Orton woman tried to poison thieving school children a century ago

In 1910, Winnifred Black lived with her parents on a farm on the outskirts of Orton, not far from the Orton Union School, and on the Dufferin County side of the boundary line.

The Blacks took particular pride in their garden. Young Winnifred, who was 21, had a particular fondness for a row of sprawling lilacs in their front yard.

Branches of the shrubs hung over their fence and onto the public roadway, presenting a spectacular display of blossoms each spring.

A number of school children passed by the Black residence on their way to and from the school house. A few, who lived close to the school and went home for their noon meal, walked past four times a day.

That big planting of lilacs attracted their attention when it bloomed each spring. Some of the children liked to pluck off a few stems of flowers when they passed, to present to their teacher or to their mothers. A few of them had a habit of chewing the flowers, which were very sweet and had a honey-like flavour.

Winnifred Black and her mother were furious that their prize lilacs were being molested continually during the flowering season. They watched for the children and shooed them away, but some still managed to pick a few stems of flowers.

On the morning of May 31, 1910, Winnifred and her mother saw the children up to their old tricks. It was the last straw for Mrs. Black. She grabbed her husband’s rifle, and rushed out to confront the children, pointing the gun at them, and threatening them with instant death should they not leave the lilacs alone.

The terrified children ran to the school, where they related the incident to their teacher, J.C. Henderson. He was aware that the sanctity of the lilacs was a sensitive issue with the Black family, and that the shrubs had been a frequent target of his students. Indeed, there were a few blossoms from them in a glass jar in his classroom.

Henderson, suspecting that further confrontations might occur, resolved to watch the house when his students were walking past on their way to and from classes.

He cautioned his students to give the Black place a wide berth when they passed, and not to linger near the house or the lilacs. Henderson did not need to wait long to see more.

About 12:45, that same day, as he supervised his students in the school yard and watched those on the road returning for afternoon classes, he saw Winnifred Black dousing the lilac with a greenish liquid. Henderson suspected that the substance was Paris Green, and that night he reported what he saw to High Constable Hughes, of Orangeville, for investigation.

Today, Paris Green is a term that will be familiar only to some of the older readers of this column. It was a highly toxic mixture of copper acetate and arsenic trioxide. Sometimes it was mixed with lead arsenate to increase its effectiveness.

A century ago it was the only effective insecticide available, and was sometimes used also as rat and mouse poison. It fell out of favour in the mid 20th century, when the much less toxic DDT became the favoured insecticide. Paris Green was also popular a century ago as a paint pigment, and in inks for printing wallpaper, to produce greenish blue shades.

A century ago, the toxicity of the substance to humans in small quantities was not well understood. Paris Green was widely available and used by most households.

People often got the solution on their hands and clothing, and thought nothing of it. Direct intake was known to be deadly, though. Paris Green was often used by those intent on suicide.

Therefore, the application of the chemical to lilacs that might be chewed by children was considered by teacher Henderson to be criminal and potentially deadly, an opinion backed up by Constable Hughes and Crown Attorney McKay, of Orangeville.

On the Monday, June 13, Constable Hughes, accompanied by McKay, paid a visit to the Black residence. They charged Mrs. Black with the gun incident. She faced the local magistrate the same afternoon. He imposed a fine of $20 for pointing a firearm at the students.

The charge against Winnifred Black was more serious. The Orton magistrate ordered her held in custody pending a bail hearing.

Hughes and McKay took her back to Orangeville, where she spent the night in custody. The next morning, in a hearing before two magistrates, she left her cell after her father posted bail.

The Winnifred Black case created a minor sensation across the province. Many of Ontario’s daily newspapers, including several of those in Toronto, reported the incident, and their stories were copied by dozens of weeklies.

Following the flurry of newspaper stories, the case against Winnifred seems to vanish into thin air. I have spent many hours attempting to find something on the trial, if there was one, all to no avail.

There are several possibilities. It is entirely possible that the press lost interest in the case, and nothing was reported, at least in newspapers of that time that have survived. That possibility, though, is diminished somewhat due to the fact that the accused was a young woman.

A century ago, women rarely became entangled in criminal cases, and when they did media interest was intense.

Another possibility is that Crown Attorney McKay decided to drop the case. After all the fuss, and the brandishing by Mrs. Black of a firearm, few children would want to be anywhere near the prized lilacs. The possibility of further incidents was very slim, and by then, the lilacs had finished their blooming.

More likely is that the case was dropped. Winnifred Black could argue that she was spraying her shrubs to eliminate insect pests, a perfectly reasonable claim, and that she had no idea any children might be chewing the flowers for their sweetness. Because Paris Green was so widely used at that time, even on fruit trees, McKay might have realized that his case against Winnifred had no hope of success in a court room.

Whatever happened to Winnifred, it seems that no school children in Orton suffered poisoning from the Black’s lilac bushes. The incident was one of the rare times that the hamlet received any mention in the press across the province.

That distinction was renewed this past June, when the Globe and Mail mentioned it in its “100 Years Ago” feature.

Several readers drew my attention to that piece. It is a pity that it does not seem to be possible to wind up the story with an account of a trial. Perhaps some readers might have further information on the fate of short-tempered Winnifred Black and her ill-considered application of Paris Green a century ago.


Stephen Thorning