It’s May 25, 1924, and the evening is drawing nigh. You are a senior student at S.S. No. 6 Ops Township, known to locals as “McArthur’s School,” and you have just had supper at Joseph Parrington’s place, down on what is now called Halter Road. You’ve been helping Mr. Parrington with chores since school began, and he has graciously invited you to eat with his family on this calm Sunday night.
You bid adieu to your host, and begin to walk northwards along the roadside. About five minutes into your walk, you hear the loud report of gunfire come from somewhere south of the Parrington place. Silence. A few minutes later, another two shots ring out across the countryside. You begin walking a bit more briskly. Several minutes pass. Suddenly, a touring car appears on the hill behind you. Its driver sounds his horn impatiently. The automobile shoots past, kicking up dust and stones. You know the car. It belongs to Fred McGaughey, a neighbouring farmer. Had you not been half-blinded by the dust, you might have noticed that McGaughey had a passenger beside him. A young lady. A young lady who is now barely clinging to life.
Soon you come within sight of the McGaughey farmhouse. There are lights on in the summer kitchen, out back. Loud voices, angry voices, carry from an open window. You keep walking. A distant siren shatters the stillness. Night passes.
News spreads like wildfire in rural communities. Hours after her death the following day, all and sundry know about Beatrice Fee, the 19 year-old from nearby Omemee who Fred McGaughey riddled with bullets after she turned down his marriage proposal that night – or so folks say. Well-founded rumours circulate about him and Beatrice quarrelling in the former’s laneway over his drinking habits. The story fills the front page of the paper for a week. You read of how Lawrence McGaughey valiantly intervened that night to prevent his older brother from taking his own life. You read of how certain citizens of Omemee, so upset over the situation, are prepared to bring bodily harm to McGaughey in the Victoria County Gaol, where he is incarcerated. You read of how Beatrice Fee urged her family to forgive him: “He was in a drunken rage and did not know what he was doing.” You read of how Leslie Frost, the brilliant young lawyer, has agreed to come to McGaughey’s defence.
Over the summer, the papers busy themselves with covering Lindsay’s Old Home Week, among other matters. But the McGaughey affair is not far from the public consciousness. By early October, the accused is sitting in the prisoner’s dock at the County Courthouse. Hundreds of eyes are glued to him, and to his defence lawyer, Frost – who one day will become Premier of Ontario and later, Chancellor of Trent University.
You’ve been following the case since the beginning. The prosecution insists that Fred McGaughey was a drunken, hardened criminal; selfishly bent on marrying Beatrice Fee against her wishes. Frost, in McGaughey’s defence, has secured the services of three doctors – Beemer, English, and Ryan – to make the case that McGaughey was suffering from “catatonic dementia praecox,” a mental illness that, Frost argues, made him not criminally responsible.
It will all be for naught. “As I walked up to the court room today,” says Frost as the trial nears its end, “I was reminded that the autumn leaves are falling, some are hanging on, others falling early. So it is with us. We must all depart, some early and some late.” Frost’s words are prophetic. The stars are brightly shining on December 4, as McGaughey’s relatives bid him farewell in the Victoria County Gaol. Very early the next morning, Fred McGaughey, age 32, will hang by the neck until dead in the gaol’s courtyard, the last such person to be executed in Lindsay. You think of Frost’s cryptic comments. Two leaves have fallen this year, both in the prime of life…
95 years later. Halter Road is a peaceful place. Horses happily neigh, just footsteps away from the lane in which Fred McGaughey and Beatrice Fee quarrelled moments before their story took a dark turn.
The major players in this tragic tale are all gone. Lawrence McGaughey, who went on to work at Fee Motors, died in 1977, the events of 1924 no doubt haunting him to the end. Those events, says one descendant, were preceded by a tragic backstory of hard times in the McGaughey household. “The father died young with rectal cancer, leaving [Fred] at about age 14 to run the farm,” explains Gail Johnson, whose grandmother was Fred’s older sister. “Money was not plentiful and farming was not easy with no social assistance or supports in those days,” she continues. “No one can know now what emotions were felt or words said, but the outcome was tragic for the people involved and their families for generations to follow.”
95 years later, the McGaughey case remains as relevant as ever. Mental illness, solutions to substance abuse, and efforts to curb gun-related violence are among some of the most pressing challenges facing our decision-makers.
To quote Pete Seeger, “When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn?”