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Remembering a 1938 trial more about morals than murder, part one

When, in 1937, a 28-year-old stenographer and enthusiastic hunter is found killed by a gunshot to the temple in an isolated hunting camp north of the Sault, things heat up as a married, celebrity former major league baseball player is implicated in her death
2022-09-25-HelenGrierVernonSpencer
Vernon Spencer and Helen Grier

From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library, this is part one of a two-part series:

When the body of Helen Grier, a 28-year-old stenographer was found with a gunshot wound to the head in a hunting cabin near Long Lake, eight miles from Glendale, the press was hot on the case.

The story would be published not only in the Sault, but also in many papers across Canada and the U.S. such as the New York Times. The reason? The person who had found her was a former Major League baseball player and Miss Grier had been his companion at the hunting camp which was owned by a friend – Dr. A.A. Holcomb of Northville Michigan.

The fact that Vernon Spencer was a bit of a celebrity certainly helped to sell newspapers, but so did the scandal that Vernon Spencer was a married man and Helen Grier was not his wife.

Vernon Spencer was a 40-year-old married father of two who owned a dairy farm in Wixom, Michigan. He had also had a major league baseball career in his younger days, playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Bisons and the New York Giants.

According to Vernon Spencer, he found Helen Grier dead from a gunshot wound at 6 p.m. on Oct. 29, 1937. She was lying on her back in a pool of blood with a .22 rifle beside her.

He had been out searching for moose tracks, but upon the grisly discovery, left at once to get help. He grabbed a flashlight and set off on the trail to Roach’s farm in the hopes of finding a telephone.

It was a 3-mile hike and Spencer said he got lost. He didn’t arrive there until approximately 10 p.m. When he discovered there was no phone, he proceeded to walk to Glendale to Fred Olar’s place, having forgotten his car keys at the cabin.

Olar, who had worked as Spencer’s guide for the past five years accompanied him to the Crane Lumber Co. to use their phone. Spencer first attempted to call Dr. Holcomb, then the police.

Provincial Constable T. Crawford and Dr. Keith the coroner soon arrived to inspect the grim scene at the hunting lodge. After the cabin was searched and the body removed, Spencer was detained as a material witness to the mysterious death. He was only allowed to be visited by his lawyer and immediate relatives but one intrepid female reporter was so intent on interviewing him, she tried to circumvent the rules of the Sault jail and was almost held there herself for her violation.

Many questions would arise as the investigation unfolded – had Spencer really gotten lost on the trail, or did he use this time to make the death look like a suicide?

Why were there two full cups of coffee on the table in the cabin? Might there have been a visitor when Spencer was gone? However, the deceased had only been wearing light pyjamas when she was discovered, not exactly what one would do to invite company in for coffee.

There were also deeds lying out on the table for properties in Michigan and for Spencer’s home in Wixom. Why would you bring deeds on a hunting trip?

Another issue was that a billy club was found in Vernon Spencer’s car, an object which could have been used to strike a victim and knock them unconscious before shooting. A post-mortem autopsy found an abrasion and fracture on Helen’s head not caused by the bullet.

Due to these and many other questions, an inquest was ordered into the death of Helen Grier. The seven-person jury for the inquest features some notable names; foreman James Dawson (Mayor of the city from 1922-1925), Elnor Virene (owner of Virene & Sons Men’s, Ladies, and Boys Wear), W.E. Best (Jeweller), Fred S. Dent (Barnes Drug Company), William Greer (Driver), George Shier (Barber), and A. Brechin (Building Contractor).

The inquest did not occur until Jan. 7, 1938, so Vernon Spencer spent the Christmas of 1937 in the Sault Jail. According to the Sault Star he helped to make the season brighter for the other prisoners by chipping in for the Christmas dinner and sharing some of the items provided by his visitors.

As could be expected, having Spencer held in jail was very hard on his family who faced intense scrutiny from the media and their peers. His wife was the former Gertrude Swanbeck, the daughter of a wealthy Los Angeles financier, and their wedding had been a prominent social event. She gave a statement to the press in early November 1937. 

“I know my husband is not guilty and I am going to stand by him.”

Vernon Spencer’s mother, Mrs. George Spencer was also vehement in her belief in his innocence.

“My boy wouldn’t do a thing like that – I know,” she said. “They say my boy went north with that girl. They say he had been going up there with her for six or seven years. But he never even knew her. I never heard her name until newspapermen came to ask about her.

"They told me not to talk to anyone, but I know my boy and I know that the things the papers say about him are just lies.”

The inquest was so packed with spectators, some members of the jury had to force their way in. Scores were turned away, and for those who did gain access, it was standing room only for three and half hours of evidence at the police courtrooms in city hall.

Nearly half of the audience were women.

Many were present to hear the expert evidence of Dr. E.R. Frankish who was a medico-legal expert for the Attorney General’s Office of Ontario. He was expected to give his expert opinion on whether or not the bullet could have been self-inflicted.

The parents of Helen, Mr. and Mrs. James A. Grier of Battle Creek, Michigan did not believe their daughter would have committed suicide. They had been informed in a letter from Helen that she was going hunting with “Mrs. Spencer and her boy.”

According to her family, Helen was an avid hunter, an excellent markswoman and had gotten her first rifle at age 12.

When interviewed, a family member stated, “We are confident she did not kill herself for she recently took up a religion which is strongly against suicide. She was a hot-tempered girl, but very secretive and quiet. I think she was murdered all right.”

After hearing all the evidence and deliberating for 20 minutes the jury reached the following verdict.

“We the coroner’s jury empanelled to inquire into the death of Helen Grier find that she came to her death at Dr. Holcomb’s cabin at Long Lake, Algoma on Oct. 28, 1937, as a result of a bullet wound made by a shot from a .22 calibre rifle fired by some person unknown, with strong suspicion of the shot being fired by Vernon Spencer.”

Spencer was immediately placed under arrest and charged with murder.

Check back next week to see what happened during the trial!

Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Public Library has to offer at www.ssmpl.ca and look for more Remember This? columns here

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