From hewers of wood to producers of pulp: True crime in Canadian pulp magazines of the 1940s

Loo, Tina

[HEADNOTE]

In the 1940s, federal restrictions on the importation of U.S. publications spurred the growth of a Canadian pulp magazine industry, one branch of which was true crime. These cheap consumables, adorned with bawdy and violent cover imagery as well as sexually explicit advertisements, sometimes featured Canadian murder cases. True crime stories featured edgy dialogue and gumshoe argot but they remained within, and helped to define, the boundaries of heterosexuality, the racist moral hierarchies, and the certitude of explicable crime. Far from presenting authority figures in a dim light, Canadian true crime tales were written from the perspective of law men, the local police officers and the Mounties who doggedly gathered evidence and trailed unrepentant criminals. Writers took readers on journeys to morally dark places, particularly the remote north and the far west, where civilization along settled EuroCanadian models had barely taken hold well into the twentieth century. Terrible murders, committed by ruthless criminals (typically Native men), threatened to rock the foundations of Canadian civilization but true crime reassured readers that the cops, the courts, and the gallows could and would always set it right. The industry declined by the 1950s, not on account of a moral-clean-up campaign but as a result of the pulp novel industry’s growth and the revocation of wartime importation bans.

Dans les annees 1940, des restrictions federales imposees en matiere d’importation de publications americaines ont entraine la croissance de l’industrie canadienne des magazines a sensation, dont ceux traitant de crimes reels. Ces objets de consommation a bon marche, avec leurs pages couvertures aux images paillardes et violentes, et leurs annonces sexuellement explicites, traitaient parfois d’homicides survenus au Canada. Ces histoires de crimes reels etaient remplies de dialogues crispes et d’argot de detectives mais elles demeuraient dans les limites de l’heterosexualite, des hierarchies morales racistes et de la certitude du crime explicable, et elles contribuerent meme a definir ces dernieres. Loin de tenir les figures d’autorite dans l’ombre, les histoires de crimes reels se passant au Canada etaient redigees du point de vue des hommes de la loi, des policiers locaux et des policiers de la GRC qui rassemblaient des preuves et poursuivaient les criminels non repentants de facon obstinee. Les auteurs de ces histoires amenaient leurs lecteurs . dans des lieux a la morale douteuse, particulierement le nord isole et l’Ouest canadien, ou la civilisation de type euro-canadienne ne s’implanta que tardivement au 20e siecle. Des meurtres terribles, commis par des criminels cruels (habituellement des hommes autochtones), menacaient de mettre en peril les fondations de la civilisation canadienne mais les auteurs d’histoires de crimes reels rassuraient leurs lecteurs en leur laissant savoir que les policiers, les cours de justice et les gibets pouvaient et sauraient toujours rectifier la situation. L’industrie connut un declin vers les annees 1950, non en raison d’une campagne de moralite mais plutot a cause de la croissance de l’industrie du roman a sensation et de l’abrogation des restrictions sur l’importation des publications qui avaient eu cours pendant la guerre.

Fighting the second World War took more than Canadian manhood: it required money. Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s Liberals tried to keep as much of it as possible in Canada through a wartime conservation act. In 1940 the government prohibited the importation of a wide range of goods for the war’s duration. Alongside such frivolous items as chocolate, champagne and playing cards, the War Exchange Conservation Act listed pulp magazines. Specifically it restricted periodicals that featured “detective, sex, western, and alleged true or confession stories.” (Statutes of Canada, 4-5 George VI, Chapter 2, “An Act Respecting the Conservation of Exchange”). The flow of cheap American magazines dried up as a result of the Act, touching off intense thirst in English Canada for pulp reading material. While Canada had its own popular presses, which since the 1910s had turned out cheap tabloids such as Hush as well as comic books and Mountie dime novels, the pulp industry, located primarily in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, mushroomed in the wake of the Act. Brash and brassy operations like Super Publications and Daring Productions transformed Canada from a net consumer of pulp comics and magazines to a net producer in the mid 1940s.

Wartime restrictions created opportunities for writers and artists, as well as publishers. Canadian popular fiction writers had been selling stories and serials to North American and British publishers for decades, but the only identifiably Canadian stories that sold were “Northerns” – fictional accounts of the high north, typically involving heroic Mounties on the hunt for scoundrels (Skene-Melvin). Their simplicity of characterization, straightforward plots and appealing outcomes (“unblemished virtue over utterly despicable enemies”) made them universally accessible and seemingly innocent – even quaint and “antimodern” (Walden 1982, 201; Dawson 1998, 31-43). Yet as Keith Waiden and Michael Dawson both argue, the Mountie pulps’ “vision of order” served imperialist ends: civilization always wore a scarlet uniform and spoke the Queen’s English when delivering the benefits of empire to the hostile Indian, lawless American or ignorant foreigner.

The newly energized Canadian pulp publishing industry of the 1940s continued to pump out Northerns, but it also expanded into the traditionally U.S. true-crime magazine market. Now a nostalgic collectors’ item, the pulps (so-called because they were printed on “cheap drab paper stock”) were products of a dynamic enterprise that churned out romance, adventure, science fiction, humour and horror for millions of readers (Server 10; Lesser).1 True-crime magazines were only a slim segment of the business, but the list of North American titles was nonetheless extensive and ever changing. Over the 1940s new Canadian monthlies, like Scoop Detective and Daring Detective, joined that list. They published material from several sources: stories lifted from U.S. crime magazines; manuscripts about American crimes, sent by writers stationed in the United States; and Canadian true crime stories written by Canadians. Since U.S. material was difficult to come by as a result of wartime importation restrictions, canny publishers, like Toronto’s Al Valentine, banked on the idea that Canadian true-crime pulps, like the American police and detective magazines Canadians had devoured prior to wartime prohibitions, would sell. He was right. During the 1940s a new wing of the Canadian publishing industry emerged, complete with Canadian content.

The heyday of Canadian true-crime pulps proved to be short-lived, however. By the early 1950s monthly magazines featuring stories about Canadian crimes were hard to come by (File 2001). The explanation for their decline would seem to be the so-called Fulton Act, the 1949 amendment to the Criminal Code that prohibited the publication of “any magazine, periodical or book which exclusively or substantially comprises matter depicting pictorially the commission of crimes, real or fictitious” (Hansard 5 December 1949, 2,690, emphasis added). Led by the National Council of Women of Canada, local Parent Teacher Associations, the Imperial Order of the Daughters of Empire and Kiwanis Clubs, as well as representatives from religious groups and medical associations, constituents managed to lobby Members of Parliament to outlaw lowbrow crime literature (Hansard 14 June 1948, 5,201; 4 October 1949, 512-13).

Yet adult-oriented true crime was not their target. In Canada’s moral guardians’ estimation, the lowest of the low were the crime comics, marketed to impressionable children and young people. Although the Fulton Act ended up as an amendment to the Code’s obscenity prohibitions (section 207), Fulton introduced his bill by announcing that it related to the Juvenile Delinquents Act (Hansard 3 June 1948, 4,754). For Fulton and his Parliamentary supporters on both sides of the House, selling depictions of “crimes of sexual or other violence” to children encouraged mimicry (Hansard 4,754). Moreover, comics presented lawmen as dolts and criminals as heroes:

they almost invariably portray the law and the administration of justice and decency as a slow, stumbling and stupid process; whereas the gangster, the man of violence, is portrayed as acting directly, quickly and forcefully. In this way the sympathies of children are directed toward the wrong side. (Hansard 4 October 1949, 513)

According to John Bell, the Act achieved its initial purpose: by the early 1950s comics that portrayed acts of violence had been driven off Canadian newsstands (1996). Throughout its journey from private member’s bill to Criminal Code amendment (Statutes of Canada, 14 Geo. VI, Chapter 13, section 1), Fulton campaigned exclusively on behalf of the guardians of youth (Hansard 5 December 1949).

While a moral panic around youth in the postwar era (Adams 1995) as well as a general turn towards conservatism (Whitaker and Marcuse; Owram; Adams 1997) helps to explain the Parliamentary attack on crime comics, the true-crime magazine industry sank for more prosaic reasons. Canadian publications dwindled not because of moral campaigns but as a result of changing business practices, shifting tastes and increased competition. The reappearance of bigger and glossier U.S. magazines in the late 1940s, plus competition from scandal sheets and tabloids such as Flash and the rise of the pulp novel industry (a phenomenon that ultimately overwhelmed the U.S. pulp magazine business as well) all contributed to the decline of Canadian true-crime magazines (Rasky; Server 1993, 137).

Attributing shifts in the industry to moral regulation not only overlooks the economic and marketing context in which pulp publishing operated, but it also obscures these magazines’ moralism. Indeed, had Fulton and his supporters turned their attention to Canadian true crime magazines they might well have called for government subsidies to save this arm of Canada’s publishing industry in an era of growing concern over the Americanization of Canadian culture (Litt). Unlike the tabloid press, with its cynical take on established authority and its penchant for lampooning the law (Houston), the central message of true crime was not only respectful but morally conservative. Despite the sexually suggestive and violent cover imagery and the sensational advertisements dispersed throughout each issue, the stories could fairly be described as crime fables: secular accounts of Christianity’s deadly sins. Far from presenting authority figures in a dim light, Canadian true-crime tales were written from the perspective of lawmen, the local police officers and Mounties who doggedly gathered evidence and trailed unrepentant criminals.

By approaching magazines as readers might have – beginning with the covers and interior imagery, flipping through the advertisements, then sampling stories we explore the complexities of a genre that packaged incidents of violence, robbery and murder as a cheap consumable. A detailed analysis of these crime narratives illustrates how Canadian pulps persistently conveyed the moral that sinfulness leads to earthly punishment: every crime sprang from pride, envy, anger, greed or lust. True crime stories were narrated with edgy dialogue and gumshoe argot, but they remained within and helped to define the boundaries of heterosexuality, the racist tropes of moral hierarchies and the certitude of explicable crime.

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True Crime Canadian-style

The dictum that crime does not pay resounded clearly in stories that were mini police procedurals, that is, narratives in which the focus is not on the crime but on the crafty police work that leads to a criminal’s arrest (Vicarel). Crime in the Canadian pulps led inevitably to capture and to punishment according to a just desserts model. In these stories there were no unsolved crimes, no bungled cases, no wrongful convictions; every criminal paid his or her price – most often at the loop end of a noose. Nor were questions of identity and motivation left unresolved. The world of Canadian true-crime pulps was a reassuringly certain moral universe in the 1940s, filled with bad characters (rarely Anglo Canadians) and real-life heroes (with few exceptions Anglo Canadians) who tracked them down and served them up for retributive justice.

Although true-crime magazines featured sexually alluring covers, their content was nowhere as controversial as that featured in their closest competitors: contemporary tabloids and scandal sheets. Modelled on London’s News of the World, Canadian tabloids traded in “sin, sex, and sensationalism” (Rasky). In the 1920s and 1930s, these sheets had battled against Big Interests in pursuit of Truth and justice – always with caps – but by the postwar era the three Ss ruled (Houston 41; and Rasky). Exposes of wild homosexual liaisons (Setcliff) and gory pictures of dead bodies led to complaints that Canada’s tabloids were, as one lawyer put it, “low, filthy, scurrilous publication[s], specializing in personal scandal, written up in a sensational, salacious manner!” (Setcliff 74).

Compared to the tabloids, Canadian true-crime magazine content was extraordinarily restrained and respectable. The narratives and dialogue in Canadian stories borrowed from old-fashioned westerns, radio plays, hard-boiled fiction and Hollywood film noir. The talk was tough, but it was squeaky clean, free of profanity and explicit sexual references, even when cases involved rape or sodomy. As pulp collector George File contends, Canadian pulp publishers walked a razor-fine edge that separated luridness and respectability (Flie 2001). Producers had authenticity on their side – “true facts from official files.” Unlike comic books and detective fiction such as The Black Mask, true-crime writing derived legitimacy through its declared faithfulness to the truth. More significantly, the pro-police perspective in the stories counterbalanced the violent subject matter, the frankly sexual ads and the flashy covers. These magazines teased, but they also taught.

Canadian pulp crime of the 1940s was thus simultaneously conservative and transgressive. True-crime writing’s capacity to thrill and reassure catered to readers’ taste for criminality, violence and death, on the one hand, and law and order, on the other (Chernaik, Swales, Martin and Vilain xii). While this appeal to the dialectics of desire characterizes crime fiction and non-fiction more generally (Cameron and Fraser 43), Canadian true-crime pulps guaranteed the victory of good over evil through solid and even heroic policing, particularly Mountie work, as well as through the Canadian justice system, which did not flinch at putting killers to death (Skene-Melvin 10). As our sample survey of stories indicates, true-crime stories took readers on journeys to morally dark places, particularly the remote north and the far west, where civilization along settled Euro-Canadian models had barely taken hold well into the twentieth century. Terrible murders, committed by ruthless criminals, often Native men, threatened to rock the foundations of Canadian civilization, but true crime pulps reassured readers that the cops, the courts and the gallows could and would always set it right.

The Pleasures of Crime

Thinking about the pulps typically begins and ends with the dazzling covers (Lesser). Although historians should not judge the magazines by their covers, nor should we discount their sex appeal. Compared to the text of the true crime stories, the covers were explicit and confrontational. They were as sexually suggestive as pin-up magazines but more sensational in their depictions of lethal violence shootings, knifings and strangulations were typical fare. Canadian magazines could not compete with the high-gloss stock and multicoloured palettes of U.S. crime magazines, but they certainly mimicked their style once wartime restrictions were imposed. Aside from the rare Asian-looking figures, non-Caucasians never appeared on covers. The only room for colour was in the backgrounds, lettering and costumes. With bright primary colours (especially red and yellow) contrasted by deep shadows and blacks, these images would have been visually arresting even if they had not depicted images of sex and violence.

The stock cover figure was a white woman, pictured barely dressed and looking for trouble, or scantily clad and imperilled, or respectably dressed and in danger. Brunettes, blondes and redheads adorned the covers in equal proportion, but all had long and luxurious tresses. Male images were less varied. Unlike crime comics and adventure stories, which often pictured bare-chested he-men, true-crime cover men were always fully clothed, illustrated either as dangerous figures (shown strangling or stabbing women or dragging them away) or as victims of guntoting or knife-wielding women. Although the majority of stories recounted homicides involving males killing other males (a fair reflection of actual homicide patterns), true-crime publishers churned out covers that depicted recurring images of inter-gender violence and heterosexual danger.

The titles and the text lettering added a further flashy element to the images. The words CRIME and DETECTIVE were stamped in solid capital letters across the tops of the covers, leaving just enough room for well-endowed women and menacing men to jump out in stark colours. The titles and images were sufficiently big and bold to attract even the myopic shopper in a drugstore or the commuter running past a newsstand on her way to a bus stop. A step or two closer and she would have been able to make out catchy bylines: “hard-boiled but soft” or the more direct, “I demand the death penalty for the monster that murdered my wife.” Most of the titles printed on the covers referred to stories about crimes that had occurred in the United States. Occasionally, though, Canadian content made it on the cover. On one magazine the title “Trailing Toronto’s Love Slayer” accompanied an image of a woman with a man’s gloved hand squeezing her neck. Pictures and titles sometimes jarred, however. On the cover of a 1943 issue of Daring Crime Cases a woman crouches, clutching a gun (and squatting conveniently to expose her bare legs). The title reads: “Snaring Winnipeg’s Horse-Faced Bandit.” Clashing images and text mattered little, however. The true-crime pulps sold the reader exciting tales of sex and violence while providing a guarantee of “truth” in the 10- or 25-cent bargain.

Though printed in black and white, many of the advertisements tucked between stories and along sidebars augmented the magazines’ transgressive appeal. Based on the sorts of products advertised – marital advice, home health care, family planning, bachelors’ joke pick-up lines, and the inevitable steak knives – publishers clearly assumed an adult audience of both men and women. Unlike crime comics, true-crime magazines did not feature the toys and trinkets advertisers marketed to children. Indeed, many of the items advertised, like the how-to and self-help manuals that deal with marital difficulties and sexual frustrations, underscored the adult nature of the content. Order forms noted that such books would be delivered C.O.D. in “brown paper wrapping” – but only to readers over the age of 21.

Books on sex generated extra revenue for publishers who stocked a wide list of titles in warehouses. For readers, books advertised in the pulps offered hard-to-acquire information on hushed-up topics. Although advertisements used direct and even explicit language, the rhetoric, like the language of crime stories, ranged from the clinical – as in the Encyclopaedia of Male and Female – to the racy, as in the Guide to Faster Living, by George (The Real) McCoy and The Hussey’s Handbook by Helen Brown Norden. For readers whose interests were less anatomical and perhaps more anthropological or literary, pulp publishers offered Sinful Cities of the Western World, a volume outlining the “horror and barter of human flesh” in faraway cities. If that failed to stimulate interest, readers could always fall back on classics like Boccaccio’s Pleasant Questions of Love or any of Oscar Wilde’s oeuvre. Their titles aside, these books also appealed through offers of “many devilish illustrations” and warnings like, “NOT FOR GOODY-GOODS” or “Men must not read this book unless prescribed by a registered physician.” Like the true-crime stories, these advertisements provided titillation and information, often endorsed by medical and scientific authorities. Indeed, the magazines regularly featured advertisements for birth-control books by reproductive advisor Dr. Marie Stopes and sexologists, such as Dr. Norman Haire. While some Canadian historians have concentrated on the Criminal Code’s sanctions against the publication of birth-control information and others have stressed the struggles of contraceptive pioneers (Dodd; McLaren and McLaren), little attention has been paid to the wide accessibility of sexual advice of all sorts in popular magazines. By the 1940s true-crime magazines, along with other pulps, provided tens of thousands of Canadians with a cheap and discreet means of accessing technically illegal contraceptive information.2

As provocative and risque as some of these advertisements were, they followed the conventions of true crime stories in upholding rigid notions of heterosexuality, gender roles and racial stereotypes. For instance, women were advised on “how to meet men and marry” and where to buy “pre-war quality” cutlery; men were told how to deal with “sexual slowness in women,” and what to do on “The Bridal Night.” Worn-out weaklings were exhorted to supplement their diets with a hormone that would “restore sanity to men in midlife … just as chemicals renew wornout soil.” He-men may not have festooned true-crime pulp covers, but advertisements urged male readers to evaluate their manliness: “In an emergency would your actions show the lady in your life you are a MAN? Sure you’ve guts – but is bravery ALONE enough to stand up against guns, knives, clubs … while you have only your bare hands?” Not only did the advertisements in the true-crime magazines reinscribe norms about sexuality and gender, but as the ad for Chinese Love Tales (a book that promised to “lift the curtain – and let you see the ‘unblushing East’ in all its pagan passion”) suggests, they also catered to and perpetuated Euro-Canadian beliefs about “exotic” races and places.

The Scenes of the Crimes

After the vivid covers and the sexy advertisements, the true crime stories were something of a let-down. The colour, literally and figuratively, disappeared. Interior text and images were printed in black and white. Instead of the eye-popping cover features, there were “specially posed” black and white pictures and blurry “scene-of-the-crime” images. Avid readers would soon have realized that these generic photos (cops needling suspects, women screaming in fright, men and women locked in passionate or deadly clinches) were recycled from issue to issue and between magazines. Following Hollywood movie stills, photographers placed models in “special poses” and paid a few dollars per image, which pulp producers kept on file. Publisher Al Valentine stored his in a folder labelled “cheesecake photos.” Again, though, he erred on the side of propriety in specially posed pictures. Bare legs and almost bared breasts were as far as the undressing went, and when it came to violence, weapons were shown, but wounds and blood were obscured or absent altogether. Compared to cover art and interior photos in the most macabre crime comics from the 1940s, these true-crime “pictorial representations” were more coy than confrontational.

Photos of real criminals and lawmen, when available, were sprinkled into Canadian crime stories. The motto “true facts from official files” meant that the police and sometimes court reporters supplied those images. Pulp publishers were not above recycling picture mats originally taken by newspaper crime reporters.3 Consequently, criminals were posed not in the commission of the deed (as they typically were in the comics and in pulp fiction) but in the act of being caught or punished. Their mug shots provided a further visual frame for the triumph of law and order. Weapons were shown either bolstered on police officers’ belts or displayed as the booty from raids on criminal hideouts.

Pictures that accompanied Canadian true-crime stories also provided environmental reference points. Since few of the stories were set in urban locales, most of the images confirmed the rural or wilderness contexts for the typical Canadian true-crime story. It appears that U.S. true-crime stories, set mainly in Chicago and New York, filled the quota of big-city crime stories. Pictures in Canadian true stories perpetuated stock images of Canada as a vast and sparsely populated country; simultaneously they suggested that the countryside, far from the civilized centres of Canadian justice, was the nation’s principal breeding ground of crime.

Canadian true-crime stories did not offer environmentalist accounts of crime, however. Settings were important insofar as they set the scene for the police hunt, which structured the narrative in most stories (Cameron and Fraser 41-42). Whether the police were tracking killers across the vast frozen tundra or searching for clues in the littered back alleys of city streets, settings added realism to accounts of the chases.” Writers were interested in criminals’ characters but they devoted little attention to their backgrounds or motivations. Although almost half of the stories published in the 1940s recount crimes committed in the 1920s and 1930s, writers treated the wider context of crimes (in these cases, Prohibition and the Depression) superficially. No matter what the broader circumstances, crime was an immoral choice to stray from the right path.

Sobering Stories

Stories of crimes committed in Canada were less psychological or sociological accounts than they were theological studies of sins and retribution in pulp form. When critics of the Fulton bill claimed that popular illustrated stories were merely the “up-to-date form of the old stories of violence which are found … even in the Bible, ” he dismissed them as deluded (Hansard 4 October 1949, 513). But considering that true-crime stories focused on individual sins and dealt out earthly punishment, pulp defenders had a point. In the true-crime pulps, criminals who gave in to temptation paid with their lives. Canadian stories explored those universal failings of human nature most often through the crimes of Native people (whose images, in contrast, never appeared on covers). They also recounted cases in which whites without a moral compass had drifted into crime and violence. Because the stories were true, the comeuppance of criminals (death for all but a few) rang even truer.

Several features and themes stand out in the Canadian true-crime stories. Of the 84 that appeared in surviving magazines, more than half (47) were written by Philip H. Godsell, C.V. Tench and W.W. Bride.5 But no matter who authored them, each of the stories followed a familiar format of crime discovery, investigation, chase, capture and punishment. Moreover, while authors delivered their message using a variety of voices (the matter-of-fact discourse of anthropology, dialogue rendered in pidgin English or snappy hard-boiled talk), or by capitalizing on the extraordinary nature of murders, especially crimes of passion, which occurred in Canada, the moral of the stories was always reassuringly predictable. Character flaws and weaknesses, depicted according to the authors’ and audience’s essentialist assumptions about race, gender, sexuality and nationality, lay at the root of crime. What stood out as distinctly Canadian was an implicit moral geography that equated the true north with true crime.

Such was literally the case in W.W. Bride’s story of a 1940s “arctic crime wave” (Bride 1945). An exploration of the destructive force of pride, the sin of Lucifer himself, his tale of Charlie Ouyerack, the messianic leader of an Inuit cult, drew on and reiterated the stereotypical linkages between primitive people and primitive passions. While all true crime writers took liberties with the facts, shaping them in many cases to fit the imperialist conventions of the Mountie story, understanding motives and behaviour was particularly complex when the principals were First Nations people.6 Some authors tried to lend greater veracity to their stories by having aboriginal peoples speak in a pidgin English, but Bride used another narrative strategy, adopting an anthropological voice to imbue his version of events with ethnographic authority. For instance, to underscore the unusual degree of power Ouyerack possessed, Bride described how he had been able to convince his fellow Belcher Islanders that they needed to prepare themselves for the end of the world by caching large supplies of food and ammunition – despite the fact that “saving is as foreign to … [Inuit] nature as eating rotten fish is to the white man” (45). In explaining the wave of killing that resulted when Charlie and his followers encountered a group of non-believers, Bride made another ethnographic intervention, noting that “roused to a frenzy, blind to all reason, these Natives were capable of wiping out whole families before the outbreaks [of violence] calmed down” (45). In his view, such a response was rooted in their simple natures. A “childlike” people, “their attitude was simply, Charlie was Jesus, he said so: these others said no, thus they were bad: we killed them” (48).

Using a series of juxtapositions, Bride reinforced the primitiveness of the Inuit by heightening the contrast between the savagery of the northern criminals and their environment and the civility of the southern lawmen who arrived to try the alleged killers: transported by rail and steamer from Edmonton, the court, a “special tent in which a judicial bar had been erected,” was a counterpoint to the “collapsed igloos” of some of the defendants; and the judge, “looking very dignified and imposing in gowns,” stood in marked contrast to the disgraced messiah, clothed in a “soiled and torn” surplice. If the wider message of the story were not already clear, Bride brought it home in his discussion of the sentencing, the point at which true-crime writers typically provided the moral of the story. In comparison to the brutal treatment meted out to those who transgressed Charlie’s illegitimate rule, the Mounties and judge acted with compassion towards the wrongdoers, whose crimes, in their view, were ones of ignorance. “Justice,” Bride editorialized, “must be tempered with mercy for such as these” (48). Though it might have seemed lenient, the two years of hard labour given to Charlie Ouyerack stood, in this writer’s view, as a testimony to the superiority of Canadian law.

Whereas W.W. Bride used an outre crime to chart the price of pride, other authors chose more mundane transgressions to make the point that crime paid but one dividend: the “dividend of death” (Godsell 1943a). Philip Godsell illustrated envy’s deadly power using a familiar scenario – the jealous husband who kills his wife’s lover. Although he also drew this sin from a case involving aboriginals – the principals were Blackfoot living in the Northwest Territories in the 1890s – Godsell’s “Triangle in Scarlet” was written to convey a lesson worthy of a Shakespearean play or a Greek myth. When readers learned that Charcoal, “a quick-tempered and wiry brave with five wives to his credit,” had come home unexpectedly to find “his latest and prettiest wife,” Wolverine, in a “sinful tryst” with Medicine Pipe Stem, they knew it was curtains for the “handsome lothario” (Godsell 1945, 28, 29). Despite being caught once, the lovers continued their illicit affair, Wolverine “entertaining Medicine Pipe Stem in a fashion that would make the blood of any husband boil” (28).

When Medicine Pipe Stem’s body was found bloodied and broken under a pile of hay, there was little doubt about who was responsible; the trick would be to catch him. But in the pulps, as in the dime novels and movies, the Mounties invariably got their man – but not before being put through their and their horses’ paces (Dawson 1997, 119). For more than a month, Charcoal managed to evade the police, as well as the best hunters and scouts in the area, wounding one Mountie and killing another before being captured and hanged. Although Charcoal may have been sent to his maker by the men in scarlet, Godsell saw him as much a vic-tim of his primitive passions as his rival. But as the story’s last line suggests, this cautionary tale was not only about race, but gender. The moral? Both men had been devoured by the green-eyed monster, stirred into action by “the fickleness of a faithless wife” (Godsell 1945, 32).

While Godsell’s story of a deadly Native love triangle was a lesson for all hus-bands and wives, it was also an opportunity for white readers to feel assured of their superior capacity to restrain their passions, and to feel superior in general. In Godsell’s work, racial superiority was communicated not through the language of anthropology, but mainly by the appearance of the principals and the dialogue attributed to them. Not only were Godsell’s good guys fearless horsemen in sharplooking uniforms, but they also spoke the Queen’s English. The bad guys, on the other hand, had no uniforms (in fact they hardly had any clothes at all), and were badly in need of elocution lessons. Pidgin English was the norm for savages of the true north like Falling Pine, who grunted that Charcoal was “heap crazy. Catch’um Medicine Pipe, sleep wid pretty Wolverine, him wife. Mebbe dat’s way he kill’um” (28).

Rage, like overweening pride and jealousy, was a characteristic Euro-Canadians freely attributed to Aboriginal people. But Canadian true-crime stories showed that even whites could lose control over their emotions, especially when money or love was involved. Though not “savages” per se, the French Canadians featured in true-crime stories were certainly possessed of similarly powerful passions. Easily motivated by lust or the prospect of lucre, French-Canadian trappers and miners were stock characters in Canadian true crime. But as the “Case of the Bludgeoned Beauty” revealed, they sometimes left the forest for Canada’s most populous cities.

In urban tales, atypical settings in Canadian true-crime stories, it was not the vast wilderness that stymied investigations but the anonymity of city life, a dark world of a different sort. Such was the situation in the mystery of the “Bludgeoned Beauty,” featured in Factual Detective Stories. A classic police procedural, the story began with both the victim’s and the perpetrator’s identities unknown. Readers joined the police on their search for the truth, taking on the perspective of the law-men as they assessed the crime scene for the first time: “She had been in her middle thirties . . . and attractive. He judged her height to be about 5’3″ and her weight around 120 pounds. On a faded Chesterfield near the body was a grey suit jacket and a patent leather handbag. Eying in a distant corner, as if thrown there, was a pair of black, high heeled pumps . . .” (2).

Thus summoned to inspect the crime scene, the readers were then invited to solve the crime, weighing each clue as it came and sharing in the “eureka!” moments of discovery. According to the nosy old woman next door, the victim took the room with a companion, a natty man answering to the name of “Frenchy” (6). Not much to go on – especially in Montreal. But these officers vied with Sherlock Holmes in their powers of deduction. Although this unidentified writer was no Conan Doyle, he did lead the reader along the detectives’ path of discovery. Marks on the apartment floor were similar to those made by hobnail boots of the kind worn by loggers (“That’s it Captain! I’ve got a cousin who works as a lumberjack! Every time he visits my home he makes the same kind of marks on the floor”). A key found at the crime scene was the kind used to open the public lockers at train stations (“Windsor Station has the only lockers with three numbers”).

Together, these clues led both the police and the reader to one Raoul Bazinet, French-Canadian logger and, by his own admission, victim of a broken heart (8, 13). When waitress Noella Denommee refused his advances and proposals of marriage, he became angry and killed “the woman he professedly loved” in a drunken rage. According to the writer, his hanging was suitable “expiation” – in this case for the sin of anger (15). It was also the sort of crime featured on true-crime covers: a female victim, a male murderer, drawn into violence through lust. The foolish woman met her destiny after stirring up masculine desire; he met his end as a consequence of violating the ninth commandment.

If working hard and being chaste like Noella Denommee were no guarantee of living happily ever after, then why bother? Why not live in the moment – and make other saps pay your way? At least that was the attitude of Doris MacDonald, the better (looking) half of a couple dubbed “Montreal’s Honeymoon Slayers” (Godsell 1943). The closest thing Canada had to Bonnie and Clyde, George and Doris MacDonald were fast-talking, fast-living con artists of the first order, whose boundless greed and love of easy money made victims of unsuspecting folk from across North America. They were not like Raoul Bazinet, or even Charlie Ouyerack and Charcoal, whose transgressions were presented as arising from the heat of the moment, as exceptional acts under exceptional circumstances. Godsell characterized the MacDonalds, in contrast, as natural-born criminals. And even though George had been born in Nova Scotia, his life of crime, with his jazz baby wife’s help, took off in the gangster-ridden United States of the 1920s. Thus the story was narrated in stereotypically Canadian fashion, depicting the pair as the embodiment of American lawlessness.

Indeed, to Winnipeg writer Philip Godsell, the MacDonalds exemplified a peculiar form of audacity associated with prohibition-era Americans, one that was both attractive and repulsive, simultaneously seductive and unseemly. By the time they registered at the Mount Royal Hotel in 1927 as newlyweds “Mr. and Mrs. Fred Palmer,” the pair had left a trail of bad cheques and bad will stretching from Montana to Montreal. After keeping the hotel’s bellhops on their toes with their constant demands, and racking up a sizeable champagne bill, the pair arranged for a cab to pick them up, ostensibly to take them on a day trip to New York, but really as a means to skip out on yet another bill. Close to the border, they shot cabbie Adelard Bouchard in the back of the head, stole the $300 he had withdrawn as expense money and dumped his body, along with Doris’s bloodied lingerie, in a ditch at the side of the road. Refused entry at the American border, the pair drove the bullet-pocked and bloodstained Packard back to Montreal, leaving it parked outside a movie theatre, and coolly continued their drinking party at the Mount Royal. The next day they disappeared – leaving behind nothing but empty suitcases, booze bottles and an unpaid bill.

Unlike other true-crime stories, this one devoted considerably more time to discussing the perpetrators’ backgrounds, making a direct link between their pasts and the lesson to be learned from their lives. Like the crowd who gathered to watch the proceedings, the author found Doris particularly arresting and her life especially exemplary of the direct route between sin and damnation. As it turned out, there was more than a grain of truth to her claim to “big time mogul-dom.” An orphan, Doris was brought up in the respectable home of well-to-do foster parents, and was educated by a governess. But her “headstrong nature and avid desire for excitement” led her to run away to Hollywood, and then to New York, where she met her future husband in a cheap Broadway nightclub (“Honeymoon Slayers” 52). Together they toured the United States in a series of stolen cars, “making their way with small time robberies, hold-ups, and whatever means happened to present themselves of acquiring easy money” (527). In the end, their greed caught up to them: George hanged for his crimes, leaving, as Godsell put it, “the beautiful blonde who’d chosen the primrose path to perdition . . . to pass the rest of her life behind the grilled bars of the prison cell with a number for a name” (56).

True-crime stories in the 1940s seldom dealt with married couples. The MacDonalds were an exception, but then they were an exceptional pair. More characteristic were stories about domestic homicides that exemplified the naturalness of male lust and its dangerous consequences. As “Marriage and Murder” showed, torrid passions could still burn in cold climates – even Winnipeg’s (1946). Indeed, it was this incongruity that supplied dramatic tension. Unlike the MacDonalds, the Adamses and Westgates of Phil Blackstone’s story were the most conventional and respectable of Canadian couples – or so it seemed. Mild-mannered and middle-aged James Adams worked as a clerk in a large downtown department store, while his much younger and vivacious wife, Lottie, “a good housekeeper,” maintained their modest suburban house with great care (9). Although the Westgates lived in somewhat more straitened circumstances since he, a wounded veteran of the Great War, was in and out of the hospital, they were nonetheless a most creditable pair. When Lottie Adams’s frozen body was found in a snow bank in 1928, the back of her skull crushed, people were shocked and puzzled – no one more so than her befuddled husband, James.

Under the direction of Detective Robert Frayne, “one of Canada’s ace man-hunters,” the case was rapidly solved (8). Strange things had evidently been happening in the Adams household in the weeks leading up to Mrs. Adams’s death: a threatening letter, mysterious boxes of chocolates, a peeping Tom. More significantly, Frayne discovered that Lottie and her neighbour had been having an affair – one that went terribly wrong one cold January night. Sentenced to death, with no recommendation of mercy, Albert Westgate escaped the noose, largely because of his war record. But his story of deadly passion did not end there. Released from prison after serving 14 years, he killed again at the age of 50. His victim, 16-year-old waitress Grace Cook, was another object of what Blackstone termed Westgate’s uncontrolled “infatuations” (39). Blackstone then borrowed from the judge’s sentencing comments to impose a just end: the man who “loved then killed” had “murdered one love too many” (39). This time Westgate made his appointment with the executioner. Not an object of the psychiatric gaze in this 1946 story, Westgate was merely a man who failed to take no for an answer to his heterosexual desire.

In all but a few of the Canadian true-crime stories, the sins of pride, envy, anger, greed and lust led to the murders of people who had known each other, either as friends, intimates or rivals. In this respect the true-crime stories of the 1940s differed significantly from the stranger-danger plots that currently characterize the genre (Ingebretson). Whereas cases featuring random attacks by anonymous killers dominate true crime today, they made up only a tiny proportion – five per cent – of the stories in 1940s Canadian pulps. As other analysts of the genre have noted, in the mid-twentieth century, pulps still operated in the traditions of crime writing as moral condemnation (Cameron and Fraser; Haste; Chernaik et. al.). Inexplicable evil fit awkwardly with writers’, publishers’ and readers’ preference for a tidy, rational, moral universe in which crime was traceable to individual character failings (Bloom 152).

When writers of the 1940s did take on crimes that defied rational explanation they did not turn to psychological or sociological explanations. Rather they adhered to a theological understanding of evil, coupled with a ideological understanding of retribution as its necessary, just and inevitable answer. The Canadian true-crime stories that covered crazed or sexually deviant attacks presented scenarios that would be broadly familiar to today’s true-crime readers: a random slashing of a 14-year old Edmonton girl returning home after an afternoon at the movies (Davis); the sodomization and murder of a nine-year old Montreal boy who had been out skiing on Mount Royal (Bride 1948); the knifing of a young woman walking home with snack food on a warm summer’s night in Winnipeg (Bride 1947); the stalking and ravine murder of a Toronto working girl by a sex-crazed car mechanic (Bride 1946); or the story of a Salish Indian sent to the gallows for raping and murdering eight women outside Vancouver (Lunter 1942).

Although these cases involved horrific injuries to the victims and, in some cases, sexual attacks and mutilations, the physical details and the precise nature of the attacks were described obliquely, even demurely in their retelling. For instance, Ruth Taylor’s death at the hands of Toronto mechanic Harry O’Donnell was described briefly as the result of a “cruel and brutal” attack. The only suggestion that this was a vicious rape-murder (something revealed explicitly in the trial and the press coverage) comes from the description of her attacker as a “sex fiend” (Bride 1942,15). Although the term hinted at a psychiatric analysis, the cover title, which described O’Donnell as a “love slayer,” maintained the theme touched on in the Charcoal, Bazinet and Westgate cases, that some heterosexual men were merely inordinately passionate, not deviant.

In the one story dealing with a homosexual attack, the author portrayed the assailant as a “degenerate” rather than as psychopath, as he might have been described a decade later. In W.W. Bride’s story about the “slaying of a young innocent boy,” the only hint that he had been sodomized was the description of the body, found in the snow, with his “brown corduroy trousers crumpled and baggy” (Bride 1948, 34, 32). Although the coroner determined that “the lad had been the victim of a pervert,” the story referred only to a stab to the groin. In fact, as the trial coverage and newspaper accounts had revealed, the boy had sustained anal injuries. Although Bride closed by commenting that the “forty-two year old degenerate walked his final earthly mile to the gallows,” he trained his moral sights on the motiveless unprovoked attack, rather than the homosexual subtext of the murder (60). There was no giving over to a Gothic fascination with gore in Canadian true-crime pulps, even when writers described murders that were especially gruesome, but nor was there any invocation of medical or psychiatric expertise.

Canadian true-crime magazines of the 1940s sold straightforward stories of crimes solved by cops. Graphic pictures of wounds and explicit descriptions of violent acts and twisted minds would have to wait until the 1950s, when the paperback industry took off, and the flood of U.S. publications became torrential. And the age of sex crime (and psychopathological explanations) would emerge only in the 1980s (Soothill and Walby). In the 1940s Canadian pulp publishers’ self-censorship left true-crime magazines under the radar of moral regulation. Far more audacious was the tabloid Flash, a scandal sheet published by Lou Ruby. The Toronto publisher merited dishonourable mention in a speech by Fulton, in which he carped about Ruby’s trashy style of repportage (Hansard 8 June 1948, 4,932). Writers for Canadian true-crime magazines fancied themselves a cut above, and they certainly seem to have adhered to an unwritten code of propriety that allowed them to dance a fine line between salacious enthrallment and moral rectitude.

Conclusion

By the 1950s magazines like Scoop Detective and Women in Crime disappeared, along with hundreds of other pulp titles. But this was a continent-wide phenomenon, a product of changing products, changing tastes and changing markets. The local true-crime industry, and its selection of Canadian stories, was no match for these economic and cultural forces. Thus it was neither a 1940s moral panic nor a 1950s return to normalcy that accounts for the pulps’ demise. True-crime magazines watered the seeds of their own destruction when they advertised cheap paperbacks. By the 1950s drugstore magazine racks were replaced by revolving kiosks full of sizzling novels such as Reform School Girl or Diana, the “autobiography of a strange wayward woman.” True-crime magazines dwindled before an onslaught of police and detective novels, as well as films and television shows such as Dragnet. Canadian content did not disappear but emerged in other formats, including local newspaper feature articles, crime-story collections and biographies of famous criminals (Hines; Macpherson; Robin; Smith). Nationally distributed scandal sheets, including Flash, Hush, Justice and Police Patrol, saturated the popular crime market and sacrifed their earlier commitment to expose injustice in favour of making a quick profit from sleaze (Houston 59).

In their heyday Canadian true crime blended local flavour into classic stories of crime and punishment. Writers of the 1940s could have chosen any cases, but they focused on criminal justice success stories from the slightly distant past. Bad guys were caught and punished by good guys. The stories dealt in moral absolutes and proved that a world temporarily out of kilter could be put right by brave and committed lawmen. The police in these stories were tested not only by the challenge of catching criminals but, in classic Canadian fashion, by unforgiving environments: endless prairies, frozen wastelands, mountain passes. “Northerns” and westerns amplified detectives’ capacity to restore order by depicting the added burden of their civilizing mission. Urban stories were less common but they also served to explore how sin slips into crime. Cities were places of temptation in which people like the MacDonalds lived fast and, in MacDonald’s case at least, died young.

Analysing the pulps’ contents, from their covers to their back-page advertisements, highlights true-crime magazines’ capacity to blend moralism with salaciousness. In Clive Bloom’s words, “pulp is both a desire for respectability and a refusal” (12). The artwork and the advertisements in true-crime magazines made it impossible for readers to mistake the stories within for Sunday school homilies. Cover images were pin-ups for the people, available on newsstands everywhere. Like the covers of soldiers’ wartime girlie magazines, they broadened Canadians’ tolerance for heterosexual imagery while managing not to push too hard against the strictures of propriety. The magazines’ advertisements provided back-cover access to books (such as the Encyclopaedia of Sexual Knowledge) that respectable folk would never have purchased openly. Crime comics, with their gorier pictures and cynicism towards criminal justice authorities, provided a cover for the true-crime magazine industry, diverting censorious attention away from pulps that catered to adults.

Ironically the Canadian true-crime magazine industry arose in response to an act that banned true detective pulps and declined in spite of an act that prohibited magazines that depicted real crimes. Only by treating the genre seriously can we explain why this was so. True-crime magazines of the 1940s were neither as innocuous as historians have implied, nor as depraved as the final draft of the Fulton Act suggested. Publishers splashed sex and violence on risque covers and framed the stories themselves with bawdy advertisements. But retellings of crimes were far less transgressive. In the black-and-white world of Canadian true crime, readers came away reassured that the forces of law and order would always prevail; that good would always triumph. Readers could take comfort in the fact that the evil that existed emanated from predictable sources: the prideful Indian, the fickle woman, the passionate French Canadian, the greedy American, the oversexed brute – the Other. Thus, in their depictions of both the sinners and their sinful acts, true-crime writers reinscribed the stereotypes of gender, race, sexuality, nation – the keystones of Anglo-Canadian identity.

[FOOTNOTE]

Notes

Partial funding for this project was provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Small Grants Program. A previous version of this article was presented to the History of the Book and Publishing in Canada Open Conference, Simon Fraser University, November 2001, and the Faculty of Law, University of Sydney, November 2001. The authors wish to thank Alison Bashford, Michel Brisebois, George Flie, Carole Gerson, Susan Houston and the Journal of Canadian Studies’ anonymous reviewers.

1. The definition of pulp magazines is elastic. Some scholars opt for a narrow definition and use the term to define small-format fiction magazines published in the 1920s and 1930s on cheap paper,. We have adopted the broader and more inclusive definition used by Lee Server, who argues that pulp magazines dealt with a variety of subjects – both fiction and non-fiction – and remained a prominent part of the North American publishing landscape from the 1890s to the early 1950s (Server 1997, 10).

2. Similarly, scandal sheets, such as Hush and Flash, as well as Montreal’s Ici Montreal, provided information on gay and lesbian sexuality through their coverage of night-life and police raids. See Ross Higgins and Line Chamberland, “Mixed Messages: Gays and Lesbians in Montreal Yellow Papers in the 1950s,” The Challenge of Modernity, ed. Ian McKay (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1992) 422-31.

3. The pulp art collection in the National Library was acquired from enthusiast and collector George Flie in 1997. Several boxes in the collection include such mats. See Box 18A, for example. All publications in this collection are written in English.

4. The hunt motif lent excitement to Northern or wilderness stories in particular. Some critics feared that Fulton’s bill might restrict such pleasures. As one MP put it: “Don’t ban my blood-spitters!” (Smith, Hansard, 14 June 1948, 5,201).

5. Many pulp authors likely used noms de plumes and unscrupulous publishers reprinted stories under different names – to stretch their product and to avoid having to pay an author more than once. Unfortunately there is no way to ascertain the total number of pulp publications or the definitive number of Canadian stories published because the business was volatile (editorial offices moved addresses frequently); because publishers did not maintain systematic records; because of the ephemeral nature of the product and the poor quality of the paper; because the business declined by the 1950s; and because very few Canadian pulps have been collected systematically. The National Library’s collection is acknowledged as the most comprehensive to date (Flie 2001).

6. A sense of how “true” stories varied on matters of fact can be had by comparing Bride’s version of events to that of Margery Hinds. Hinds, a nurse at Port Harrison in northern Quebec in the 1950s, learned of the “arctic crime wave” and came to know one of the principal participants, an Inuit woman called Mina, who was completely absent from Bride’s story. According to Hinds, Mina, along with Charlie Ouyerack and others, became “ecstatic” following a meteor shower. The meteor shower sparked a religious revival among the Inuit. In the course of their “frenzy,” the killings occurred. Hinds’s sympathetic account, written as a memoir and not a true-crime story, was published in The Beaver, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s magazine of northern history (Hinds 1976).

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[COPYRIGHT]

Copyright Trent University Summer 2002

Copyright Trent University Summer 2002

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.

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