Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Who Cares Who Killed Bert Massey?

Apr 29, 2014

Microhistory has been on my mind lately, probably because I've been reading Charlotte Gray's The Massey Murder about the shooting of a member of the prominent Massey family by a young housemaid in Toronto in 1915. Gray's book is a recent Canadian example of the microhistory genre.

Broadly defined, microhistory is the study of small events and/or "minor" historical characters and the light they cast on larger historical issues. If that isn't much help, I'd recommend an essay, "Historians Who Love Too Much," by the admirable New Yorker writer, and historian, Jill Lepore. In her essay she attempts to answer the question "What is Microhistory Anyway?" far more lucidly than I could.

The Massey Murder fits the description outlined by Lepore. For one thing, Gray is interested in the murder less for the importance of the events she describes than for how they illuminate aspects of Toronto culture during World War One. Unlike a biographer, it is the culture, not the lives, that forms the centre of the story.

More than twenty years ago Michael Bliss famously complained about the rise of "private history" (another term for microhistory?) and what he saw as a reluctance among younger historians to tackle large, national, political subjects. The dust has settled on that debate but there will always be a bit of tension between the intimate stories like the Massey murder and the stories of war and politics that have been the traditional realm of the historian.

Why should we care about the Massey case? Thousands of men were dying on the battlefields of Europe every day. What did the death of one more victim matter? Why tell this story when there is such a dramatic larger one going on? The belief of microhistory is that stories are not small just because the people involved are not powerful or prominent or the events are not earth shaking. Properly told, minor events often reveal much about larger cultural themes. In the Massey case, for instance, these themes include immigration, the treatment of domestic servants, ideas of class and gender, to name just a few.

In the end, this is why we care who killed Bert Massey.