About 200 km west of Toronto, lies the smaller city of London, On, nicknamed forest city and its surrounding areas. This city has been connected to major metropolitan areas by freeways and highways since 1956, yet still separated and urban. The area is a perfect market test area as everything is ever so average: the economy, the demographics. It’s a beautiful location, surrounded by nature. But London has a dark and haunted past. We will be exploring a part of this dark and sordid past within the next few episodes. Travel with me today to 1969 in London, ON, and the surrounding area.
It was payday—a cold and blustery day on the 29th of January 1969. Jane Woolley and the other staff were picking up their paychecks at the small dodgy hotel on the busy corner of Dundas and Talbot Street, downtown London, ON, called London House. London house was a small hotel that catered to the down & destitute. Its main level surrounded by worn painted French windows in the same condition as its patrons… in need of rehabilitation. I imagine it wasn’t always this way. It had been servicing customers for 100 years by this point.
Jane was a 62-year-old woman who lived alone. She had to work, albeit part-time, as a chambermaid at the London House hotel. She made 40$/week, which would be about 350$/week current value. She was last seen leaving the London House on the 29th, after picking up her paycheck. She was known to visit local bars and taverns in local hotels after work; however, if she visited one or two that day, no one knows. She did end up going home to her apartment on York Street just a few blocks away. Sometime after leaving the London House on the 29th and before her shift started on the 30th, Jane had a visitor. They sat for a bit and had a cigarette or two. She didn’t make it into work on Thursday the 30th, but this didn’t immediately bring concern. The London House had a high-turnover, and they just figured she quit and didn’t tell anyone. Her position was filled by Friday the 31st. Saturday, the first, came and went, and rent went unpaid. By Monday, the 3rd of February, the landlord decided to drop in on Jane. She wasn’t usually late with the rent. At 1:30 pm, she approached the unit Jane rented. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary; no damaged door frame, no evidence of any forced entry. She knocked on the door. There was no answer. She unlocked the door and walked into a horrid scene.
Jane was found in a room in the rear of the unit. She was lying on her back. She took in the sight, from the bottom moving up. Laying on the floor, her legs slightly splayed, her clothing was violently ripped from her body, with the exception of her nylons still upon her legs.
Further up, a pillow and three sweaters covered her head, laying in a pool of her own blood. Her pet budgie dead. Law enforcement was called.
Jane was pronounced dead on scene. She had died a cruel and brutal death. Under the pillow and three sweaters were an extremely fractured skull and face. She was violently bludgeoned. An inspection of the scene revealed a landline phone removed from the receiver, but not ripped from the wall. Any caller who called would have gotten a busy signal. Cigarette butts filled the ashtray in the living room, some with lipstick residue in Jane’s shade and some without. Her purse was turned upside down and the contents dumped and her wallet missing. Her clothing had been spread about her apartment. And, most odd of all, was the death of her pet budgie, despite having had enough food and water to live several days. The bird looked physically uninjured, and law enforcement theorized that it had died of stress from watching its owner’s vicious murder.
Initially, law enforcement told the media very little details of the horrendous crime. Stating only that foul play was suspected in her death and cause of death would only be confirmed during the autopsy and that they were treating their death as a homicide.
Her autopsy revealed that she had been dead for several days—her death from brutal head trauma. And even though her clothing appeared to be forcefully removed, there was no sign of penetration, leaving law enforcement to hypothesize that someone killed her while he was in the midst of trying to rape her. The theft of the little money she had on hand appeared to have been stolen as an afterthought and not the assaulter’s primary goal of the evening.
It would be years before her murderer would be identified.
About an hour and 20 minutes southwest of London, Gerald and his wife Mary were settling in at their apartment in Merlin, a small village of 600 people village. Mary and Gerald were an odd couple. Gerald had a criminal record dating back 20 years involving robbery, break & enter and possession. Mary and Gerald had somehow met, although not in person, at the end of 1967 and corresponded by mail for 11 months, then decided to get married only 11 days after meeting in person for the first time.
A year and a half go by in Gerald and Mary’s lives, they didn’t have a car, and Gerald wasn’t working, and even though Mary was 18 years older than 39-year-old Gerald, she was the breadwinner. They decided to move to Chatham, about 20 minutes away, between London and Merlin as Mary had a job at the Canadiana Nursing Home in Chatham, and it would be easier for her to get to and from work if they lived close. They were scheduled to move in October 1970.
On Saturday, the 6th of September, 1970, Mary Gray, a neighbour and member of Edith Authier’s carpool, was over, meeting to be ready to pick her up to go to work. Although Edith was nearing close to retirement at 57, she had been a widow for 13 years, had no children, and lived alone. So, she was working. Edith worked as a chambermaid at the William Pitt Hotel, a reasonably large hotel in downtown Chatham that was known for hosting different bands and entertainment. She had been working there for a year. Mary Gray knocked on Edith’s bungalow door, but there was no answer. After several attempts, she became concerned and called law enforcement to do a wellness check.
Edith’s body was discovered during the initial inspection completed by law enforcement during the wellness check. She was found in her nightgown on her back in the kitchen of the bungalow, laying in a pool of blood, directly beside the table. Her blood splattered on the wainscoting and the base of the table. Three butcher knives pulled from her counter were found close to her body, two of which were covered in blood and used in her murder. Edith had been stabbed 5-6 times and cruelly beaten with the electronic clothes iron. Both Weapons of opportunity. Edith was also sexually assaulted.
Such a murder in such a small village, where everyone knew each other, was quite the shock. Someone had come forward and told the police that they had heard someone running away from the direction of Edith’s small house on the 5th of September. Law enforcement also received a tip of a late model back and white car that was seen leaving Edith’s home. It didn’t appear that law enforcement had any luck purposing these two tips, though, ultimately, they felt that the sighting of the late model vehicle wasn’t connected. An initial search of the village was conducted, but nothing was discovered from that search.
Shortly after the murder, around the 8th of September, as Mary and Gerald were starting to pack and prepare for their move out of this small village to the small city of Chatham, Mary learned about the death of her brother’s widow. It is not known if they were close; however, they had settled in the same small town.
Around the same time that Mary and Gerald moved from Merlin to Chatham, law enforcement discovered Edith’s emptied small plastic folder wallet and private papers on Middle South road, a rural street about a mile from the village. The Ontario Provincial Police made an appeal to the public for information, hoping that someone would have seen someone either walking or driving on that street on the 5th of the 6th of September; however, this ended up being another dead end. Law enforcement believed that her wallet and papers were likely discarded shortly after her murder and speculated that robbery could have been a motive to her death. The handling of her case appeared to be disorganized, as several law-enforcement detachments were involved in her case. Evidence was mishandled, and although law enforcement had some primary suspects, they didn’t have any solid leads or evidence to move forward with any arrests or indictments, and Edith’s case quickly went cold.
Meanwhile, Mary and Gerald were settling in at 203 Adelaide Street in Chatham. Mary was still working at the Canadiana Nursing home. And Gerald, even though only 39 and 18 years her junior, was a welfare recipient and a heavy drinker, who spent a lot of his time at local hotel bars and taverns. He managed to find some odd jobs here and there, but nothing consistent or stable in the four months that they have been living in the city. It was now January 1971, and he was still spending any money he could on alcohol at the downtown hotel bars & taverns. And, this was precisely his plan on Friday, the 22nd of January.
Just a little way down Adelaide Street, at 43 an ½, 57-year-old Isobella, commonly nicknamed Bell or Belva, called in a second sick day from her job as a chambermaid at the downtown Chatham Hotel, where she had worked for the past ten years, which was walking distance from the William Pitt, Merrill, and Rankin House Hotels. And, although she was presumedly suffering from the flu, after spending the majority of the day inside, her and her common-law husband and partner of 3 years, Reginald, left the apartment after dinner after Reginald returned from picking up his paycheck from Courtesy Cabs, where he worked as a cab driver, to do some grocery shopping and run some other errands. At around 6:30 pm, they stopped at the Rankin Hotel for a few drinks. He was in “work clothes” so left the hotel bar to go back to their apartment on Adelaide street to change by himself, remember this, this will be important later, and then return. He came back and met Belva at the Chatham Hotel, where they stayed until 11:30 pm. At some point, Belva left the hotel bar without Reginald, he looked around and didn’t see her anywhere, he then left and dropped in at the Rankin Hotel, but she wasn’t there either, so he decided to go to the Satellite Restaurant to sit and eat some food.
In the meantime, Belva entered the Merrill hotel bar at around midnight and was later joined by friend Hugh Smith. Gerald was there as well, although they wouldn’t be sitting together, when Belva got up from the table to go to the washroom, he asked the hotel manager for permission to sit on the Ladies side, despite being alone. After being given permission, he moved to the ladies’ side of the bar and then sat alone by the cigarette machine. Close to closing time, a waiter, named William Bezzo, saw Gerald still sitting alone, so he decided to grab a beer and join him for a final drink before closing. At some point, they started talking about Belva. Gerald told William that he was originally from London, ON, and that he knew Belva, and that he and her daughter used to date. When William asked Gerald why he didn’t go sit with her, Gerald said that he had been up to Belva’s apartment earlier in the day and that he tried to “force her to do something” which resulted in a scuffle and that if she didn’t smarten up, he was going to kill her.
At closing time, in the early morning of the 23rd, Hugh escorted Belva back to her second-floor apartment. He stayed outside until he saw the light come on and then left to go home immediately after. Belva and Reginald lived in an upper floor apartment on one side of a duplex. One side was 41 Adelaide, and one side was 43 Adelaide. I believe the stairs to her apartment was at the rear of the building.
Just before 1:00 am, on the 23rd, Myrtle Barks, a downstairs neighbour, at 41 Adelaide Street, of Belva and Reginald, turned off her TV and went into her bedroom to relax and listen to the radio. At 1:45 am, she heard angry voices coming from Belva and Reginald’s apartment. That of a woman, Belva, and a man. The man’s voice was not that of Reginald’s. She heard Belva shout, “get down those stairs! I don’t want you in this house.” Then she heard mumbling, indistinct rambling from the unfamiliar man, then a massive crash that shook the stovepipes in Myrtles’ bedroom. The sound of stumbled walking and mumbling continued for another 30 minutes or so.
She and another tenant, Rick Blair, who also heard the commotion while watching TV, both exited their apartments to see what was going on. When Myrtle saw that Rick was going to look, she went back into her apartment.
At this time, Reginald had called a cab from the Satellite Restaurant to bring him home. He called for a taxi at 2:00 am. He would have arrived home close to 2:15 am. When he came home, an unknown man was running down the stairs from the second level and wouldn’t stop, even as Reginald bellowed, “what the hell is going on?” The unknown man crashed by him, hitting his chin along the way, and continued going. This made Reginald terrified and concerned for Belva.
Myrtle then heard Reginald open the door to his and Belva’s apartment and yell out in anguish, “What in the hell?? Bell, speak to me-who did this to you?” Myrtle jumped out he bed as Reginald ran down the stairs to go to the front of the building to knock on Myrtle’s door. When she opened her front door, she was met by Reginald. Together, they went upstairs to Reginald and Belva’s apartment.
Belva was lying on her back, with her arms outstretched on the dining room floor. She was naked from the waist down, there was blood on her body, and a blue short-sleeved sweater and slip were pulled up from the bottom over her breasts. Her blue skirt, girdle, and nylons were found about 6 feet away, behind the living room door. Her body was still warm to the touch. Reginald was crying and very emotional; he asked Myrtle to call the police, the hospital, and an ambulance. Myrtle’s daughter made the call to the police.
Constable Wayne Shoemaker of the Chatham police department said that he received a call at 2:15 am and arrived at Belva and Reginald’s apartment about 5 minutes later at 2:20 am, where he and CPL Donald Thompson reviewed the crime scene. Homicide investigators were brought in. It was evident that Belva had suffered severe head injuries, and there were several marks and wounds on her body. The crime appeared to be sexually motivated, and it was evident that she was attacked. She looked as though she was preparing for bed when she was struck and killed.
Fingerprints of an unknown individual were lifted from pieces of glass and the kitchen door frame. Statements were taken from Reginald and the other tenants at 43 and 41 Adelaide Street. Reginald was able to provide a description of the man he said he saw running down the stairs from the 2nd level, who had also hit him in the face or chin on the way down. An appointment to create a composite sketch would be scheduled.
An Autopsy on Belva was completed only 11 hours after her death. The pathologist indicated that she had likely died around 2:00 am on the 23rd. And although he couldn’t determine a specific anatomical cause of death, it was his opinion that she had been killed from the shock brought on by the head injuries. Death by disease or natural causes were ruled out. He also indicated that the marks to the exterior of her body would not have resulted from a single fall, but several of them. A blood sample was taken and sent to the centre of forensic sciences in Toronto for further testing.
Early news articles wrote that Belva was the second chambermaid in Chatham to be violently murdered within five months. Police had told media at the time that they didn’t believe the two murders were connected. Whether that was true at the time or if it was simply stated to no create additional fear with the people in the area, we do not know.
Belva’s funeral was held at the end of January at the John G. Stephen Funeral Home and later buried at the Maple Leaf Cemetery. She was predeceased by two children but was survived by her estranged husband, George, two daughters, and four sons.
A composite sketch was completed and released to the public in various newspapers on the 9th of February. The suspect in Belva’s murder was described as male, white, 5’8″ to 5’10”, 160 lbs, short light-coloured hair, and possibly a bad left eye. Reginald had also described him as being between 40-45 years old. Police had said that the man was known to have spoken or been in contact with Belva at the Merrill Hotel shortly before she was murdered in her apartment. A copy of the composite sketch will be on Instagram, as well as the website. After the composite sketch was printed, law enforcement received 100’s of tips, and the province-wide search was started. The noose was beginning to tighten around the perpetrator’s neck.
The police were diligently working, virtually around the clock, with 8-15-hour days, leading them to various areas in southwestern Ontario.
A search warrant was executed on the 12th of February at Mary and Gerald’s house. A redshirt with blood stains was removed from Gerald’s dresser and submitted into evidence. When law enforcement asked how the bloodstains got there, both Mary and Gerald told them that he often got nose bleeds and the blood must have gotten there due to that. They would be submitting the shirt for testing.
Gerald was brought in for questioning, and Reginald identified him in a police line up as the man who ran down the stairs from his and Belva’s second-floor apartment.
On Thursday, the 18th of February, Gerald was working as a casual labourer with a tree cutting crew for the Ontario Department of Highways. That day he was working with a team on Hwy 401 at Highgate. He broke for lunch a little after noon. At 12:30 pm, four city detectives, Sergeant Tom Bird, Detectives Wayne Parker, Garland Babcock, and James Boyle, approached Gerald Thomas Archer while on his lunch break and arrested him for the murder of Isobella Belva Russell and remanded into custody. Not being able to afford an attorney, he applied for legal aid.
The preliminary hearing took place in April 1971, no publication or broadcasts statements were made during the hearing. He was indicted to stand trial in June.
Gerald Thomas Archer pleaded not guilty in the murder of Belva Russell. In addition to the confirmation that the two fingerprints found on the door frame and piece of glass in Belva’s apartment, Reginald had picked him as the person seen leaving his apartment stairway. William Bezzo, the waiter from the Merrill Hotel also testified. He told the jury of the conversation that he and Gerald had just an hour or so before Belva’s slaying. Gerald had denied having this conversation. He even had a story to explain away the fingerprints found on scene. He told the court that he had gone to Belva’s a couple of days before her death to bring her whiskey as he overheard conversations in a downtown hotel that she had the flu. He testified that he had called her on the phone and asked it would be ok to stop in to see her. She Acquiesced as long as he left at 8:30 pm. He said that the evening that he went over to her apartment, one of Belva’s son-in-law’s (Rich Carson) drove him there and left after Gerald entered the residence, which was corroborated by Rich Carson. Gerald said that Belva poured two drinks (one for each of them) after letting him in the apartment. After pouring the beverages, he said that Belva felt dizzy and then went into her bedroom. Gerald said he never sat down, only bent over once. He then left her place.
Gerald said that on the 22nd of January, he left Merril Hotel, walked up to William street, crossed over, and up to his home. He said he heard of Belva’s death the following day, and he didn’t go back to the hotel the following day because he had a criminal record and didn’t want to step into the investigation. The crown said there was a big jump from robbery to murder, to which Gerald explained, “I’ve never been charged with safe cracking, but I have been picked up for it.”
They also asked him why he never went to these establishments with his wife, to which he replied that his wife wouldn’t be caught dead in a hotel.
A redshirt with bloodstains on it belonging to Gerald’s was presented at court. Gerald and his wife both passed off these bloodstains as being caused by all the nose bleeds that Gerald was susceptible to. Both Gerald and Belva had Type A blood type. There was no DNA testing at the time.
Defence said that on the 22nd of January, Gerald went to the city hall welfare office in the afternoon, then ended up at the Merrill Hotel, where he saw Belva sitting with another man, then left the hotel at 1:15 am on the 23rd, and arrived home at 1:30 am.
During the trial, Gerald’s wife, who was approximately the same age as the victim, was called as a witness. She testified that Gerald came home at 1:30 am on the 23rd of January. She testified that when her husband came home, it was evident that he had been drinking. She said she knew the time because she noticed the kitchen clock and then the one in the bedroom when Gerald came in.
The crown established that the murder took place around 2:00 am on the 23rd of January. The crown contends that Gerald saw Belva at the hotel and later attempted to rape or indecently assault her, and through this attempt, died.
Gerald was found Guilty of non-capital murder on the 17th of June 1971 (Thursday) and was sentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole. The jury deliberated for 3.5 hours before entering the guilty verdict. The jury verdict was unanimous. The defence counsel had each juror polled individually to record his verdict.
Gerald sat emotionless during the delivery of the verdict, other than to lean over from the aisle to speak to his wife Mary, who was sitting on an inside aisle seat.
Earlier, when led from the courtroom while the jury went to deliberate, Gerald walked down the same aisle, leaned over someone, and made a show of kissing his wife on the lips. When being escorted in for the verdict, he put his right hand on her left shoulder as he was passing her.
The judge said he agreed with the verdict and told Gerald that life imprisonment was mandatory. The trial ended with Gerald saying loudly to his wife as he was being led from the courtroom, “That’s only strike one” Newspapers at that time note that the significance to this statement was unknown. He made this statement as several Chatham police detectives were escorting him from the supreme courtroom, moments after he was read his verdict.
Gerald appealed his murder conviction in 1972 but ultimately lost his appeal. He was paroled in 1985, lived as a drifter for about ten years, and died of a heart attack in 1995; he was about 64 years old at the time.
Two years after Gerald Archer’s death, a special task force probing 20 ‘cold’ murder cases in southern Ontario was created in 1997, nicknamed ‘Project Angel.’ Around this time, Gerald’s estranged wife and daughter or step-daughter came forward and told law enforcement that Gerald had admitted to them that he had killed Edith. He was drunk at the time, and they took it just to be drunken blather.
Apparently, Gerald Archer was a suspect in Edith’s original murder investigation, police said.
His body was exhumed in 2000, and tissue samples were taken to compare to evidence from both Jane and Edith’s crime scenes. His DNA matched the cigarette butts at Jane Woolly’s apartment. Evidence from Edith’s case was reportedly mishandled, so DNA could not be matched there. But he is believed to be the murderer as the victim type, and the MO is a match, as well as the confession he made to his wife and daughter.
An announcement was made by the special task force in 2000, indicating that the case of Jane Woolley’s and Edith Authier’s murders were solved. They would not, however, release the perpetrator’s name as requirements under the law dictate that the names couldn’t be named until the perpetrator has been dead for 30 years. That being said, they did provide enough information at the time for the name to be identified, stating that the man was convicted of another southwestern Ontario woman in 1971 and had died of a heart attack in 1995 at the age of 64. His name has been confirmed since 2000.
This brings us the end of Part 1 of London’s Sordid Past. I hope you’ll join me in two weeks’ time for Part 2.
‘Cold North Killers’ ~ Lee Mellor, Pages 351-352