Blog Posts

Polaroid Photos and Rough Justice: The Ambrose and Hutchinson Case 1975

22nd June 2016

imageimageI was cleaning out my father’s filing cabinet last month, when I found two old Polaroid photos. They were recognizably from the 1970s, with the fading and cracking of films from that era, and one showed a young man with a bruised face, and another a hand holding up a pant leg with a bruised leg and foot. I took them to my father, Ed Bell, who was lying in palliative care in Moncton Hospital, and asked him what they were. He told me the man was Richard Ambrose, and that he had been his defense lawyer in one of the most famous murder trials in Canadian history. In December 1974, Dad was called into a kidnapping case in Moncton. A fourteen-year old boy had been taken hostage and two men, Ambrose and James Hutchinson, were in custody. By the time my father arrived in Moncton, the bodies of city police officers, Cpl. Aurele Bourgeois, and Const. Michael O’Leary, who had been missing for three days, had been found in shallow graves in the woods. The case was now one of first-degree murder.

My dad had taken the Polaroids shortly after he had arrived in the jail to see Ambrose, to show the effects of the beating Ambrose had received by police and guards in the prison. After Dad had gone to make some phone calls, he told me, the beating had resumed, and he had eventually slept in the cell next to Ambrose that night to stop him being killed. That night he also had a prison officer hold a gun to his head and threaten his life, for trying to intervene. He had never spoken of the case or of any case to me before, but, encouraged by the presence of his good friend Claude Curwin, Dad told us he wished he had never taken the case, and that it had ruined his career and his life.

imageThis press photograph from the Moncton Times Transcipt shows Hutchinson (left) and Ambrose (right) being taken in to trial. Although I am not sure, I think the man directly behind Ambrose is my father; he had distinctively large ears.

I had never known much about Dad’s legal career, which he gave up in the late 1970s, and had never heard of the Ambrose and Hutchinson case. Dad’s story was a revelation to me, and explained so much about his life that I had never understood. He told me once that he had given up the law because he didn’t want to associate with criminals anymore, but this was something far darker. The trial itself was a protracted affair, lasting through much of 1975 (the transcripts in the NB Provincial Archives are over 1000 pages). Dad’s defence was based on gaps in the circumstantial evidence linking the accused to the crime, and was praised by the trial judge who understood 'the theory of the defence, and Mr. Bell has outlined it and outlined it extremely well and dealt with all aspects of the defence essentially.' Despite this, the accused were found guilty and sentenced to hang. They appealed to the New Brunswick Supreme Court and the Canadian Supreme Court, but their sentences were upheld, though the abolition of capital punishment in 1976 meant their death sentences were commuted them to life imprisonment.

Dad was discouraged, not by the verdict which he felt to be the right one, but by his months of close contact with violent men, and his vilification in the local community. He was ostracized by other Moncton lawyers, who envied the notoriety the case gave him, and despised by the families and friends of the murdered officers. He was paid only legal aid fees for months, and his practice suffered and eventually collapsed. The months away from home and his increased drinking led to my parent’s separation. Then within two years, his parents and my mother died, leaving him a single father living in rural isolation in a trailer in Lepreau, NB. These are the years I remember, and now I understand better what lay behind them. My cousin told me that for years afterward, Dad was still subjected to threats and insults and they were once asked to leave a colleague’s party when it was discovered Dad had defended Ambrose, who had been in jail for twenty years by then. When Dad moved to Moncton in 1998, he was especially careful to keep a low profile. For years Dad had kept the entire files of the case, including the exhibits, as he had permission from both defendants to write a book, recoup some financial losses, and reveal the story as it had been told to him by the convicted men. Then, at some point, he changed his mind and shredded it all. When he told me this, like a good historian I protested, telling him that I had looked at an English version of these case files and would have loved to read the notes. He told me he had no regrets, that he was going to keep the secrets, saying, 'If you can’t trust your lawyer, who can you trust?' Then he refused to answer any more questions. And two weeks later he died.

I am grateful for this gift of one final clue into my father’s life, one final mystery to stir that familiar historian’s curiosity amidst the unfamiliar devastation of a parent’s death. I am booked into the NB Archives in July to go over the transcripts, and while I mourn the lost exhibits and Dad’s notes, I am grateful for the Polaroids which sparked those revelations. As a historian, they speak to me on several levels. They are faded relics of the twenty-year period of instant analog photography. Dad said himself that the photos no longer show the colours of the bruising that he had tried to record. Polaroids were used by police detectives, police officers and others in the criminal justice system who wanted an instant, individual and ‘unmediated’ record of a crime scene, of a suspected criminal, or of a piece of evidence. The Polaroids of Richard Ambrose also help me to understand how my father’s compassion led him to accept a case which ultimately cost his career and destroyed his former life. These photographs and the moment of violence they document (and the many other moments of violence in the story which they do not) also help explain my father’s hatred of guns, his reclusiveness, his unwillingness to speak about his past. The photograph helps to fix the moment 'This happened', while inviting us to think about what happened before and after it was taken. I hesitate to publish these photographs, as Richard Ambrose is still living (under another name) in prison in Alberta, after a revoked parole. I choose to do so because these pictures show a side of a violent criminal that is young, human and, at this point, vulnerable. The photographs remind us that the origin of violence is not monstrosity but our human failings, and compassion for others has the capacity to diminish violence everywhere. If we only extended compassion to the deserving, it would be an ever-narrowing circle, and am impoverished society. Although the cost to him was so high, my father believed that every person deserves a defense, and by destroying his files and refusing to answer my questions, he kept his client’s secrets to the grave.

Spiritualism and Photography

6th April 2016

imageMy most recent projects on photography have led me to a new interest in ‘spirit photography’, the attempt to capture ghosts or the materializations of mediums on film. Spiritualism was a popular movement which centered on the belief that life continued after bodily death, and that the spirits of departed souls could be contacted through trained psychics called mediums. Spiritualism attracted religious questioners, grief stricken relatives of the dead, scientists eager to make new discoveries about the afterlife, people excited by the theatricality offered by the séance room, and women yearning for power and status as mediums. While Victorian spiritualism has been extensively studied, its survival into the twentieth century is less well-documented, and I am particularly interested in the photographic documentation of female mediums in the 1920s and 1930s.

Kathleen Goligher was an Irish medium born in Belfast in 1898. She was investigated by the psychical researcher and engineer William Jackson Crawford over five years, and believed to have levitated tables and produced ectoplasm. This photograph from 1918 or 1919 shows ectoplasm emerging from Goligher’s skirt.

Helen Duncan, a Scottish medium born in Perthshire in 1897 was also the subject of extensive psychic research. In 1928 the photographer Harvey Metcalfe captured her in the early stages of materializing an ectoplasmic ‘baby’.

imageI am less interested in the ‘authenticity’ of the materialisms of both mediums, which were (and continue to be) debated, than in the larger phenomenon of female mediums presiding over spectacular theatrical performances based on the revelation of secrets. Most séances took place in private homes, often in the dark, and those present wished to hear messages from the hidden world of the dead, as transmitted by the medium. Their bodily production of ‘ectoplasm’ and other materializations also highlighted the secret nature of the orifices of the women’s bodies from which they appeared, and the nature of those bodies as sexual, maternal, mysterious and/or grotesque. This summer I will be looking at the archived files of both the psychic researchers, and the criminal files for fraud for what they reveal about how séances were performed, and the competing claims to truth and revelation offered by spiritualists, science and the law. The Society for Psychical Research Archives in Cambridge apparently has some ectoplasm in a bottle. Excitement!

Rare Books and Reconciliation

4th October 2015

imageAs a professor of 20th century British history, until recently I have felt distanced from the debates about Canada’s colonial inheritance and what it means for modern Canadians. For ten years I have worked at Huron University College, at a small liberal arts college in Southern Ontario. Huron is also an Anglican Theological College, and houses an impressive rare book collection and the Anglican Huron Diocese Archive. Recently my excellent colleague Tom Peace and I found out that among these rich sources are dozens of rare prayer and hymn books in Indigenous languages, written and used by both European and Indigenous scholars, missionaries and priests. The Diocese Archives also holds personnel files on six Indigenous men who graduated from the Theological College in the nineteenth-century and went on to work in churches and parishes in both indigenous and settler communities. And exposing the darker side of the Christianizing mission, the archive also holds some records of the Mohawk Institute, a residential school run by the Anglican Church in nearby Brantford. Along with hundreds of other punitive institutions, the school sought to assimilate Aboriginal children into Euro-Canadian culture in a process the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has described as “cultural genocide.” And nobody at Huron has ever looked at these sources.

So Tom and I began a project, involving student collaboration, to sift through these rare books and files and to start thinking about what they mean for our understanding of the role of education in colonial Canada and in the Anglican Church, and for us as historians working at Huron College now. How can we understand the complexity of the accommodation and resistance proffered by indigenous groups to European dominance in the nineteenth century? How can we restore the history of these indigenous translators, scholars and priests to the history of Huron, to the history of the Anglican Church, to the history of Canada itself? With support of the John and Gail MacNaughton Prize for Excellence in Teaching, Tom and I are bringing these questions to the classroom, and will soon have a separate webpage for the first stage of our student-faculty collaborative research.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in June of this year set out some further challenges to us as educators, and as Canadians. In Call to Action 68, the Commission called for federal funding for commemorative projects about reconciliation to mark the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation in 2017. In the months to come, we’ll be challenging ourselves and our students to think about the new ways we can use our resources to engage with these difficult questions of reconciliation, which force us to acknowledge our own complicity in the colonial imbalances of power and the historical silences which persist today.

Forensic Investigation and The Murder Bag

20th March 2015

imageAfter the Second World War, the London Metropolitan Police decided to be more scientific about forensic testing of crime scenes. They reorganized the Met Lab, brought it from Hendon to Scotland Yard, and developed a “Murder Bag” for detectives to bring to scenes to collect samples (TNA, MEPO 3/2027). Originally this was a leather bag filled with envelopes, swabs and glass bottles, which eventually developed into this suitcase with phials, tweezers, a magnifying glass, a tape recorder, tape measures and some optimistic handcuffs (TNA, MEPO 2/10906).

Such was the iconic importance of the bag, that this photograph (undated but probably 1969-72) was taken as a publicity shot for the Metropolitan Police (TNA, MEPO 13/314). It offers a chance to visualize the contents, to imagine the weight and feel of the bag, and to think about how it might be used at the scene. One item I would have expected to see would be gloves to avoid cross-contamination – my next step is to find out when they began to be used as standard practice.

Tiny Books

6th October 2014

imageOn Friday our Historian’s Craft class went to the Osborne Collection at the Toronto Public Library to look at the pre-1900 Children’s Literature Collection. The things I liked best were the smallest – the tiny books inside this mini-bookcase from the Infant’s Library c. 1775, and the smallest book in the world, visible through a microscope. An amazing place with excellent archivists and thought-provoking displays. And teddies.

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

5th October 2013

imageThis spring I spent a few months researching the history of Hellmuth Ladies’ College, a small Anglican finishing school in London,Ontario established in 1869 by Issac Hellmuth, who also founded Huron Theological College, now Huron University College. In the Dioscesan archives, I came across an amazing set of studio photographs donated in the 1960s by former student Ida May Snider from Neversmith, Sullivan County, New York who attended Hellmuth Ladies’ College from 1889 to1891. In this set of photographs, Ida, who had light hair in a high bun, posed with her two friends: Minnie Congdon from Indiana, who had curly shoulder-length hair, and Edith, possibly Fitzgerald, who came from the Thousand Islands and who wore her hair very short. In these photos, the girls used existing studio props to set up Tableau Vivants, a popular nineteenth-century form of entertainment in which wealthy guests at a party acted out scenes from history or literature. Here instead of classical scenes the girls play out classical Victorian scenes. In this photograph Ida proposes to Edith, who coyly looks down and to the side while emphatically extending her ring finger. Minnie plays the chaperone pretending to read a book. The repressed smiles and theatrical posing reveal the sitters’ playfulness and humour. These scenes both mimic the scenes of Victorian womanhood, and subvert them by enacting them with an all-female cast. Part of a tradition of female joke photographs, the scene is rendered unbelievable by the respectable clothing of the young women, which tempered the unconventionality of girls proposing to each other.

The photographs stand above this ambivalence, and testify to the self-confidence, intelligence and the ability of the students at Hellmuth Ladies College to create a new visual iconography of Victorian girlhood. Though the girls were not photographers and were themselves the subjects of photos, the sitters revealed their control over their poses and surroundings. The complete collection of Hellmuth Ladies’ College photographs testify to the self-confidence, intelligence and the ability of the students to create a new visual iconography of Victorian girlhood. Though the girls were not photographers and were themselves the subjects of photos, the sitters revealed their control over their poses and surroundings, testifying to photography’s ability to allow those who were excluded from political and cultural power to create alternative visual vocabularies about their lives.

This project has whetted by appetite for historical analysis of photography and for Canadian history- more on this to come!

Written on the Body

2nd February 2012

imageIt’s a very mild January here, and my thoughts are turning to spring already. I need a new bathing suit, but now that I resemble a descaled spinosaurus, I am having a hard time finding one that covers the back (what- no turtleneck tankinis?!)

All this makes me think about how our experiences are written on our bodies. As we get older, the wounds we suffer may heal, but we will always be left with scars. The above prison photograph is of a man in his mid-twenties, who in 1936 strangled his pregnant 16 year old girlfriend for refusing to sleep with him. He was sentenced to seven years in prison. The pictures of him below show him before he went in, and those above a year later. Every aspect of his physical description had changed, even down to his eyes becoming jaundiced. The difference is also marked in his expression. What had he seen to wipe that cocky smile off his face?

Hospital confessions

3rd October 2011

imageSorry for the long delay in writing – I have been in hospital having emergency spine surgery (carrying too many books?). In another example of the present imitating the past, this happened just as I was finishing an article about the role of doctors in performing and policing illegal abortions in London in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. About 20 women died in London each year from infected abortions, self-inflicted and otherwise in this period. The Metropolitan Police tried to get doctors and nurses to notify them when women were admitted to hospital so they could get ‘dying depositions’ which hopefully could be used in court even if the woman died and could not testify. But most women refused to name their abortionists before they died, or if they did name names and then recovered, they often recanted. Lying in my own hospital bed, I understood the fear these women must have felt, wondering if they would die and what had to be said.

In my research at the National Archives this summer, I came across this envelope, marked ‘Please burn unopened in case of death, M.K. Browning.” In the envelope were unsigned love letters. Which is known, of course, since the police opened the envelope. Wouldn’t you? While the police discovered the identity of the father, partly by his grief on learning of Miss Browning’s deat, they decided his identity was not important to the investigation of the crime, and that they would keep her secret. Sad stories.

Old Grudges

13th June 2011

imageMy aunt told me this story when I was a child and I finally tracked down the original headstone at the Lake George United Church near Harvey Station NB. In 1915 a young girl named Trixie Hoyt had a suitor who got her pregnant, and she went to St Stephen to her aunt’s house to have the baby. Her parents did not like the young man, and had his letters to her sent back, and hers to him intercepted. The girl died in childbirth, not knowing the young man had written, and her parents brought her body home to be buried. Her headstone is the largest in the Churchyard, and reads: “In this cold Grave I lie, I was too young to die. Young friends, I was not to blame- to destroy my life it was his aim. Here is my deceiver’s Name: XXXXXX. We know that God is just and true, and will give this bold wretch his due.” The young man tried to come to the funeral, and apparently the mother denounced him as a murderer in the church. A few years later he wanted to marry, and came to the churchyard in the dead of night to chisel out his name. The baby lived, called “Dolorous Odell” by his grandparents, and was raised by them.

How many old grudges are set in stone this way? Strange to think the two families probably lived within a mile of each other their whole lives.

Not Bloodstains

22nd May 2011

Looking at some wartime police files yesterday I came upon an incredible story. The Metropolitan Police were interviewing an American soldier about the murder of a prostitute. They confiscated his trousers and shoes for forensic tests after they saw a large quantity of reddish blood-like stains splashed on the front. As it turned out- they were not blood, but the results of the anti-VD kit the American Army apparently gave to their soldiers. It consisted of a stick of silver nitrate to insert inside the urethra after sexual intercourse, some calomel lotion to smear on the outside parts, and a ‘small canvas bag provided for the purpose’ to wrap the proceeds in for four hours, after which the urine passed would be a dark brick-red. Has anyone ever heard of this procedure? If so, please email me with a reference! The Inspectors of the Met Police obviously found this extraordinary, which is why they recorded it in the report in minute detail. You can almost hear them crossing their legs as they type.

Soldier X, not a murderer, just the perpetrator of poor bathroom hygiene. I hope he learned his lesson.