Silencing Shameful Secrets

By Roderick MacLeod

Note: The description of Clifford’s conversation with Roddick is taken from EM Forster’s novel Maurice (Penguin, 1971, p.139), in which an Edwardian young man attempts to describe his homosexuality. Maurice was written 1913 but published posthumously to avoid embarrassment and criminal charges.

According to his obituary in the Montreal Daily Star, Clifford Redpath was a “bright, intelligent, cheerful youth of 24,” in appearance “tall and manly” and “fond of outside sports” such as canoeing and horseback riding. Despite his easy-going manner, however, Clifford did not always feel comfortable in the company of others save for one or two “very intimate” friends with whom he shared his leisure time. He was, however, extremely close to his widowed mother Ada, attentive to her many whims and needs and willing to nurse her through her frequent bouts of ill health. His sister Amy was, by contrast, distant from their mother and unwilling to assume the nurturing role traditionally assigned to daughters. Their brother Peter thought Ada a self-centred, domineering woman who interfered in every aspect of her children’s lives, complaining of headaches or heart congestion whenever she could not get her own way. There was no question of any of the siblings marrying while their mother lived. At thirty-two, Amy was virtually unmarriageable – at least in Peter’s opinion. Only Clifford seemed happy with the arrangement.

On June 13, 1901, the Redpaths had invited a circle of friends for dinner, including their frequent guest and family doctor, Thomas Roddick. He unfortunately could not attend because of a speaking engagement in Toronto. Peter dreaded the evening as he always did social occasions at which his mother’s watchful eye ruined any chances of pleasant exchanges with respectable young ladies. These contrasted the less respectable exchanges with which he usually contented himself afterwards in the basement laundry with the family servant, Rose. At around 5 o’clock, Clifford returned from a visit with one of his close friends, evidently with something on his mind, which he seemed bent on telling his mother. Peter was struck by his brother’s grim resolve and followed him upstairs to listen outside Ada’s bedroom door.

Clifford’s faltering attempts at confession clearly unnerved Ada. He rambled on about having consulted Dr Roddick with a personal problem and having been hurriedly silenced and ordered to tell no one. Now he had only his beloved mother to turn to, and with Roddick out of town he had seized this opportunity. With considerable pain he blurted out that he was “an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort.” The phrase took Peter some time to fathom until realization hit with shock. His horror was diverted by Ada’s sudden vehement refusal to listen to Clifford, her tone rising quickly to hysteria. Clifford’s own voice stuttered with terror at her reaction, which he had clearly not expected. The next moment, Ada wailed at the sight of a gun in Clifford’s hand, and he was hissing that he had no recourse left but to take his own life.

A plan for revenge quickly formed in Peter’s mind. He quietly fetched his own gun from his room and entered Ada’s room to see Clifford weeping, revolver pressed shakily into his left temple. Ada was too distraught to focus on Peter, but Clifford stared aghast. Peter immediately accused Clifford of being wicked and shameful, which proved a better weapon than the gun in his pocket: in a panic, Clifford fired into his own temple and slumped to the ground. Before she could scream, Peter shot Ada, one bullet in the shoulder and a second in the back of the head when she turned. Peter put his revolver on the floor near Ada and hurried to the stairs, where Rose and other servants were on their way up. He asked innocently where the shots had come from and together they entered Ada’s room.

Peter sent for Dr Patton who arrived shortly before six. The news leaked, and soon Peter was telling reporters what he would later tell the coroner: that Clifford had come home looking unwell at around six and climbed upstairs, at which point shots were fired. Rose might have noticed a discrepancy in Peter’s account regarding the time Clifford arrived home, but she was not about to raise this point with the coroner. When Roddick arrived Peter hinted to him that he had overheard Clifford revealing a secret to Ada, which clearly agitated both mother and son. Roddick, conscious of his own position within this family and his intentions to marry Amy, officially blamed epilepsy for the tragedy.

Source: Roderick MacLeod, "Silencing Shameful Secrets," 2007

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