A sad 19th century story – one close to columnist’s home

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

One of the pleasures of writing this history column is that the locations of the events I relate are all familiar to me.

Even so, I was startled to stumble on one incident that occurred very close to home – only a few hundred feet from my house in Elora.

The time was Friday, March 28, 1884. A little after six on that evening, S.J. Taylor, an Elora flax manufacturer, strolled up the muddy path that was then Kertland Street. In the dwindling light he noticed something strange on the west side of the street, near a fence around the backyard of Simon Searle, who lived at the corner of Kertland and Church Streets.

He went over to have a look at what seemed to be a bundle of old clothes. The discovery chilled him. It was a dead baby. Looking around, he noticed activity a block or so to the south, between Mill Street and the Grand River.

It was James Bryans, a cooper, who, with his eldest son Fred, had been gathering firewood along the river. Bryans sent his son to fetch Constable David Geddes, who appeared within a few minutes. Geddes removed the baby to the town hall, and contacted Dr. William Savage, who was the coroner.

Dr. Savage conducted the autopsy the next afternoon, a Saturday. Immediately afterwards the inquest got under way, before 13 jurors, all well-known men in Elora. The jury heard evidence that the baby had been born alive, and had suffocated. Dr. Savage discovered a piece of cigar blocking the infant girl’s throat. The evidence confirmed rumours in the village that the baby had been murdered.

The baby had been tied in an old patched apron, with the letters “L.P.” embroidered on it, and then wrapped in a piece of linen tablecloth. After hearing evidence from Bryans and Geddes, the inquest adjourned until Monday evening. In the interval, Geddes had made his best effort at an investigation.

At the time there was a slaughterhouse on the east side of Kertland, almost opposite the place where the baby had been discovered, and there was regular traffic to and from it.

When the inquest resumed, Geddes had a string of witnesses lined up.

George Bruce, who regularly did business at the slaughterhouse, stated that he had seen nothing unusual on the day in question. James Drewery stated that he had taken his dog for a walk down Kertland early on the Friday morning and saw nothing, but had noticed something lying beside the street on his return. Neither he nor his dog investigated.

J.W. Bowes, who lived a block away, stated that late Friday afternoon he had seen a bundle lying on the ground with what seemed to be flesh protruding. He concluded that it was something left there by one of the slaughterhouse workers for later retrieval, and he did not investigate. He said that earlier that morning he had seen two men pass by, one with a bundle under his arm, heading in the direction of Aboyne.

After hearing this evidence, and on the advice of the crown attorney, Dr. Savage adjourned the inquest until Tuesday, April 8.

Constable David Geddes used the interval to continue his inquiries. After a couple of days he made an arrest under a coroner’s warrant, and Dr. Savage recalled the jury immediately for a session on April 4, exactly a week after the discovery. Crown attorney Henry Peterson was in attendance, summoned from Guelph by a telegram from Dr. Savage.

The prisoner was also there: Lizzie Parr, a young woman of 22, who had emigrated from Ireland with her parents and several brothers and sisters the previous July. Her father, Henry Parr, had a job working for James Hortop, who was then leasing the Elora Mill.

The Parrs lived with Hortop. Elora lawyer John Jacob acted on behalf of Lizzie during the inquest, which now had taken on the status of a preliminary hearing.

Dr. Arthur Paget gave medical evidence confirming Dr. Savage’s conclusions, that the baby had died from suffocation due to the cigar stub in the throat. The baby had been born shortly before death, and appeared to be a healthy, full-term normal child, nine or 10 pounds in weight. He estimated the baby had been dead a week or two before discovery.

Rose Clarke, wife of dry goods merchant and MPP Charles Clarke, testified that she had hired Lizzie Parr beginning Aug. 23, 1883 as a servant, and that Lizzie had left a few days before Christmas to help her mother. She suffered from a bad cold when she left, and had gained much weight during her four months at the Clarke house.

Mrs. Clarke had seen Lizzie in January, when she was very sick, had lost considerable weight since leaving the Clarke household, and was suffering severe abdominal pains. Her illness was complicated by a badly infected tooth. Lizzie returned to the Clarke household on March 3, 1884, and was still employed by them at the time of the inquest.

Mrs. Clarke examined the apron with the initials on it. She did not recognize it, but did state that Lizzie had marked her clothing, some with red material and some with ink. Rose Clarke recalled that her husband had mentioned before Christmas that Lizzie seemed to be pregnant, but Rose believed Lizzie’s appearance was due to extra layers of undergarments she wore because she felt constantly cold.

Sarah Lyons, of Peel Township testified next. She said she visited Elora for a week the previous January, and had stayed with the Parrs, who had become family friends shortly after their arrival from Ireland. During the visit she had slept in the same bed as Lizzie, and did not notice anything unusual about her appearance. A month later Lizzie spent a week in Peel with the Lyons family, and Lizzie had been active and healthy during the visit. She said that Lizzie had marked her clothing, but with her full name.

Charles Clarke, the Centre Wellington MPP, testified briefly, confirming the testimony of his wife that he had believed Lizzie was pregnant the previous December. He also said he did not believe the explanation that Lizzie merely was wearing extra layers of clothing. He did agree that Lizzie was an exceedingly modest woman, at all times proper and well behaved.

Mary Lyons offered testimony similar to that of her sister Sarah, and noted that Lizzie was always a stout girl, but less so now than formerly.

Joseph Bauers, a clerk in Charles Clarke’s store who boarded with the Clarkes, testified that he had noted a great change in Lizzie’s appearance between August and December of the previous year. He had concluded that she was pregnant, and had mentioned this to several people at the time.

Otherwise, he had found her very modest and well behaved, having seen her virtually every day for the four-month period.

The next witness was James Hortop, the miller. He explained that Mrs. Parr did his housekeeping, and that Lizzie had left the Clarkes to help her mother with these duties just before Christmas 1883. The Parrs, he said, lived in a self-contained portion of his house. He never noticed anything unusual about Lizzie’s appearance or behaviour, though Mrs. Parr did tell him about her illness.

Susan Parr, Lizzie’s mother, was the next witness. She gave a full account of Lizzie’s illness. She stated that the apron was not like those belonging to Lizzie, and that Lizzie had her name written in full on all her clothing. They had not called a doctor, Mrs. Parr said, because Lizzie had improved after one very bad night. She stated with certainty that Lizzie had not been pregnant. Henry Parr followed his wife to the witness stand. The only new evidence he offered was that Lizzie had left the Clarkes in December at his request because the workload there was too great for her.

During the testimony, Dr. Paget had asked both the parents and Lizzie if she would submit to a medical examination. Lizzie readily agreed.

The case, though, was proving to be an embarrassment to Crown Attorney Henry Peterson. There was no evidence, other than the ambiguous “L.P.” monogram on the apron to link Lizzie with the baby, and no real evidence that she had even been pregnant. Peterson dismissed the offer of a medical examination, stating “that as there is not a tittle of evidence against her, it is entirely unnecessary.”

The jury spent considerable time evaluating the evidence before coming to a unanimous conclusion: “That the infant child … came to its death by strangulation or suffocation at the hands of some person or persons to the jury unknown. The jury further find that the whole of the evidence adduced does not inculpate but exonerates Elizabeth Parr.”

No doubt David Geddes and Dr. Savage believed they had done brilliant work in linking the “L.P.” on the apron to Lizzie Parr. In their excitement they had confused a potential lead with hard evidence, and had issued a warrant before accumulating a solid case.

It seems strange that someone would place the dead child in a place where it was likely to be seen and discovered. 

At least a dozen people walked past that part of Kertland Street every day. It is possible to see the placement, and the monogrammed apron, as attempt to point a finger at Lizzie. It is just as easy to interpret much of the evidence as a cover up for her.

But either theory assumes that this baby was born in Elora. There is no evidence even to support this idea – it was dead at least a week before being placed at the side of Kertland Street, and could easily have been brought from somewhere else.

Cases such as this one can be found scattered through the history of 19th century Canada with distressing frequency, but they occurred less often in smaller centres.

Unwed mothers had few resources at their disposal. Most unwanted children were brought up in informal adoption arrangements, often with other family members. When there was no family, or when the family was unsympathetic, all too often the result was a baby such as the one abandoned on Kertland Street.

Henry Parr and his family seem to have left the Elora area after this inquest, not surprisingly, considering the stress and anguish the hearing must have caused them. There is no record of them in the 1891 census, and I have not encountered them in other sources.

After all the years, it is unlikely that any further evidence in this case will come to light. We will never know who gave birth to this baby, who choked it to death, who left it at the side of the street, and why.

I am certain that this one will reside permanently in my “unsolved mysteries” file.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on June 2, 2000.

Thorning Revisited