A guest post by Lorna Poplak.
People sometimes ask me how I can write about grim topics like murder, hanging, and hellish jails.
This is a fair question. My two works of non-fiction both explore Canada’s dark history:
Drop Dead: A Horrible History of Hanging in Canada focuses on murder and the death penalty
in the period between Confederation in 1867 and the abolition of capital punishment in 1976, and
The Don: The Story of Toronto’s Infamous Jail examines the origins and evolution of the historic
Don Jail, as well as highlighting the stories of many individuals who wandered through its
unhallowed halls during its 150-plus years of existence. My response to their question is that
when it comes to researching and writing about horrific issues, my mind seems to click into a
different gear. Some kind of professional detachment takes over.
When I was writing Drop Dead, however, I came across one story that got under my skin
and broke through my defences of objectivity and professionalism. I could not bring myself to
tackle it, and it landed with a thunk on the cutting room floor. The case involved the rape and
vicious murder of eight-year-old Philip Goldberg in Toronto in 1920. The perpetrator, Frederick
L. Davis suffered from terminal syphilis. Despite the fact that Davis didn’t have long to live, the
brutal nature of his crime led to a conviction of murder. The penalty for murder at that time was
death; Davis was hanged and buried at the Don Jail. In Drop Dead, the story was peripheral;
with great relief, I simply omitted it.
In The Don, however, the case of Frederick Davis became hugely important, and I found
myself having to re-evaluate that thin line between what may safely be discarded and what is
intrinsic to the development of the narrative.
During a forensic site investigation at the Don Jail launched in 2007, the bodies of 15
men hanged at the jail were exhumed in an area formerly called the “Murderers’ Graveyard.”
This investigation was essential to the narrative arc of the book, and I devoted a whole chapter to
it. The dig revealed that the only body that could be identified without a shadow of a doubt was
that of Frederick L Davis. I realized that his case was so crucial to the unfolding story of the Don
Jail that I just had to include it.
This turned out to be a very sad and quite complex story. It was a case of abused turning
abuser. Davis had himself been sexually molested as a child. And the mental deterioration that
accompanied his disease may well have been a contributing factor to his heinous crime.
My sense of obligation to tackle this grim story in The Don led me to an important
realization about the “cutting room floor”: it is not constant and immutable. What may be
jettisoned in one case can assume great significance in another.
Lorna Poplak is a non-fiction writer, her first book– Drop Dead: A Horrible History of Hanging in Canada a darkly humorous book about crime and punishment in Canada’s first century.
Her latest book THE DON: The Story of Toronto’s Infamous Jail, was published in January 2021.