One-hundred-and-nine years ago this week, 25-year-old Ethel Caroline Kinrade was murdered in her family’s elegant Herkimer Street home. Her younger sister, Florence, a church soloist and an aspiring vaudeville performer, has long been believed to be the one who “deliberately fired four bullets into [Ethel’s] heart.” However, more than a century later, the crime remains unsolved.
Though mostly forgotten, the murder of Ethel Kinrade — and the fear that gripped the city in its aftermath — tells us a lot about Hamilton at the turn of the twentieth century. It was a city that in many ways was different, but in some ways the same.
The Kinrade Family
Long before it was demolished in the spring of 1967 to make room for an apartment complex, the red brick Victorian home at 105 Herkimer Street, between Caroline and Bay, was home to one of Hamilton’s most prominent families. At the time of his daughter’s murder, Thomas Kinrade was the principal of the Cannon Street School. He was also an entrepreneur who, according to Hamilton Street Names: An Illustrated History edited by Margaret Houghton, “financed the construction of houses across the city, which he then rented out for a handsome profit.”
The family was wealthy and notable enough to have a small residential street named for them. Kinrade Avenue runs north and south between Cannon Street East and Barton, located just a few blocks west of Tim Hortons Field.
Thomas, who came to Hamilton from Ireland’s Isle of Man, and his wife, Bella, had five children — three daughters and two sons. Ethel and Florence sang in MacNab Street’s Centenary Church’s choir.
The Murder of Ethel Kinrade
“Murder, with its attendant horrors and mystery, has again to be recorded in the criminal annals of this city. Yesterday afternoon, shortly before 4 o’clock, the daughter of one of the most respected families in Hamilton was foully done in death.” — The Hamilton Spectator, February 26, 1909
On February 25, 1909, Florence and Ethel were the only two Kinrade family members home when the doorbell rang around 4:00 p.m. Florence later told police that she answered the door to a middle-aged, “fairly decently dressed” man who stood on the doorstep asking for food. Florence left him on the veranda and went to the kitchen to fix him something to eat. That’s when she heard the front door close. “I want your money and all that you’ve got,” Florence later said he demanded. It was while Florence was upstairs getting money, that she heard shots from a revolver.
From the Hamilton Spectator on February 26, 1909:
“Ethel Kinrade was lying cold in death at the foot of the back stairs, which opened into the dining room. She was fully dressed for the street, her outfit including a fur muff and stole. She was lying partly on one side, with her feet toward the east, indicating that the murderer had fixed the first shot at her as she stepped off the steps, and that she had fallen to the floor. There was a small pool of blood near her shoulder. The detectives made a rapid investigation, and underneath her body, close to the shoulder, they found a flattened bullet, which had evidently passed through her body. Another bullet was found nearer her feet. A cursory examination showed that one bullet had entered her mouth and had penetrated her brain. The other four shots had been fired at her heart, the small punctures being in the form of a square.”
Witnesses said that Florence ran into the street shouting “Ethel has been shot six times!” The next day, “Who Shot Ethel Kinrade” was the question posed on the front page of the Hamilton Spectator. “Police are still working in the dark,” the article says, as they “have no clue to identify the man who committed the murder yesterday.”
Two days after the murder, Mary Baker McQuesten, the matriarch of Whitehern, wrote the following in a letter to her son Calvin, who was then attending Knox College in Toronto, before she casually moved on to a conversation about cake and nightclothes.
Indeed that terrible murder gave everyone a shock, because one felt it might have happened to any one. The man must have been in an insane frenzy and there seems to be so many insane people going about one never knows when they will be encountered. Of course every [one] declares, they will never let a tramp inside the house and the hardware people have exhausted their stock of chain bolts for doors. The tramps declare (in the paper to-night) that the Kinrades never turned any one away without help so they would not have touched them.”
“Hysteria Concerning Transient Men”
“That a tramp should appear at the home of a respected citizen, in the very center of the residential district of the city, and in broad daylight pour five shots from a revolver into the head and heart of a young girl, is almost unbelievable, yet that is the story of the crime as told the police by Florence Kinrade.” — The Hamilton Spectator, February 26, 1909
In his book Crimes, Constables, and Courts: Orders and Transgressions in a Canadian City, John C. Weaver called the Kinrade murder “the next burst of hysteria concerning transient men.” Following the murder, the Ottawa Journal reported that the “whole city is terrified. Never has Hamilton been so infested with tramps and disreputable characters.”
In the days and weeks that followed the murder of Ethel Kinrade, police began rounding up innocent men who fit Florence’s very vague description. The Hamilton Spectator ran a number of front-page stories, that most often appeared alongside updates of the Kinrade case, that vilified what they called “the vags” or “tramps.” Headlines including “Undesirable characters flock to Hamilton” and “How ‘down and outs’ impose on the public,” helped create panic among Hamiltonians. This Edwardian-era NIMBYism targeted local lodging homes, and it lasted long after the inquest into the murder of Ethel Kinrade ended.
Ethel Kinrade was buried in the Hamilton Cemetery. One hundred years ago, the small stone that bears her name stood upright, but it has long been stamped into the grass. It’s difficult to find, but the large Kinrade monument beside it isn’t. When the funeral was over, it was time for an inquest. But it was weeks before Florence was emotionally ready to share her story.
The inquest into the murder of Ethel Kinrade began on March 10, 1909. It had all the makings of a Hollywood movie, especially where Florence was concerned. She had a knack for theatrics, and she was the ultimate unreliable witness.
From Hamilton Street Names: An Illustrated History edited by Margaret Houghton:
“Suspicion naturally was directed at Florence, as her story just did not seem to make sense. The family was interrogated relentlessly, but their support of Florence never wavered. The inquest was like a three-ring circus, as media from across North America descended on Hamilton. Florence’s testimony was vague and contradictory and, when the cross-examination got too pointed, she fainted.”
Ethel’s autopsy revealed a shocking truth. According to a 1988 Toronto Star article, “While Ethel had been shot four times in the head, these shots were not fatal. It was only 10 or 15 minutes later, when she still showed signs of life, that someone had rolled her over and callously shot her three times in the heart.”
Florence continuously changed her story, and the public began to feel certain of her guilt. However, no revolver was found, and other evidence was limited. A wealth of rumours about Florence fuelled the belief that she was the “black sheep” of the Kinrade family. The inquest revealed that the year before the murder she had travelled to Virginia, telling her family she was singing at a church. However, she had actually become a vaudeville showgirl, and despite being engaged to a theology student in Toronto, she had an affair with an actor named James Baum. There were rumours that Ethel and Bella had “intercepted a brooch from the actor,” and Thomas Kinrade ordered his daughter home.
The inquest found that Ethel had been shot by “a person or persons unknown,” and the case was closed, but Hamiltonians would continue talking about Florence and the murder she probably committed for decades to come.
The Female Murderer in Hamilton
The fetishization of female murderers is a concept brilliantly explored in “Shirley Jackson Predicted America’s Fetishization of the Murderess,” an essay written by Kailey Tedesco for Electric Literature. However, this isn’t an American phenomenon. In Hamilton, we’ve long been fascinated by the murder of John Dick, whose headless torso was found by hikers on the Mountain Brow. However, more accurately, we’ve been fascinated by his estranged wife, Evelyn.
“The construct of the murderess has almost nothing to do with culpability. It’s a concept begotten from circumstance, and perpetuated as a fetish. The murderess is always strange, always unconventionally beautiful (or perhaps made pretty only as a murderess), and always, always sexualized. She is not a woman, but a thing.”
Both the Evelyn Dick trial and the inquest into the murder of Ethel Kinrade became spectator sports, gripping the voyeuristic Hamilton public. Both women found their sexuality, and sexual history on trial, and local and national newspapers shared it as headline news.
In 1947, a written account of the Evelyn Dick trial read as erotica. “His rough lips came down on hers. Evelyn’s lips unfolded under his kiss,” writes Keith Edgar and Richard Daniel in Evelyn Dick: The Tragic Story of an Emotional Degenerate, as accessed at the Hamilton Public Library.
In the book’s introduction, Edgar writes:
“The Dick case has literally everything. All the elements of a good fiction story are there: mystery, drama, intelligent sleuthing, scientific investigation, and a beautiful but enigmatic central character. It irritates me to realize that had I written such a story in my fiction work, no editor would have accepted it because it would be considered over-drawn, impossible and unbelievable. This is one case at least where fact puts the most lurid fiction to shame.”
The same could be said about the inquest into Ethel’s death.
In her Electric Literature essay, Tedesco writes:
“Once the arrest has been made, the woman is no longer an individual, but instead a product of that mythology. She is the strange, misunderstood girl that society projects Peter Pan syndrome upon — she does not grow older, uglier, or wiser. She must be the maiden wolf in sheep’s clothing forever: fantasizing about adulthood; removing controlling parents à la Freud’s family romance; and of course virginal, yet motivated subconsciously by sex.”
In cases like these, Tedesco writes, using the example of Lizzie Borden and others, “[Women murderers] were acquitted quickly after each jury had difficulty believing a woman could act so cruelly.”
What Happened to Florence Kinrade?
We might not know exactly how she died, but we know that Ethel Kinrade’s story ends when she is buried near an extravagant monument at the Hamilton Cemetery. What happened to Florence was more difficult to track.
Three months after the murder, Florence married Clare Montrose Wright, who had studied divinity at Victoria College, in Manhattan. They settled in Calgary where he practiced law. Around 1911, they had a daughter named Hazel Geraldine, who also went by Geraldine and later Joan.
In 1918, the Calgary Herald reported that the family was in New York City when Wright died on October 5 at age 34 after the whole family became sick with Spanish Influenza.
“Mrs. C. Montrose Wright and her six-year-old daughter arrived in the city this morning from the east and were taken to their home on Thirty-Eight Avenue, Elbow Park, suffering from Spanish influenza. The patients have been ill for some days on the train and the nurse in attendance and the Rev. Mr. Wright, for his son’s funeral, are also under quarantine,” the paper reported.
Clare Montrose Wright was buried on Saturday, October 12 at 3:00 p.m. His tombstone in Section N of Union Cemetery says “Erected by his loving wife.”
On December 5, 1925, Florence boarded the RMS Baltic, of the White Star steamship line, in Liverpool bound for New York City. She had been living at the Regent Palace Hotel, a handsome luxury hotel that just closed in London’s Piccadilly Circus in 2006. She was a first-class passenger travelling alone. Her listed profession was “singer” and her intended future residence “U.S.A.”
On December 27, 1935, Florence married again, this time to Albert John Fagalde in Los Angeles, but the marriage didn’t last too long. By 1940, she is living with her daughter on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. She’s listed as married in the census, but Albert is located hours away in San Francisco, working as a shipfitter and living with family.
In an in-depth feature about Florence’s daughter, then known as Joan, Toronto Star reporter Frank Jones wrote that, “Eventually, Joan joined her mother’s stage act as a dancer; when Florence’s vaudeville career languished, they lived together in dire circumstances. But Joan learned nothing of her Aunt Ethel’s murder until 1964 when, after they’d returned from the funeral of Joan’s estranged husband, Florence told her the story.”
By 1949, according to a United States of America Petition for Naturalization, she was divorced and living on South Coronado Street, a one-minute walk from the building that would become known as Punky Brewster’s apartment in the opening credits of the 1980s sitcom. Albert would die one year later.
Back in Hamilton, the Kinrade home at 105 Herkimer Street had long become a rooming house and had fallen into disrepair. When it was demolished in 1967, contractors were stopped by police who asked them to look for a gun or anything else suspicious.
The story of Florence Kinrade ends nearly seven decades after Ethel’s murder. Florence died in August of 1977 when she was nearly 92 years old. She was buried in Hollywood, near the stars, and took many of her secrets to the grave, meaning we’ll likely never know if she murdered her sister on a cold February day in 1909, successfully disposed of the revolver, and convinced an inquest of her innocence. More than 100 years after the Hamilton Spectator proclaimed “Who Killed Ethel Kinrade,” we still don’t know.