It was May 14, 1923 and George Ford was in trouble. He was at his preliminary hearing in Broadview, Saskatchewan on a charge of manslaughter, arising from his suspected neglect of a minor in his employ.
John Richard Boyns had been working for almost a year at Ford’s farm, about 7 miles southeast of Broadview, when he died of double pneumonia on March 19, 1923. He was a Barnardo Boy and just 19-years-old. His time at the Ford farm was anything but easy. Witnesses testified to seeing Ford punch and kick the boy on multiple occasions and the Crown was alleging that he’d allowed Boyns to deteriorate from his illness without getting him proper medical care.
Ford had admitted to Detective Sergeant Dunnett that he’d had Boyns sleep on a cot in the cellar when there was a room in the upper part of the house that could have been used. He told Dunnett that he’d called a doctor when Boyns was sick but that he’d died before the doctor arrived. However, when Dr. Allingham testified, he told the court that in his opinion, based on the condition in which he found the deceased, Boyns had been dead some time before his arrival.
The cellar where his bed was located was twelve feet by twelve feet and six feet deep with raw earth walls. There was a fresh excavation in the northeast corner, about six feet by eight feet, with a cistern next to it. A clutter of stove pipes, bottles, and sacks lay heaped about and near the middle was a furnace constructed from an old stove covered with tin. In the southwest corner was Boyns’ cot, constructed from chicken wire nailed to two by fours. The chicken wire sagged in the middle until it almost touched the earth beneath it and the mattress was only a thin tick and not clean. One covering lay on the bed and it was dirty. On and about the bed were several articles of clothing and boots, none fit to wear. The bed was shoved close to the wall and a thin sheet was hung between it and the earth. There were a few windows in the cellar, all of which were covered in frost when the police came to investigate.
Ford was committed for trial, but on November 29, 1923 the charge was dismissed by Justice MacLean at Moosomin, who said the Crown had failed to establish that a legal responsibility to provide care rested on the accused. He was careful to tell Ford that his dismissal didn’t mean he thought Ford was a good man or that he hadn’t been cruel to Boyns, merely that the Crown had failed to prove that Boyns was incapable of calling the doctor himself.
“I am dismissing you, Ford, because by law it has not been shown that you were criminally liable. But it has come out in evidence that you were harsh with this young man. You were most harsh. You have been brutal and displayed a violent temper in your action toward him. It was a cowardly procedure.”
The community of Broadview was not pleased with the dismissal. The story of Boyns’ ill treatment had obviously been in the news, making it across the ocean to the Old Country. On all sides there was indignation and bad feelings against the Ford family. In Broadview, the feeling was so intense that Ford and his wife were practically ostracized. Wherever they went the tragedy was recalled with curses and pointed comments.
All of this sat very heavily on the shoulders of Ford’s wife. Gertrude Ford (maiden name Drake) was under constant strain, her worry and anxiety over the hatred heaped on her from the community bringing her to the point of a nervous breakdown. She took a holiday in 1925, fleeing the district entirely for about six weeks. When she returned she was entirely restored to health, but the community’s memory was still fresh and their temper unchanged, and before long her condition again began to deteriorate. She begged her husband to sell the farm but he couldn’t get a fair price for it and they were advised to wait until selling conditions improved.
Around mid-November in 1925, one of their hired men, Norman Platts, came down with Scarlet Fever. Remembering what happened before and determined to have no more deaths in her home, Gertrude took charge of Platts and nursed him through the illness with every care.
Ford was less than pleased. He believed his wife’s first responsibility was to her children (they had a four-year-old daughter and a 20-month-old son) and that nursing the man in their home might infect the kids. He wanted to send Platts away. As Gertrude tended to Platts over the ensuing weeks he became bitter and resentful over the attention she was paying the sick man. Their marriage had grown decidedly strained since the death of Boyns and the ensuing ostracization, and they frequently got into heated arguments. Her nursing of Platts only increased the tension between them.
On December 20th, the couples’ lawyer received letters from both of them, Gertrude still desperate to sell the farm and leave and Ford complaining about having to care for Platts.
On New Year’s Eve they threw a party and seemed to be getting along better, but by the following evening, they were fighting again. Norman Platts’ brother, Ed, had come to visit him from Winnipeg. He’d stayed for the party and the following afternoon asked Ford drive him to Broadview so he could head back home. Ford had apparently believed that Ed would be taking Norman back with him when he left and when he didn’t, Ford was pissed off. He wanted Platts out of his house. The couple began fighting in earnest that evening, causing Platts and the other hired man, Herbert Kinglsey Lighton, to separate them.
The next day they began fighting again about Norman’s health and whether or not he was well enough to leave. Knowing the fight was about him, Platts told them he’d go and started packing his things. When he couldn’t find his boots, he went out to the barn to find Lighton and ask if he’d seen them. They chatted for a few minutes, Platts helping with a few chores, when they heard a dull noise at the house. As they let the barn, they heard two gunshots in succession.
Worried Ford might be shooting at them, they detoured and approached from the bush. As Platts got to the north side of the granary near the house, he saw Ford, lying on the ground dead, a shot gun laying by his feet. The left side of his face was partly blown off.
“There is one of them gone,” Platts told Lighton.
When they entered the house, they found the couple’s little girl, crying. Lighton picked her up and started comforting her. Platts went through the kitchen towards the living room and found Gertrude lying in a pool of blood, dead. She’d been shot in the back of the head with the shot gun while writing a letter. The baby boy was sitting on the floor, thankfully unharmed physically, but unfortunately had witnessed the horrific murder of his mother.
At the inquest into her death, it was revealed that their lawyer, F. B. Bagshaw, had received another letter from Gertrude on December 31st, detailing how her husband was driving her to another nervous breakdown. She described him watching her “as a cat watches a mouse”. She wrote that if she continued to live with him she’d go mad. “I absolutely must get away from him.” She asked him about getting a separation, telling him she wanted custody of their children.
The letter had come too late to save her.
Gertrude was buried in the Broadview Cemetery on January 7, 1926, in a different area than her husband. At least in death, she was given the separation she so desperately wanted.
As for the children? They stayed with a neighbour for a short while before being taken to Babies’ Welfare in Regina.
And that is the story of the neglectful death of John Richard Boyns and the murder of Gertrude Drake Ford.
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Information for this post came from the following editions of the Regina Leader-Post and the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix: May 16, 1923, Nov 30, 1923, Jan 4, 1926, Jan 5, 1926, Jan 7, 1926, Jan 8, 1926
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