Magazine article Queen's Quarterly

Portrait of a Scandal: The Trial of Robert Notman

Magazine article Queen's Quarterly

Portrait of a Scandal: The Trial of Robert Notman

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The authorities are very reticent yet, although the whole affair is in everybody's mouth, but the following facts transpired in the course of yesterday. It appears that Mr. Robert Notman, of this city, seduced a girl named Galbraith some time ago. The first intimation of the affair was that Galbraith was missing from her boarding house in Lagauchetiere Street.... The assistance of a detective was obtained, but she could not be found ...

Montreal Gazette, March 4, 1868

Montreal, February 1868

IN summer it was a city of bucolic outskirts, with melons, strawberries, and sweet corn grown in backyards. By contrast, the downtown streets hummed with sidewalk vendors touting ice cream and cool drinks to a perspiring public garbed in the tight stays and high collars dictated by propriety.

But winter was its true calling, its season par excellence. It was a city of snow, ice, and tinkling sleigh bells, built on the banks of a river with prodigious currents. Every year the St Lawrence froze solidly enough to form a bridge of ice linking Montreal to the mainland. A pathway marked by fir branches guided travellers along the treacherous route of irregular slopes and snow dunes.

It was a city of domes and spires--"a mountain of churches," according to Harriet Beecher Stowe. An actual, if small, mountain rose at its heart. You could shoot foxes on that mountain, or toboggan downs its flanks, or scale it on snowshoes by torchlight.

As a place to live, it was hardly idyllic: a city of ice shoves, ice jams, and spring floods, of cholera and smallpox. Its wooden sidewalks were hazardous and dirty; it was prone to fire, and its plumbing was a disaster. For several days in a row at the end of that February ice upriver blocked the aqueduct near the Lachine Rapids, depleting the reservoir on the mountainside and leaving the city without running water.

It was a city of social, linguistic, religious, and architectural disparities. It had streets of squalid little frame houses that reminded one Montrealer of "an Irishman's hovel on his native bog." But the shacks stood in the shadow of "great streets of great houses, all of fine-cut stone." This indigenous grey limestone resembled the building blocks of parts of France and Scotland, a likeness that must have been comforting to those of its many citizens of French and Scots heritage.

It was a city of fur barons and clergymen, of nuns and belles, of British garrison officers, merchants, factory owners, and labourers. The word multicultural would not be coined for another century, and yet the reality of ethnic diversity already stamped this city. On its streets strolled offspring of the early French settlers and more recently arrived immigrants from the British Isles. But you could not overlook the presence of the "unmistakable descendants of the ancient Iroquois Indians" either. And there were other unusual minorities. A few days before this story begins, the Jews of the English and German Synagogue inaugurated a new Torah scroll in a splendid ceremony that was reported in rich detail by an awestruck reporter for the Montreal Gazette.

It was a city like and unlike other cities in and out of its time, peopled by individuals cast in their own specificity, possessing their own unique dreams and terrors.

THE dreams and terrors of Dr Alfred Patton became fodder for gossip in the late winter of 1868. A young Irishman who had served with distinction as a ship's surgeon with the Montreal Ocean Steamship Company, he had hung up his shingle on Craig Street, near Place d'Armes Hill, in October 1867. Hard-working and popular, within weeks he had established "a fair practice." So said the Gazette of Friday, February 28, 1868, as it announced his sudden death "under painful circumstances." Painful, indeed: Dr Patton was all of 28 years old.

This obituary was merely a prologue to what would become known as the "Notman Case," or "The Abortion Case. …

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