Walk Towards the Gallows: The Tragedy of Hilda Blake, Hanged 1899
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
Ashley Thomson is a full librarian at Laurentian University and co-editor or co-author of nine books, most recently Margaret Atwood: A Reference Guide, 1988-2005.
On July 5, 1899, Hilda Blake, a 21-year-old domestic, shot Mary Lane,
her employer and the mother of four children. When the police arrived,
Blake claimed that a transient had done the deed, but abandoned this
story under questioning. At her trial, without legal representation, she
pleaded guilty and asked the court “to inflict the severest punishment
upon me.” It did. On December 27, after her case had been considered
by the federal cabinet, and over the objection of Lord Minto, the
governor general, Blake was hanged in a Brandon jail—one of only a
handful of women in Canadian history to meet this fate.
Even before the murder, Blake’s life had not been a happy one.
Orphaned in England, she was shipped off to Canada and raised by foster
parents with whom she did not get along. Fortunately for historians, she
learned to write. Awaiting execution, she penned “My Downfall,” a
poem that hinted darkly that Robert Lane, Mary’s husband, had
motivated her to pull the trigger. Did Robert and Hilda have an affair?
If so, did he promise her that if his wife were not in the picture, they
could marry? On the other hand, could Hilda have been delusional, as
Lane’s descendants believe?
Although Walk Towards the Gallows would appear to belong in the crime
section, Blake’s story has motivated the authors to explore such
topics as poverty, immigration, child welfare, domestic employment,
class structure, sexual relations, women’s suffrage, and even popular
literature of the day, since Blake was a regular reader. The end result
is a brilliant and wide-ranging piece of social history that reflects
the authors’ intimate acquaintance with the major secondary sources on
these topics, as well as a surprising number of extant primary sources.
Mitchell, a historian and archivist at Brandon University, and Kramer, a
colleague in the English Department, have written a remarkably
stimulating book that is a joy to read.