such a way that would cause the unwary to fall to their death.
Much of the gossip centered on the conduct of Eleanor, Clara, and Mansfield Ross upon discovering the Captain. Clara apparently, refused to go out to see her husband, and remained upstairs in her room. Shockingly, Eleanor remained inside doing the dishes while the neighbours tried to help her father.
Most damning of all, Ross told the neighbours that the doctor, when called, had ordered them to leave Captain Perry in the icy yard until he arrived. The doctor later said that he gave no such order.
Another key piece of evidence was the supposed murder weapon - an iron bar which Captain Perry kept in the back porch for the purpose of fixing his shoes. An initial search of the house by Yarmouth police Chief Babin upon his arrival yielded no weapon - yet the next morning it was in a washtub near the back door. It had been apparently put through a fire, as if to cleanse it of all traced of blood or hair.
It came out that the Perry's had been separated some years before, and Mrs Perry returned to the Captain because he had not given her enough of an allowance to survive upon. The Captain's will left everything to his widow, a fact she admitted she knew.
Pressure in Yarmouth was rapidly building on the police to make an arrest quickly. Everyone knew who the guilty party was - or so they thought. When the time came for Captain Perry's funeral, the church was surrounded by onlookers, waiting for the arrival of the widow and her daughter. The two women had to be escorted into the church through a back entrance.
Weeks went by, and there were no developments. Mrs Perry's clothes were sent to Halifax for examination, which yielded no results. Captain Perry's body was exhumed, and examined by a Halifax coroner, but he came to no new conclusions.
Chief Babin tendered his resignation about a month after the murder, and a new man was brought in from Bridgewater. The implication was that new eyes may be able to solve this heinous crime.
Finally, more than six weeks after the murder, on the very day that Babin's resignation was to take effect, he and detective Kennedy arrested Mrs Clara Perry for the murder of her husband. Arrested with her was Mansfield Ross, her daughter's new fiancee, who was charged with being an accessory after the fact. Mrs Perry's trial was to start June 29, 1921.
Because the Yarmouth courthouse had recently been damaged by fire, and because of the intense public interest in the case, a court was set up in a curling rink. The Herald estimated over a thousand people were in attendance.
None of the facts presented at the case were new - only the testimony of William Messente of Montreal, a representative of the company of which Captain Perry was an agent in Yarmouth. He testified that Mrs. Perry had asked him what policy would be due her were "the Captain to pass away suddenly." For its part, the defense made much of a mysterious man who had been seen outside the Perry home at around 8 o'clock the night of the murder
Despite public opinion, Judge Mellish delivered a verdict of not guilty, which elicited "a long drawn out "Ah" over the huge enclosure of the curling rink," as the Herald described it. The judge said that the evidence, though reflecting poorly on Mrs Perry and Ross, was in the final analysis, only circumstantial.
Four days after the trial, a brief item in the Herald announced that Mansfield Ross and Eleanor Perry were married in a small ceremony attended only by family.
Mrs Perry meanwhile, in an oath that would be echoed some seventy five years later by a certain football player, vowed that "She would make it her life endeavor to discover the true slayer of her husband."

It's been too long

Ten signs I've been away from my blog for too long

10) I type in "str" into my browser, and the autocomplete supplies "strollers" rather than "Strasmark."

9) My chops are so rusty, I can't think of anything better than a tacky top ten list to write.

8) Worse, I can't fill it out with another 7.

I have much on my plate these days. But the cobwebs gather, and clever Facebook status updates aren't shaking them off. Watch this space. But not too closely.