KRAMER, Reinhold; MITCHELL, Tom. Walk Towards the Gallows: The Tragedy of Hilda Blake, Hanged 1899. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 2002. 318p. Resenha de: SENGER, Elizabeth. Canadian Social Studies, v.39, n.2, p., 2005.
Walk Towards the Gallows is a tragic story of murder, but much more significantly, it is a commentary on social practices and society of the late 19th century. While the legal facts of this case of murder are presented, even more pertinent personal and social facts are presented about this young woman, Hilda Blake, and how she found herself in a situation where she ended up committing murder.
A question that this book repeatedly raises is Can history every truly be known? While the authors attempt to set a clear context of historical time and place, this work is rife with questions and suppositions. Rather than confusing us as readers, however, these tactics lead us in to the lamentable story of Hilda Blake, and encourage us to, in turn, question what we know of our own reality. Walk Towards the Gallows is a captivating, thought provoking work which offers an illuminating insight into Canadian society, and broader perspectives on what makes people behave the way they do.
According to Kramer and Mitchell, it was common in the late 1800s for England to send destitute orphans to Canada so that the British government would not be responsible for their maintenance, and so that members of Canadian society could benefit from cheap, if not free, labor. The officials at the time appealed to the recipients with claims of Christian charity [and] inexpensive labor (p. 17). These claims deluded people into believing that they were helping the poor orphans, and made them willing to accept the orphans so they could realize some financial gain. This policy, given the euphemism of assisted emigration (p. 12) was at best exploitation, and at worst it was outright slavery.
Hilda’s story was fairly typical of children in her predicament. She came to Canada at the age of ten and worked in a variety of homes as a domestic servant. Since she was seen as an inferior, not very intelligent young girl, she naturally encountered conflict in her young life. Removed unwillingly from England, the only home she had ever known, she was shuffled from one unfortunate situation to the next. She ran away twice in her first eighteen months at the first farm in Manitoba where she was placed. She fled to a kindly neighbor, but soon became disillusioned there, changed her mind, and asked to go back to the original family. By the age of 16 Hilda entertained thoughts of suicide (p. 62).
Several themes run through Walk Towards the Gallows. On one level, this is a brief history of the newly emergent country of Canada in the late 1800s. Kramer and Mitchell provide detailed descriptions of the land, agricultural business, the state of immigration, and even the Riel Rebellion of 1885. On another level they provide insight into the Victorian values prevalent at the time. They go so far as to state that the British ideal of family society strongly influenced attitudes in all levels of society in Canada at this time. According to evangelical thinking at the time the family was the cornerstone of the social order (p. 53). They go on to quote the Christian Guardian as stating that All society, civil, political and moral originates in and receives its character from this (p. 53). Their point appears to be that Christian, British morals were a large part of what convinced Canadian society to convict Hilda Blake of murder and send her to the gallows. In these traditions, she was a wanton tramp who could have no redeeming moral qualities.
At the same time as they are demonstrating the influence of the Christian ethic on our society, Kramer and Mitchell point out many anomalies in such morals. They comment, for example, on the business ethics at the time as being a ruthless pursuit of wealth, and the necessity of subjugating nature to Man’s will in pursuit of that wealth. One result of such thinking was that women were placed in positions of subordination, and did not play a fair or equal role in society. An example of this was that Hilda ended up condemned by a law she had no voice in forming (p. 72) and, because of her lowly origins, she had even less chance of truly understanding her circumstances.
Another theme which permeates this work is a running commentary on class privilege and class structure. The authors demonstrate repeatedly that Hilda was a young woman taken advantage of from the age of ten, used as virtual slave labor, misled by her employer, and ultimately abandoned by the very system which purported to have acted in her best interests. The authors make note of the fact that Ms Blake’s trial took only 5 minutes, and she was convicted mainly on the evidence of her confession. On pages 214 and 215 they detail the unfairness of laws regarding women, particularly when it came to sexual mores. Parliament was attempting to make changes to a law intended to protect men of means from blackmail by being seduced by women of loose character. While Parliament was willing to change the law slightly to indicate that women of a certain age would be victims, and not perpetrators of such crimes, it still was not prepared to challenge the gender orthodoxy that demanded chaste character of young women and winked at the philandering of middle class men as long as they restricted themselves to ‘ruined’ women (p. 214). These double standards of moral and legal behavior have been with us down through the centuries, and late 19th century Canada was no different.
The authors also make reference to the influence of the literature of the time period on Hilda’s life and her actions. They make her out to be a woman misled by romantic notions of love and marriage, and imply she was misguided into believing she could have a life of wedded bliss (by killing the wife of her employer) which in reality was never open to her. They seem to be painting parallel portraits of Christian versus romantic ideals, perhaps to contrast them and again encourage the reader to deeply consider their own values and beliefs.
Walk Towards the Gallows is an insightful perspective into many aspects of 1880s Canadian society. The authors encourage us to examine gender roles then and now, assess the appeal to the media and the public of sexual scandals, and understand more fully the complicated process by which society has developed in our country. In many ways, the class and gender distinctions, which were present in the late 19th century, haunt us still.
Elizabeth Senger – Henry Wise Wood High School. Calgary, AB.