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Chapter LIII


from Memoirs of a great detective:
incidents in the life of John Wilson Murray

compiled by Victor Speer

THE lady of the piercing black eyes crossed Murray's path in 1891. She was an amazon, and Murray avers she was a virago as well. Her maiden name was Nettie Slack, and her cradle was rocked in the county of Perth. As a young girl she was famed for her jet-black eyes and raven-black hair, the eyes as shiny as the hair was glossy.

   "She grew to superb womanhood," says Murray. "She was very tall, very muscular, with big, broad shoulders and swinging tread, and the mien of a powerful man. Her piercing black eyes were wicked looking, and there were few men in the county of Perth who ventured to cross humours with Nettie Slack. She was rather a good-looking woman. Her eyes enhanced her attractiveness and yet seemed to mar her beauty. This may seem a paradox, yet in the case of Nettie Slack it was perfectly true. She was one of those big, sturdy, almost burly, women who remind you of reincarnated creatures of ancient times, as if some of the white statues had turned to flesh and blood, with jet black tresses and adornings. As I looked at her the first time, I thought, 'What a ploughman you would make! What a woodman you would be!'

   "She married. Her husband was her cousin, Thomas Blake Carruthers, a quiet, inoffensive young man, a prosperous farmer, who lived near St. Mary's, in the county of Perth. Nettie Slack was not exactly quiet, and in other ways she differed from her husband. They had two children, and Tom Carruthers was a good father. He managed his stalwart wife, too, and all seemed serene on the Carruthers' farm. One day old Grandpa Fotheringham, who was rich and lived in the township of Blanchard, county of Perth, died and left a goodly sum to his grandson, young Fotheringham, who knew Nettie Slack, and had gazed into her piercing black eyes. Young Fotheringham called on Nettie Slack after her marriage, and, of course, the gossips had their busy buzzings over the woman with the piercing black eyes and the man with his grandfather's money. I could have pictured Nettie Slack, if she had heard this gossip, sallying forth with a flail and belabouring the backs of all the busybodies. The reports of alleged improprieties between Nettie Slack and young Fotheringham continued, and finally Tom Carruthers was said to have twitted his wife about it, while she flamed in fury, with her jet-black eyes ablaze.

   "Young Fotheringham took his money and went up on the Rainy River, in the wilds of the western part of this Province, and started a saw-mill. Then he returned to the county of Perth and saw Tom Blake Carruthers and told him that on the Rainy River was the place to live, with the money flowing in. Fotheringham induced Carruthers to sell his farm and move out to the Rainy River and build a house and work in the saw-mill. Nettie Slack Carruthers and the two little children, one four and the other two years old, accompanied Tom. They built a house near the mill and Carruthers worked in the mill. Nettie Slack kept house for Tom, and assisted a Mrs. Walt in the care of Fotheringham's home. Mrs. Walt said Nettie Slack was more like a visitor than a housekeeper. Fotheringham was unmarried. These conditions continued until January 1891. On the morning of January 3rd two shots resounded, and Nettie Slack rushed out of her house, shouting: 'Tom is dead! Tom is dead!' She wrung her hands, and told those who came running to the house that she was down at the river after a pail of water when she heard the shots and ran up and found her husband dead on the floor. She had left him writing at a table. She was the principal witness at the inquest, and the coroner's jury brought in an open verdict.

   "It was over two hundred miles to civilisation. There were no roads; only a dog trail in winter. But after the inquest Nettie Slack took her two children and started out with the mail carrier to get away from Rainy River. She slept out four nights in the snowbanks, and finally arrived at Rat Portage, where she took the train for her old home near St. Mary's, in the county of Perth. After navigation opened in the spring, people in the Rainy River district began to talk, and in July 1891 I went up to Rainy River. I had the body of Tom Carruthers exhumed and a post mortem made, and had the head cut off. The moment I saw where the two bullets entered the skull I knew it was not suicide but murder. One had entered well around at the back of the head, behind the right ear. The other entered the left temple. The doctor showed that either would have caused death as it crashed into the brain, and I saw clearly that Tom Carruthers never shot himself in the back of the head, behind the right ear, and also in the left temple.

   "Nettie Slack had said her husband had written a note of farewell as he sat at the table while she was out after a pail of water. I obtained this note. It read:


  "'I was heartbroken and tired of life and decided to end the awful conflict. Good-bye.


   "I obtained specimens of Nettie Slack's handwriting. It was just as I suspected. The farewell note was a clumsy forgery written by her. I had this note photographed. I got the 38 calibre revolver. Tom was supposed to have written the farewell and then to have shot himself twice in the head and to have fallen dead on the floor beside the table. He fell dead, but the shots were fired by another. I returned to Rat Portage and laid an information against Nettie Slack Carruthers, and obtained a warrant for her arrest. I was on my way to St. Mary's when I learned she was in Toronto, and I arrested Nettie Slack Carruthers at the house of a Mrs. Walsh, and took her back to Rat Portage and locked her up. Her brothers were well-to-do, and they went to Rat Portage and saw her, and then engaged B.B. Osler, the foremost counsel in Canada, to defend her. The preliminary examination extended over a week, and Mrs. Carruthers was committed to the Port Arthur gaol for trial. All concerned knew a big legal battle would follow.

   "I talked with the five-year-old child.

   "'Popy shot himself; Popy shot himself,' the tot would repeat over and over.

   "'Who told you to say that?' I asked.

   "'Mammy,' said the child, and it began afresh, 'Popy shot himself; Popy shot himself.'

   "Justice Armour presided at the trial. R.C. Clute prosecuted, and B.B. Osler defended. The trial did not come on until June 1892. In the meantime, Nettie Slack's sister, a nice-looking girl, had gone to Port Arthur and stayed at the house of a merchant. Nettie Slack, in her girlhood, had played the organ in the country church near St. Mary's, and her sister had an organ sent to the gaol and Nettie Slack played sacred music and sang hymns day after day. The men for jurors were selected by the sheriff and through some mistake the merchant, at whose house Nettie Slack's sister stayed, was drawn as a juror along with others inclined to be friendly to the prisoner.

   "I had handwriting experts to prove the farewell note a forgery. The wily Osler admitted the letter was a forgery, and turning to the jury he exclaimed: 'What would a poor woman do in a strange country but look for an excuse to defend herself from an unjust accusation that might be made?' He was a great lawyer and a resourceful advocate, was Osler. I produced the skull and showed to the jury how impossible it was for Carruthers to have shot himself where the two bullets entered the head. Dr. Macdonnell had the skull in charge and it slipped and fell on the table and rolled to the floor. Nettie Slack laughed. Osler saw her, and quick as a flash he opened out his long gown like a curtain and stood so that the jury could not see her. Then he walked back to the box with his gown open and said:

   "'You villain! It's crying you should be instead of laughing! You deserve to be hung!'

   "I heard him. Straightway Nettie Slack wept.

   "'That's better,' said Osler, and he drew in his gown.

   "Osler and I often talked of this afterwards.

   "One of the witnesses was a woodman, named Cameron. He stumbled and mumbled and hesitated in his testimony, evidently having a wholesome regard for Nettie Slack's powerful physique. The virago eyed him. Mr. Clute asked Cameron if Mrs. Carruthers had shown any signs of grief over her dead husband.

   "'I — I — well,' mumbled the reluctant Cameron, 'I don't think so.'

   Up spoke the woman.

   "'Say yes, Cameron,' she said. 'You know you saw me kissing the body.'

   "I proved where a spot of blood, some distance from the table and the body, had been washed up, but not sufficiently to obliterate the traces of it. I showed the woman was a clever shot with the pistol. I showed that Fotheringham was not near the house at the time, and that no one but Tom and the woman and the two tots were there. Tom and the tots could not have done the shooting. The charge of Justice Armour emphasised this and clearly indicated who was guilty. The jury had a hard tussle, but the friends stood fast. Mrs. Carruthers was acquitted on Saturday, June 11th, 1892. She came down from Port Arthur on the same boat I did. She spied me on deck and came over to me.

   "'Well, Murray, you didn't hang me after all,' she said.

   "'I don't hang anybody,' said I.

   "She looked at me and smiled.

   "'You were pretty decent,' she said, 'but that old rowdedow of a judge tried to put the black cap on me right in court.'

   "After the verdict Justice Armour had said to the jurors that their verdict was not consistent with the evidence, and had said to the woman: 'Prisoner, you are acquitted; I hope your conscience is acquitted.' The woman sneered.

   "'Murray, life's sweet, but it isn't worth much without liberty,' she said, as she sniffed the air aboard boat, after almost a year in gaol.

   "I watched her as she stood there, her eyes flashing, her bosom heaving, a towering creature stirred by a sight of water, land, and sky.

   "'Murray,' she said, suddenly, tensely, 'it was worth it.'

   "'What was worth what?' I said.

   "She laughed; then her face, for once, seemed to become almost sad.

   "'I mean the year in gaol,' she said. 'A whole year out of my life.'

   "She looked full at me, then walked away. It was my last glimpse of the lady with the piercing black eyes."

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