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The mysterious death of Marjorie Barber

In this edition of Remember This, we begin the tale of one of the most high-profile murder cases in Sault Ste. Marie's history
Dalton Barber is pictured in this Sault Ste. Marie Public Library archive photo

From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:

In December of 1965, a woman was found dead in her bedroom. More than two months later, city police arrested her husband, an executive at Algoma Steel.

And so began one of the most high-profile trials the Sault had seen up to that point.

William Dalton Barber – better known as Dalton – came from a notable family in Sault Ste. Marie. He worked as staff assistant to the Vice President of Operations at Algoma Steel and had served as the Director of the Chamber of Commerce. His brother, Jack, worked for Algoma Steel as the Vice President of Finance. His father, Roland, also worked for the plant, and his uncle, E.B. Barber, was heavily involved in the Algoma Central Railway.

His wife, Marjorie Barber, was from Wisconsin. Prior to their marriage she had enlisted in the navy, climbing the ranks to lieutenant, and would later go on to work in children’s rehabilitation. Locally, she was involved with the Red Cross Branch and the Homemaker Services Committee. They did not have any children together, although Dalton had an estranged daughter from a previous marriage. The two lived on Barber Boulevard, adjacent to St. Mary’s River. This subdivision, located in the east end of the city, had been developed by Dalton and was named after his family.

Socially, their lives were entwined with the other members of the Algo Club, a private facility with a membership that largely consisted of wealthy Algoma Steel executives. The Barbers also lived richly; Dalton made up to $15,000 per year working at the plant, over $100,000 by today’s standards.

At 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 3, 1965, Dalton phoned his doctor requesting help. His voice on the phone was slurred and slow, but his message was clear: he discovered his wife in the garage, he was feeling sick, and he injured his back.

When the doctor arrived, he found that the house was full of “fumes” of some variety; the air was hazy with it. Marjorie was lying on the bed, deceased, wearing nothing but a pink hairnet. There were soot smudges on the insides of her nose and on her pillow, as well as on the back of one of Dalton’s hands.  Dalton was only partially conscious, lying across her feet.

The doctor telephoned his wife, who then called for an ambulance and a coroner.

Both of the Barbers had pink colouring, a symptom consistent with carbon monoxide poisoning – the coroner’s report would confirm this as the cause of Marjorie’s death. Dalton was brought to the hospital, asking for his glasses and his pipe along the way. He seemed to bounce back quickly in the ambulance, leading some to suspect he had been faking his semi-conscious state, but he still spent four days recovering in hospital.

A car in the garage was found with its motor still warm. In a statement to police, Barber initially claimed that he found his wife in the garage, legs hanging out of the passenger side of the car. He carried her to the bedroom, contacted the doctor, and collapsed.

According to news reports, the Crown Attorney described Marjorie’s death as “an unfortunate accident” and felt there was little reason for an inquest; she was buried in Greenwood cemetery, and an obituary in the Sault Star referred to her as Dalton’s “beloved wife.” Eerily, the Sault Star mistakenly put the previous day’s date on the header of the page where her death announcement was printed; for all appearances, it looked like her obituary ran on Dec. 2, announcing her death on Dec. 3 – perhaps a fitting printing error given what was to come.

Police continued to pursue the case. In February of 1966, they charged Dalton Barber with capital murder. Police, including Inspector Bob McEwen, who took the lead on the investigation, combed through the house for proof, exhumed Marjorie’s body, and interviewed witnesses. As they tried to piece together the story, they found a rabbit hole of conflicting opinions, accounts, and evidence that would fascinate Sault Ste. Marie.

Check back next Sunday morning for the continuing story of this tragic murder.

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

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