Who Killed Janet Smith? – Ed Starkins

who killed janet smith


“Who Killed Janet Smith?” examines one of the most infamous and still unsolved murder cases in Canadian history: the 1924 murder of twenty-two-year-old Scottish nursemaid Janet Smith. Originally published in 1984, and out of print for over a decade, this tale of intrigue, racism, privilege, and corruption in high places is a true-crime recreation that reads like a complex thriller.

My Thoughts

While the description of the book states that it reads like a complex thriller, I felt more like I was reading a satirical parody of policing. I have  no idea how these individuals got away with bumbling an investigation so epically. The only explanation that makes sense to me is a total lack of care for the victim, but that’s just conjecture on my part. However, I should note that a few individuals were reprimanded for their actions, or lack thereof, in the course of the investigations into Janet Smith’s murder. A few individuals even lost their jobs, while others fell from social and political grace. Had the case been properly handled, such extremes may not have been necessary.

There were so many individuals involved in the murder investigations of Janet Smith – the victim herself, most notably, ended up taking a back seat to everyone else. While the case is, indeed, complex, and at times quite thrilling, it’s not because of the case itself, but rather because of how the case was handled, or mishandled. It would seem, at least to me, that investigators and journalists alike didn’t particularly care about Janet Smith herself. Rather, they cared about the affluent family she worked for, and how this would affect their social standing and their reputation, as well as the general public perception of the residents of Shaughnessy Heights – where Vancouver’s rich and elite lived.

Starkins phrases it best – “What is most remarkable about the Janet Smith murder case is just how much it reveals of the spirit and sentiment of the 1920s”. This sentiment was rooted in elitism, entitlement, racism, and the notion that money can buy you out of trouble. Sadly, these are things that are still all too relevant today.

Newspapers and magazines latched onto the story of Janet Smith, but it wasn’t because they cared about solving the murder. It was because they wanted to tarnish Vancouver’s elite with rumours and gossip – some of it true, most of it false. Such things led the investigations (there were multiple investigations into Janet Smith’s murder) in all sorts of directions – none of them beneficial to actually finding her killer.

Investigators began targeting Wong Foon Sing, the Chinese houseboy who worked alongside Janet Smith in the household. He was interviewed, kidnapped, beaten, and tortured multiple times for information. The reasoning? He wasn’t white – investigators and political figures were keen on a Chinese man being wrongfully tried and convicted for the murder of Janet Smith in order to put the whole thing behind them. Nary a word was ever said in Wong Foon Sing’s defense. Racism played a key factor in the persecution of Wong Foon Sing .

The investigation stayed focused along these lines – despite most of the investigators knowing that he was innocent, it was easier to wrongfully prosecute a Chinese man than to investigate the rich, elite socialites of Shaughnessy Heights. Investigators are tired, frustrated, and have no evidence due to earlier mishaps and bumblings in the first investigation. The case hits a dead end. And so, the question remains: Who killed Janet Smith?

To this day, Janet Smith’s murder remains unsolved. All we’re left with is speculation and theories as to what actually happened to Janet Smith in July of 1924. While the state of policing has gotten much better since 1924, it cannot be denied that there was much bumbling which may or may not be directly related to being bought off by those who knew the truth about Janet Smith’s death. However, there are some things that still remain the same since those days.

Humans are still left with a morbid fascination with death and murder – we want it, and we crave it. (I know I do, otherwise I wouldn’t read as much true crime as I do.) Sometimes this fascination is beneficial – you learn about the facts of a case, you read and do research, you think critically, and you can glean your own conclusions; you learn about other humans, and why they do the things they do.

Other times, this fascination is derived from scandal and gossip. This was definitely the case in the years following Janet Smith’s murder. Newspapers across Vancouver latched onto gossip and rumours, sensationalizing the case in tabloid-like journalistic tactics. The gossip even made international headlines, watering down actual facts in favour of the glitz and glamour of the rumours. Many people didn’t particularly care about what actually happened to Janet Smith – they cared about the swirling gossip surrounding Vancouver’s elite and affluent.

It would seem that no one is 100% certain as to what happened to Janet Smith. However, two things are blatantly clear: 1) Janet Smith was murdered, and; 2) A lot of money and influence was thrown around to make her murder go away.

We still don’t have an answer to the question of who killed Janet Smith. And that’s what’s most frustrating. We’re left with speculation and theories. This isn’t enough for me. Due to entitlement and elitism in 1924 (entitlement and elitism that is still rampant to this day), one woman will go down as one of Canada’s most infamous unsolved murders. Someone believed themselves to be above the law, and made efforts to get away with murder. This event may have occurred in 1924, but it still remains as a dark spot in Canadian policing history.

The lack of care taken with the Janet Smith case establishes one thing – money and influence are more important than justice. With advances in modern policing and investigation techniques, I can only hope that this statement is not longer true. However, I remain skeptical and critical. The year is now 2017, 93 years since Janet Smith was murdered. In 1924, elitism, entitlement, and racism were rampant in the streets of Vancouver. However, all I have to do is open a newspaper to today’s news to see that public opinion hasn’t changed much. 93 years, and Canadian streets are still full of hate and inequality rooted in ignorance and entitlement. I guess we really haven’t changed much, have we?


~ by Aubrey Smith on March 22, 2017.

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