The Trial of Mary Charlotte Smith

Duck Lake, Saskatchewan

On the morning of Monday, May 20, 1935, Mrs. Caroline Fisher went to the home of Frank and Charlotte Smith. She did some work for the Smiths and arrived at their small cottage on the south end of Duck Lake at her usual time of 7:00AM. She knocked on the door, then entered. As she went through to the bedroom, she noticed Mr. Smith was still asleep on his cot, while his wife lay on her own bed, rubbing her head.

As Mrs. Fisher entered the bedroom, Charlotte exclaimed, “oh Caroline, I’ve done a wicked thing!”

“What?”

“I killed my husband.”

Obviously dumbfounded at this announcement, Mrs. Fisher asked, “how?”

“With a gun,” Charlotte replied. “I shot him.”

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Mary Charlotte Smith had already been married twice by the time she met Frank A. Smith. In fact, she was still married to her second husband, Mr. Oulet, at the time.

It was at the Mansell Ranch at Birch Lake in the winter of 1923. Frank was a forest ranger and one day he came across Charlotte as she was cutting a water hole in the ice for the ranch cattle. He complimented her on her good axemanship, and apparently, the romance blossomed from there. Charlotte obtained a divorce and the two were married in Calgary in either 1925 or 1926 (news articles were conflicted on the date).

They’d been living in Duck Lake for three years.

Charlotte’s Arrest

Needless to say, Mrs. Fisher was not expecting to walk into a crime scene on that fateful morning. She asked Charlotte if she should go to the kitchen and light a fire, and when Charlotte agreed, she immediately left the house and went to notify authorities.

She returned with J. Day, a justice of the peace, Nicholas Henikenne, the town constable, and Joe Morrisay, the night constable. At this point, Mrs. fisher had recovered from her initial shock and when she led authorities to the bedroom, she noticed a rifle lying on the foot of Charlotte’s bed, the gun pointing towards Frank’s body.

Detective Corporal E. J. DesRosiers of the RCMP in Prince Albert arrived at the Smith home at about 9:00AM. He found Mr. Smith’s body on his cot in a normal sleeping position, his face towards the wall. The cot was along the west side of the bedroom, while Mrs. Smith’s bed was larger and at right angles to the cot. There were no signs of violence, except for a bullet hole in the top of his skull, which oozed blood and brain matter.

Dr. Frances McGill, provincial pathologist, arrived at the scene at about 11:00AM. She described finding the body in a natural position, as if asleep. She conducted a post mortem on the body in the house and later testified that the bullet had pierced the brain from top to base. The passage caused a severe hemorrhage in the brain, which resulted in immediate death. In her words, he probably “had not known what hit him.”

Detective Corporal DesRosiers took down Charlotte’s statement and she signed it. She was taken into police custody while they waited for the verdict of the coroner’s inquest.

The inquest was conducted by Dr. F. H. Coppock of Rosthern. Five witnesses were heard, including Mrs. Caroline Fisher, Detective Corporal DesRosiers and Dr. McGill. Charlotte Smith didn’t testify on the advice of her counsel, W. A. Tucker of Rosthern. The inquest returned an open verdict, stating that Smith’s death was caused by a .22 rifle bullet piercing the brain from top to base. Immediately following the verdict, Charlotte was formally charged with the murder of her husband and after a preliminary trial was ordered to stand trial at the next assizes in Prince Albert in the coming fall.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – May 23, 1935

The Trial

Charlotte’s trial began in October of 1935. Representing the crown was G. W. Salter, with W. A. Tucker for the defense.

It became clear quite early on that their marriage was not a happy one.

Mrs. Mary Arkon, Charlotte’s sister, testified to the strained relationship, telling the court about the trouble arising from expenses, bills and complaints of wastefulness. Frank apparently desired a return to England, but didn’t want to leave his property, while Charlotte, whose relationship with Frank had alienated her from her church, was in conference with her priest, planning a return to her former religious affiliation. It was revealed in court that their marriage was not considered a lawful union.

Several neighbours testified that Frank had been cruel to his wife, beating and cursing her, and that high words and quarrels were frequent; while others found Frank quiet, not quarrelsome or profane and in fact described him as gentlemanly and good company.

F. Schwan, one of their neighbours, told the court that he’d asked Smith if he wanted a ride to Rosthern to see Mrs. Smith, who was in the hospital there at the time. Smith told him, “I don’t want to see the bitch. She is an awful woman to live with. She’s crazy.”

Detective Corporal DesRosiers testified that he’d searched the Smith home and found a letter from the Old Country addressed to Frank Smith in an empty syrup can in the poultry house. It was read in court and contained a reference to £1,000 which was to come to Smith. It suggested that Smith should come to the Old Country before he made any plans.

Several doctors were called to testify on the state of Charlotte Smith’s mental health. Dr. MacNeil, a psychiatrist and superintendent for many years of the Battleford Mental Hospital, told the court he belived Charlotte was subnormal. He described her as a woman so mentally deficient that she had the intelligence of an eight-year-old and was unable to appreciate the charge of murder facing her.

Dr. Nunn of Battleford told the judge and jury that she was an epileptic with a history of mental illness in her family. He’d examined Charlotte while she was held in the Battleford Jail for Women and testified that she’d complained of headaches, organ pains, twitching spells followed by frothing at the mouth and biting of the tongue, sleeplessness and bad dreams.

Her mother had died young from epilepsy. Other relatives were discovered as having delusions. A brother, for instance, talked of headless men on his farm trying to take the title from him.

And while Charlotte appeared intelligent and her command of language was good, Dr. Nunn believed her appreciation of the destruction of life was cloudy. He testified that her shooting of Smith was a way to escape from his torture and abuse and that she didn’t fully grasp the consequences.

Contradicting both of them, Dr. Louchette of Duck Lake completely disagreed in regard to Charlotte’s mental faculties. He told the court that he’d known Charlotte for years and considered her intelligence above average. He recalled that some members of her family appeared a little weak mentally, but in contrast with her sister, he thought Charlotte was particularly bright and intelligent.

Medical practitioners at Duck Lake and Rosthern gave evidence that Mrs. Smith suffered from ill health and that Frank Smith complained often of the expense of her medicine and doctors’ bills.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Oct 19, 1935

The Testimony of Charlotte Smith

It was time for Charlotte to take the stand. Her testimony lasted for two and a half hours, during which “the accused woman held the courtroom’s closest attention in a story that outrivalled that of the most lurid magazine article.”

She described domestic quarrels in which Frank had rushed at her with a pitchfork, made threats of gun play, and in one instance, even pulled the trigger. She’s escaped death by striking at the revolver in his hand, causing the bullet to enter the ceiling instead. She told the court of instances of jealous abuse and blows, of hiding bills because he complained constantly that she was an expense to him. At one time she left him, but returned after he patched things up with a truce, which didn’t last long and ended in a violent scene.

His abuse wasn’t limited to her. She told the court about his treatment of Jerry Pocha, an elderly man who was placed in their home for $20 a month. Old Jerry, as she called him, was sickly and required a good deal of attention. Her husband had to carry him about as he was unable to walk. Smith grew tired of the constant care and cursed the old man, calling him vile names. Charlotte testified that Smith kicked Jerry and threw him about and at one time, left him outside until he was almost frozen.

It was this, she believed, that caused Jerry’s death shortly after in late spring. She told the court that she accused Frank of being directly responsible and that he was terrified of the law. She described their difficulty in obtaining a death certificate, as the attending physician had refused to issue one on Jerry after seeing his bruised body. The matter was finally arranged and Smith and a neighbour fashioned a pine coffin and the old man was buried. But according to Charlotte, the fact that she knew the real truth of Jerry’s death continued to be a subject of torture to Smith.

William Brown, secretary of the municipality testified later that Jerry Pocha was indeed placed in the Smith home and that Charlotte had come to him and complained that Frank had whipped the old man and used abusive language with him. But he hadn’t investigated. He’d paid little attention to her, as she was regarded as a little strange and he liked Smith and found him to be good company.

Charlotte’s testimony had come to the night of the murder. She told the court that on Sunday evening, Mrs. Bernard Schwann had called at their home. She and Schwann had been discussing the expense of running a house. When Schwann left, she and Frank got into an argument about money matters. He told her that she was a big expense and threatened to go to the Old Country. The quarrel grew more violent, with threats on the part of Smith to beat his wife as he was allegedly in the habit of doing.

Smith then went to the kitchen and brought out the gun. She tried to take it from him and it fell to the floor under the bed. At this point, Frank went to bed. He laid down on his cot, his back turned to her, although they continued to argue for what she estimated to be about an hour. At that point, Charlotte picked up the rifle, pointed it at her husband and said, “Frank, if you want to get up and fight, I’ll shoot you.”

He laughed at her and said, “go ahead.”

Charlotte pulled the trigger and the gun went off. She claimed she didn’t know it was loaded. Frank didn’t move after she shot him. She left her bed and knelt on the floor beside his cot, saying, “Oh Frank, I didn’t know it would come to this.”

She got up, got into her bed and waited for Mrs. Fisher to come.

Mr. Tucker’s final address to the jury consumed more than an hour, as he carefully covered all of the important points in the story told by Charlotte Smith in the witness box. He told that jury that Mrs. Smith was terrified when she found herself locked in their home with a husband who’d abused her for years and who was in a towering rage, that she shot him in what she thought to be self defense. He described Smith’s vicious temperament, his insane jealousy and his abuse of Jerry Pocha, all of which had been corroborated by other witnesses.

On October 19, 1935 the jury found her guilty of murder, with a recommendation of mercy. On October 21, 1935, she was sentenced to death by hanging, to take place on January 24, 1936.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Oct 21 1935

A New Trial

Mr. Tucker did not stop fighting for Charlotte Smith, and she won new trial at the court of appeals on Dec 11, 1935. The appeal was based on the sanity issue. A jury should have ruled on whether or not Charlotte was fit to stand trial before the trial proceeded. Tucker admitted that the error was his. He told the court that at the time he was not aware of Dr. MacNeil’s opinion that, given her delusions, Charlotte was unable to properly instruct her counsel. He’d followed her wishes and had told the judge that they wouldn’t persue an insanity defense.

On April 28, 1936, a jury was appointed to determine if she was fit to stand trial.

Dr. MacNeil testified again, telling the court that he was firmly convinced she was an epileptic and had the mentality of an average child of eight and a half years. He described her testimony at the previous trial as childish, with a tendency to show off. Not the behavior of a normal person on trial for their life. He had examined her several times since her husband’s murder and placed her under observation in the mental hospital. He found her to be the victim of delusions and hallucinations, saying that she heard voices telling her to do things. He said she described dreams in which a “hairy man” came to her bedside and tried to choke her. He went away when she woke up. She interpreted the dream as Frank interfering with her religion, because he used to curse her and wouldn’t let her pray. He testified that in one of her delusions she saw Frank walking around their home at Duck Lake and would declare that he was not dead.

Dr. L. H. McConnell of Saskatoon was a neuro surgeon and brain specialist. He’d been called upon by Dr. MacNeil to examine Charlotte. He confirmed that she was an epileptic with the mind of a child and insane.

How did he establish this? He did brain surgery on her. He injected air into her brain, which according to him, caused her to act strangely and have an epileptic fit. According to his experience, this only happened in epileptics.

Let’s pause here and talk about brain surgery in the 1930’s. Air being injected into a patient’s cerebral ventricles was a somewhat fairly common practice for the purpose of diagnosis and localization of brain tumors. However, the complications associated with the procedure included convulsions, infections, bradycardia, apnoea and death. So much so, that a large number of doctors felt the risks outweighed the benefits. As a secondary note of interest, on Sep 14, 1936, Walter Freeman and his neurosurgeon partner, James Watts, performed the first ever prefontal lobotomy in the United States. It was a horrific procedure that created permanent loss of function in countless patients. So, not a great time for brain surgery.

Dr. McConnell also testified that he’d found an actual loss of substance in the regions of the brain which “determine things”. He believed Charlotte’s case was well advanced and the shrinkage had been going on for a long time.

Miss Nora McNinch, a nurse, testified that she saw Mrs. Smith have a seizure following Dr. McConnel’s “treatment”. She heard Charlotted mutter in a whimpering manner, “you leave Jerry alone.”

The nurse who attended Charlotte, Miss Eloise Brinson, heard her say, “chase the devils out of my bed”. This was also after her treatment from Dr. McConnell.

Another nurse, Miss Olive Miller, testified that Mrs. Smith kept on repeating, “Frank leave me alone, you’re hurting me.”

Unsurprisingly, Charlotte Smith was declared unfit to stand trial on May 4, 1936 and returned to the mental hospital.

Was she insane or did Mr. McConnell’s procedure damage her brain? Was it both? Did she believe her life was in danger and shot Frank Smith out of fear, or did she find the hidden letter promising him money if he went back to the Old Country and thought he was going to leave her?

We’ll never know for certain.

And that, my friends, is the story of the trial of Mary Charlotte Smith.

Information for this post came from the following editions of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Regina Leader-Post: May 21, 1935, May 22, 1935, May 23, 1935, Oct 18, 1935, Oct 19, 1935, Oct 21 1935, Oct 22, 1935, Dec 3, 1935, Dec 4, 1935, Dec 11, 1935, Feb 25, 1936, April 28, 1936, April 29, 1936, May 1, 1936, May 4, 1936

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If you’d like to read more historical true crime cases from Saskatchewan, check out these stories below:

The Life and Death of Ephraim Jantzen

Murder in Wolseley: The Killing of Rosa Mohr

The Murder of George White

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