Thursday Thinkpiece: The Remarkable True Story of Florence Kinrade

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Florence Kinrade: Lizzie Borden of the North

Author: Frank Jones
Page count: 288
ISBN: 9781988824352
Publisher: Durvile Publications
Publication date: May 31, 2019

Excerpt: Summary & from Chapter 4: Starting the Inquest All Over Again


With Florence Kinrade: Lizzie Borden of the North, Durvile’s True Cases series takes a spin into historical true crime. In 1909, Florence Kinrade is, by all appearances, the dutiful daughter of a wealthy educator, engaged to the parson’s son. Fascinatingly, she also leads a double life as a vaudeville singer and dancer in Richmond, Virginia. Florence becomes the central figure in a gruesome crime — the murder of her sister, Ethel. This story holds many parallels with Lizzie Borden, another famous mystery involving a family murder and an inscrutable young woman.

The author digs deeply into contemporary accounts and the testimony from Florence’s high-profile court inquest. Frank Jones’ masterful true-crime narrative details the challenges of a upper-class woman seeking a showbiz career. Furthermore, he reveals the little-known “tramp menace” feared by people of the era, and exposes Florence’s mental diagnoses by a famous psychiatrist of the time. Florence’s adventures span Canadian cities of Hamilton and Toronto, Ontario, and Calgary and Lethbridge Alberta. In addition it is set in American locales of Virginia, Florida, Nevada and California. In the book, we discover for the first time, the secrets of her inner life, suppressed emotions, and romantic escapades.

From Chapter 4: Starting the Inquest All Over Again

Some fifty newspapermen, as they were always referred to, jostled for places in the dreary green courtroom over Hamilton’s number three police station on the night of Wednesday, March 10, 1909, two weeks after the murder. But our attention is confined to one, and she a woman. ‘Kit of the Mail,’ certainly the best-known Canadian woman journalist of her time, was there to attend the inquest into the death of Ethel Kinrade. Kit Watkins, born Catherine Ferguson near Galway, Ireland in 1856, was billed as, “the world’s first accredited woman war correspondent,” on the strength of having covered the Spanish American War in Cuba for The Toronto Mail and Empire in 1898. She was known for her red hair, her cinnamon brown eyes and her dramatic, if occasionally shabby, outfits. And wherever great events were taking place, Kit was to be found – events like the Chicago World Fair, and Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in London – and her series on the disappearing London of Charles Dickens was popular years later.

Inventing a new name for herself, Kathleen Blake, and subtracting eight years from her true age, Kit had immigrated to Winnipeg, Manitoba as a young widow in 1884. She made her start in journalism submitting an article to Saturday Night in 1889 when she was thirty-three. Immediately after her triumph as a war correspondent (“Kit Reaches Cuba’s Shores,” The Daily Mail and Empire headlined her first dispatch), she married Dr. Theobold Coleman, a mining company doctor, and moved to northern Ontario where she worked alongside him, fighting a smallpox epidemic. The couple later lived in Hamilton for several years.

She was not a great writer, but an observant reporter, and her descriptions of the Kinrade affair are invaluable. She noted when she arrived for the inquest that first evening a fine drizzle icing the sidewalk outside number three police station, the greystone building where Bella Kinrade had come to complain about tramps. It was obvious the authorities had picked the small police station courtroom, rather than the more commodious quarters at City Hall, to keep crowds to a minimum. Reporters and a few newspaper artists occupied three-quarters of the space while the remaining seats and the space around the walls were occupied by those – almost exclusively men – lucky enough to secure a ticket from the police chief. The upper windows were open to the mild winter night and gas jets cast a thin light over the room, which was dominated by a large lion and unicorn royal crest.

The first surprise was the presence of Dr. James Anderson, a slight man watching events with a kindly but keen expression from the elevated coroner’s ‘throne.’ Coroner Dr. Anderson had been called in at the last moment to replace Coroner Dr. McNichol, ostensibly so that McNichol would be free to give testimony. Dr. McNichol was as surprised as anyone by the switch: he had intended having a deputy cover for him while he testified. In fact, the switch seems to have been a deliberate ploy by the Attorney General to cover up earlier ineptitude.

The substitution of a new coroner was given as the excuse for starting the inquest all over again, re-swearing the jury – and here was the point – exhuming Ethel’s body so that, according to the law, it could be examined by the jury. In fact, there was serious concern about the thoroughness of the original post-mortem, and the exhumation provided the excuse for doing a more thorough second examination.

A letter addressed to Ontario Premier Sir James Whitney from an obviously in-the-know ‘W.J. Wells, Ontario People’s Detective,’ writing from Victoria, British Columbia, and published in the press makes the point: “Why was this girl’s body allowed to be buried without a complete post-mortem examination having been made? Who is responsible for this error?” The writer pointed out that the bodies of no fewer than three murder victims had recently been exhumed in Ontario. “Who has again been asleep at the wheel?” inquired the writer.

If there had been initial failures, the presence of George Tate Blackstock Q.C. at the front of the courtroom showed that the Whitney government now took the Kinrade case very seriously indeed. Blackstock, related to the Gooderham booze dynasty, made his reputation defending Reginald Birchall in perhaps the greatest murder trial of the era at Woodstock Assizes in 1890. Birchall, an English confidence man, duped well-to-do British fathers into paying large sums to have their sons trained and set up at Birchall’s (non-existent) Canadian farming estate. When his scheme began to unravel, Birchall, who called himself Lord Somerset, shot and killed one of his victims, Frederick C. Benwell. In spite of Blackstock’s widely admired defence, Birchall was found guilty of murder and hanged. (As he awaited his appointment with the hangman, Birchall earned pocket money selling his ink drawings, one of which decorates the desk of this writer.)

Crucially, the journalists and citizens gathered that night were not attending any sort of trial, but one of the most ancient investigative procedures of all. Inquests date back to tenth century Europe, their purpose to establish the facts where a suspicious death or one of public concern (like an industrial accident) has occurred. Inquest juries can certainly ascribe blame for an untoward death, but it is up to the Crown to lay charges.

At 8:10 p.m., in line with its long traditions, the inquest commenced with the ancient cry, “Oyez, Oyez, Oyez!” The names of the jurymen – the foreman R.B. Spera, a small businessman, the others ranging in occupation from fruiterer, to barber, to street violinist – were called. Despite strong speculation that Florence would be the first witness, this, after all, was the era of patriarchal power in the middle-class household, Constable Lentz announced, “Mr. Kinrade.”

“A big, broad-shouldered man walked slowly across behind the coroner and took the stand,” recorded Kit.

His rugged features were seamed with grief… his very bigness made him look all the more helpless. And, standing opposite him was that man of amazing personality and magnetism, Mr. George Tate Blackstock. Tall, slender, a little worn with life… with his deep eyes and expressive hands…he gives an impression of ability and power that is almost uncanny… Personally, I may say that I think that I would swear to anything Mr. Blackstock wanted if he asked me in those deep, resonant tones of his.

The first exchanges were anticlimactic: Thomas Kinrade could not recall if Ethel was twenty-four or twenty-five. Ill health? “Well, she complained a little of indigestion … she took little tablets and one thing and another for indigestion.”

Blackstock: “Apart from trifling ailments of that kind, she was of fairly good health and robust constitution?”

Thomas Kinrade: “Yes, I think so. Not so very robust, a kind of slight build.”

Blackstock had his witness go through a family roll call: Ethel, the eldest daughter, in fact twenty-five, Florence, twenty-three, Gertrude, sixteen, son Earl, nineteen, working for the Bank of Commerce in Montreal, and the oldest sibling, Ernie, twenty-six, a builder contractor living in the east end with his wife and three children. Tom Kinrade said he was fifty-seven, his wife, “is perhaps the same age.” He then mentioned that she had been adopted as a child.

Isabella (Bella) was a church organist, and he was singing in the choir when they met and married in 1877. He was now principal of the Cannon Street School as well as head master of the Cannon Street school district, comprising four schools.

Kinrade was vague again about his real estate holdings. Ernest, who lived in a house provided by his father, had built “ten or twelve houses for me altogether … I have thirty houses now …” he looked thoughtful “… or maybe more.” Rents, he explained, were collected the first Monday of each month by his wife and two oldest daughters with Florence taking the west part of the city, Ethel the centre part, and his wife the east end. “And I paid them,” he added, “three per cent or fifteen dollars or so.” While Florence was away in Virginia in 1908, Ethel and her mother shared the collecting duties.

Was theirs a household where there were many visitors?

“Not many visitors, except on my wife’s calling day, Thursday. We hadn’t many visitors, we hadn’t many at-homes or things of that sort.”

“Then in the family,” said Blackstock, probing ever-so courteously,

… may I ask, Mr. Kinrade, what was the relationship between the various members of the family? I hope that you will forgive my asking the question. All I want to know is what your representation would be as to whether there were any estrangements at the fireside, or whether everything was affection.

Kinrade replied with Pickwickian geniality: “We lived, the most affectionate family, my dear sir. The children wanted for nothing, and I kept nothing back from them, and my wife could spend what money she liked.”

The question was not really about affection measured in money terms, but Blackstock let it pass.

“So that, inside the house, your representation to the coroner and the jury is that of an affectionate household?”

“Very much so.”

“Any exceptions?”

“No exceptions at all. I never heard one say a cross word to the other.”

Blackstock left the jurors with the image of this quite remarkably amicable family while he moved on to ask about Mrs. Kinrade’s health. “My wife wasn’t in the best of health. She was a little nervous. I wanted her to go to the doctor, but she was afraid of an operation.”

“Was there any time when these illnesses of hers took the form of lapses from consciousness?”

“Well, through her life… especially in the younger part of her married life, especially if she was worried or nervous, she would become very weak and faint. It would be simply like a sleep or a swoon for a short time.”

The switch was abrupt: “Was Florence living at home at the time of the murder?”

“Florence has been home since a week or so before Christmas. She came from Portsmouth (Virginia).” A note of hesitancy: “At least I suppose so.”

“How long had she been away from home?”

“She went away about this time last year, in March sometime I think. She was offered a position in a church to sing as soprano soloist.”


“That was in Richmond.”

“Richmond, Virginia?”

Yes… and then she wrote home to us. She always wrote to her mother, and about June, I think it was, she had symptoms of malaria and she was advised to go north at once, so she came home, I think perhaps the end of June and stayed with us all July. And then I think the two girls and myself went to Chautauqua (scene of an annual arts festival in Upstate New York) in the month of August… she stayed at home in September and she spoke of going away the first of October. But we kept her home to hear (American opera singer) Nordica on 8 October. Then she went away, I think, immediately after that.

“Where did she go then?”

I understood she was going to Portsmouth (Virginia). My wife went as far as Buffalo with her, and saw her take a sleeper to Philadelphia; that was in the evening, and she wrote from Philadelphia (to say) she had missed the morning train by about five or ten minutes, and so she had to stay in Philadelphia all that day until the evening and then went south.

“Your daughter was going then to Portsmouth, was she?”


“Did you know what for?”

“Yes, I knew she was singing there and getting about fifteen or twenty dollars a week.”

“What was the difference in the employment at Portsmouth from what it had been at Richmond?”

“Very much different. I think she sang songs on the stage.”

“As I understood, you learned that for the first time during the time she was home in the summer?”

“No, she wrote, I think, before she came home.”

“So that, before she returned in the summer, you found out from her letters?”

“I’m not so sure about that. I think it must have been in July, or very late in June, if I knew at that date. I knew it when she came home, and she persuaded me to let her go back, as she thought she had a talent in that direction.”

“But it came as a surprise to you to find, without consulting you, she had gone into singing on the stage?”

“Of course I didn’t know until after she did so.”

“When she went back to Portsmouth, she went with the knowledge of yourself and your family that she was going to sing on the stage?”

“The manager wrote to her a letter while she was home and she prevailed upon me to let her go, although her mother was always opposed to it.”

“Did you know anything of the character of the place where she was to sing? The theatre?”

“Nothing more than just what the manager of the theatre wrote – that he wanted her to come and that he would increase her salary.”

“Perhaps you would tell us, what salary did you understand that she was getting after she went back in the autumn?”

“When she went back, we expected she would get twenty dollars or twenty-five dollars a week.”

“And in point of fact, what did she get?”

“When she went back I don’t think they raised her salary.”

Tom Kinrade was not the kind Blackstock could bully. So when he had a point to make, he often came at it backwards, sideways, any way but up front: “What I was concerned about asking for the moment, Mr. Kinrade, was whether you knew anything of the character of the theatre. I mean to say, as I understand it, it was not a theatre at which plays were enacted, more of what we call…” as if the word left a disagreeable taste in his mouth, “a vaudeville performance?”

Vaudeville was the leading popular entertainment of the day. Yet to suggest that a respectably brought-up young woman from the professional classes would perform in vaudeville was next to saying she was aspiring to a career as a burlesque stripper. So Kinrade hastened to throw a mantle of respectability over Florence’s activities:

I understood when she went to sing, (that) the manager wanted to put on some little, what he called, sketches. She told me she took the part of a ‘school marm’ in a little play called School Days, and then she took a part in a piece called The Musician, and she went over those plays with me, and they were very humorous and nothing in them that was anything wrong that I could see.

Blackstock wasn’t having it! A ‘school marm’ maybe, but he wanted to make clear that the ‘little plays’ were being performed in less-than-respectable surroundings: “What I meant, rather, was that it was the cheap, popular form of entertainment?”

“There was not anything dramatic about it, nothing that way.”

“And the prices of admission would be comparatively small and trifling?”

“I never heard nor asked about that. It was coming on October and November when we made up our minds for her to come home.”

“Then you say that your daughter prevailed upon you to allow her togo back; but that she never succeeded in gaining over her mother to that view?”

“Her mother was strongly opposed to anything of the kind.”

“And I suppose that you yourself yielded with some reluctance to the idea of her going back?”

“She said that she had discovered that she was good at these sketches and singing, and got so much applause that she discovered she had that talent. And on that account I thought that I would let her try for a little while anyhow.”

“Did she voluntarily give the matter up, or was it as a result of your adverse decision that she ultimately abandoned the idea?” Kinrade answered:

Well, she wrote us a letter that there was a person there that was paying her attention, and wanting to see her home and back and forward; and we know she was engaged (to be married). She wrote that he thought a great deal of her, but she had told him she was engaged, and her mother and I became nervous about it, and thought she had better come home. So her mother wrote her a letter to that effect, and if she was not going to come, we were all going down there Christmas time, anyway, to see what it was like and get acquainted with the people.

“Did she tell you who the young man was?”

“Yes, she mentioned his name.”

“Do you recollect who it was?”

The name did not come easily from Kinrade’s lips: “Quite well.”

“What was the name?’

“She gave me the name of James Gordon Baum.”

“Did she tell you what his occupation was?”

“Yes, she said he was an actor.”

Blackstock was making valuable points: an actor boyfriend and Florence under pressure at home. Now he could fill in more of the picture. His daughter Florence, Kinrade agreed, was engaged at the time to Claire Montrose Wright, of Victoria University. While Monty studied and lived in Toronto, he had met both Florence and Ethel when he sang for a time in the Centenary Church choir, of which both sisters were members. He would take the two girls out to concerts, said the father. “That was at the beginning, before he was engaged (to younger sister Florence).”

“And you say in the early stages of the acquaintanceship he was accustomed to take them both out?”

“If they went any place, they would go together.”

“But later on he showed some preference for Miss Florence and ultimately became engaged to her?”

“Yes.” They had been engaged about a year and a half, although Kinrade could not recollect Monty coming to see Florence when she was home in the summer or even in the fall, after the family returned from Chautauqua.

“He sent flowers frequently, but in July and August, as I understood it,” he explained, “he was engaged as a fire ranger away up in the north somewhere for his health.”

“Was there anything in the attentions of Baum, as reported to you by Florence, which excited any alarm in you, or was it just that you didn’t care for anybody paying her attention at a time when she was engaged to Mr. Wright?”

“It seemed to occur to me that he was an actor without means and that he was getting very much in love with her, and going so far as, perhaps, to propose to her.”

“Did she so report?”

“It seems to me she did say he proposed to her, or was about to propose to her, and she said she was engaged.”

“She mentioned Baum’s name… in such a way as to make you infer he was a person of not very much consequence?”

The father smiled: “Oh, very much so that way, laughed about him and gave the impression that he was a very inferior kind of man.”

“You didn’t gather from her letters that there was any change in her attitude towards him after she returned in the autumn to Portsmouth?”

“Her letters towards winter indicated he was paying her attention and acting a little differently in his manner and courtesy and his habits.”

“How so?”

“I understood that the man had been accustomed to drink, but that he was living a different life to try and get her.”

“Did she report that her own feelings were undergoing some change towards him?”

“No, nothing that way that I know. She simply said that she told him she was engaged to Mr. Wright, that (he) was a young minister; and I understood that she wrote to the minister and told him all about it.”

“Well if she didn’t care for this young man, and if she told him that she was engaged to somebody else, there was nothing that would occasion you any alarm at all!” Blackstock waited for Kinrade’s response.

“I didn’t get alarmed! But I thought she had spent enough time in that way anyway as she was not advancing in the profession in any way.”

He had regarded the ‘adventure in Portsmouth’ as an experiment, insisted Kinrade, one which might lead to a career in opera in New York.

“These hopes at that time appeared to you not to be likely to be realized?”


“So you put an end to the discussion by deciding that she must remain at home?”

Tom Kinrade did not want to appear the tyrant: “Not determinedly.”

“You gave that opinion?”

“I felt that, and she didn’t urge it at all.”

But now Blackstock brought the spotlight back to Herkimer Street: “What was Ethel’s attitude towards this stage venture of Florence’s?”

“Oh, I don’t think she liked it. She, being the eldest girl, was more in touch with the mother during the time Florence was away; I don’t think she liked it at all.”

“That is the way she expressed herself on the subject?”

Kinrade answered

I don’t remember her expressing herself to me personally, but I would get things from her mother when we talked together. They were in harmony with each other, the mother and Ethel, and the mother was strictly opposed to any life of that kind. We didn’t expect she would continue that if she got married, but we thought if ever she needed, she would have some way to fall back upon making a living for herself.”

“So that Ethel supported your wife in her opposition to this stage venture of Florence’s?”

Kinrade sensed he was slipping into a trap. “It wasn’t anything of determined opposition.”

“You have already told us that your wife was strongly opposed to the stage work.”

“Yes, she expressed herself strongly to me. She never gave her consent.”

“And your daughter Ethel took the same view?”

“Not like her mother in any way. She didn’t have much to say about it, or anything that I know of.”

The lawyer was not going to let him off the hook. He said:

I am only using an expression used by yourself, but you may put it any way you like… But I understood you to say a few minutes ago that your daughter, Ethel, was opposed to Florence’s stage venture, and took the side or views of your wife in opposing it. Is that true?

Grudgingly Kinrade answered: “To a certain extent that is true.”

“Then the subject of Florence returning to the stage would, of course, be discussed in the summer, when she was at home?”


“And that was the time when you say that your wife expressed her opposition, which she never yielded upon, and in which she was supported by Ethel; but you took the side of Florence and ultimately gave your consent to her going.”


The wind gusted through the open windows, causing the gaslights to flare and brighten. Kit Watkins observed, “The big, uneasy figure” of Tom Kinrade, squeezed into the witness box and later, fidgeting on the stool brought for him, “suggested strength brought to low ebb indeed.”

Questioned minutely, persistently, recorded Kit.

He was at once infinitely patient and extremely sharp and sudden. His voice, in his patient moods, was low, halting, careful – almost intimate, as though talking to a friend. But when the moment for the important query came, it rose, it became incisive, almost thunderous and heavily weighted with meaning.

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