Paul Wilson: Saved from the gallows, Evelyn Dick lives on

Evelyn Dick is Hamilton's best-known villainess. She slept with many of this city's men of means and her husband's bullet-ridden torso turned up near the Mountain Brow. Hear her story on a vintage CBC Radio show or see her at a new theatre production in Dundas.
Brian Morton has been living the Evelyn Dick story for decades. This is the alley behind her house on Carrick Avenue where she banged up a Packard. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

They don’t put alleys through neighbourhoods anymore. But in this old part of Hamilton between Sherman and Gage we’re walking down one of the classics, with sagging garages, faded fences, a rutted lane.

This particular alley makes Brian Morton tingle, because Evelyn Dick was here.

Morton, 47, has been in theatre a long time. He drove cab too. In that cab, people would tell him their Evelyn Dick stories. Everybody had one. Then he would tell passengers his own stories about her.

Evelyn Dick emerges from another day in court. (Local History & Archives, Hamilton Public Library)

Morton is well and truly consumed. He will talk about Evelyn Dick until you ask him not to.

He is putting a cast through rehearsals right now for a production of How Could You, Mrs. Dick? There are to be nine performances at Dundas Little Theatre Inc. starting April 26.

In case you’re new in town, Evelyn Dick is Hamilton’s most famous villainess, a woman who admitted sleeping with many of Hamilton’s men of means.

Courthouse was jammed

She was also charged with murdering husband John Dick. Some kids found his bullet-riddled torso – head, arms and legs missing – on Mar. 16, 1946.

It was a sensational trial and newspapers across the country reported every lurid detail. The Main Street courthouse was jammed every day.

The story never really went away. CBC Radio launched a new show called Scales of Justice 31 years ago. The aim was to have real court dramas, and it would help if they could get co-operation from the lawyers involved in those cases.

Lines for the Dick trial formed every day at the courthouse on Main, under the watchful eyes of the UEL family in bronze. (Local History & Archives, Hamilton Public Library)

The nation’s lawyers were reluctant at first. That changed when CBC was able to persuade J.J. Robinette to help them tell the Evelyn Dick story. He even agreed to play himself in the radio drama. Back in the ‘40s, when he handled Evelyn’s murder-conviction appeal, he was young and unknown. But by the 1980s, he had become one of Canada’s most prominent trial lawyers.

On Dec. 12, 1982, CBC Radio aired How Could You, Mrs. Dick?, written by Douglas Rodger. It was narrated by Eddie Greenspan, a top-drawer lawyer himself.

He told the audience that they might think the story sounds "like some Hollywood B-movie of the ‘40s. It isn’t. It really happened and it involved a murder and a trial that made Evelyn Dick the most notorious woman in Canada."

The show is laden with Hamilton references – the Majestic Grill, the Royal Connaught, a flat on Barton Street that poor John Dick arranged for his ungrateful bride.

"You must be crazy if you think I’m going to live in a flophouse," she tells him.

CBC Archives has Evelyn's story

Courtesy of CBC Archives, you can listen to the show right here, right now. Just click that little box up top of this page.

Straight from court testimony, you’ll hear a lawyer ask Evelyn about her infant son, who was found in a cement-filled suitcase in her house.

Tyrone Springer lives across from Evelyn Dick's old house on Carrick Avenue and watches people take souvenir photos. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

"Is it not a fact that the father of that child could have been any one of 400 men in this city?" the lawyer asks.

"No, not that many," she says.

"Three hundred, then," he suggests.

"Well, no."

"Tell the court how many men you’ve had sexual intercourse with then," the lawyer says.

"Maybe 150," Evelyn says.

"Mrs. Dick," says the lawyer, "I want you to name these men for the court right now. Who are they?"

Brian Morton, who's directing a play on Evelyn Dick this month, took his cast to see the house where she grew up on Rosslyn Avenue. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

"Well, his son for one," she replies.

"Were you indicating his honour?" the lawyer asks.

"Yes, the judge’s son."

At this point in the show, narrator Greenspan steps in: "The judge issued a restraining order preventing newspapers from publishing the names Evelyn revealed. How he dealt with his son is not a matter of public record."

The sentence is death

Evelyn is found guilty of murdering John Dick and is to hang on Jan. 7, 1947.

Then Robinette rides in, at the Ontario Court of Appeal. On the CBC show, hear him eviscerate a surprise witness who tries to point the finger at Evelyn and you will see he had the makings of a top trial lawyer.

Thanks to these kids, John Dick's remains turned up soon after his death. They found his torso near Albion Falls. (Local History & Archives, Hamilton Public Library)

So, on appeal, Evelyn beats that murder conviction. But she’s found guilty of manslaughter in the death of the child in the suitcase and heads to Kingston Penitentiary for 11 years.

Brian Morton brought her back to town in 1989, with a staging of How Could You, Mrs. Dick? at the Hamilton Place Studio Theatre.

He and partners did it again two years later at the Tivoli Theatre. It ran for three months and they sold 30,000 tickets.

The play surfaced again at Theatre Aquarius in 1999, and again nine years ago for a sold-out run at the Players’ Guild of Hamilton.

Evelyn keeps selling tickets

And what’s it doing at Dundas Little Theatre now? Morton is honest about that. "Basically because Evelyn keeps selling tickets. DLT was looking for a season that made money."

A few weeks ago, Morton led a convoy of the cast on an Evelyn tour. It includes the brick bungalow where she grew up at 214 Rosslyn. And the spot near Albion Falls where they found the torso. And, of course, the 2 1/2-storey brick home at 32 Carrick Avenue.

This was Evelyn’s last house before the big house, the place where they found the baby in the suitcase in the attic nearly 70 years ago.

No one’s home today. "Everyone knows about this house," Morton says.

Across the street, Tyrone Springer comes out on his porch.

Does he know the history? "Oh, yes," he says. "People still drive by and take pictures."

Evelyn Dick and her mother in happier times, strolling past the Lister Block on James North. (Local History & Archives, Hamilton Public Library)

Then Morton hikes down that alley behind Evelyn’s house. He describes how at about 6 p.m. on Mar. 6, 1946, she drove into this alley in a blood-stained black Packard. John Dick’s body may well have been in the back.

But Evelyn was a bad driver and kept smashing into the side of the garage. Witnesses say that she finally gave up and sped away.

Morton believes it was Evelyn’s thieving father who hacked up John Dick. And Morton wonders what would have happened if J.J. Robinette had not managed to clear Evelyn of murder.

"If Evelyn had been sentenced to hang, would her father have ‘fessed up at the 11th hour?" he wonders. "But it didn’t come to that."

Though rumours abound, there is no official word on what happened to Evelyn Dick after she did her time. If she’s still out there, she would be 92.

Paul.Wilson@cbc.ca |   @PaulWilsonCBC

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.