Canada's History

Mother of Sor­rows


- By Joel Fish­bane

How the great Toronto stork derby —— a baby-mak­ing con­test dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion —— de­stroyed one woman’s life.

On a Fe­bru­ary morn­ing, in the mid­dle of the Great De­pres­sion, a red-haired young woman with hazel eyes en­tered a Toronto court­room and con­fessed to a life of adul­tery, pre­mar­i­tal sex, and abuse. Only twenty-five years old, she was of great in­ter­est to both the peo­ple in the gallery and the re­porters sta­tioned out­side, for she was the front-run­ner in a baby-mak­ing com­pe­ti­tion that had be­come a sen­sa­tion in Canada and around the world.

The com­pe­ti­tion was a horse race whose start­ing pis­tol was fired one Sun­day in 1926 af­ter a Toronto lawyer’s fa­tal as­cent of a flight of stairs. Charles Mil­lar had a heart at­tack in his top-floor of­fice, leav­ing be­hind a mem­o­rable will. One re­quest be­queathed shares in a Ro­man Catholic brew­ery to tee­to­taller Protes­tant min­is­ters. But it was the ninth clause that be­came the shot heard around Toronto. Mil­lar had left the residue of his con­sid­er­able es­tate to the “Toronto woman who, in the ten years fol­low­ing my death, has the most chil­dren.” By 1936, the prize would be worth half a mil­lion dol­lars — an amount that would ap­proach nine mil­lion dol­lars to­day. The con­test would take on many names, but the most pop­u­lar was the “Great Toronto Stork Derby.” The race had be­gun.

No sooner did the news­pa­pers re­port on Mil­lar’s will than re­porters be­gan to search Toronto for con­tes­tants. As the Great De­pres­sion set­tled in, any chance, how­ever far-fetched, to boost a fam­ily’s in­come was pur­sued. “By all the in­trin­sic ev­i­dence,” wrote the New York

Times, “a baby derby be­longs un­der the same flag with cross-coun­try der­bies, dance marathons and en­durance flag­pole sit­ters.” Much like those events, the stork derby was the 1930s ver­sion of re­al­ity tele­vi­sion: Here was cheap en­ter­tain­ment that of­fered money to those will­ing to put them­selves in the spot­light. Fame was another in­cen­tive. News­pa­pers pro­filed con­tenders, vaude­ville pro­mot­ers tried to con­script them, and on Broad­way the play Stork Mad tried to take the town by storm. (It didn’t.)

For the pub­lic the con­test may have been akin to flag­pole sit­ting, but for that young woman with the red hair and the hazel eyes it had spi­ralled into some­thing worse. Pauline Clarke found the court­room to be a coli­seum. In it, she faced a reg­i­ment of con­ser­va­tives who were push­ing back against the ris­ing tide of women’s rights.

Born Pauline Mae Ab­bott, the young woman had a happy child­hood that in­volved, ac­cord­ing to the Rochester Jour­nal,

“the clean­est face, the nicest clothes, the best doll car­riage on [the] street.” She was fond of bas­ket­ball and skilled enough at the pi­ano that she al­most pur­sued a grad­u­ate de­gree. In­stead, in De­cem­ber 1927 at age six­teen, she mar­ried George Clarke, a nine­teen-year-old rail­way worker. The rea­son would have been ob­vi­ous at the wed­ding; their son James was born three weeks later.

The hon­ey­moon was brief. The Great De­pres­sion seized the coun­try even as four more daugh­ters ap­peared in the Clarke house­hold. Pauline lost both her par­ents, while George, af­ter be­ing laid off, was hauled be­fore the Do­mes­tic Re­la­tions Court for not sup­port­ing his wife. Pauline also found pa­pers that re­vealed she had been adopted. The dis­cov­ery would have been poignant; by then, Pauline had al­ready given up two of her own chil­dren for adop­tion. She sent her re­main­ing daugh­ters to stay with rel­a­tives, and by 1934 she and George had sep­a­rated. She had another son in May of that year, but the birth cer­tifi­cate stated the father was Harold Madill, a sales­man. Pauline had been liv­ing with another man.

George never filed for di­vorce, prob­a­bly be­cause of the stigma, but pos­si­bly due to hopes of a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion or, more prag­mat­i­cally, due to the cost. Pauline her­self told the Toronto Evening Tele­gram that she couldn’t af­ford a di­vorce. It’s un­likely that the stork derby fac­tored into George’s con­sid­er­a­tion, since Pauline was not a con­tender in 1934 — the news­pa­pers wouldn’t start re­port­ing about her for two more years. By then, she had given birth to two more sets of twins, with only one set still alive; and, although Pauline was liv­ing with Madill dur­ing this time, the ques­tion of the ba­bies’ pa­ter­nity would be one of the cru­cial ques­tions in the years to come. It was as the dead­line for the stork derby ar­rived in Oc­to­ber 1936 that the pub­lic read the first re­ports of this young woman who had birthed ten chil­dren in nine years. Whether Pauline ap­proached the pa­pers or they ap­proached her isn’t clear. In an ef­fort to pro­tect her­self and her chil­dren from scan­dal, she was called Mrs. X; but that nom de guerre didn’t last very long.

Pauline’s his­tory was not ex­tra­or­di­nary for the time. Dozens of fam­i­lies en­tered the stork derby; the front-run­ners all had eight chil­dren or more. The lack of a so­cial safety net left peo­ple de­pen­dent on re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions and char­i­ta­ble or­ga­ni­za­tions, and so­ci­ety was de­ter­mined to en­sure that what so­cial ser­vices did ex­ist weren’t abused. The Toronto Star re­ported that, in 1938, the win­ning moth­ers in the stork derby paid back money they had re­ceived for re­lief and hos­pi­tal­iza­tion.

All of the fam­i­lies en­dured poverty, dis­ease, and fa­tal­i­ties; the son of one derby hope­ful died af­ter he was bit­ten by a rat. One of the prob­lems for fam­i­lies was the strict laws re­gard­ing con­tra­cep­tion. Pauline was sex­u­ally ig­no­rant and had no way to fore­stall preg­nan­cies she could not af­ford. “Did you ever fig­ure out how much it costs to keep one­self and five young chil­dren?” she asked. “I cov­ered pages with fig­ures and with tears,” she told the Rochester Jour­nal in Oc­to­ber 1936.

Ac­tivists in Eng­land and the United States were fighting laws that pro­hib­ited con­tra­cep­tion, but, un­til the 1937 Eastview birth con­trol trial, there hadn’t been much of a bat­tle on the Cana­dian front. It’s no­table that the Eastview case was held in Ot­tawa; Pauline’s Toronto was a pu­ri­tan­i­cal place. Known as “Toronto the Good,” it was a city where Sun­days were a lan­guid time of closed shops and shut­tered win­dows. Work on the Sab­bath was so un­ac­cept­able that the el­e­va­tors in Charles Mil­lar’s build­ing didn’t run, no doubt con­tribut­ing to the lawyer’s death. He had be­come ex­hausted af­ter be­ing forced to take the stairs. The Rus­sian-Amer­i­can an­ar­chist Emma Gold­man, her­self pro-birth con­trol, re­marked that in Toronto “the pub­lic and univer­sity li­braries [were] to­tally lack­ing in mod­ern works on the so­cial, ed­u­ca­tional and psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems.”

Girls were born into a world where their lives were pre­or­dained. “With few ex­cep­tions,” writes his­to­rian Vic­to­ria Strong-Boag, “fe­male Cana­di­ans were en­gaged from birth in a se­ries of re­la­tion­ships that fi­nally sub­or­di­nated them and their in­ter­ests to male pre­rog­a­tives.” The stork derby took place at a time when work­ing women were ac­cused of steal­ing jobs from men and mar­ried women were banned from city em­ploy­ment. A woman with­out chil­dren might be a traitor to her sex, but a woman with too many chil­dren might find her­self un­able to care for them.

These con­di­tions not only af­fected Pauline but also in­flu­enced the stork derby it­self. Mil­lar had ex­pressed his an­tipa­thy to­ward On­tario’s con­tra­cep­tion laws. J. Willis West, writ­ing in The Bri­tish Columbia His­tor­i­cal Quar­terly, sug­gests Mil­lar’s in­tent was to “so out­rage the moral sense of the good peo­ple of Toronto ... that re­forms would quickly fol­low.” If this in­ter­pre­ta­tion is true, then Mil­lar would have been pleased by the re­ac­tion to his will. In 1932, On­tario’s At­tor­ney Gen­eral tried to have Mil­lar’s es­tate put un­der pro­vin­cial con­trol. When that failed, Mil­lar’s cousins con­tested the will on the grounds that it was im­moral. Mil­lar had spec­i­fied that his es­tate should con­sider all chil­dren reg­is­tered un­der the Vi­tal Sta­tis­tics Act. The act, how­ever, per­mit­ted the reg­is­tra­tion of so-called il­le­git­i­mate chil­dren; and, since the will did not state that the moth­ers had to be mar­ried, Mil­lar’s cousins ar­gued that the con­test in­tended to re­ward peo­ple of du­bi­ous char­ac­ter.

Chil­dren born out­side of mar­riage had long rep­re­sented dis­hon­our, and for cen­turies the doc­trine of fil­ius nul­lius meant they were not rec­og­nized by the law. The doc­trine pre­dated Shake­speare; in King Lear, the il­le­git­i­mate Ed­mund de­cries the fact that he stands “in the plague of cus­tom” that de­prives him of his father’s prop­erty. Like­wise in Canada, chil­dren deemed il­le­git­i­mate had no stand­ing in court to de­mand the rights af­forded to

chil­dren born into mar­riage. Yet by 1937 the pol­icy had be­come so out­dated that the Yale Law Jour­nal pro­claimed, “leg­is­la­tion al­le­vi­at­ing the lot of the bas­tard child at com­mon law has be­come al­most universal.” The jour­nal noted a sin­gu­lar ex­cep­tion: a judg­ment by one Wil­liam Mid­dle­ton, the judge who ruled on the va­lid­ity of Charles Mil­lar’s will. Mid­dle­ton could have de­cided that re­ward­ing un­wed moth­ers was not nec­es­sar­ily against pub­lic morals, just as the judge in the Eastview trial, who ruled around the same time, de­clared that con­tra­cep­tion was in the in­ter­est of the pub­lic good. But Mid­dle­ton wasn’t in­ter­ested in set­ting new prece­dent. He agreed with the the­sis that chil­dren born to un­wed par­ents were an abom­i­na­tion and saved the will by pro­claim­ing that Mil­lar, as a lawyer, must have in­tended to use the word “chil­dren” in the re­stricted sense.

Pauline Clarke should have been out of the race. Yet there she was on that cold morn­ing in Fe­bru­ary of 1938, tes­ti­fy­ing to the lurid facts of her pri­vate life. Her ar­gu­ment was sim­ple: Although she had been liv­ing with another man, there was no proof her chil­dren were not her hus­band’s. Isi­dore Hell­muth, one of the lawyers who tried to chal­lenge the will, had de­clared that “there is noth­ing to pre­vent an un­mar­ried woman from en­ter­ing the race, pro­vided she could bear the shame.” Tech­ni­cally, Pauline was not un­mar­ried; she had de­cided to bear an en­tirely dif­fer­ent stigma.

Pauline’s lawyers were C.R. McKeown and fu­ture Supreme Court Jus­tice John Cartwright. Their strat­egy re­lied on le­gal word­play. Le­gal prece­dent held that all chil­dren were le­gal un­less it could be proved that the spouses had been apart. Since this could not be proved, they ar­gued, Pauline’s chil­dren were pre­sumed le­git­i­mate.

Pauline was be­tween a hard place and a harder one: Ei­ther she was the mother of five il­le­git­i­mates or she was a pro­mis­cu­ous woman who had lived with one man but slept with two. She chose the lat­ter course. “I ex­pected a lot of un­kind things would be said about me,” she said, “but I love my chil­dren too much to for­feit this chance of se­cur­ing their fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence.” She was also se­cur­ing their le­gal stand­ing. If the court found in her favour, she could save her chil­dren from dis­grace.

In 1924, a case in the Bri­tish courts known as Rus­sell v. Rus­sell re­sulted in a rul­ing that spouses couldn’t dele­git­imize a child born af­ter wed­lock merely through their own tes­ti­mony. The rul­ing pre­vented spite­ful spouses from declar­ing chil­dren il­le­git­i­mate in or­der to deny them in­her­i­tances. Since Cana­dian law was based on Bri­tish prece­dents, the re­sult was that George Clarke could not be sum­moned to give “ev­i­dence of non-ac­cess.” To go around this pro­vi­sion, Pauline’s lawyers sub­poe­naed Harold Madill. By then, Pauline and Madill were no longer to­gether. The sales­man had turned out to be a shady fig­ure who ad­mit­ted to giv­ing her a black eye and break­ing down her door af­ter he thought she was with another man. Pauline claimed she only put his name on the birth cer­tifi­cates un­der duress, while Madill told a du­bi­ous story about a “bar­gain” to split the stork derby prize. When called upon to pro­duce writ­ten proof, he said it was lost. The rev­e­la­tion that Pauline, in ad­di­tion to her other trau­mas, was also a vic­tim of do­mes­tic abuse brought lit­tle sym­pa­thy. There was dis­dain for her life­style, but it was also an era when spousal vi­o­lence was con­sid­ered a pri­vate, rather than a le­gal, con­cern.

Pauline was an or­phan, an abused woman, and a mother of ten chil­dren, two of whom were dead. Now, af­ter a decade of fi­nan­cial and emo­tional hu­mil­i­a­tion, she was also the cen­tre of a le­gal cir­cus, swear­ing to a polyamorou­s life in a city known as Toronto the Good. Her des­per­a­tion could only have been acute. But her ef­forts were in vain. Mid­dle­ton ruled that the chil­dren were il­le­git­i­mate.

It would have ended there if not for the lawyers. Cartwright was awarded only par­tial costs, and this may have been what urged him to per­suade Pauline to ap­peal. They weren’t alone. Through­out Pauline’s trial, Mid­dle­ton had also been set­tling the ques­tion as to whether a still­born child met the le­gal def­i­ni­tion of a child un­der the terms of Mil­lar’s will. In rul­ing that “a still­born child is a thing,” he ren­dered another con­tender, Lil­lian Ken­ney (who had birthed an as­tound­ing eleven chil­dren) in­el­i­gi­ble for the stork derby prize. Ken­ney’s lawyer joined with Cartwright, and to­gether they took a gamble and won. In March 1937, Pauline ac­cepted a set­tle­ment of $12,500, about $212,000 to­day. By con­trast, Mil­lar’s es­tate was di­vided among four other fam­i­lies, each of whom re­ceived about $100,000 (or $1.6 mil­lion to­day).

The me­dia, which con­tin­ued to re­late the fate of the other stork derby par­tic­i­pants, rarely men­tioned Pauline Clarke again. Writ­ing in 1941, his­to­rian and au­thor Ed­win Guil­let cited gos­sip sug­gest­ing that she had run off to Detroit. This story was re­peated, and forty years later au­thor Mark Orkin, who wrote a his­tory of the event in 1981, breezily re­ported that Pauline left town with “her looks, her self-pos­ses­sion, and twelve and a half thou­sand dol­lars.”

Her di­vorce records sug­gest a sad­der tale. If Pauline had kept the stork derby money for her­self, it seems likely that George Clarke would have men­tioned it in his state­ment of claim. But the claim, filed in 1941, cited only her adul­tery. Nei­ther Madill nor Pauline ap­peared in court dur­ing the di­vorce pro­ceed­ing. Madill was serv­ing in the Sec­ond World War — records aren’t clear on his ex­act role — while Pauline’s lawyer told the court that she was in hid­ing “due to the wide­spread news­pa­per pub­lic­ity and the fact that she had dis­closed dur­ing the Mil­lar will pro­ceed­ings that six of her chil­dren were il­le­git­i­mate.” The lawyer would say only that Pauline was in Bri­tish Columbia and that he had in­struc­tions not to ob­ject to a di­vorce.

The dis­missal of Pauline’s claim rep­re­sented a suc­cess­ful ef­fort to main­tain con­ser­va­tive moral­ity dur­ing a time when ideas about re­pro­duc­tive rights were beginning to change. De­spite the march of progress seen in the Eastview case and be­yond, court­rooms and news­pa­pers were run by men who were de­ter­mined to cham­pion the sta­tus quo. Were it not for their moral right­eous­ness, Pauline might have had a very dif­fer­ent fate. She lived in an era of change, but her great mis­for­tune was to be trapped be­hind the curve.

Once the stork derby ended, the news­pa­pers moved on to other events, leav­ing the story of Pauline Clarke with­out a sat­is­fy­ing end. There are no let­ters or di­aries. The court tran­scripts are gone, leav­ing only news­pa­per ar­ti­cles as the record of her tes­ti­mony. In a way, Pauline is ab­sent from her own story. Like so many women of the past, her life was de­ter­mined by a pa­rade of men — from the ones who loved her to the one who left a will that changed her life. We have only a hand­ful of facts with which to piece to­gether who she was.

In his rul­ing, Mid­dle­ton sug­gested that Pauline was a plot­ter who turned her back on her chil­dren. It was an un­fair as­sess­ment of a woman who had given up two chil­dren for adop­tion and who al­ways ar­ranged for the care of the others. She sac­ri­ficed her­self in that court­room in the hope of en­sur­ing that her fam­ily did not pay a so­cial price for her be­hav­iour. It was a goal she was still try­ing to achieve in 1941, when her lawyer told the courts that she hoped the di­vorce “would put her in a po­si­tion to le­git­imize the birth of her chil­dren.” Ex­actly how she might have ac­com­plished this is un­clear. Af­ter en­dur­ing the un­re­lent­ing spot­light of the stork derby, Pauline slipped out of pub­lic view. But her lawyer’s re­mark sug­gests that, what­ever her fate, Pauline Clarke’s chil­dren al­ways re­mained clos­est to her heart.

 ??  ?? Pauline Clarke was a re­luc­tant en­trant in a De­pres­sion-era con­test to see which Toronto woman could pro­duce the most chil­dren. 32
Pauline Clarke was a re­luc­tant en­trant in a De­pres­sion-era con­test to see which Toronto woman could pro­duce the most chil­dren. 32
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 ??  ?? Above: The stork derby made news all over North Amer­ica. Right: Charles Vance Mil­lar, in­sti­ga­tor of the stork derby. Far right: The Carter fam­ily, en­trants in the derby. Be­low: The Na­gle fam­ily, with twelve chil­dren un­der the age of fif­teen.
Above: The stork derby made news all over North Amer­ica. Right: Charles Vance Mil­lar, in­sti­ga­tor of the stork derby. Far right: The Carter fam­ily, en­trants in the derby. Be­low: The Na­gle fam­ily, with twelve chil­dren un­der the age of fif­teen.
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 ??  ?? A crowd peers through the fence around Os­goode Hall in Toronto on Novem­ber 3, 1936. The on­look­ers were try­ing to catch a glimpse of con­tes­tants ar­riv­ing to present their case for win­ning the stork derby prize.
A crowd peers through the fence around Os­goode Hall in Toronto on Novem­ber 3, 1936. The on­look­ers were try­ing to catch a glimpse of con­tes­tants ar­riv­ing to present their case for win­ning the stork derby prize.

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