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REMEMBER THIS: Lady in the river: Part two (4 photos)

Details of Niagara Falls trip neatly documented, all except for last part where Elizabeth Hisey died

Editor's note: The following is Part 2 of the Elizabeth Hisey story. To read the first instalment, click here

It was mid-February 1931 and Elizabeth Hisey had her mind set on a little 'staycation' in Ontario’s premier tourist destination: Niagara Falls.

Her small circle of friends suggested it might be better to wait for summer, but Mrs. Hisey was not to be deterred.

Widowed, recently separated from her second husband, a survivor of the fire that burned down her newly acquired hotel, and exhausted from months of insurance and legal dealings, Elizabeth Hisey wanted a break and she wanted it now.

Most of the trip was well remembered by her travelling companion and by those she met along the way, all of the details neatly documented, all except for the last part. The part where Elizabeth Hisey died.

On Feb. 17, 1931, Elizabeth Hisey left from Midland, chauffeured by Gordon Gastle, in a 1927 Nash sedan, which belonged to her son-in-law. The pair checked in at the General Brock Hotel, which was brand new and Niagara’s first high-rise hotel.

The next day was spent sightseeing around Queenston and the famous falls.

After dinner, Mrs. Hisey asked Gastle to drive her along the riverside road so that she could see the falls illuminated in the dark. They drove through the small village of Chippawa, then turned around and came back.

The first sign of trouble was relayed by William Ingram, a resident of Chippawa, who arrived on the tragic scene before anyone else. He found a man, only semi-conscious, rolling around in the snow beside the riverbank, moaning something that sounded like “My girl. My girl.”

Ingram noticed a zigzag of wheel tracks leading to the river and could see two automobile headlights still burning in the water. He hurried the injured man, who turned out to be Gordon Gastle, to the Niagara Park Police station.

Several police officers and a wrecking car arrived on the scene and pulled the submerged vehicle back onto the road.

Elizabeth Hisey was removed from the car, obviously beyond help and bearing some serious injuries.

The incident was logged as an unfortunate accident. A driver in an unfamiliar car, travelling along an unfamiliar snow-covered road in the darkness, could certainly be a recipe for disaster.

All of that changed after Dr. H. Logan got Mrs. Hisey’s body into his autopsy chamber.

The doctor found several nasty wounds that could easily have caused the lady’s death – broken femur, three-inch laceration of the forehead and a fracture of the skull. What he didn’t find was any more than a few drops of water in her lungs. True-crime junkies know that this means  Elizabeth Hisey was likely dead before she entered the water.

When the police looked deeper, they found that Gordon Gastle was not unfamiliar with the area, a fact he had neglected to mention. Only one week earlier, Gastle had visited the spot with his friend, Robert Elliott, and Elliott’s fiancée, a young nurse from Penetanguishene. They had driven the same road.

At one point, the group stopped at the future crash site and Elliott warned his lady friend to step back a bit as this was “a dangerous spot.”

All of this added together made things look pretty grim for Gordon Gastle. This death, combined with the recent hotel fire which also involved Gastle, was beginning to paint a rather shady picture.

The investigators soon decided that almost all of Gastle’s dealings with Mrs. Hisey also involved a certain Robert Elliott. Both men were linked as co-conspirators and charged with arson and with Hisey's murder.

The duo behind what the papers called the Elliott and Gastle case were arrested a month after Mrs. Hisey’s death. Bail was set quite high at $20,000 each, forcing them both to remain in the Barrie Jail until trial.

Some 48 witnesses later, including one Perry Mason-style surprise witness, medical and law enforcement experts, and assorted judges and lawyers from various jurisdictions, neither Robert Elliott nor Gordon Gastle were found guilty of Hisey’s murder, if it was a murder at all.

No one could be sure.

The pair had little time to breathe sighs of relief as their arson trial followed quickly, and by the reportedly shocked looks on their faces, they didn’t see that verdict coming.

Elliott and Gastle were both convicted and sent to Kingston Penitentiary for five and three years, respectively.

Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us.