Coroner’s inquest investigated deaths in 1949 Mount Forest fire

Last week’s column described the fires in the house of George White of Mount Forest on Jan. 7, 1949, and the discovery by the town’s firefighters of the bodies of George and his daughter Florence on partially burned mattresses.

After more than a week of police investigation, crown attorney J.M. Kearns convened the inquest he had called for the morning of Jan. 18.

The coroner, Dr. Couch, presided. R.G. Brebner acted as foreman of the jury, and there were four other members. The session was held at the Mount Forest council chamber. The room was packed with spectators.

J.M. Kearns led off his list of witnesses with fire chief Don McIntosh, who systematically ran through the his activities and those of his men on the day of the fire. McIntosh confirmed that he was not aware of the presence of Florence in the household, though he knew the White family quite well. He said that Percy White had assured him the fire was started by his father, George White, who was smoking in bed.

The next witness, fireman Sandy McKenzie, stated the firemen’s activities were impeded by dense smoke. He suspected, but could not confirm, the fire had been started with some stove oil. He said that George White’s face, though burned, was covered with feathers from a pillow, and that the pillow was burning when he removed it.

Lawrence O’Brecht said that he knew the family personally, but had been unaware of the existence of Florence White. He confirmed the testimony of the two other firefighters, and added that he had overheard Percy White telling other members of the force that the room where Florence’s body was found contained nothing but old clothes.

Corporal G.P. Johnston of the OPP was the next witness. He stated he had gathered various items of evidence from the house for analysis at the police laboratory in Toronto. He said he interviewed Mrs. White on the day of the fire.

She was very nervous, he said. She had assured him she had given both her husband and her daughter their breakfast on the morning of the fire. She had told him that previous to the fire she had gone to the outhouse after breakfast, and had left her husband smoking his pipe in bed. When she returned the house was filled with smoke.

Two doctors offered medical testimony and the results of the autopsies. The cause of death of Florence White could not be determined, but it was clear that George White had died of pneumonia, and that he had been suffering from acute prostate cancer.

Perhaps the most interesting witness was Percy White, son of George and Catharine. He said he had been lying in bed reading in his downstairs bedroom when he smelled smoke. He called out to his mother about it, and she replied that she had been combing hair and had thrown some loose hair into the stove. Percy said he was not satisfied with her reply, and he grabbed a pail of water and attempted to go upstairs, but was forced back by smoke when he opened the door to the stairway.

With regard to his sister Florence, whose body was found in the house, Percy said he had not seen her since before he enlisted in 1940, and that every time he asked his mother about Florence, she replied that Florence “was not in good shape but was coming along fine.”

Percy admitted he had been in the army for five years during the war. He had recently been in the Ontario Hospital for a number of months, and had been discharged the previous September. He was trained as a baker, but had not worked since returning from the hospital.

Catharine White was the next witness. She had been discharged from Louise Marshall Hospital a few days after the coroner had sent her there, but she was in far worse shape than she had been the day of the fire. She seemed barely conscious of what was going on in the room. J.M. Kearns peppered her with a series of questions. She replied to all with “I don’t know” or “I can’t remember.” After a few minutes a couple of police officers escorted her from the room.

Crown Attorney Kearns then summed up the case for the jury to consider. He said Florence White had died apparently of natural causes and that George White died between two and seven days before the fire, and the blaze had nothing to do with the two deaths.

The five-man jury retired to consider the case, and returned in less than an hour. Foreman R.G. Brebner read the verdict: “We, the jury, find that Florence White came to her death from causes unknown to this jury during the summer or fall of 1948, and find that George White came to his death by causes due to the weakness of the prostate gland followed by pneumonia, between the 31st of December 1948 and the 5th of January 1949.”

A few minutes after Dr. Couch adjourned the inquest, police arrested Catharine White on charges of “offering an indignity to a human body by setting fire to it, and failure to bury a dead body.”

Though covered under the criminal code, these were rare charges. Neither the coroner nor any of the police involved could recall a similar case. The penalty for both was a maximum of five years in jail.

The charges against Catharine White, though, never reached a courtroom. A few days after the hearing she was taken to a mental hospital under an order of the court. She was found to be not competent to stand trial.

George, her deceased husband, was remembered in Mount forest as a first rate carpenter. During the 1940s he had, from time to time, worked with his son Arthur, Percy’s younger brother, on various projects around Mount Forest. In addition to Percy, Arthur and the mysterious Florence, there were four other siblings in the family.

During the war Arthur served three years in the Royal Canadian Air Force before suffering a breakdown, which led to his discharge from the air force. He was deeply troubled in the years after the war, and in October of 1948 he was admitted to the Westminster Military Hospital in London after a complete mental breakdown. He eventually returned to Mount Forest.

William had a more successful career, serving for a time as the town clerk of Listowel. He retired to Waterloo. There were two daughters. Helen married Jack Wilson of Corbetton, and later returned to Mount Forest. Jessie married Leonard Gordon of Ottawa, and later moved to Hazelton, B.C.

The mysterious daughter, Florence, seems to have had some mental or physical problems from childhood that prompted her mother to keep her in bed and hidden from outsiders as well as other family members.

Percy, if he is to be believed, said he had not seen his sister for almost 10 years, even though for part of that time they lived in the same house. She was believed to have been a patient at one time at the Ontario Hospital at Orillia, but Percy vehemently denied it.

Percy White, after the fire, told reporters, “I think I’ll sell the house now and get out of town.” He did remain for a time, but continued to be plagued with mental and then physical problems.

He was 36 at the time of the fire, although other ages were attributed to him in various stories. He eventually lived in Hamilton, where he died on May 25, 1979 after years of health problems.

There were many unanswered questions regarding the White family and the fire, the cause of which remained undiscovered by the squad of reporters in Mount Forest in 1949.

Nothing seems to be known of Catharine White after she was taken away, and it seems strange that Percy was never charged in connection with the deaths. He surely knew much more than he said, and may well have been actively involved, as his mother was a virtual invalid.

All in all, this was one of the strangest occurrences in Wellington County history.


Stephen Thorning