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

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:

Following up on last week’s article about the murder and the arrest of a suspect, find out what happened at the trial!

With a murder trial on the horizon, investigators again visited the Holcomb cabin, which was not easily done in January in the 1930s.

According to the Sault Star, “Whether the officers will journey to Glendale by train, and then go into the forsaken and lonely Holcomb cabin with its blood-stained floors by snowshoes from the Ranger Lake Road or will secure snowplowing services to open the road as far as possible, was not learned.”

The defence council also asked that Helen Grier’s body be exhumed for further study. It was only the second time that this had ever been done in the region. The exhumation had to take place in the morning to “prevent crowds of morbidly curious people from visiting the scene.”

In a practice no longer allowed in Canada, the names of the 12 men selected to be the jury in Vernon Spencer’s murder trial were published in the paper. The members of the jury were; Ben Archibald (farmer, Johnson Township), Sam Arbour (millwright, SSM), Norman Clark (cashier, SSM), Chas. Constable Jr. (steelworker, SSM), John Davidson (farmer, Macdonald, Meredith, and Aberdeen), Chas. Duncan (clerk, SSM), Frank Dwyer (electrician, Tarentorus), R.M. Fair (clerk, SSM), Melvin Garside (farmer, Hilton Township), George Frech (clerk, SSM), Russell Lamming (farmer, Korah Township), and Frank Rodgers (machinist, St. Joseph Township).

The jury once selected, was not permitted to leave the courthouse until the case was over. This meant the men would be sleeping on cots in the courthouse until the trial was over. At the start of the trial, Mr. Justice McTague informed the jury that, “in effect for the duration of this trial you’ve joined the cloister.”

They were permitted no visitors, newspapers, or any form of communication. The trial lasted seven days, and their only real break from the confines of the courthouse was a supervised swim at the YMCA and a Sunday drive to Echo Bay.

The first day of the trial saw C. W. Hewitt, a clerk at the Algonquin Hotel testify that Vernon Spencer had stayed there but had registered himself and his companion under an assumed name – Mr. and Mrs. B.M. Sprague.

The testimony of William Roach was also heard pertaining to Spencer’s arrival at his home after finding Helen’s body.

Mr. Roach told Crown Counsel Mr. O’Flynn that “even a stranger would have no trouble finding his way along the trail if they were given directions," thereby casting doubt on Spencer’s assertion that he had taken so long to arrive at the Roach home due to getting lost in the bush.

Spencer had knocked on the door around 10 p.m. wanting to use the phone. Spencer had told him, “there’s a murder at Long Lake, and that he needed to call Dr. Holcomb.” Mr. Roach maintained that there was no mention of calling the police and that he was “awful excited” and had a scratch on his finger.

Next to testify was Fred Olar who had been employed as their guide.

He was questioned at great length as he had accompanied the pair to the cabin and stayed there a few days. When asked how the two were getting along in his presence before he left, he said he had seen no problems, “they were enjoying life when I left them.”

He also testified that when Spencer appeared at his home late on the night of Oct. 28 and wasn’t sure what to do, Olar believed he should call the law. This testimony was later corroborated by W.H. Spence who had been in charge of the Crane Lumber Company and tollgate at Glendale.

He had put in a call to Dr. Holcomb for Spencer, then at Olar’s recommendation, he called the police.

The trial also involved the testimony of local police, the coroner, and several expert witnesses for both the Crown and Defense.

There was some disagreement over injuries to Helen Grier’s head, and whether or not Miss Grier would have been able to pull the trigger herself given the position in which the body and rifle had been found. This was further complicated by the fact that during the initial investigation, no chalk outline or measurements were taken before the body was moved, only a chip of wood was placed on the floor at her feet by Constable Thos. Crawford.

Character witnesses were called by the defence who attested that Vernon Spencer’s reputation in the community was a good one.

They had managed to bring a Michigan circuit judge, a retired Michigan judge, and even the Assistant Attorney General for the State of Michigan. They would testify to his good reputation but admitted their faith in his honesty and morality had been shaken by the facts of the case, as all expressed concern that he had been deceiving his wife.

Vernon Spencer himself was never called to testify during the trial.

During closing arguments, the defence lamented that the printing of newspaper articles was “unfair to justice” as their stories were full of rumours with no evidence and that Mr. Spencer was not facing a charge of immorality.

Defence Counsel Mr. MacInnis stated that “he was not trying to justify Spencer’s escapade with Helen Grier.”

The coverage of the trial was indeed extensive. After the trial, the Sault Star would feature an article entitled, “It’s Not an Easy Job to Report a Murder Trial.”

The reporters assigned to the trial dealt with insomnia and/or dreamed about the case. They maintained “they strained every nerve to make their reports fair and accurate and they worried about whether they were or not.”

The closing remarks of the Crown took an opportunity to address an allegation made by the defence that Fred Olar or one of the other lumberjacks or guides in the area may have had something to do with Grier’s death.

Crown Counsel O’Flynn stated, “Olar denied that he was there and there is no contradiction in this. That is a mean insinuation to throw out against a guide or lumberjack in this bush country. Have you ever heard of a lumberjack attacking a woman? Have you ever heard of one prosecuted for attacking a woman? There is no more sacred place where you could leave your own wife than in the bush where she would be respected and protected by the men in the bush such as Olar and the other guides and bushmen we have. There is not a tittle of evidence to justify that insinuation.”

In his charge to the jury before the start of deliberations, Justice McTague called the trial “queer and unusual”, and that, “I could never reconcile my conscience to convict the accused on the type of evidence offered here.”

He reminded the jury not to let the relationship of the accused and deceased enter into their considerations, “and that even if they didn’t approve of the situation, no jury on a murder trial is going to punish an adulterer for his acts.”

After three hours of deliberations, Vernon Spencer was declared not guilty. There was simply not enough evidence that he had committed a crime, and there was reasonable doubt of his guilt.

After his acquittal Vernon Spencer left for his home in Michigan, stating that although he felt he had been treated fairly, he had no plans to ever return.

“I won’t cross this river again. You can bet on that,” he said.

According to the Sault Star’s society pages, he must have had a change of heart. In 1941 he and his wife crossed the border to visit Mr. and Mrs. R.M. Hearst on McNabb Street. Hearst was the governor of the Sault jail during his incarceration.

Helen Grier never had the chance to leave Algoma. Her remains are buried at the Old Greenwood Cemetery, her headstone a testament to a life cut tragically short.

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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