Articles

The Loneliest Man in Canada

He’s the solitary figure in the picture — a man who slew the wife he loved and paid for it with two months in the death cell and 12 long years in prison

MCKENZIE PORTER November 1 1949
Articles

The Loneliest Man in Canada

He’s the solitary figure in the picture — a man who slew the wife he loved and paid for it with two months in the death cell and 12 long years in prison

MCKENZIE PORTER November 1 1949

The Loneliest Man in Canada

He’s the solitary figure in the picture — a man who slew the wife he loved and paid for it with two months in the death cell and 12 long years in prison

MCKENZIE PORTER

ONE MORNING toward the end of August last the loneliest man in Canada stepped from the Montreal train at Toronto. He was 63 years old. His hair was grizzled. His face was ashen and his watery eyes showed the pain of stomach ulcers. His chest was so sunken and shoulders so round he looked as if he were in perpetual recoil from a blow.

He shambled up Bay Street with head bowed and hands sunk deep in the pockets of an old-fashioned suit. When he reached City Hall he looked up at the sign over the Police Department door. For a moment the wraith of a smile flickered across his wan lips. Then he turned away, straightened up a bit, and went to look for a room.

Frank McLaren, the lifer, was free again. Not a living soul knew or cared where he was. Even the police were no longer interested. He had gone to Toronto because in that city he was a stranger. He had paid his debt to society in full and got in change a few years of precious freedom. An aunt in Scotland had left him a small private income on which he could exist for t he rest of his life.

Twenty-two years before he had killed his wife and had been sentenced to death. This sentence had l>een commuted to life imprisonment. Ten years before he had been released on parole. Two days before he had reported his whereabouts to a Montreal desk sergeant for the last time.

He had lived two months under the threat of the noose in a condemned cell. He had been through two prison riots and watched two jail breaks fail. He had rubbed shoulders with the last of the Chicago gangsters, with unfrocked priests, teenaged thugs, fraudulent lawyers, Chinese dope peddlers, sex maniacs and doctors who had performed illegal abortions.

Jail cracked Frank MeLaren’s body. It made him timid of his fellow's. But it could not break his mind. “In fact,” he says, “it made me a bit of a philosopher. It taught me many things I otherwise would never have known.”

It was i»i 1927 when Frank McLaren, then 40

and a well-paid accountant in a western Canadian city, struck his wife during a fit of wrath because she had deceived him. She fell awkwardly, striking her head. Fourteen days later she died. McLaren, w ho had given himself up to the police immediately, was charged with murder. He loved his wife dearly and he says his grief for her was “cataclysmic.”

His lawyer beseeched him to plead mitigating circumstances and face the lesser charge of manslaughter. But McLaren refused to say a word in his own defense. “I’m not going to wash my dirty linen in public,” he said. Nor would he “hide” behind a plea of insanity.

The trial lasted just over an hour. The evidence was purely formal. Refused any information by his client because “it would mean making charges against my wife, who is not here to defend herself,” McLaren’s counsel made the briefest of speeches. The jury brought in a verdict of guilty. The judge could not do otherwise than sentence McLaren to hang.

Chain smoking in a café one day recently, McLaren removed the cigarette from his mouth with long white fingers which shook slightlyThere was a light of sincerity shining through the pain in his eyes as he said:

“I didn’t listen to a word of the proceedings. At first all I could think about was that I had taken the life of the one I loved most in the world. Then I thought of the effect of my disgrace on the social position and happiness of my mother. I remember also feeling how morbid were the public in the gallery to gloat over my agony. When the sentence was pronounced it was a relief. I had been four months awaiting trial and expecting this all the time. It seemed like just another milestone on the way to certain finality.”

The death cell in the provincial jail

was nine feet by five feet. It was fitted with a bed and a table, both of which folded against the wall, a hard wooden chair and a flush toilet. Out of reach in the granite was a small square of window from which steel bars cast slanting shadows on the studded door. Beyond the cell door was an enclosed exercise area 10 ft. by 12 ft.

Twenty-four hours a day a guard was present with McLaren. “I was nervous of the rope,” he says, “but not uncontrollably afraid. I figured I would have to screw up my courage to walk to the scaffold but that it would be no more difficult than preparing myself for a serious operation.”

He could read with understanding but what he read he has forgotten. He wrote letters to his mother, his only correspondent. He talked commonplace things with the guards. But most of the time he liked to play catch in the exercise area. “Pitching and catching with the guard seemed to relieve my nervous tension.”

McLaren believed in a “Supreme Being” but did not pray. A Salvation Army officer called to give him spirit ual succor but McLaren asked him not to return. “I did not feel entitled to seek mercy at this stage. This was my punishment, rightfully inflicted.”

The concession of any food he liked within reason seemed paltry and did not interest him. He ate very little.

When the sheriff called to say his sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment he was glad. But he felt no wild joy. He wondered whether he was really going to be better off. Six days later he was removed to the “pen.” It was Christmas Eve, 1927.

Today McLaren tells with an almost shrewd grin that he spent the next 12 years treading a delicate path between the violently opposed forces of guards and convicts, avoiding the antagonism of one and the contempt of the other.

Some 400 convicts were working in the machine shop, laundry, shoe shop, blacksmith shop, garage, tailor shop, library and various offices, or as scrubbers in the cell blocks, cooks in the kitchens, or builders on a new wing then under construction.

After a short time as a scrubber McLaren, because of his accountancy background, was appointed clerk to the deputy warden. He held this job until his release on parole. During the whole time he was never crimed once.

“This,” he says, “was my salvation.”

Life Behind Bars

He had a cell similar to the one in which he had awaited death but this was on a tier in a wing of a hundred others. He was fitted with a collarless, cuffless prison suit of dark blue wool (khaki denim in summer), coarse underclothes and a peaked cap plugged with his number. He was issued rough blankets, one sheet, one pillowcase and one towel. They cropped his hair to a quarter of an inch, took his photograph and recorded his fingerprints. Some years afterward hair was permitted at normal length.

For breakfast he got porridge and coffee without milk or sugar. The midday meal was a horrific stew. At night he got seven prunes carefully counted, a bun without butter, and a mug of cocoa made with water. About five years later, he says, “the food was improved 500% and became almost as good as army food.”

Reveille was 7 a.m. Work began at 8 a.m. and continued until noon. Prisoners then lined up for the midday meal, ate it as they did all other meals in their cells, and were locked up until 1.30 p.m. From this time work continued until 6 p.m. when they were counted. Then a bell rang and the men were locked up for the night.

At week ends they were locked in their cells from Saturday noon until Monday morning. If Monday was a holiday they were confined until Tuesday morning. Later the long week ends were relieved by a period of free association in the exercise yards on Sunday afternoons.

In his early years no prisoner was allowed to speak to another under any circumstances. Surreptitious communication however went on all the time.

In 1932 the silence rule was lifted. Talking was permitted at work and from the cells. In McLaren’s opinion the second half of the concession was wrong.

Deprivation of sex life resulted in obsessions. Thus 90% of the talk from the cells was beamed on sex. Conversation had to be shouted through thick walls and across echoing tiers. An appalling bedlam swelled up in

which morons would describe to each other fantastic sexual adventures at the top of their voices. McLaren says: “I used to lie on my face with the pillow over my head fearing I would go mad.”

Many convicts would have gone to the warden to ask that cell talking be stopped. But the code of the prisoners was that no dispensation should be refused.

When McLaren first went in, smoking was prohibited. Yet smuggled tobacco and cigarette papers were in constant circulation. They were currency with which to buy a piece of pie from the guards’ mess, a better fitting pair of pants from the tailor’s shop or be sure of the best library books. The custom was so widespread that it was impossible to stand aloof from it.

The Code of the Pen

“This contraband,” says McLaren, “was brought in by the guards. If a guard took his family’s shoes for repair to the penitentiary cobbler he made sure of getting a good job by paying off with a deck of weed (tobacco). The same applied at the tailor’s shop where his tunic was being mended. Some guards bought the good behavior of convict groups working under them with contraband.”

New prisoners soon learned the code of regarding their lot with exaggerated indifference. Life could be tolerable only by making friends. To make friends they had to adopt a hostile attitude toward the prison staff and to ignore or violate all rules and regulations whenever possible. Otherwise they became “scabs” and “squealers” and were cut off from trading.

“The unemotional pose was a terrific strain on the nerves. The atmosphere was always like a kettle simmering and ready to blow its lid.”

Breaking the rules was a game, the spice of life, an anodyne for tedium. Men would go to ridiculous lengths to do something illegitimately which often could be done lawfully.

Two men stole 50 lb. of butter. Before they could cache it the heat was on. They had plenty of time to replace the butter without risk. Instead they pushed it down a waste pipe.

On construction jobs, a favorite trick was burying trowels, hammers and screw drivers in soft concrete. McLaren recalls: “I saw four good carpenter’s saws issued one day. Within half an hour somebody had cut halfway through the blades with a pair of shears.”

Other convicts, says McLaren, were tolerant of lifers. They knew the lifer’s one chance of seeing the outside again was through an unblemished record. During a riot in 1932 McLaren went on working in the deputy warden’s office while the majority of the prisoners refused to leave their cells, smashed up their beds, shattered the windows, and kept up a pandemonium 24 hours a day for seven days.

On one occasion two convicts were ordered before the warden’s court for fighting. Later that day a guard who was interested in the case dropped into McLaren’s office and asked, “What did Smith and Brown get?” McLaren told him they had each been sentenced to five strokes of the paddle. “That’s not fair,” said the guard, “it wasn’t Smith’s fault. Brown started it.” McLaren asked immediately to see the warden, reported his conversation with the guard and saved Smith from the paddle.

(This instrument is a leather strap three eighths of an inch thick, 18 inches long, and attached to a wooden handle nine inchês long. The prisoner is strapped down over a table. The table is then extended to stretch him. The

paddle is administered to his buttocks. Often the strokes break the skin. A doctor is always in attendance.)

Soon afterward McLaren was handed a manila envelope containing sugar during exercise. He had to accept it or betray the donor since they were under observation. McLaren slipped the envelope up his right sleeve and went through agony in fear of detection. If the guards had caught him he would have been paddled and his prison term extended by several years.

McLaren says that but for his office work, implication in misdemeanors would have been almost impossible to avoid.

“I kept copious and unnecessary records. I had one card index which showed the numbers of men in any given age group. I kept lists of all the religious, racial and trades groups. Then I tabled the men by crime and sentence. All these were superfluous to the official records but they were in constant need of revision, which was just what I wanted.”

His office was next door to the library. He cultivated the friendship of more intelligent prisoners who worked there. One of his companions was a Church of England clergyman who had done good work for 20 years in northern B. C. Unfortunately the cleric had lived throughout this period with his sister as other men would live with a wife. His crime was discovered when a police officer entered his home suddenly one night to warn them of a fire.

McLaren fed his starved mind on the best literature he could find in the library. Most of the novels were dull and dated. But he got right through Dickens. Among many multivolume works he absorbed were J. A. Froude’s “A History of England,” George G rote’s “A History of Greece,” and Sir James G. Fraser’s anthropological study “The Golden Bough,” all classics in their field.

This reading is reflected in McLaren’s conversation today. He has a wide vocabulary, an academic and precise delivery abounding with qualifications, and a sure touch in quotation from the great scholars.

He has not lost his sense of humor. He tells with relish the story of one convict who was seen to line up three times for breakfast porridge. On the third occasion a guard noticing a bulge in the convict’s jacket pocket said: “What have you got there?” No reply was necessary. The guard plunged his hand into the pocket and withdrew it. sharply. It was clotted to the forearm in hot, gluey oatmeal.

A Feast, or a Famine

Once the tailor shop had to make a special “going-out suit” for a diminutive convict who was unpopular. They used such hot irons during the pressing that they took the nature out of the wool. As the man was about to leave the prison gates he buttoned his jacket and it fell apart. He stooped to pick up a sleeve and the pants sepated. He turned back, holding his attire together and finally had to leave in a “reach-me-down” that swallowed him.

McLaren is apt to shake his head hopelessly over the hardened criminal and believes it is quite safe to generalize on him.

“He is ambitious but he hasn’t the brain or the moral stamina to get what he wants. He tries to get to the top of the ladder without climbing it. He fears insecurity yet cannot impose on himself the discipline necessary to earn security.

“He never saves any money from a theft. Life becomes a feast or a famine, with the emphasis on famine.

“One man I knew drew $20,000 as his share of a $70,000 bank holdup. When he was arrested a month later he was not only penniless but he didn’t even possess a decent suit.

“The criminal often finds penitentiary a relief. There he can relax, be fed, clothed, housed and doctored free while bolstering his own self-respect by swaggering of his exploits to his own kind.

“This type of mind makes prison reform most difficult.”

Strange New World

McLaren came out just before the recent war. Newspapers had been permitted in jail, but all sex, crime, court and prison stories had been cut out by the censors. From the rags that were left he had gleaned a skimpy knowledge of the world.

In the train, traveling east, a porter, a total stranger, asked him whether a certain man was still in the “pen.” McLaren says: “This was a shock. I realized that although I was not in prison clothes the stamp of the convict was on me.”

An acquaintance met him in Montreal. They stopped off to see a talking picture, his first. Neon signs in the streets were new to him too. When he went into jail he had been a good bridge player. But he could play only auction. Nobody played auction any more.

For a year he lived at the home of his acquaintance, paying his way out of his private income. When his acquaintance had visitors he could not face them. Something would crop up in conversation to give him away. One evening, for example, he found himself in total ignorance of Chamberlain’s historic “peace-in-our-time” mission to Munich. The guests looked at him curiously.

He felt everybody was watching him when he went to make his monthly report to the police. These inhibitions brought on ulcers. He started going in and out of hospital.

He went after several jobs. But he could never manufacture a convincing reply when he was asked what he had done previously. He retired deeper and deeper into his shell, finding consolation only in books.

As the war proceeded he felt uneasy about his idleness. By dint of supreme effort he summoned the courage to go seeking war work. He landed a job without any questions being asked, as

bookkeeper to an American oil outfit operating at Canol, 1,000 miles north of Edmonton. Police gave him permission to go.

To his dismay the Americans took his fingerprints. He worked hard for six months in the Arctic weather, fretting all the time about the possibility of the fingerprints disclosing his true identity. His ulcers broke again and he was flown back to hospital in Montreal.

Later he returned to his hermit life in one room. The reporting of his movements was a constant reminder of the threat which hung over him. For breaking this rule, or for the slightest of other offenses he could have been hauled back to jail without further trial. “I daren’t even have a sherry in case somebody accused me of drunkenness.”

Police treated him well and respected his secret. During his parole not one officer who knew him openly recognized him in the street. Nor did any officer give him away to civilians by idle gossip. Nevertheless the parole was always there to emphasize his difference from others who walked the streets.

When he was released less than a month ago his spirits soared. The mood of guilt vanished. “I could say to myself, in all honesty, that I had expiated my crime.”

In Toronto he still spends most of his time in seclusion. He still fears the finger of scorn.

He is trying to find friends who will not despise him for the past. He is giving his time to the John Howard Society of Ontario in its rehabilitation work among ex-prisoners. He is doing research for a professor who is writing a book on penology.

Recently he said: “A miracle has happened. For the first time in 22 years I’ve been invited out to dinner.” His hosts were a cultured couple who found McLaren scholarly company. He was exhilarated by their enlightened talk.

When he left them he walked away full of admiration for their mannered lives. Then he thought of how but for one bout of rage his own life might have been something like theirs.

He went on, down the empty street, not without pride in the way he had paid his debt to society. But in grief which no one else could share, stooped and broken and solitary, George McLaren was still the loneliest man in Canada. if