An amateur sleuth has solved the mystery surrounding the tragic death of a young New Brunswick woman whose coffin has been lying in a dusty, unclaimed crate at a London cemetery for more than 90 years.
But one nagging question remains for Barry Smith: Will anyone from Canada come forward to bring her home?
Smith, chairman of the The Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery, says the sad tale began unfolding about five years ago, when someone peered inside a decrepit wooden box stored in a vast underground vault beneath the cemetery’s Anglican chapel.
For years, rumours swirled about its contents, with some speculating it contained the remains of an aristocrat from India or an unnamed murder victim dropped off by the local constabulary.
Instead, when the voluntary organization opened the rough crate they discovered a well-crafted casket with a metal plate affixed to its lid, bearing the inscription: “Gladys Winifred Fowler. Died 17th April, 1917. Aged 18 years.”
Despite the revelation, nothing much happened with the unusual case until Smith — chairman of the group for the past three years — decided last year to order a copy of Fowler’s death certificate from the local Public Record Office.
The document revealed the teenager was the daughter of then New Brunswick MP George William Fowler, at the time a lieutenant-colonel serving with the 13th Battalion Canadian Infantry during the final months of the First World War.
The certificate says he was at his daughter’s side when she was declared dead at Berners Hotel in London, having succumbed to a variety of ailments, including pneumonia, measles and mitral stenosis, a type of heart disease.
“She died such a horrible death at such a dreadful time in the history of the world,” said Smith in an interview from his home in London.
“The coffin was crated up and, obviously, it was intended that at the end of the First World War she would be taken back to Canada. But, for reasons we don’t know, that never happened.”
In Hammondsvale, near Sussex in southern New Brunswick, a headstone at the community cemetery lists the names of every member of the Fowler family, including Gladys.
“It’s all rather mysterious, isn’t it?” said Smith.
He says George Fowler, who later served as a Senator until his death in 1924, appears to have had only one other child, a son named Eric who died at 30 and did not have any children.
George Fowler’s wife, Ethyl Georgina Fowler, died in 1936, Smith added.
— With files from Dean Beeby in Ottawa