My partner is a criminal defence lawyer, and when we recently came across this Saint John common council ordinance from 1936 — which authorizes an investigation into the “false arrest of Mary Boyd by City Police” — we were curious about the circumstances and wanted to know more.
This was a significant political scandal, so there is actually a lot of information about Boyd’s arrest in newspapers from this period. In 1936, she was a seventeen year old girl from Belyea’s Cove who had been arrested and briefly incarcerated, on the recommendation of her aunt, in the House of the Good Shepherd on Waterloo Street in Saint John. The House of the Good Shepherd (also called “Home of the Good Shepherd” and “Good Shepherd Reformatory and Industrial Refuge Laundry”) was one of the many secretive Magdalene laundries that operated in cities throughout North America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These institutions were established in Canada in 1844.
We found one image of the building, but after several passes up and down Waterloo Street, we have to assume this was at some point demolished. We have been unable to find a more specific address, but someone with a longer memory of 20th century Saint John might know where this was.
Mary Boyd served three days of a two year “sentence” before her father found out what had happened, traveled to Saint John, and hired a lawyer. The civil suit that the family subsequently filed against the city hinged on several questions, including the legality of actions taken by the arresting officers and whether Mary’s aunt had her father’s approval in seeking Mary’s committal. Edward Walsh’s investigation into this matter, which was authorized by common council on February 6, lead to the termination of Police Matron Annie Adams, Detective A. Earle McBrien, and Police Chief Edward Slader.
In his initial report, Walsh wrote,
The House of the Good Shepherd comes under the Penitentiary Act and no Protestant girl can be committed to the home. Even Roman Catholic girls have to have their case examined before a Magistrate before being committed to this institution.
I look upon the action of these police officers as a very serious matter. If it had not been for Mrs. Alexander Day reporting this case, this innocent girl would have suffered imprisonment for at least two years.
The evidence discloses that these two police officers violated one of the principles of the Magna Charter which we as British people hold very dear; that is, that no citizen can be placed in imprisonment without a proper hearing and being committed by the proper official. (qtd. in Higgins and McGahan, p. 60).
As mentioned above, there is a lot of information available about Mary’s case, including multiple archived court cases and lengthy newspaper articles. But as I read more about this scandal and investigation, what struck me most were not the ins and outs of Mary’s specific case but rather the implications of Walsh’s other findings. In August of 1936, he warned council of a larger, systematic problem, noting that other girls were being improperly or illegally committed to the House of the Good Shepherd.
We must wonder, then, how many women and girls were improperly detained, and what might have become of those who, once incarcerated, had no people to come for them and no means to hire legal representation or advocacy.
This question is addressed in a new book about these institutions by Rie Croll from the Memorial University Greenfell Campus. In Shaped by Silence: Stories from Inmates of the Good Shepherd Laundries and Reformatories (St. John’s: ISER Books, 2019), Croll interviews women from Ireland, Australia, and Canada whose lives were effectively shaped by their periods of detention in Magdalene laundries. Chapter One tells the story of Chaparral Bowman (nee Georgina Williams) who was born in the House of the Good Shepherd in Saint John to an incarcerated woman named Delcina who may have been Wolastoqi. Chapparal spent the first eighteen years of her life in the institution and sued the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in the 1990’s.
Croll describes the House of the Good Shepherd as “a thriving and lucrative laundry business, so successful that it posed a threat to similar Saint John businesses” (p. 56). Using newspaper records, she cites a long history of public lobbying against the institution that failed to reform exploitative business practices. In 1896, for example, one business owner complained that “‘Any girl could be sent to the convent from any part of the province, either by her father or guardian if he found he could not control her. Then the sisters had the benefit of her labour'” (qtd. in Croll, p. 56). Chapparal maintains that her mother “committed no crime” and yet was detained in the laundry service “until she was no longer able to work.”
Notably, it was requested that the “Reformatory of the Good Shepherd” in Saint John be added to the list of Canadian residential schools recognized by the “Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.” It is widely accepted that there were no residential schools within the borders of what is currently New Brunswick. The request to add the House of the Good Shepherd was assessed against “Article 12” in the Settlement Agreement and refused on the basis that the institution was provincially, rather than federally, operated.