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June 21 , 2007

Death in the Queen City

Clara Ford on Trial, 1895


A single gunshot on Saturday night, October 6, 1894, shattered Toronto's prevailing sense of peace and security. That gunshot took the life of Frank Westwood, a respectable young man from one of the city's most prominent families. This unprecedented attack produced a feeling of hysteria throughout Toronto and baffled the municipal police forces. The mystery was even referred to Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. However, even the Great Detective could not solve the Westwood murder.

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Finally, a chance rumour led to the most unlikely of suspects – a young Black woman named Clara Ford. She was a most unusual character, a tough, revolver-toting lady who often wore men’s clothing and defied the norms of late Victorian Toronto. While the police increasingly focused their investigation on her, the motives for the killing remained a puzzle. Was Clara seeking revenge for a previous assault, or was she the frustrated lover of a young white man?

The trial of Clara Ford captured Toronto's attention like no other case before it. The evidence revealed a bizarre story of romance and racism. In addition to the wildly unconventional Clara, the cast of characters featured dogged detectives, and wily lawyers who at times seemed to make this cause celebre more of a theatrical than a judicial display.

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