Ghoulish discovery of bodies in 1949 Mount Forest house fire

At about 10am on the morning of Friday, January 7, 1949 the Mount Forest volunteer fire brigade responded to a house fire.

It was at the home of George White, a 72-year-old Mount Forest carpenter at the southwest corner of Normanby Street and Durham Road, which was then at the western edge of the town.

The fire, it appeared initially, had broken out in an upstairs bedroom.

White’s wife Catharine and their adult son Percy were downstairs when the fire broke out. Percy grabbed a bucket of water and went upstairs to try to extinguish it. His mother, a semi-invalid for a number of years, instructed Percy to run across the street to the neighbours and turn in the alarm.

Fire Chief Don McIntosh and his men were on the scene in a matter of minutes. It seemed at first like a routine house fire. The men saw that the flames were isolated to the upstairs. They found George White on a bed that was partially consumed by flames. The firemen removed his body from the house and tossed the burning mattress out the window. It seemed obvious at that point that the man had been smoking in bed, had drifted off to sleep, and had set fire to the mattress. The flames had badly burned White’s face, and it was obvious that he was dead.

But there was something strange. White’s body seemed ice cold and not like a person who had died moments before.

Then there was another development. Someone noticed smoke coming from another upstairs bedroom. Chief McIntosh went to investigate. There he found the room filled with acrid smoke, and another blazing mattress on the floor. In the dense smoke he thought that the room was filled with discarded clothing. He began to gather it up and toss it out the window. Other firefighters, meanwhile, used the window for a hose to douse the flames.

As he stooped to pick up some more clothes, Chief McIntosh noticed an emaciated head on the pillow. He left the room, feeling sick to his stomach. Their eyes smarting and watering from the smoke, other firefighters managed to lift the body. It seemed impossibly light. They carried it down the stairs. On the way a couple of the limbs fell off. It was obvious that the body, that of a middle-aged woman, had been dead for some time.

The experience would prove to be more than Chief McIntosh could handle. A short time after the fire he resigned from the Mount Forest fire brigade.

The firemen had the blaze extinguished in 15 minutes or so, but a strong smell of smouldering cloth and burned human flesh permeated the neighbourhood. The odour sickened some of the spectators, and served to thin out the crowd.

Obviously, this was no ordinary fire. Chief McIntosh at once called the police and the coroner to begin an investigation. Coroner Dr. A.J. Couch, after a quick look at the bodies, concluded that neither had perished in the fire, but had died previous to the blaze.

The police, under the direction of OPP Sergeant Ben Milligan of Mount Forest, began their investigation, and soon called in more men. By mid afternoon provincial pathologist Dr. Armstrong of Kitchener was on the scene. He concluded that George White had been dead for at least 48 hours. The other body, that of the woman, had been dead, he estimated, for at least two months.

Eventually the woman’s body was identified as that of George White’s daughter, Florence, who was 42 years old. No one seemed to recall seeing her in recent years. After the coroner’s examination the bodies were prepared for burial. Rev. J.W. Pratt officiated at the funerals the next day.

Dr. Couch spent some time trying to reconstruct exactly what had happened. He found it hard to believe that two people could be so badly burned by flaming mattresses in two rooms at the same time.

“We just can’t figure it out,” he told reporters.

Mrs. White offered confusing and contradictory statements about the fire. Dr. Couch concluded that she was on the point of a breakdown, and he had her admitted to Louise Marshall Hospital, in part to let her rest, but mostly to remove her from grilling by reporters.

The press was quick to pick up the scent of a good story. The Guelph Mercury’s local reporter was on the scene at the fire and later another reporter came up from Guelph. By late afternoon the Toronto dailies, then in cut-throat competition to have the latest news, had reporters in Mount Forest, and others came from papers in Hamilton and Kitchener. Some would stay in Mount Forest for more than a week, following up on the slimmest of new leads and angles to the story.

In contrast to the out-of-town dailies, Grace Wright, who had replaced her well-known father A.W. Wright as editor of the Mount Forest Confederate, tried her best to downplay the story.

In the weeks after the fire she gave the story only a couple of very short pieces. She was quick to criticize her big-city counterparts, and took special exception to accounts printed by the Toronto Telegram.

The Tely’s reporter who was covering the story was a woman. Grace did not approve of women in the newspaper business (other than herself), and she said the Tely’s reporter “went out of her way to ridicule the town.”

Granted, covering a story in Mount Forest in January did not provide a lot of excitement to big-city reporters. This reporter though, probably went too far when she described Mount Forest as “a hick town full of baskets and caskets.”

OPP officers continued their investigation the day after the fire, but there were no new developments. The reporters from the daily newspapers, meanwhile, interviewed anyone who would talk to them about the fire and about the Whites.

Most people provided no information of interest. They told reporters that the Whites had been excellent neighbours and quiet people, but very friendly. But soon some peculiarities about the Whites became evident.

No one, it seems, had ever seen Florence White or had even heard of her. Dorothy Phillips, who lived directly across the street, told reporters that she knew nothing about the Whites and rarely saw them. The Whites’ house was an old structure, covered with badly faded yellow paint. The house had no electricity, no bathroom, no running water and no telephone. There was a large building in the backyard that George White had used as the base for his carpentry business.

Percy White, it was soon evident, had problems of his own. He had been in the Canadian Army Service Corps during the Second World War but the experience had left him a shell of a man. In civilian life he found it impossible to keep a job. He was a patient at the Veterans Hospital in London for a couple of years, suffering from what was then known as shell shock.

The Whites had lived in the house for 34 years. Firefighters, though, were puzzled by the condition of the interior. There were three rooms upstairs, one of which contained only some discarded furniture covered by an inch of dust. The walls of all the rooms had neither wallpaper nor paint, and the corners were filed with cobwebs.

Other than the partially burned mattresses in two of the rooms, one occupied by George and Catharine and the other by Florence, there was little evidence of the fire.

It was obvious that there had been two separate small blazes. Downstairs the house was also in a poor state of repair and maintenance, except for an impeccably set dining table in the kitchen.

For whatever reason, Crown Attorney J.M. Kearns delayed the inquest until Jan. 18, 11 days after the fire. There were no significant developments in the case during that time. After a few days the press began losing interest in the case, but that changed with the commencement of the inquest.

Next week: Evidence at the inquest and the final developments in the case.


Stephen Thorning