SMITH, JANET KENNEDY, servant, diarist, and alleged murder victim; b. 25 June 1902 in Perth, Scotland, daughter of Arthur Mitchell Tooner Smith and Johanna Benzies; d. unmarried 26 July 1924 in Point Grey (Vancouver).
Janet Smith is best remembered for her suspicious death and the firestorm of controversy that surrounded it. She was born into a family of modest means in Perth, where her father was a railway fireman. Despite the title later given to her by the press, “the Scottish Nightingale,” her ancestry was mixed: her father was of Irish, English, and Scottish descent, her mother was Norwegian. After the family moved to the working-class district of Lambeth (London), when Janet was 11, she finished school and obtained a certificate to be a nursemaid. In January 1923 Doreen and Frederick Lefevre Baker, a Vancouver couple who lived in Kensington, hired her to care for their newborn baby. When F. L. Baker’s importing business took the family to Paris, she went with them. In October they returned to Vancouver and Janet Smith, enticed by a monthly salary of $30 and the promise of a return ticket, accompanied them.
They moved into a house in the city’s fashionable West End, a location that gave Smith access to nearby Stanley Park, where she often took the baby for strolls. She apparently found it easy to meet members of Vancouver’s bachelor community during such excursions, and soon developed relationships that ranged from flirtatious to serious.
The young woman’s diary reveals her meditations on her sexuality and romantic adventures. Many entries are decidedly melodramatic: “Heavenly night, immense moon and nobody nice to love me”; others are cryptic: “I suppose I will always play with fire. I expect that is what the fortune teller meant when she said I have the girdle of Venus.” Since she meant to return to England, she often scolded herself for leading men along, and seemed to be concerned about remaining a respectable girl. Such writings reveal her to be a more complex figure than the “young Scotswoman of blameless character” that the Vancouver press would later construct.
In May 1924 Smith moved with the Bakers into the home of F. L. Baker’s brother, Richard Plunkett, in the élite Shaughnessy Heights neighbourhood of Point Grey (then a separate municipality south of Vancouver). There she worked alongside R. P. Baker’s 25-year-old houseboy, Wong Foon Sing. The relationship between Smith and Wong would become the subject of much discussion after her death. Although her friends testified that she feared he would murder her, her diary reveals that Wong gave her intimate presents such as a silk nightdress and that she was well aware of the effect she had on him. She clearly enjoyed the knowledge that men loved her.
On the morning of 26 July 1924 her life came to a sudden end. Her body was found in the basement of the Baker home next to an ironing board. She had a bullet wound through her temple and a revolver lay near her outstretched hand. The Point Grey police also found suspicious burns on her arm and a stain on her finger. The only person in the house when the shooting allegedly occurred was Wong Foon Sing, who later testified that he had heard a noise like a car backfiring and went to the basement, only to find Smith dead. The police concluded that she had committed suicide and the Vancouver coroner, after a hasty inquest, held that she had suffered a “self-inflicted but accidental death.”
These conclusions, however, were only the beginning. The unusual chain of events that followed would put the nursemaid’s death into the headlines for months. Several of Smith’s friends, refusing to believe the finding of suicide, enlisted the aid of Vancouver’s United Council of Scottish Societies and Presbyterian church leaders concerned with the moral perils facing immigrant girls. The Scottish Societies sent telegrams to provincial attorney general Alexander Malcolm Manson demanding that the case be reopened. Ultimately it was Vancouver Star publisher Victor Wentworth Odlum* who proved to be the primary author of this murder mystery. The scandalous stories that he published about the “puzzling” death and apparent bungling by the police stirred up intense interest, and pointed to Wong Foon Sing as the likely culprit. Other Vancouver papers followed Odlum’s lead and made Smith’s death a cause célèbre.
Mounting public pressure led to the exhumation of her body on 28 August and a second inquest in September. After a week of sensational testimonies, the jury delivered the anticipated finding: Smith had been murdered. The Scottish Societies thereupon continued to press the government to find the perpetrator. Manson responded by hiring a special prosecutor, Malcolm Bruce Jackson, to determine what had happened to “the girl from the Old Country.” The Scottish Societies also lobbied Vancouver mla Mary Ellen Smith [Spear*] to introduce legislation to prohibit employers from hiring white women and Orientals as servants in the same household. In November Smith introduced the so-called Janet Smith Bill (in fact, an amendment to the Women’s and Girls’ Protection Act of 1923) but the bill died after Manson concluded that it would likely be found ultra vires.
The case largely disappeared from the newspapers until a shocking event occurred in Shaughnessy Heights. On 20 March 1925 a group of men dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes arrived at R. P. Baker’s residence and abducted Wong Foon Sing. These men, later identified as operatives hired by the Scottish Societies and some off-duty constables, took Wong to a house where, for six weeks, they tortured him to confess or provide enough information to explain Smith’s death. It was later revealed that Manson became aware of Wong’s location but did nothing in the hope that the mystery would be solved. His inaction all but ended his promising political career.
On 1 May the kidnappers released Wong but the Point Grey police promptly arrested him for the murder of Janet Smith. He was defended at trial by John Harold Senkler, a prominent lawyer who had been retained by the Chinese Benevolent Association. In October the case was thrown out for lack of evidence, and Wong later returned to China. Three of his kidnappers were imprisoned for their role in the plot but others, including M. B. Jackson, Point Grey reeve James Alexander Paton, and two police commissioners, were acquitted.
By the time of Wong’s kidnapping and arrest, other explanations had emerged. The most popular theory was that Smith had been raped and murdered at a “wild party” held at the Baker house by playboy bachelors, who then bribed the police and the coroners. More recently writer Edward Starkins has made the case that F. L. Baker was a drug-smuggler and that his activities played a substantial part in the young woman’s demise.
The death of Janet Smith, whether by suicide or murder, remains significant because of the public debate that surrounded it. Popular narratives of the incident speak volumes about the concepts of race, class, gender, and law and order dominant in the British Columbia of the 1920s. The mystery was not mere tabloid fodder but, rather, social drama that led Vancouverites to ask complex questions about their city and province. Janet Smith is buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver beneath a headstone purchased by the United Council of Scottish Societies.
General Register Office for Scotland (Edinburgh), Reg. of births, Perth, 25 June 1902. Beacon (Vancouver), December 1924–January 1926. Dahan Gongbao/Chinese Times (Vancouver), September 1924–October 1925. Point Grey Gazette (Vancouver), August 1924–June 1925. Vancouver Morning Sun, 8 Sept. 1924, May–October 1925. Vancouver Star, July–December 1924. B.C., Attorney General, Report of the superintendent of provincial police (Victoria), 1925. Scott Kerwin, “The Janet Smith Bill of 1924 and the language of race and nation in B.C.,” BC Studies (Vancouver), no.121 (spring 1999): 83–114; “Re/producing a ‘white British Columbia’: the meanings of the Janet Smith Bill” (ma thesis, Univ. of B.C., Vancouver, 1996). Sky Lee, Disappearing moon cafe (Vancouver, 1990). Martin Robin, The saga of Red Ryan and other tales of violence from Canada’s past (Saskatoon, 1982), chap.6. Edward Starkins, Who killed Janet Smith? The 1924 Vancouver killing that remains Canada’s most intriguing unsolved murder (Toronto, 1984). W. P. Ward, White Canada forever: popular attitudes and public policy toward Orientals in British Columbia (2nd ed., Montreal and Kingston, Ont., 1990).