A Canadian historical novel based on a true story – a murder trial gone wrong, the hanging of an innocent man, and a twenty-year search for the killer.
“The Hanging of Cook Teets,” a song by Larry Jensen and Rob Rolfe based on the trial, can be heard here.
(Online orders available from Amazon)
“An Act of Injustice brings it all home, a study of crime long forgotten but one that should be remembered in this day and age of reversing verdicts of the innocent.” — Andrew Armitage, Owen Sound Sun-Times.
“In An Act of Injustice, Ray Argyle has written a multi-layered combination of murder mystery, love story, and socio-political study, an historical novel rich in detail and complex characters, shedding light on issues that still plague our justice system today.” – Diane Schoemperlen, author of First Things First and This is Not My Life.
“Ray Argyle has created a panoramic and absorbing read in this compelling tale of life in Victorian Canada” — Jeanette Lynes, author of The Factory Voice
“… a wonderfully suspenseful mystery.” — Wayne Grady, Kingston Whig Standard.
“… an author who writes exceptionally fascinating stories on social and cultural change.”— The Globe & Mail.
CAUSE AND EFFECT
November 1, 1883
Leonard Babington settled deeper into his captain’s chair, emitting a slight sigh of satisfaction. Amid all the relics he had acquired on taking over the Vandeleur Chronicle – an ancient printing press, a grimy type cabinet, assorted pieces of well-worn furniture – only the chair gave him comfort. He relaxed against its wrinkled and cracked black leather cushions, taking pleasure from the way they molded to his body, a form as spare and unembellished as the chair itself. He broke off his study of yesterday’s Toronto newspaper – Grave Crisis in Balkans, read its headline – when he heard the click of the latch being lifted to open the front door. It was barely eight o’clock and he hoped his early visitor might be an advertiser come to pay his bill or a reader with subscription money in hand. Leonard unfolded himself from his chair and went into the hallway to welcome the visitor.
Constable John Field, out of breath and looking mournful, stood at the still open doorway. He was not the visitor Leonard had hoped for. Field’s arrival usually signaled a tragedy of some sort – a killing in a beer parlour brawl or possibly a drowning in Georgian Bay.
“There’s trouble at the Leppard place,” Field said. It was clear he regarded this as important news. “Somebody’s tried to poison Rosannah Leppard. I’m going over there now. Want to come with me?”
Leonard’s heart heaved and he felt faint with shock. He tried not to let his face show his alarm. Any trace of agitation would confirm the suspicion no dpubt lurking in Field’s mind that any news of Rosannah Leppard would be of more than passing interest to him.
It was like Field to look for notoriety in everything he did, Leonard thought. The Constable for Artemesia Township, that backwater in the Queen’s Bush of Grey County, was paid only for the days he worked on police business – a dollar fifty a day. Every mention he could get of himself in the Chronicle was a reminder to the men on the township council that he’d been doing his job, well and faithfully.
Leonard had worked for the Toronto Globe before being caught up in a messy situation that cost him his job. He’d worked as a stoker on a Great Lakes steamship and had taken over his hometown Vandeleur Chronicle after its publisher had fallen ill, deep in debt. He struggled to master the tasks of selling advertising, writing up the news, and nursing the old Washington Press that churned out two hundred sheets an hour. On top of all that, he’d had to keep on hand a generous supply of booze to discourage itinerant printers from wandering off after their first payday. He was thin and fair-headed, thirty years old, and lived alone in the estate house his parents had occupied until they’d passed on.
For Leonard, the news Field brought was far more devastating than his usual mournful tidings. The Constable’s brusque announcement reminded him again of Rosannah’s erratic behaviour. There was that foolish marriage she’d made only six weeks ago. Now, he thought, God knows what has happened to her.
Leonard Babington pulled off his ink-stained apron and called out to Tyler Thompson, the printer’s devil he relied on to break up the pages after the printing of each issue. “I’ll go along with the Constable,” he said. “I want you to print up the handbill for the piano teacher and take it to over to the school.”
Constable Field decided it would be quicker to cross the Beaver River by footbridge than take a buggy down the East Back Road and along The Gravel, the name people gave to the Durham Road. On the way, buttoning his canvas jacket against the morning chill, Field explained that Billy Leppard, the youngest of the brood, had been sent to fetch him. They descended the path on the hillside known as Bowles’s Bluff and came to the footbridge. The water was low this late in the fall and Leonard could see fish scudding up the stream, looking for spawning sites. Small islets, not much more than sandbars, housed stunted pine bushes and outgrowths of sweetgrass. They crossed quickly and in half an hour they were at the Leppard place. Field rapped on the cabin’s big wooden door to announce their arrival.
Molly Leppard, Rosannah’s mother, opened the door and silently let them into the cabin’s single room, a space measuring no more than fifteen by twenty feet. Leonard had been there many times but he had never seen it as it was now. The room was crowded and smelled musty, a combination of sweat and dampness from an overnight rain, and stale odours from cooking. A table was littered with dishes and scraps of food. Clothes were scattered on chairs and an empty whisky bottle sat on a cabinet next to some carpenter tools. Molly Leppard, still in her nightdress, motioned the men forward with a vague wave of her hand. Her hair looked stringy and her face pallid against her eyes, red from crying. Leonard recognized Bridget Leppard, Rosannah’s sister, sitting in a rocking chair. Mary Ann Leppard, wife of one of Rosannah’s brothers, stood behind her. Two small children played on the floor. There was a bench along the far wall, and on the floor in front of it, a man sat crumpled up. Leonard recognized him as Rosannah’s husband, Cook Teets. He was muttering to himself. Leonard could barely make out his words. He was repeating, over and over, “She’s gone, she’s gone.” Everyone’s eyes were red from crying.
“Mrs. Leppard, what’s happened here?” Constable Field asked. “How is Rosannah?”
Molly Leppard gestured toward the far side of the room, where a blanket hung from the ceiling partly concealed a washstand and a bed. There was someone in the bed.
“Rosannah’s gone,” Molly said. She held onto the back of a chair as she spoke. “She died this morning, in awful pain. It was like she had taken poison.”
Leonard felt a shiver, followed by more pounding of his heart. He was confused and he hoped that somehow it might turn out that Rosannah was still alive.
“I’ll have to examine the body,” Constable Field announced. Leonard looked over his shoulder as Field lifted the blanket off Rosannah. Her body was arched upward, as if she was trying to lift herself off the bed. The constable bent over her, listened for a heartbeat and finding none, checked her pulse. “Sure enough dead,” he declared.
“I’m going straight to Dr. Christoe,” the Constable announced. Leonard knew that Dr. William Christoe, the coroner, had an office next to the Township Hall in Flesherton. He would tell Field what he must do in a case of suspicious death.
“I don’t want anybody to leave, or touch the body,” Field added.
A half hour later, Leonard was back at the Chronicle and Constable Field was on his way to see the coroner. Leonard learned later that Field had taken Rosannah’s body to Dr. Sproule in Markdale for a post-mortem examination. The coroner had telegraphed Alfred Frost, the Crown attorney in Owen Sound, for instructions. Word came back that an inquest should be held and Dr. Christoe scheduled this for the next morning. He spent the evening rounding up six men. He told them to be at the Township Hall at nine o’clock, prepared to listen to whatever evidence might be presented. It would be up to them to determine what, or who, had caused the death of Rosannah Leppard.
When the inquest jury assembled in the council chamber of the Township Hall, almost every seat was filled in the small public gallery and Leonard Babington had to squeeze into the last vacancy in the front row. The furnace was stoked up against a November chill and before long people began to slip out of their coats. Dr. Christoe called Cook Teets, but he denied any knowledge of the cause of Rosannah’s death. A neighbour, Scarth Tackaberry, claimed he’d seen Cook in possession of a bottle of strychnine, but Cook denied it. That was when the jurymen asked for a break. After huddling in a corner, they announced that no verdict was possible without knowing whether poison had been the “positive cause” of death. Dr. Sproule said he would send Rosannah’s stomach organs to Toronto for examination.
The break in the hearing lasted two weeks. Leonard Babington thought a lot about the case. He was unable to fathom how Cook Teets would want to kill Rosannah Leppard. Nothing like this had ever happened in Vandeleur. To the casual visitor, the village seemed smug and placid, an unlikely place to contemplate the act of murder. Leonard knew better. Vandeleur was as filled with jealousies, family quarrels, and sexual promiscuity as any other town. Having been born here, Leonard absorbed without question the sentiments of his elders in matters of faith, morality, and Protestant respectability. Any public recognition of sex was regarded as a horror, and modesty in women’s dress was insisted on at all times. Neighbours carefully scrutinized each other’s observance of the Sabbath. These traits had to be inculcated early in the young, backed up by stern discipline.
Vandeleur had four churches, an Orange Hall and a cemetery in which Rosannah Leppard was laid to rest three days after her death. There was a schoolhouse from whose flagpole flew the Union Jack. An assortment of blacksmiths, livery stables, and dressmaker and drygoods shops served the village. Its buildings were made of lumber hewed at Jacob Teets’s sawmill, as were the cedar shingles on their roofs. A scent of newly sawn wood and fresh paint could still be detected in the newer stores. They were spaced irregularly along both sides of a quarter mile stretch of the Beaver Valley Road, and most bore false fronts that affected the pretence of a second floor.
Cedar and pine trees surrounded the village and birch and poplars grew in sunlit spaces between the green forest and the road. Twenty-four children were taught, for a time by Leonard Babington, in the one-room schoolhouse of School Section Number Eleven. Leonard was a good teacher despite never having set foot in a classroom, having been entirely home schooled by his parents. Later, he had that stressful and disappointing stretch at the Toronto Globe, before finding himself the proprietor of the Chronicle.
The prominent families, the Babingtons, the Teets, and others attended one of three Protestant churches – Anglican, Methodist, or Presbyterian – leaving the Catholic church to watch over a flock of mostly poor, mostly Irish believers like the Leppards. Mail arrived twice a week at the post office in James Henderson’s general store, everyone’s favourite stopping place. A bucket on the counter was kept filled with whisky. Customers were encouraged to help themselves. People came and went, but the Beaver Valley Road, clinging to the west shoulder of the valley as it made its way to Georgian Bay, was the one constant feature of the place.
Leonard lived next to this notoriously unreliable course. In winter the road was covered with glacier-like sheets of ice and in spring it became mired in gumbo. Often, he had to throw down planks to get his horse and wagon over a treacherous section. Among his earliest memories was being told how neither he nor his mother would have survived his birth had not the husband of a skillful midwife carried her the last hundred yards through the mud to the Babington place. Thomas Kells claimed his wife had birthed most of Vandeleur, but insisted it was he who had given birth to the village. He named it after the Irish estate where he’d worked as a gardener for the Vandeleurs, a Dutch family grown wealthy on trade with Ireland. His story was readily accepted, Vandeleur not being important enough for anyone to argue about its name. This village of six hundred souls had never known notoriety, but Leonard sensed this was about to change.
When the report came back from the medical examiner in Toronto, the coroner, Dr. Christoe, hastily reassembled the inquest jury. He told the jury the presence of strychnine in Rosannah’s organs had definitely been confirmed. It took only a few minutes for the jury to conclude that Cook Teets had used strychnine to “feloniously poison” his wife. Leonard noted there’d been talk of a four thousand dollar insurance policy, of which Cook Teets was the benficiary. Constable Field was dispatched to arrest Cook at his home. He offered no resistance, and Field took his prisoner by train to Owen Sound, where he turned Cook over to the governor of the county jail.
Leonard headed his article THE FATE OF A BRIDE. The crime, he noted, had “sent a tremor of excitement” through the community. His story added that Cook’s possession of the poison, together with the incriminating insurance policy, “supplied the motive for the suspected crime.” But Leonard felt compelled to report that testimony had indicated “strychnine is a poison that generally acts very quickly, producing death in from ten minutes to four hours.” To this fact he dutifully added: “The evidence so far goes to show that Cook Teets was not in the company of his wife for a period of twelve hours or more before her death.”