Publication Date: June 24, 2005
Death in the Queen City: Clara Ford on Trail, 1895 by Patrick Brode is the story of Frank Westwood who was gunned down in front of his home that he shares with his parents in Parkdale, Ontario, on October 6, 1894. The 18-year-old lingers three days before dying and the police have few leads. A single tip leads the police to Clara Ford, a 33-year-old seamstress of mixed race. Clara claims that she killed Frank, but did so because he had attempted to sexually assault her. In a highly sensational case that stands as a intimate look into Victorian Toronto, would Clara be convicted or would an admitted killer go free?
When I started blogging book reviews last year, my co-worker suggested that I read and review Patrick Brode. She raved about his novels that are based on true crimes that happened in the author’s hometown of Windsor, Ontario. Looking through the Brode’s list of work, the book that caught my eye was the author’s single non-fiction listing, Death in the Queen City: Clara Ford on Trail, 1895.
Death in the Queen City: Clara Ford on Trail, 1895 is a telling of the death of Frank Westwood and subsequent trial of the very unconventional Clara Ford. From start to finish, the story was entrancing. Brode set the stage in such a way that conveyed the attitudes of the time and how those attitudes impacted the fate of Ms. Ford. She was illegitimate, a woman of color, likely had an illegitimate daughter of her own and had admitted killing a man in Chicago — a crime for which she was never tried. There were serious inconsistencies in Ms. Ford’s story, but public sympathy was heavily on her side.
I watch true crime shows weekly and found it interesting that techniques used in Ms. Ford’s case that are still used and controversial today. The media questioned the “Police Sweatbox.” Ms. Ford was interrogated for six hours. Surely anyone would tell the police what they wanted to hear if they were sequestered for six hours? How could a mere woman stand up to that pressure? There’s controversy in the court system today over similar techniques used in securing confessions in the U.S. court system.
Brode cites several contemporary cases in this work that I’d like to know more about. He relates the case of a man who pushed his wife over Niagara Falls because he had another wife at home. He tells of a woman in Tennessee who killed her lesbian lover because she refused to run away with her and then begged the police not to wash the woman’s blood from her hands. I’d also enjoy reading Brode’s account of the Lizzie Borden case.
The social mores conveyed were interesting. A woman in men’s clothes was thought to be sexually perverted and probably homosexual, which would account for a sudden affinity to violence. Black witnesses were expected to be jolly, docile and ignorant. One of the few black witnesses was heard to say, “Why did you think I couldn’t read?” The times were changing. Brode tells us that attitudes were changing toward Toronto’s black citizenry as a result of the end of the Civil War. Fashion was changing as well. Women’s clothes were restrictive and hindered actually doing things that women of the day needed to do. Women were thought to be incapable of great harm to others as they were nurturing and loving and violence were against their nature.
Ford’s case was a media sensation and every outlet had a differing opinion. Did she kill Westwood because she was lesbian? Did Ford kill Westwood because he tried to rape her? Were Westwood and Ford lovers and had he found someone else? Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes, weighed in on the case himself while visiting Toronto.
Death in the Queen City: Clara Ford on Trail, 1895 was a fascinating read and I look forward to reviewing one of Brode’s true crime based novels. A review of Judgment City will appear on this blog sometime within the next few months.
Read an excerpt and buy Death in the Queen City: Clara Ford on Trial, 1895 by Patrick Brode on