The charred and headless body of David Scollie was found in the ruins of a fire that took place on 23 February 1894 on a dark and stormy night. His head was never found. Was it murder or accident?
In February of 1894, Scollie was living a solitary life in the township of Otonabee, six miles from Peterborough on a farm which he owned on the eleventh concession. Although he mostly worked his own property, he occasionally worked out, often assisted by his close friend and neighbour Thomas Gray. As the two men became closer, Scollie suggested that Gray move his family into his house and work his farm, with the understanding that upon Scollie’s death, Gray would inherit his property. A contract was drawn up to that effect and Thomas Gray, his wife Hessie and their five young children moved into the farmhouse.
[aesop_image imgwidth=”content” img=”https://www.thesocialhistorian.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/David-Scully-1891-Census.jpg” align=”center” lightbox=”on” caption=”1891 Census of Canada, Otonabee, Peterborough East, Ontario; Roll: T-6363; Family No: 57″ captionposition=”left”]
All went well for about a year, but then Gray grew dissatisfied and wanted to break the agreement. He was asking for $1300 from Scollie for his keep but Scollie refused to pay or to break the contract.
One day, while walking around the outside of his home, Scollie was struck in the head by a flower pot which had apparently fallen from a second storey window. He sustained a painful injury from the incident and was looked after by neighbours during his recovery. Afterwards he went back to live in his old house with the Gray family.
It was shortly after this incident that the farmhouse caught fire, burning to the ground. Scollie’s headless corpse was found in the ruins but it was thought that he died in the fire and foul play was not originally suspected.
The inquest into Scollie’s death took place in Peterborough on 8 March 1894. Thomas Gray testified:
I owned the premises at his death, an agreement to that effect having been drawn up about six years ago by W. A. Stratton, in return for which I had to board and clothe him as long as he lived and bury him when he died. I built the house. I never had a quarrel with the deceased. The house cost me $400.Toronto Star, 4 June 1895
He went on to say that he had been away in Madoc at the time of the fire and had been telegraphed by Mrs. McGregor with the news. Gray’s wife Hessie testified:
I am the wife of the last witness. Mr. Scollie occupied the northwest bedroom. We slept directly below him. Mr. Scollie went to bed about 11 o’clock on Thursday night. It was about an hour later that my son and I retired. I was awakened early in the morning by my daughter, and I found the room filled with smoke, which seemed to come from the ceiling. I called the other children, and little Tom opened the door leading to the kitchen and found it all in a blaze, the stairway being all on fire. I smashed the window open and put the children out and told them to go to McGregor’s. I yelled two or three times to awaken Mr. Scollie, but without success. Shortly after, Mr. McGregor arrived and broke in the front door.Toronto Star, 4 June 1895
Hessie Gray registered his death and arranged for his burial according to the contract agreement.
After David Scollie was duly laid to rest, Gray collected on $400 in insurance on the home and it’s contents from the Mercantile Fire Insurance Company of Waterloo. With the proceeds, Gray built a new house but sold shortly afterwards, moving to the United States.
With the departure of the Grays, suspicions of the neighbours were aroused and the investigation into Scollie’s death was reopened. Provincial Detective Murray, accompanied by Dr. John Cavan and Dr. Alex Primrose of Toronto, exhumed Scollie’s body and carefully examined it.
By the following day, reports in the newspapers were calling Scollie’s death ‘brutal in the extreme.’ The Crown, it was said, had evidence that Scollie’s head had indeed been severed from his torso with a bucksaw, and further evidence that the deed was done by a woman operator.
Bloody Pitchfork and a Neatly Wrapped Body
According to the media, on the day after the fire, a bloody pitchfork was found in a blood spattered barrel in the rear of the home. Later it was also found that some of the Gray’s property that was not covered by the insurance had been removed from the house prior to the fire. Scollie’s body had been found wrapped in quilts, lying on his back. His arms were folded in front of him and the straw of his mattress beneath him had not been burnt, nor were the quilts or Scollie’s underclothes. His position was in no way consistent with having fallen through from his second floor bedroom.
In a shocking expose, Hessie Gray’s sister said that her sister had frequently threatened to kill David Scollie. Hessie had talked initially about poisoning Scollie or shooting him but had more recently concluded that fire would better destroy any evidence. She had spoken too of cutting off his head, prior to burning the body. Thomas Gray had been heard to boast that he had the smartest wife in the world and that she had conceived of a scheme to rid them of the old man and to collect on the insurance money.
On 12 June 1895, Detective Murray took out warrants for the arrest of Thomas and Hessie Gray, charging them with the murder of David Scollie by decapitation. Hessie Gray was further charged with the arson of their home in an attempt to cover up the murder. Thomas Gray was charged with inciting his wife to commit arson with intent to defraud the insurance company.
Arrest and Extradition
At the time the warrants were issued, Thomas and Hessie Gray were residing in Ocala, Marion County, Florida and within a few days, the couple had been arrested by local police.
Mrs. Gray wrote a letter for publication:
Dear Sir,–Please give me space in your first issue for this note. Sir, I saw in the Peterborough papers last week a great many false statements regarding the burning of our place. Well, I must say they know little that give themselves so much trouble over Bill McGregor’s lies. Don’t all the neighbours know the kind of a liar he is. Can’t W. M. Higley, my neighbour let you know how many lies he told on us before this ever happened? And for Graham Weir, I expect nothing else of him because him and us have been on bad terms this last 12 years. Hundreds of things he told on us. He said to Bill McGregor if he had a chance he would chop off my head, but McGregor and him can talk all they please as long as they can get no one to mind them. They would like to see me persecuted, but I don’t mind them. If medical aid ain’t smart enough to know that his head fell off by the burning, the tree Indians from Hiawatha that first got his body in the debris can let them know that the head was on when they pried it up where it lay on top of the debris. Why don’t Mr. Murray go to these three Indians, Willie Cow and his brother and Madam Howard, for information, and he will hear the truth from these poor Indians. They are not like the high flow in seeing affairs. I think if Scollie’s friends heard these liars they will go crazy. If they fetch any of us back from the States, we will sue the township for damages when they are blinded so much by liars. We never done anything to fly to the States, but to get living in peace. We never fought nor was quarrelsome. We always was peaceable. Except we would fight we had got to leave. We think it was best to leave. When we came to Canada we had our papers from our minister and from our employer to show good conduct but when other parties came they had to leave for being quarrelsome and being up at court every other week for fighting and lying with their neighbours. The first time ever we were in court was at the inquest. Print this in your paper. Florida. Mrs. T. Gray. Can’t the constables find that Mr. Gray was at his brother’s at the time of the accident?Toronto Star, 21 June 1895
Provincial Detective Murray journeyed to Florida to bring the Grays back to stand trail for Scollie’s murder. On 4 July 1895, the Clyde Line steamship Algonquin docked in New York City with the Gray prisoners escorted by Detective J.W. Murray on their way back to Canada. By the following day, they had crossed the border and passed through Toronto on their way to Peterborough where the Grays were formally remanded by the Magistrate at Peterborough.
The trial opened on 16 July 1895 before County Police Magistrate Edmison. The Crown Attorney was R.E. Wood and Mr. W. A. Stratton spoke for the prisoners. The first witness called was Daniel Belleghen, the undertaker. He testified that when he was called to the scene by William McGregor, he found the body of David Scollie in the barn. The corpse was missing the head and the neck-bone was protruding about six inches. The chest hair of the deceased was not burned, nor were the two shirts he wore.
John Graham Weir, a neighbour and sometime employer of the deceased first heard of the fire about seven o’clock on the morning after it occurred. When he reached the house, the fire was still burning and he, along with some other neighbours threw water on the remaining flames. They were able then to retrieve the headless body from the ruins. He told the court that it was his opinion that the head had been cut off since it was too squarely off to have been burnt and that the blankets, pulled around the shoulders of the body had not been burnt.
William McGregor, Hessie’s brother-in-law, testified that when he arrived at the house and learned that Scollie was still inside, he had run to the house and kicked in the door but the flames had driven him back. He ran to the Burnham’s house and got young Burnham to help him but they were unable to approach the blaze.
McGregor’s wife Mary took the stand and testified that she had last seen Scollie the Wednesday prior to the fire. She told the court that the November before his death, she had talked with her sister Hessie about Scollie and that he sister had told her that she was going to get rid of him. She said that he would not last another winter because she would cut off his head and burn the house.
On the strength of Mary McGregor’s testimony, the Grays were committed to stand trial at the September Assizes.
On 26 September 1895, the Gray trial opened in Peterborough and local residents crowded the courtroom. Both Thomas Gray and Hessie Gray pleaded not-guilty. The jury was selected. The trial of Hessie Gray commenced.
Mark Burnham took the stand. He testified that he lived across the street from the site of the fire with his father and that he had been awakened at about two o’clock in the morning by McGregor on the night of the fire. He said that the first time he saw the body was when it was dug out of the rubble by Weir and others. His father Zaccheus Burnham repeated his testimony from the preliminary trial about seeing the body immediately after it was pulled from the ruins of the house.
Next to testify for the Crown was John Graham Weir. He stated that he had known David Scollie for many years and described him as a stout, heavy-set man, weighing about 180 pounds. He was vigourous and healthy and about 60 or 64 years of age. He had arrived at the scene of the fire at about seven o’clock in the morning and had assisted the other men in extinguishing the flames and digging out the body of the deceased. The body was on a straw tick and was missing the head. He repeated his belief that the head had been cut off. When cross-examined by the defense, he said that he did not notice if there was any blood on the floor or not. He denied ever having given a note to Scollie and afterwards having been accused of forgery for changing the numbers. He said that he was not searching for Scollie’s tin box when poking around with a shovel. He denied that he had ever quarreled with the Grays over a flour deal and said that he had never been taunted by Gray for having gotten all the timber for a new barn and then burning the old one for the insurance. He said that he never told Mr. Lavelle that when Scollie made his contract with the Grays he put a nail in his coffin.
Several other neighbours who had been present when the body was pulled from the debris gave corroborative testimony.
The next witness for the Crown was Dr. John Caven, professor of pathology and demonstrator of anatomy from Toronto University. He went on to describe what happened when the remains of the deceased had been exhumed from Little Lake cemetery the previous June. The collar-bones were destroyed and the left shoulder blade was missing, the right shoulder badly burned. The upper arms were injured and the back and knuckles of the left hand were burned. All the ribs on the left side were burned although the right side was intact. He told the court that he could not imagine that the deceased had still been alive when the burning occurred since his hands were crossed calmly over the chest. He found no blood on the shirt. Under cross-examination, he admitted that the heat which had caused the injuries he described could have been sufficient to consume the head.
Next, Willliam James McGregor and his wife Mary, the prisoner’s sister were called and they repeated their testimony from the preliminary trial. William McGregor admitted that Scollie was being well looked after by the Grays and that he seemed to be very kind to the Gray children. When Mary McGregor testified, she told of her sister’s threats to get rid of the old man but admitted that there had been bad feeling between the families.
The following morning, the Crown concluded their case against Hessie Gray. The defense began their case but it was brought to a halt by the judge who declared that the Crown’s case had been very weak and that the defense, in his opinion, had already answered the few points that they had made. Rather than wasting more time, he said that he would order a verdict of not guilty if the jury agreed. They quickly gave their consent and the judge discharged Hessie Gray to a round of applause from the court.
Later that day, the trial of Thomas Gray took place but he too was quickly acquitted of all charges.
The general sympathy in this vicinity with the Grays is likely to take a tangible form, and already steps are afoot to get up a subscription to set them on their feet again. Many of Peterboro’s leading citizens are interesting themselves in the matter, as there is a strong feeling abroad that the couple has been very hardly used.Globe and Mail, Saturday, September 28, 1895