The Killing of Janet Smith (Part Two)
The four-day inquest in the killing of Janet Smith recorded the following verdict:
‘We find that Janet K. Smith was on, July 26th 1924, wilfully murdered in the course of her employment in the laundry basement at 3851 Osler Avenue, Vancouver, B.C. by being shot through the head by a revolver, but by whom fired we have no evidence to show. It is regrettable that the reading of picked extracts from the deceased’s diary tended to defame her pure and unsullied memory.’
The Scottish Societies in Vancouver vowed to keep up the pressure on the authorities to find the killer and wrote to the Perthshire Advertiser and Dundee Courier urging them to help keep the case in the public eye. Every effort was made to represent Janet Smith as a pure and innocent girl, while rumour, hearsay and innuendo were used to cast suspicion on Wong Foon Sing. The case attracted worldwide interest, and the Chinese Council in Vancouver reported the matter to the Chinese Government in Pekin (now Beijing).
A murder investigation was launched and Scottish police Inspector Forbes Cruickshank, head of the Vancouver division of the BC Provincial Police, was placed in charge. He in turn contracted private detective Oscar Robinson, instructing him to follow Wong Foon Sing and obtain whatever information he could.
Oscar Robinson tailed Wong to learn his routines and habits, including who he visited in Vancouver’s Chinatown. On the evening of 12th August 1924, Wong stepped off the street- car at the corner of Cordova and Carrall Street, where he had planned to meet two friends. As they were talking, a large black automoblie pulled up, two white men leapt out, and forced Wong into the back of their car.
Wong Foon Sing was sure that he had been grabbed by vigilantes; intent on killing him in retaliation for the death of Janet Smith. He was relieved when, instead, he was taken to Oscar Robinson’s Canadian Detective Bureau on West Hastings Street, where Oscar Robinson and his associates subjected Wong to an intense interrogation. Wong explained that he had already told the police and the inquest everything he knew. Robinson beat him through the night, but Wong’s story did not change and they were forced to release him.
An appeal was launched by the Scottish Societies, across the Atlantic Ocean in Perth, to help raise funds to enable investigators to determine what had happened to ‘the girl from the Old Country.’ Scottish newspapers advised any parents of girls planning to work in Canada not to place them in households where Chinese servants were employed. The Scottish Societies also lobbied Vancouver politician Mary Ellen Smith to introduce legislation to prohibit employers from hiring white women and Orientals as servants in the same household. In November 1924 Mary Ellen Smith introduced the so-called ‘Janet Smith Bill’ (in fact, an amendment to the Women’s and Girls’ Protection Act of 1923), however the bill failed to become law, following concerns over its legality at the British Columbia Legislature.
Despite efforts from the Scottish Societies the case largely disappeared from the newspapers until a shocking event occurred in Shaughnessy Heights. Wong Foon Sing suddenly vanished in March 1925; and newspapers in Canada and in Scotland immediately leapt on this as proof of his guilt. Instead of reporting the fact that he had merely disappeared, Scottish Newspapers carried the headline:
PERTH GIRL’S TRAGIC DEATH: CHINESE SERVANT DISAPPEARS A Chinese servant at the Vancouver house where Janet Smith was murdered has disappeared. It is believed he has been smuggled away to China.
The truth, however, was even more shocking. On 20th March 1925 a group of men dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes arrived at the Baker’s residence and abducted Wong Foon Sing (these men, were later identified as operatives hired by the Scottish Societies, together with some off-duty police constables). The gang tied, gagged and blindfolded Wong, then drove him to a house on West 25th Avenue where, for six weeks, he was chained to the floor and tortured in an attempt to force him to confess, or to provide enough information, to explain Janet Smith’s death. Eventually after six weeks, with Wong still refusing to change his story, he was dumped blindfolded, dazed, battered and disoriented, on Marine Drive. It was now 1st May. It had been rumoured that the police knew of Wong’s incarceration but did nothing, hoping that he would confess.
Unbelievably, Point Grey Police then promptly arrested Wong for the murder of Janet Smith. It appears they may have been ‘tipped off’ to Wong’s location by the kidnappers and driven straight to Marine Drive to detain him. His arrest was reported in Scotland – ‘Chinaman Sent For Trial’. No correction was made for the earlier false assumption that he had been smuggled back to China; instead it was merely noted that ‘Wong said he been kidnapped and that efforts had been made to extort information from him. Police investigations ended in his arrest.’
Despite his obvious injuries from his forced incarceration and torture, Wong was interrogated at length by the police and charged with the murder of Janet Smith. Newspapers in Perthshire reported Wong’s ‘strange story of being kidnapped by five men’ with only a cursory mention of the physical injuries he suffered, which did seem to add credence to his story.
The trial attracted enormous public interest, with the courthouse packed. Women in the gallery (it was reported with some amusement) even brought packed lunches with them, so as not to lose their seat in court during the lunch hour. Wong was defended at trial by John Harold Senkler, a prominent lawyer who had been retained by the Chinese Benevolent Association.
Perhaps the most shocking and disturbing element of the whole trial took place just prior to Wong taking his place in the dock. Mr Alexander Henderson K.C, prosecuting on behalf of the Scottish Societies, insisted that before Wong gave any evidence he must first take the ‘Chicken Oath’. This, he explained to the bemused judge, was the most binding of all Chinese oaths. The performance of the ritual was described to Scottish readers by the Sunday Post as follows:
‘It was a weird ceremony, performed on a field outside the Court, and consisted of reading a statement printed on a yellow piece of paper which, translated into English, means “that, provided he told the truth, he and his children and all descendants would enjoy prosperity and win the pleasures of heaven. If he did not, then might he die in the streets and might a similar fate befall his dear ones.” The paper was then burned, and Wong was handed a cleaver, with which he cut off the head of a chicken to sanctify the oath.’
Wong then took his place in the witness box and categorically denied all the suggestions put to him by the prosecution. He explained the blood on his apron by telling the court that he lifted the dead girl’s head, on finding the body. He also denied ever having made any improper advances on Janet Smith, telling the court that he had always been kind to her.
Although at the original inquest (and subsequently in newspapers) it was widely stated that Wong had given Janet Smith a gift of ‘a nightie and a camisole’, it was not reported until much later that such gifts were, in fact, common among devoted Chinese servants. Wong Foon Sing and the Bakers satisfied the court as to their movements on the day of Janet Smith’s death, and the evidence that her body had been redressed after death added further doubt to Wong’s guilt.
For the first time it was made public that Janet Smith had a sweetheart, Arthur Dawson from Robert’s Creek in British Columbia, who revealed that the couple had planned to marry and that she had never mentioned any doubts about Wong Foon Sing to him, nor had she (to be best of his knowledge) ever handled a gun.
As the trial progressed it became obvious that not a shred of evidence existed to incriminate Wong and finally, in October 1925, the case was thrown out of court.
Three of his kidnappers were imprisoned for their role in the plot to abduct and torture Wong but others, including Point Grey Police Chief John Murdoch, were acquitted. Murdoch was a former sergeant in the Glasgow City Police. The arrested kidnappers all proved to be either police officers involved in the case, members of the Scottish Societies and the editor of a local newspaper. Wong had been able to identify the house in which they had imprisoned him for six weeks. On examination of the house, the floors revealed holes through which chains were placed to hold Wong captive and an improvised scaffold, from which the abductors hanged him in a last-ditch attempt to extract a confession. The revelation of the plot against Wong and his subsequent torture by well known members of the Vancouver Police sent shockwaves through Canadian society.
Following his release from custody Wong (understandably) returned to China, and despite the offer of a $3000 reward by the Chinese Council of Vancouver for information in the killing of Janet Smith, the investigation fizzled out. The police had no further suspects or made little effort to find one. The case remains unsolved to this day.
One of the more popular conspiracy theories that persists in Vancouver, even today, is that Janet Smith actually met her demise at a party held at 3851 Osler Avenue the night before her body was found. Various accounts described a drunken party and drug-fuelled orgy. In author Edward Starkins’ 1984 book Who Killed Janet Smith he described meeting an elderly woman who recounted to him a death bed confession made several years earlier by Jack Nichol (son of former Daily Province publisher and lieutenant governor Walter Nichol). Jack Nichol stated that he had attended the party at 3851 Osler Avenue on the night of 25th July 1924. At the time he had been romantically involved with a girlfriend, who caught him in flagrante with Janet Smith in the bathroom and exploded with jealousy. During the affray that followed, Jack Nichol accidently knocked Janet Smith down, smashing her head on a spigot, and killing her instantly. Her dead body was then dressed and, the following morning, staged to appear like a suicide or accident using the .45 revolver owned and kept by Mr Baker at his house. If this version of events is true, it also implies pre-existing knowledge of the Baker’s gun. Whether the guilty parties assumed that Wong Foon Sing would then be blamed is not known. Jack Nichol died soon after this ‘confession’ and was never charged.
This account was also famously put forward by a self-proclaimed clairvoyant who variously claimed to have attended the same party, both in the flesh and in her visions! Interest in spiritualism and the occult was widespread in the years following the Great War. Many respected and prominent figures in society, including fellow Scot Air Arthur Conan Doyle, had formed ‘scientific’ societies, dedicated to understanding the phenomenon, and any ‘evidence’ from clairvoyants was considered important.
Unknown in Canada at the time, was a story circulated in the Dundee Courier in September 1924 claiming that Arthur Smith (Janet’s father) had received three warnings in the form of visions during the three nights prior to his daughter’s death. He claimed to have seen his daughter struggling for help, surrounded by shadowy figures. The dreams were so remarkable and clear they became imprinted on his mind.
Frederick Baker insisted there was no party of any kind that night at Osler Avenue. He twice sued the Vancouver newspapers denying their claims that he was involved in drug trafficking or the like. However, Baker was, as Scotland Yard records would later reveal, an international drug smuggler; a point which was not known at the time.
The death of Janet Smith, whether by suicide, accident or murder, remains unsolved. The case raised huge and significant public debate in Canada; yet is almost completely unknown in the city of Janet Smith’s birth. The mystery was not mere tabloid fodder but, rather, social drama that led Vancouverites to ask complex and uncomfortable questions about their city, province, and attitudes to race. The various Chinese Associations in Vancouver protested vigorously about the treatment of Wong, but in 1920s Vancouver their voice was not heard or listened to.
Janet Smith’s headstone at Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver was purchased by the United Council of Scottish Societies, partly funded by money raised in Perth.
Even today, it is still rumoured in Vancouver that the ghostly figure of Janet Smith haunts the lush, tree-lined avenues of Shaughnessy Heights. Almost 100 years after her death the story is told nightly to fascinated tourists on the city’s famous ‘Ghost Tours’.
Following the completion of the trial the Scottish Sunday Post published an interview with Arthur Smith and extracts of Janet’s last letter home to her parents, received just two days before her death:
‘I am very happy, my only regret is that I am bit far away from home. But never mind, early next year, mum, I shall have enough for a holiday. Just you and me mum. You’ll love Canada.’