Feast Day of St. Stephen c. 560 B.C.E.: Aesop, fabulist

1899: Hilda Blake, poorhouse orphan

December 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1899, domestic servant Hilda Blake was hanged in Brandon, Manitoba for murdering the mistress of the house.

Book CoverThe only woman ever executed in Manitoba is the subject of Walk Towards the Gallows: The Tragedy of Hilda Blake, Hanged 1899 (U.S. Amazon link | Canadian), which charts her course from an English poorhouse to death on the Canadian frontier.

(A Norwich newspaper recently profiled its long-lost pauper daughter here and here.)

On the occasion of the 110th anniversary of Hilda’s hanging, Executed Today was able to sit down with Tom Mitchell, co-author (with his Brandon University colleague Reinhold Kramer) of Walk Towards the Gallows.

Here’s an excerpt from that book. And here are some reviews:

ET: How did you run across Hilda Blake?

TM: It’s a very simple story, really. The province of Manitoba tore an old jail down, and handed the property to the department of health for a senior citizens’ center. So, construction began, and an old jail guard named Bill Ryan showed up on the site and confronted the building superintendent and said, this is holy ground, and it is immoral for you to be constructing anything on this site without removing the human remains.

Hilda and two other victims of capital punishment were on the site, and the guard knew what was there. This made front-page news.

I was doing labor history at the time, so the possibility of finding out a lot of detail about domestic servants was compelling. And it turned out she was sort of a magnet for legal proceedings. When I went to find her court pocket, I found there were actually five court pockets.

As an orphan, she ran away from [her previous placement with] the Stewarts and took up residence with a family headed by a widow homesteader Mary Rex, A legal struggle ensued over who should have Hilda, and in the course of that, Hilda had to make a statement about who she was and where she wanted to be. When we read the letter, it’s clearly not Hilda’s voice, it’s somebody else writing for her. You’re almost always dealing with Hilda second-hand.

There is no other domestic servant probably in the British Empire for whom as much documentation exists, and it’s basically because of Hilda’s notoriety in the murder and these court cases previous. And of course you can track her right back to the British census and the records of the poorhouse and her old neighbourhood and community of Chedgrave, Norfolk England.

The only straightforward account Hilda gives is “My Downfall,” [see below -ed.] and if you read that, you get a pretty good sense of her sensibility. And if you read the press accounts of what she read in jail, you say, right, we’re dealing with a 21-year-old woman for whom literature -– Victorian novels — often times provided her with life strategies and notions of how a woman should conduct herself. Of course Victorian sensation novels were also filled with women who used guns for various ends.

Why was this isolated domestic crime such a big deal?

Western Canada in the 19th century was a frontier, and often times the leading edge of civilization in this frontier were white women and the sort of ideals and morality associated with white women — domestic environment, civility, gender relationships, social class and status involving men and women in terms of how they ought to account for themselves and so on.

So when you have an attack on this sort of basic notion of the social order that people are trying to build, the response is more visceral and more trenchant than it might have been in a more settled community. Here, it was almost akin to the Riel Rebellion: the lower orders are rising against us; every middle-class wife probably looked at her husband and said, “I hope you’re not misbehaving with the help, because we could have a problem.”

So what can we in the 21st century say about how British orphans shipped to Canada for domestic servitude experienced the world? And, of course, about how Hilda specifically experienced it?

Hilda was quite literary in her own way, and she obviously read and developed strategies for life from literature. She seemed to take her role models from literature, and we argue that in part that she can be understood through the books that she read, like Jane Eyre.

My colleague, Reinhold Kramer, whose contribution to Walk Towards the Gallows cannot be overstated, is an English professor. He developed this feature of the biography as well as other fundamental themes of the book.

My continuing frustration with the book is that nobody will see it as labor history. Everybody wants to see it as whodunit or something — but that’s okay; it’s been used for a lot of different courses, some on women, some on crime, some on women and the world of work.

How widespread and significant is this phenomenon of the domestic servant?

From 1870 to about 1930, there were something in the order of about 70 or so thousand children shipped from poorhouses (which were created by the 1830s poor law).

The whole idea of adoption is a 20th century thing. If you were a poor kid, an orphan, in the 19th century, you didn’t get adopted, you were put in a poorhouse and shipped off to Australia, Canada. On the western frontier of Canada, the labor of these children was a valuable commodity.

The British government recently apologized to the descendants of these children for the fact that they were sent out, often with sort of gratuitous statements from the organizations that sent them that they would follow them up. For many of them, it was tragic, and for Hilda and Mary Lane it was more than tragic.

As an economic sector, how important was this domestic service trade to Canada at the turn of the century?

Typically these were young women, and not all of them would be living within the residence of their employer, but most of them would be. The vast majority were young British women — Irish, English, what-not — and it was for women in the paid labor force, this was the main occupation. Young women coming off the farm or young immigrant women, this was one step above prostitution.

So, you could be a sex worker, or you could be a domestic worker. You didn’t get into this if there were options, and many young women would choose options that paid less, just to have social freedom.

So what would be a typical life path for a girl like Hilda?

The premise with Hilda was that she would work as a domestic servant and eventually marry, but the difficulty was that you always carried this badge of your social station.

You had basically no place to meet men in private, and the amount of time off you had was perhaps an afternoon per week. The possibility of you having some kind of independent social life was very very unlikely, so you were a captive of your place in the world of work.

For Hilda, she must have realized that her only escape was in moving up within this small world that she resided in. She kissed Mary Lane before she shot her, and I think was saying, this is nothing personal but it’s my only chance of moving up in the world.

You do a lot with how Hilda Blake played as a political issue, and the symbolism invoked by the press in handling her execution. Frankly, a lot of it seems very contemporary: “villains were bad because they were bad,” crime is “a platform upon which to preach the value of bourgeois order”. How did this crime work as a cultural narrative?

The big issue for Canada in the late 1890s was the quality of immigrant coming to Canada, because it was clear that if the West was going to develop, the country needed hundreds of thousands of people.

Clifford Sifton, who happened to be the MP for Brandon was the Minister for Immigration, and he was bringing Count Leo Tolstoy’s Doukhobors from Russia, Ukrainians from Austro-Hungary, and so on, and he considered these good-quality immigrants because they were agrarian, they could survive. He was being attacked bitterly by people whose ideas of adequate immigrants were shaped by Social Darwinism.

The other problem was that working class immigrants, paupers especially, from Britain were viewed as being marginally adequate because of their questionable morality. The notion of gender at the time was that women were, just by their nature, moral creatures, and if they weren’t, then she was more atavistic than even criminal men — they were moral imbeciles, they were dangerous.

When Hilda Blake murdered Mary Lane, it just happened that a federal election was in the offing, and the main issue that the Conservative party was going to use to try to defeat the Liberals and Clifford Sifton in his own district was immigration, so if the federal government didn’t execute Hilda Blake, they would be handing them an issue to run on.

The Melita Enterprise condemned Hilda early on with the line “we don’t want the Hilda Blakes of the world, they carry blood with the taint of Cain,” which is a great line I wanted to use for the title of our book.

So the federal government faced this dilemma, and our argument was that virtually all women who faced the death penalty had had their sentences commuted, but in the case of Blake, her social background made it impossible.

The one powerful person she had in her corner was the Governor General Lord Minto. The thing that made him susceptible in some senses to understanding the case was his own sense of guilt for the affair he was carrying on with a young woman in Ottawa. That wasn’t a secret; she was nicknamed “Minto’s Folly.”

How about the victim, Mary Lane?

Here was a woman who was murdered by someone she had taken in, been friends with, gunned down in the parlor of her own home. She was a very-well respected person in the community, she was an Anglican, and reportedly sympathetic to women in Hilda’s situation in life.

It’s amazing that Robert Lane manages to avoid coming in even for any kind of censure or public embarrassment.

There was nothing, not in terms of any juridical sense; apparently he wasn’t even interviewed.

The theory of the crime in domestic murders was always the love triangle: if the man of the house got gunned down, the hired man had better look out; in this case, when the woman got gunned down, it was a bit confusing about who would have done this. Ultimately Hilda confessed and protected Lane, but what protected him even more was his middle-class status within that community and the notion that men of that ilk were moral creatures who couldn’t possibly have connived to have had their wives gunned down. If he’d been a working class guy whose morals would have been more suspect, he probably would have been hanged with Hilda.

I think the authorities also couldn’t have been unaware of the implications: if they hanged Lane, his four kids would be orphans.

How widespread were these sexual relationships — or sexual exploitation — between masters of the house and domestics?

Domestic servants should have received danger pay, because they were victimized so often. Most of the women set up in these Magdalene Houses, these houses for single women who were pregnant, were domestic servants.

We talk about the amendments to the criminal code in the late 19th century, and there were some protections put in for women, but Charles Tupper, a Conservative, opposed these because he said they would arm domestic servants with terrific power to blackmail their employers. So the largest class of women in the paid economy were left outside the protection of the code, and any domestic servant who claimed that their employer impregnated them would face a court that would use every possible mechanism to get at their immorality.

It was almost akin to a feudal relationship within the home.

Why did Hilda plead guilty and ask for the maximum punishment?

This was, I think, Hilda’s sense of how a proper woman would behave. You have to think of Hilda growing up as an orphan, with no strong role models. So a lot of I think how she thought of herself and how she should behave came out of what she read.

Reviewers of the book weren’t always satisfied with that.

Sure. You write that “writing a history that did not ignore Blake’s subjectivity required a historical ‘reading’ of a wide range of sources,” and you build some ambitious speculative history on that basis. What kind of reception did that get?

Some reviewers saw that treatment as sort of postmodern, that we were satisfying ourselves with kind of a literary account of Hilda without too seriously thinking about the things we couldn’t talk about because we didn’t have the evidence.

We didn’t go that way without first being made aware by Hilda of her own great interest in novels and coon songs — the sort of Victorian era rap music; it’s a lower-class music, a sort of Victorian blues … you can see how Hilda would have identified.

We felt it was quite reasonable to argue as we did that often times her life strategies were rooted in Victorian novels.

Is there any sort of lasting public memory of these events, or were you resuscitating a completely cold case?

The Lane family still resents any discussion of this case. They still reside in Brandon, and it’s still a very live matter for them.

One descendant from outside Brandon called me after the book published and told me it wasn’t at all the version he had heard growing up. The story he’d been told is that Mary died when she was standing out in her front yard and she was hit by a bolt of lightning.

By the same token, after Hilda accused a tramp of the shooting, all the itinerant foreign born men in town making their way from one job to another were rounded up. There’s another family we found that who had a story in the family that grandpa had almost been hanged when “the maid fell in love with the master and murdered the mistress.”

It’s really fascinating how these echoes of the past persist through family oral tradition. These are the skeletons in the closet, and they show up in different guises.

In Brandon once a year, a local dramatic society go to the cemetery in Brandon and represent various well-known figures in the graveyard, and the public is invited to go and ask them questions about their lives. After the one year where Robert Lane was represented by one of the actors, his descendents objected and said that it was a serious incursion into their family privacy.

How about Hilda? Has she been portrayed?

Hilda hasn’t been represented because she’s not in the cemetery; she’s still under the senior citizens’ building. The superintendent told me he got a backhoe and an undertaker one Saturday and went exploring for human remains, and they couldn’t find any. So the building project went ahead and Hilda is now under the northeast corner of the Rideau Park Personal Care Home. Not exactly what the poorhouse guardians had promised Hilda’s older sister when they sought her permission to send Hilda and her brother Tommy to Canada in 1889.

Tom Mitchell and Reinhold Kramer are also co-authors of the forthcoming When the State Trembled: How A.J. Andrews & the Citizens Broke the Winnipeg General Strike.

“My Downfall”
by Hilda Blake

(From Walk Towards the Gallows, as published on the Western Sun, Dec. 14 1899)

One I was innocent, lighthearted and gay,
And sang while I worked through all the long day;
A stranger to sorrow, not a care had I,
A laugh on my lip, but never a sigh.

But one day the devil, in the form of a man,
Came smiling towards me; said he “You can
Know more, if you’ll take them,
Of joy and pleasure,” I heard him say,
“Than e’er you have dreamed of; I’ll show you the way.”

I followed the tempter, along the smooth track,
I’d gone a long distance, ‘fore e’er I looked back,
Or thought of returning —
When I turned, the way back seemed so lonely and dreary,
E’er I’d gone many steps I grew footsore and weary,
That down by the roadside, to rest and to weep,
My strength was exhausted, I soon fell asleep.

I awakened refreshed, my exhaustion all gone,
Saw the phantom of Pleasure, still beckoning me on;
Then I made up my mind
To leave Prudence behind,
And pursue my perilous way.

As I journeyed along my heart lost its song,
For the path grew stony and dark;
Each step that I took tore the flesh off my feet,
And the track was a blood-stained mark.

I looked at the tempter, in his eye was a gleam;
I saw he was standing beside a dark stream;
He cried, “Come along, take a few steps more
And your struggle is ended, your journey is o’er.”

As I stood on the brink of that river,
My heart grew faint and sick;
What I saw only made me shiver —
I thought Fortune had played me a trick.

“As I look across I see only the dead,
Neither joy, nor pleasure,” to Satan, I said:
“But pleasures there are, though hidden from view,
They only wait to be claimed by you.”

I thought as he spoke, he moved his hand
And I saw I was standing on sinking sand.
As I leaped across, a frantic yell
Reached my ear
When too late, I saw I had leaped into hell;
I tried to go back, but an awful wall
Loomed up, and separated me from all
My youth and innocence.

Forsaken by friendship, kith, and kin
I lie in my lonely cell;
It seems but a dream that I’ve crossed that dark stream
And descended from heaven to hell.

You hypocrites, pleading religion,
You inquisitive seekers of fame,
Ready now with your good advice
When I’ve drunk of the sorrow and shame;
You gave me no timely warning,
You held out no helping hand, —
Why didn’t you see me sinking
As I stepped on this treacherous sand?

Oh Friend of all Friends who rules earth and sea,
Look down with a pitying eye upon me;
Thou’ll forgive my transgressions, says the book that is best —
Come ye that are weary, and I’ll give you the rest.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Murder,Other Voices,Sex,Women

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3 thoughts on “1899: Hilda Blake, poorhouse orphan”

  1. Toni Ireland says:

    I am about to read the book. Mary was the sister of my aunts father. (Aunt through marriage to my uncle, brother of my father) My Aunts father… Mary’s brother was involved in a hunting accident when my other uncle was shot and killed when he was 22. I feel for both Mary and Hilda and feel that society failed them both. Hilda suffered in what today we would suggest as PTSD and or depression. One can surely understand why she would be jealous of both Mary, her children and the life of the children that she never had and what her future would be. Not agreeing with her actions but understanding the loneliness, homesick, what could have been, the need for mothering and the sad woman labor issue. No one checked in on her, who did she have? Thank you for the book and bringing her story to light that we ‘don’t think to badly of her” May they all RIP and that she met her mothers warm embrace.

  2. ivan says:

    There was a play/movie made called “Cordelia” concerning an execution in Canada in 1899. Is this movie based on this case?

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