Did Florence Kinrade get away with murdering her sister?
A new book takes another look at the legendary case
Just off the winding access road in Section N of Hamilton Cemetery, there’s a weathered footstone that is losing a 110-year battle with the ground around it.
Instead of “Ethel Caroline,” the sinking slab is also missing a couple of letters, saying “thel Caroline 18841909,” and the big Kinrade family monument behind it features an angel sculpture with a dislodged hand.
But the biggest thing missing is justice in the shooting of Ethel Caroline Kinrade, who died in February 1909 in the dining room of her upscale home at 105 Herkimer St.
They say more than 1,000 onlookers surrounded the
grave as they lowered the 25-year-old woman’s body in what became one of the city’s most sensational homicide investigations.
Initially, the killing was blamed on sketchy “tramps” who would ride railway cars to the city in huge numbers at the time. They’d go door to door bumming money and food.
But attention eventually shifted to Ethel’s 23-year-old sister, Florence. She was a church soloist at MacNab Street’s Centenary Church’s choir and engaged to a clergyman’s son. By appearances, she lived the graceful life of a wealthy housing developer’s daughter.
But an inquest into Ethel’s death revealed there was more to “Flossie’s” life. In travels to Virginia, purportedly to sing in churches, she actually worked as a vaudeville showgirl and had an American boyfriend named James Baum.
She insisted a tramp with a moustache and a black hat came to the door asking for food and money.
While she was getting $10 for the man, she claimed, he worked his way into the house and had a confrontation with Ethel, leaving her dead on the floor.
Florence led police investigators, and the inquest, through differing versions of her story, giving contradictory details about where she was when the seven shots rang out. No weapon was ever found.
Police could never assemble enough evidence to lay a charge against anyone, and it remains a cold case today.
“It’s an amazing story, I have been on it for more than 30 years,” says Frank Jones, 81, the author of the new book “Florence Kinrade — the Lizzie Borden of the North.”
“Florence Kinrade was Canada’s Lizzie Borden,” he says.
Borden was a New England spinster who was suspected but never convicted of killing her father and stepmother with an axe in 1892.
“Like Lizzie,” Jones says, “Florence would never be able to shake off suspicion that she had committed a murder so brutal.”
Jones first heard about the Kinrade case in 1987 while working as a reporter for the Toronto Star.
He put together a two-part series of articles in 1988 saying, “I’ve travelled far and wide tracking down members of the Kinrade family, and uncovering new material. Is it too late, 80 years after the crime, to come up with a solution?
“When you’ve read my findings this week and next in the Sunday Star, you may not think so.”
That work developed into a book project that eventually got shelved. But this year the manuscript was dusted off, revised and published by Calgary-based publisher Durvile Publications.
Jones contends the case is even more fascinating than the infamous Evelyn Dick torso murder in 1946. In that homicide, Evelyn’s husband John’s body was found on the side of Hamilton Mountain without legs, arms or a head.
Evelyn was convicted and sentenced to hang, but won an appeal. However, police, during the investigation, found a baby’s body in concrete in a suitcase.
She was convicted of that killing, serving 11 years in penitentiary. But the killing of husband John remains unsolved, with the community strongly suspecting Evelyn had some involvement in it.
“I have to say that Florence is more interesting because her story uncovers so much social history,” says Jones.
Evelyn Dick was awful and brutal but, Jones writes that the Kinrade story “tells us a lot about the obstacles an ambitious young singer from a middle-class family faced in
seeking a career in — horrors! — vaudeville. It tells us about a forgotten underclass — the thousands of tramps who rode the rails of North America in that era and who were often the first to be suspected when a crime occurred. And it also tells the story of a formidable woman who was as resilient as she was devious and was, quite simply, Canada’s Lizzie Borden.”
Jones tracked down a nephew and Florence’s daughter and gained access to weeks of inquest testimony as well as psychiatric reports.
But there was no chance for him to talk to Florence. She died in August 1977 and was buried in a cemetery in Hollywood close to the graves of show business heroes such as Rudolph Valentino, Edward G. Robinson, Tyrone Power, Marion Davies and Eleanor Powell.
“My biggest stroke of luck was finding her daughter (who has also since died). She was going by the name of Geraldine and also became a show girl.”
Geraldine spent most of her life not knowing about her aunt’s death, until one day the story came gushing out of her mother after a family funeral.
Jones quotes “Gerry” as saying, “She told me Ethel was upstairs and she was downstairs, just the two of them were home, and somebody came in the front door and went half way up the stairs and then she heard a shot.”
And then out of the blue, Florence asked “Do you think I did it?”
“But Gerry didn’t follow up and ask ‘Well, did you?’ But I think the answer is there in the question. You don’t ask ‘Do you think I did it?’ If you didn’t do it.
“I think Florence saw Ethel as the main obstacle to her having a career in showbiz. Ethel was prim and proper and did not like what her sister was doing.”
Ethel could have intercepted letters from the Florence’s American boyfriend, Jones said.
“It seems strange that Florence would do something so strange and terrible, and the only explanation I have is that Florence might have thought that it would break the logjam. Once the awful thing was done, she could go back to Jimmy Baum,” Jones said.
“Florence didn’t give an inch at the inquest. She denied everything and in the end, the jury found Ethel died of bullet wounds from person unknown.”
Police had faint hope that a clue would surface from the demolition of the house on Herkimer Street in 1967. The home was cleared to make way for a nine-storey apartment building. But no gun or any other useful evidence was found.
So 110 years later, it remains the coldest of cases with only a few reminders in Hamilton that it ever happened.
There are the weathered family markers at Hamilton Cemetery and also a street that bears the name Kinrade.
Kinrade Avenue, just west of Sherman Avenue North, is actually named after the father, Thomas Kinrade. He was seen to be an upstanding citizen who built numerous houses in the city as well as working as a school principal.
But it’s also a reminder of the social status the family had and how preserving that status might have been the reason behind a rift in the family and the death of his eldest daughter.
Author Frank Jones visits the Kinrade family monument in Hamilton Cemetery. He initially learned of the 1909 murder of Ethel Kinrade when he was a Toronto Star reporter in the 1980s.
Florence Kinrade, sister of 1909 murder victim Ethel Kinrade. Florence, who grew up in an upper-middle class home on Herkimer Street in Hamilton, lived a double life as a vaudeville show girl. Many believe she shot her sister, but the police were not able to gather enough evidence to lay a charge. More than a century later, the sensational homicide remains unsolved and is the subject of a new book by noted crime writer Frank Jones.
The worn grave marker of Ethel Kinrade in Hamilton Cemetery.
Florence Kinrade continually changed her story about how her sister died.
The Kinrade house on Herkimer Street, just west of Bay. That’s Ethel standing at centre.