Mother of Sorrows
HOW THE GREAT TORONTO STORK DERBY DESTROYED ONE WOMAN’S LIFE.
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.