The Killing Of Janet Smith (Part One)

This month marks the 96th anniversary of the killing of a young girl from Perth that sent shockwaves around the world. The death of Janet Smith was so notorious, so scandalous, and so controversial, that it stunned the people of Canada for many years. Her death rocked Canadian society, led to long standing political and legal ramifications, and remains the most intriguing and enigmatic unsolved murder in Canadian history.

Yet the story of the nursemaid from Perth in Scotland, who travelled 6,000 miles to meet her grizzly end, is hardly known in her home town. Even though money was raised in Perth, to contribute towards both her memorial in Vancouver and the subsequent investigation into her death, Janet Smith’s name has been largely forgotten in Scotland. Interest in the story was so acute in Perth that news of the drama played out daily in the Perth and Dundee newspapers, thanks to regular telegrams despatched from Vancouver. Attitudes prevalent in the 1920s helped shape public opinion on the case in both Scotland and Canada and almost led to a shocking miscarriage of justice. The drama also reveals uncomfortable truths about racist attitudes prevailing at the time (in both Scotland and Canada) and forced Canadian society to re-examine its own part in the sad affair. Whilst the events were well documented in Canada, we are now able to add to the story, for the first time, details only reported in Scotland and the part played in influencing public opinion by the Scottish Societies in Vancouver. Here then is the tale of Canada’s most infamous unsolved murder.

Janet Kennedy Smith was born on 25th June 1902 at 105 Scott Street in Perth to a family of modest means. Her father, Arthur Mitchell Smith, was employed as a railway fireman at Perth General Railway Station, then later at Garvie and Deas in South Methven Street. Her mother, Johanna, was Norwegian. Despite her mixed heritage the press would later dub her ‘The Scottish Nightingale’. The youngest of six children, Janet grew up in a busy but happy household, where neighbours described her as ‘an exceptionally nice girl, bright and happy, with a sweet disposition. She impressed everyone with her gentleness and kindness.’

After finishing school Janet obtained a certificate to be a nursemaid. At the age of 19 she began to seek employment in that profession, hoping to find a wealthy couple with whom she could enjoy security and perhaps travel. Firstly, she found employment as a nursemaid to Rev. McNaughton in Barnhill, Perth, alongside her sister Mary-Ann, who was already employed there as a cook. Then, in January 1923, Doreen and Frederick Lefevre Baker, a wealthy Scottish/Canadian couple who lived in Kensington advertised and hired Janet to care for their newborn baby. When F. L. Baker’s importing business took the family to Paris, Janet moved with them. Baker was a wealthy man, a former flyer in the Royal Air Force and son-in-law of another Scottish Canadian, General Alexander MacRae, a millionaire lumberman from Ottawa. In October 1923 the Bakers returned to Vancouver and managed to entice Janet to move with them, by the generous offer of a monthly salary of not less than $30 (approximately £850 today) and the guarantee of a return ticket to Scotland, should she not find the country to her liking.

They moved into a house in the city’s fashionable West End, a location that gave Janet access to nearby Stanley Park, where she often took the baby for strolls. Here she found it easy to meet members of Vancouver’s bachelor community. She was taken to the cinema and received gifts of chocolates from admirers. Janet soon developed relationships that ranged from flirtatious to serious.

The Killing Of Janet Smith

Janet (known to her friends as Nettie) kept a detailed diary in which she revealed her musings on her own sexuality and romantic desires. Many of the entries were decidedly melodramatic - ‘Heavenly night, immense moon and nobody nice to love me’; others are cryptic: ‘I suppose I will always play with fire. I expect that is what the fortune teller meant when she said I have the girdle of Venus.’ Since Janet fully intended to return to Britain, she often reproached herself for leading men along, yet also seemed to be concerned with the idea of remaining a respectable girl. Her diary entries reveal her to be a far more complex figure than the ‘young Scotswoman of blameless character’ that the Vancouver press would later construct.

In May 1924 Janet moved with the Bakers into the home of F. L. Baker’s brother, Richard, at 3851 Osler Avenue, in the elite Shaughnessy Heights neighbourhood of Point Grey (then a separate municipality, south of Vancouver). There she worked alongside the Baker’s ‘houseboy’ and servant, Wong Foon Sing. 25-year-old Wong Foon Sing was an immigrant from Hong Kong and a diligent worker who laboured hard in order to send money home to his wife in China. The relationship between Janet Smith and Wong would become the subject of much discussion after her death. Although her friends testified that she feared he would murder her, her diary reveals that Wong gave her intimate presents such as a silk nightdress, was smitten with her, and that she was well aware of the effect she had on him.

On the morning of 26th July 1924 Wong was peeling potatoes in the kitchen when he heard what he thought was a car backfiring. He looked out of the kitchen window into the street but could see nothing, so he decided to go down to the basement to investigate. Here he found Janet Smith lying lifeless on the cement floor next to the ironing board, her head partly underneath the laundry tub, which stood on a plinth. Blood was streaming from a bullet wound in her right temple. Under her arm was the cord from the electric iron, which it appeared had been pulled from the socket as she fell, and come to rest against the right side against her body. A .45 automatic pistol lay near her outstretched hand. According to Wong Foon Sing’s testimony he was the only person in the house (apart from the Baker’s infant son) when the shooting allegedly occurred. Wong telephoned Frederick Baker – who was at work - to report the grisly discovery. Baker in turn contacted the police. Point Grey Police Constable James Green was immediately despatched to the house. On arrival he examined the body (moving it in the process) and noticed burns on her arm and a stain on her finger

Crucially, Police Constable Green picked up the weapon, making it impossible to obtain any fingerprints from it. Despite there being no blood or brain tissue on the walls, no powder burns on her face, and the fact that the back of her head appeared to have suffered some form of blunt force trauma, Constable Green concluded that she had committed suicide. Whilst it appeared that Janet was in the middle of ironing the infant’s clothes, it was conjectured that she had chosen to stop abruptly and, either, suddenly commit suicide or decide to examine the pistol and accidently shoot herself. Any hypothesis made at that time seemingly assumed that the pistol was stored in the basement. However, this assumption transpired to be erroneous as it was later revealed that the gun was hidden in a haversack in the Baker’s attic. Had Janet chosen to suddenly commit suicide, this would have meant her going upstairs, entering the attic, locating the gun (if she was even aware of its existence), before returning to the basement with the gun and then shooting herself. Constable Green also failed to locate the bullet, which may have helped establish the angle of trajectory. This was not discovered until later. Despite these anomalies, at the hurried inquest the Vancouver coroner reported a ‘self-inflicted but accidental death’ after (as the newspapers were anxious to point out) ‘the Chinaman was given the severest of examinations.’ The verdict of accidental death also prevented two fundamental, but crucial, questions from being asked. Firstly, was Janet Smith aware of the presence of the pistol in the house? And secondly, did Wong Foon Sing know Janet was in the basement before hearing the sound of the shot? Or had he merely gone to the basement to investigate the noise?

Undertakers were then summoned, and instructed by both the Point Grey Coroner and the police to embalm the body, therefore eradicating any clues that a post mortem might have yielded, for instance whether Janet Smith had been sexually assaulted. It would later transpire that the undertaker had never before been asked to embalm the victim of a violent death without a post mortem being first carried out. In fact, the undertaker found unexplained burns on Janet Smith's right side, which he assumed where caused by the hot iron landing by her side, but his findings were not reported; as the cause of death was not deemed to be suspicious. After the embalming process, the body of Janet Smith was sent back to the morgue, where Dr. Hunter decided to examine her embalmed corpse. He noted that there was no gunshot residue or burn marks around the entry hole, meaning the gun must have been fired from a distance, making suicide or an accident seemingly impossible.

Constable Green, who had moved the body thereby destroying vital evidence, was suspended, but later reinstated. He also changed his opinion on the cause of death from suicide to accidental death, following the inquest.

Janet Smith was buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver and the sad saga seemed to be at an end. The Baker’s seemed to accept the verdict of accidental death without question and Wong Foon Sing continued in their employ.

The conclusion reached by the inquest, however, was just the beginning.

Several of Janet’s friends, including fellow nursemaids Cissie Jones, Jean Haddowe and Mary Jones, refused to believe the verdict of suicide. They had often meet up with Janet Smith at Angus Park and the nursemaids would regularly push their prams together to Cunningham’s Drug Store on Granville Street for refreshments. Just the previous day, Janet Smith had paid a professional photographer to take a series of portraits of her. Hardly the act of someone about to take their own life. Scottish newspapers also reported that Janet was saving up enough money to travel back to Britain and visit her mother. Neither Cissie or Jean believed that Janet Smith would ever kill herself. Janet was a popular and happy girl and had recently joined the Scots’ Girls of Vancouver Society. Both Cissie and Jean stated that she had been uncomfortable around Wong Foon Sing, who – they claimed - was smitten by the nursemaid. Mary Jones told the authorities that during the course of her conversations with Janet Smith, the dead nursemaid had told her on several occasions that she was ‘annoyed with the Chinese boy’ and that she was ‘so afraid of him.’

The Killing Of Janet Smith

They enlisted the aid of two powerful organisations, the Vancouver United Council of Scottish Societies, and the Presbyterian Church, in the form of leader Reverend Duncan McDougall (who was concerned with the moral perils caused by Chinese immigrants, particularly when directed towards young girls). The Scottish Societies sent telegrams to provincial Attorney General Alexander Malcolm Manson demanding that the case be reopened. Ultimately, however, it was Vancouver Star publisher Victor Wentworth Odlum who provided the impetus to have the case reopened. The Vancouver Star published a series of scandalous stories about the ‘puzzling death’ and apparent bungling by the police which stirred up intense interest; and pointed to Wong Foon Sing as the likely culprit. Odlum was an ‘exclusionist’ who believed that Asians could not assimilate with whites. He had previously stood on an anti-Asian platform in the 1921 federal election. On 8th August, he published an editorial headed ‘Should Chinese Work with White Girls?’ Odlum also publicly called for legislation to ‘preserve white girls of impressionable youth from the unnecessary wiles and villainies of low caste yellow men.’

Other Vancouver papers followed Odlum’s lead and made Janet Smith’s death a cause célèbre. Regular communication from the Canadian Scottish Societies ensured the story received lurid coverage in the Perth and Dundee newspapers.

Mounting public pressure led to the exhumation of her body on 28th August and a second inquest in September. This time a post mortem, carried out by six doctors, revealed causes for concern. These included details of severe trauma to the victim’s head, which were not caused by the bullet wound. A closer examination of Janet’s head revealed that her scalp had been separated from her skull, and her cranium cracked. (The head injury had been originally explained away by assuming that, after she had pulled the trigger, Janet had fallen and hit her head on the laundry tub). It was impossible to ascertain whether the gunshot or head injury had occurred first, partly because of the embalming process and partly due to the passage of time since the incident.

It was also recorded that, in the opinion of the pathologist, the body appeared to have been re-dressed after death. The soles of her feet were matted with blood, yet no corresponding stains were present on the insides of her white canvas shoes. In addition, the burns on the right side of her body (previously presumed to have been caused by the hot iron falling from the ironing board) were not matched by any corresponding scorch marks on her clothing. Had the burn marks on her torso been caused in some other way and the story of the hot iron been manufactured afterwards to explain them away? Could an electric iron really be hot enough to burn the skin, through layers of clothing, without leaving the slightest scorch mark on the victim’s outfit? It is notoriously difficult to dress a corpse and the process usually leaves tell-tale signs. The public in both Vancouver and in Perth waited on tenterhooks for the inquest’s verdict.

The Killing Of Janet Smith