In the 1940s, jazz and swing were in vogue through North America. So was swing dancing, drinking (especially after the repeal of the Prohibition Act in the 1920s), flirting and fashion. / Women wore long, floral dresses and button-up shoes. They wore “gilda-girl” hairstyles, modeled after Rita Hayworth’s hairdo in the movie Gilda and bold red lipstick, that is, whenever they wore makeup at all. Men wore fedoras and suspenders and etiquette and manners were a social expectation. It was a fun era and a time for celebration for almost any reason.
The milkman brought glass bottles of milk to people’s doors. Newspapers were thrown on people’s porches and doorsteps. Neighbours were generally friendly with one another and it wasn’t unusual to leave your door unlocked at night. During that time, Toronto was no exception. Automobiles, streetcars horse and carriages used the highways and streets of the city. Many people rode bicycles on main roads (still do) and walking and roller skating were typical modes of transportation.
Between 1940 and 1949 the Burns family lived in a modest home in the Toronto suburbs. Henry Burn, husband and father, was an assistant blacksmith. His job paid little money so his wife, Molly Burns, an attractive redhead, took in laundry to help pay the bills. They had two boys, one of whom was named Robert (Bobby) Burns. Bobby was also a redhead, his distinctive hair the colour of a fire engine. Bobby remembered his mother well: she liked to drink, liked to dance, and liked to dress up to go out on Saturday nights with Henry. She and her husband had a “gang” of friends they socialized with on their fun-filled weekends. The boys were happy and felt secure with Molly for a mother. Their father on the other hand, had a jealous streak and this caused problems between their parents. The two were almost constantly fighting over Molly’s flirtations.
One afternoon Molly went to visit her mother. She wore heavy makeup, not typical of Molly at all. In fact, she usually wore very little except on Saturday nights, when she wore lipstick, blush and a little mascara. Her mother noticed the makeup but didn’t comment on it. She had her suspicions about why her daughter wore it so heavy and didn’t want to start an argument.
One night, Molly and Henry Burns went out to their usual watering hole to meet with friends. The night was fun except Molly wanted to dance and on this particular evening, Henry was too busy having a conversation with a friend to cut a rug with his wife. Molly found a different dance partner, an attractive waiter. They made a fine pair dancing the Rumba and the Jitterbug were favourites. Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman helped to popularize American Jazz. The effect of the Prohibition Act still echoed in Toronto. All establishments serving alcohol had to close early. The gang wanted to continue their party so they ventured back to the Burns’ house. While there Henry happened to go looking for Molly. He found her in the laundry room in the basement, having sex with the handsome waiter from the club. The party quickly broke up and the Burns got into a major row. Bobby Burns sat on the stairs unseen and listened to his parents’ fight. Suddenly the fight was over and peace reigned. Relieved, the little boy returned to bed.
The following morning Henry called Bobby into the bathroom where he was shaving. Without looking at his little boy he told him Molly had left and wasn’t coming back. Stunned, Bobby was too distraught to answer his father and Henry didn’t offer any explanation. Bobby wondered if he was such a bad boy that his mother felt she had to abandon him. 50 years of hurt and confusion would pass before Bobby Burns learned of his mother’s true whereabouts.
In the 1980s a construction crew raised Peerless, an old car repair garage, on Danforth Avenue to the ground to make way for a new building. While working, a crew member discovered a human skull. The skull had strands of red hair attached to it. He continued to dig and soon found more bones. By the time homicide officers arrived, the work crew had dug up and moved most of the skeleton’s bones. Officers were left with 114 out of the 206 human bones that construct the human body. It was easy to determine that the deceased was a female but determining her age and height was another matter. The best the experts could do was to guess the woman was between 20 and 40 years old and between 5’2″ and 5’8″ in height. They also reasoned due to the shape of the skull that she was Caucasian. The skull was quite helpful: it had a Vulcan dental plate in the upper mandible, with teeth marks distinctive to the victim. Because the victim had been found on Danforth Road she was nicknamed The Danforth Lady.
A woman who dealt with forensic craniofacial reconstruction was called in to help rebuild the woman’s face for identification purposes. Alas, there was no photograph to work with so guesswork was an important part of this process. By the time the woman was finished, she discovered the deceased had a large gap between her front teeth, a prominent, rounded nose and high cheekbones. Adding hair to the skull was particularly helpful since it gave the picture a more “human” touch. The picture that was printed from the digital reconstruction was placed on posters and in newspapers, asking the public for help in identifying the victim. Several leads were offered and one in particular intrigued officers. A redhead named Edith Parks had lived in Toronto near Danforth Avenue decades before when she was in her 20’s, approximately 28 years old. Her height and appearance seemed to fit the skeleton perfectly, including the Vulcan dental plate in her upper mandible. Even more intriguing was that her father had been convicted of deliberately drowning her 2-year-old brother in a lake by wrapping him in tarp and throwing him over the side of a rowboat. The team was almost convinced they found their victim. But wait. In homicides it’s never smart to jump to conclusions and sure enough, after investigation into Parks’ whereabouts they discovered her alive and well in another part of the city. Bummer, in a manner of speaking. It was back to the beginning to identify The Danforth Lady. Even with modern forensic technology, identifying victims and finding killers is almost as difficult as it was before the use of computers and DNA.
One fine day, Robert Burns, now in his 50’s happened to be reading a newspaper when he saw the picture. The similarity to his mother was uncanny. He contacted police and brought a photograph of his mother with him when he attended the police station. Astounded at the resemblance, police investigated the Molly Brown’s “abandonment” of her family in the 1940s. The police were particularly interested in the fight between Henry and Molly on the night she disappeared. The skull of the deceased had 7 large blows to it, so deep they went through the skull. Henry was a tradesman and had a toolbox containing a hammer. It seemed possible he killed his wife that night but the police had a question to solve first: how did Henry drive Molly’s body 10 blocks away from his house when the family didn’t have a car? The solution was quite simple: as a tradesman, Henry used a horse and carriage in his work. Police surmised this was how Henry delivered Molly to the dirt pile that was once the crime scene before the car dealership was built over it.
For half a century Robert Burns believed his mother hadn’t loved him enough to raise him. Now the lost boy inside the man had comfort and closure. And Molly Burns was laid to rest in a place where Robert and his brother could visit and pay their respects to their long-lost, beloved mother.