Who Killed Janet Smith?
November 4, 2013
Review By John McLaren
In late July 1924 in a house in the upper crust neighbourhood of Shaughnessy Heights, Vancouver, around midday, a Scots nursemaid was found dead in the basement by the Chinese “house boy,” Wing Fong Sing. She had a gunshot wound to the head and serious fragmentation of the right side of her skull. In a comedy of errors of Keystone Kops proportions, members of the diminutive Point Grey Police Force, in a thoroughly incompetent examination of the corpus delicti and location of the body, hastily jumped to the conclusion that Janet Smith had committed suicide. Moreover, through a miscommunication, the body was sent to a funeral home where it was embalmed, rather than to the city mortuary for a post-mortem. With this inauspicious start, and the social, political, and cultural turmoil that would surround the case, and the profound disagreement that existed on the cause of death, the justice system proved unavailing in its attempts to prove that if, as the Attorney General’s Department believed, it was a case of murder, who the culprit or culprits were.
As Ed Starkins demonstrates in his book (a reissue under the banner of the City of Vancouver’s Legacy Book Project of a work originally published in 1984), the death of Janet Smith has lasting historical importance because of what it reveals about the political, social, economic, and legal realities of British Columbia, and especially Vancouver, during the 1920s. For one interested, as Starkins is, in putting the facts of the Smith case into their broader context, its byzantine twists and turns provide a rich record of events, institutional dynamics, individual and community attitudes and prejudices, and human frailties. During the year and half that the case was in the public gaze it produced no less than: two coroner’s inquests; one exhumation and a belated post-mortem; two abductions of Sing by private detectives (in what look like instances of domestic rendition); preliminary hearings on four separate kidnapping charges against the gumshoes, Point Grey police officers, commission members, a newspaper editor and even a special prosecutor, and three resulting trials; a preliminary hearing and grand jury investigation of a charge of murder against Sing; and a trial of the newspaper editor on a charge of criminal libel. Its coils were to entwine and ruin the political career of the Attorney General, Alexander Manson, until then a rising star in the firmament of provincial Liberal politics.
Using the various stages of the criminal justice process, the author provides a detailed and clear narrative of the human background to the case and its roller coaster progress. In doing so, he highlights the social, political, and economic climate in which the story unfolded, and the roles of the various groups and interests who both reacted to and kept it alive. We learn of the immigrant community (especially the Scots and the United Council of Scottish Societies), who were fired by the belief that Smith was murdered either by Sing or was the victim of an upper class conspiracy associated with drug dealing and use; the elite Baker family, the owners of the house in Shaughnessy, and their wealthy friends who were concerned to stay out of this spotlight, claiming that the deceased had shot herself by accident; the Chinese community, on the receiving end of the endemic and widespread racism of the time, who were anxious to protect one of their own from being the natural target of public suspicion; the newspapers, given at best to speculation rather than sound investigative journalism, and at worst to yellow journalism of the deepest dye; a balkanized policing system (more fragmented than today), in which the line between detection and vigilantism was easily crossed and rough justice handed out in order to secure confessions; a political arena, party-based but fissured as leading politicians jockeyed for position; and a prosecutorial system, despite its claims of professionalism and competency, capable of egregious manipulation (in this case charging a man with murder in order to lead to the real culprit), as desperation at lack of progress set in.
Starkins has written an engaging and well-crafted popular social history of Vancouver in the ostensibly hopeful, materially buoyant “flapper era” between the end of the slaughter of the Great War and the onset of the Depression. He reveals the serious fault-lines and profound anxieties of a community emerging in this decade from both its recent frontier past and a costly war into becoming a settled North American city. The social historical analysis is not invariably profound, as it glosses over detail and context that a social historian would consider important (for example, the fuller pattern of discriminatory legislation and regulation against the Chinese and other Asian immigrants, and the more precise character and effects of economic inequalities and class division in the latter years of Vancouver’s gilded age). On the legal side the systematic use of the word “attorney” in place of “lawyer,” “solicitor,” “barrister,” or “counsel” grates with a Canadian reader. The narrative, which is full of detail, begins to wear on the reader in a book that runs to four hundred pages. This might have argued in favour of more conciseness in relating the story, and the inclusion of a chronological list or diary of major events and a personae dramatis of the major players in this complex human tale. The use of short bibliographical notes to each chapter, rather than footnotes, is unfortunate for the reader who might well be interested in following up detailed aspects of the narrative. Those scholarly criticisms aside, this is a very worthwhile and informative case study, one that is likely to keep the conundrum in the title alive and encourage further research on the topic.
And who did kill Janet Smith and why? Despite the author’s attempt to follow up as many leads as he could find, the answers remains elusive. Despite the presence of a smoking gun, whose hand pressed the trigger is still a mystery, although in an updated afterword Starkins warms to one explanation. As with all mysteries, that should remain for now a mystery.
 1924 proved to be an annus horribilis for the Attorney General’s Department. The death of Peter Vasilevich Verigin, the Lordly, the first leader of the Canadian Doukhobors, in October of that year in an explosion on the Kettle Valley Railway remains, like the Smith case, unresolved. Police investigative bungling was a contributing factor in that case too. See www.canadianmysteries.ca
Who Killed Janet Smith?
By Ed Starkins
Vancouver: Anvil Press, 2011. 404 pp, $24.00 paper