Infanticide tragedy in 1927 caused a sensation in Fergus

Late in the afternoon of March 4, 1927, three people showed up at the office of Dr. Norman Craig in Fergus.

One of the women, 22-year -old Ada Halliday, was close to giving birth. Accompanying her were her older sister and the father of the child, Mark Potter.

The Hallidays were from a farm in Erin Township, and Potter was a hired man working on a farm nearby the Hallidays. He and Ada had become involved about a year earlier. She became pregnant, but the couple rejected marriage because Potter did not have the income to support a family.

Dr. Craig sent Ada and her companions to the Royal Alexandra Hospital. He believed Ada was close to giving birth. By the time they got to the hospital Ada had worked herself into hysteria. She ran about the place shouting, and seemed completely disoriented. Marion Petty, the nursing superintendent, took care of the paper work as best she could and then went away to prepare a bed for Ada. When she returned to the front desk Ada and her companions had disappeared.

Later, Mark Potter stated that Ada had run from the hospital and that he had tried to stop her. He and her sister had followed Ada, he later said, trying to calm her. They walked down Queen Street in Fergus, heading west. By then it was late afternoon, and light was fading.

According to their story, Ada felt increasingly weak, and had to lie down. She gave birth at the side of the street, assisted by her sister. After the birth, all three claimed, Mark had sent the sister away. He later admitted that he had struck the infant on the side of the head and tossed it over the bank of the Grand River near the old swinging bridge at the western edge of Fergus.

Ada’s sister by then had proceeded to the Commercial Hotel on the main street in Fergus, where the group had previously taken a room. About a half hour later Ada appeared at the hotel. She afterwards claimed that she had walked there unaccompanied after giving birth some distance away on the other side of the river. A while later, Mark Potter appeared, after having disposed of the body of the child.

The three then packed up their belongings and headed back home to Erin township in a cutter. The following day was a Saturday. As was often the case, a group of boys were playing along the bank of the river near the swinging bridge. They spotted the infant on a piece of ice in the river, and ran to tell their story to the first adults they could find.

Events then moved very quickly. Soon Dr. Norman Kyle, the coroner, was on the scene. Constable Couling, the Fergus policeman, also appeared, and he immediately summoned the Ontario Provincial Police from Guelph. They despatched an officer, Constable Oliver. He lost no time in getting to Fergus.

The police questioned the local doctors and the hospital staff, and Constable Oliver soon had assembled the basic outline of the story. Police found Ada at her home, a couple of miles from the hamlet of Orton. She was very weak and ill, and Mark Potter was with her. They arrested him, and took him to the Fergus lockup. Late that night they conveyed him to the Guelph jail, awaiting a court appearance the following Monday.

As well, a coroner’s jury convened on the same Monday, composed of Fergus men. They heard evidence from Dr. Craig and hospital staff. Mark Potter admitted what had happened and what he had done. The authorities laid a charge of murder against Potter, and ordered him held in the Guelph jail without bail.

Potter had a long wait before his trial, which took place at the semi-annual assizes in September 1927. After lingering in jail for six months, Potter had his day in court on Sept. 20, 1927. The trial, before Justice Fisher, began with a demonstration of the justice’s no-nonsense approach. Two prospective jurors did not show up. Fisher fined each of them $25 without asking for any excuse or explanation.

Potter’s attorney asked that the charge be reduced from murder to manslaughter. Crown Attorney J.M. Kearns, normally stern and hard-nosed, had no objection. The general consensus amongst both the authorities and the general public was that the whole affair was a tragedy for everyone involved.

Mark Potter entered a plea of guilty to the lesser charge, and the trial wound up quickly. He insisted that he alone was responsible for the crime. Looking over the evidence, it seems likely that Potter was not entirely honest in taking all the blame on himself, and that he was protecting Ada, her sister, and perhaps others who were involved in disposing of the baby. In any case, neither the defence nor the prosecution introduced any evidence that contradicted the story told by Potter.

Justice Fisher quickly summed up the case as presented in court. He then passed sentence: five years in the penitentiary at Portsmouth. For the day and time it was a relatively light sentence, and Potter’s six months incarceration awaiting trial would count as time served. But it also meant that a good portion of his early adult life was gone: he was only 23 at the time, and the case would be a blot on his name for the rest of his life.

Mark Potter and Ada Halliday were unfortunate victims of the standards and morality of the times. Her pregnancy seems to have left them with no practical alternatives but to carry the child to full term, even though they were ill-prepared to care for it. Their behaviour suggests that they were in denial until mere hours before the birth. Ada’s hysteria and Mark’s rash and irrational actions resulted in tragedy.

There is no surviving record of Ada’s relationship with the rest of her family, other than the older sister who tried to help her. She was not an adolescent: she had passed her 22nd birthday at the time of the birth.

Another factor to consider was that there was already turmoil in the Halliday household. Her father was, at the time, staying in Kitchener while being treated for terminal cancer, and her mother was with him.

Hugh Templin, in the Fergus News Record, described the case as “one of the most unfortunate and tragic occurrences” in the history of the town, even though the people involved were not well known in Fergus. The Hallidays, it appears, did most of their business in Acton, and Mark Potter appears to have been something of a transient, with no relatives in the area.

Today, many people decry the cost of providing social services of various sorts, but some assistance to Ada Halliday might well have avoided a tragic chapter in her life, as well as saving the life of an innocent newborn baby.


Stephen Thorning