A GLOBE AND MAIL TOP 100 BEST BOOKS OF 2022 • BRASS KNUCKLES AWARD FOR BEST NONFICTION CRIME BOOK 2023 FINALIST
A former United Church minister massacres his family. What led to this act of femicide, and why were his victims forgotten?
On May 2, 1963, Robert Killins, a former United Church minister, slaughtered every woman in his family but one. She (and her brother) lived to tell the story of what motivated a talented man who had been widely admired, a scholar and graduate from Queen’s University, to stalk and terrorize the women in his family for almost twenty years and then murder them.
Through extensive oral histories, Cook and Carson painstakingly trace the causes of a femicide in which four women and two unborn babies were murdered over the course of one bloody evening. While they situate this murderous rampage in the literature on domestic abuse and mass murders, they also explore how the two traumatized child survivors found their way back to health and happiness. Told through vivid first-person accounts, this family memoir explores how a murderer was created.
About the authors
Sharon Anne Cook is Distinguished University Professor Emerita at the University of Ottawa. She is the author and editor of twelve books on Canadian women’s history. The recipient of many teaching awards, she teaches graduate courses in the history of education. She lives in Ottawa.
Margaret Carson is the eldest of two children who survived The Castleton Massacre. A retired college instructor, she was accomplished in creating and adapting workplace programs as well as classroom delivery. She lives in the municipality of Mississippi Mills, Ontario.
- Short-listed, Crime Writers of Canada Awards of Excellence, Brass Knuckles Award for Best Nonfiction Crime Book
Excerpt: The Castleton Massacre: Survivors’ Stories of the Killins Femicide (by (author) Sharon Anne Cook & Margaret Carson)
On the morning of Friday, May 3, 1963, I emerged from my bedroom in my pyjamas to have breakfast with my parents at our home in Calgary, Alberta. At sixteen, I was a typical high school student in perpetual motion. Breakfast and dinner were family times, with my animal-nutritionist father carefully charting my daily intake of protein.
I stopped partway into the kitchen at the sight before me: my parents were both sitting, ashen-faced, staring at each other as the CBC Radio national news reported on happenings in Canada and around the world. The radio sat on the end of the Arborite counter, close by the breakfast nook with a standard Formica-topped table and matching padded chairs in turquoise and chrome. Neither of my parents moved to turn off the radio, as they often did when wanting to encourage conversation with their teenage daughter.
Both continued to sit in silence and glance distractedly at me. “What’s going on?” I asked. Abruptly, my mother got up from her chair and dished out my breakfast, just as she always did. A tall and elegant woman, she was dressed as neatly as ever; her hair had been carefully combed and she was ready as usual to tackle the day before her. Undeterred by their lack of response, I chattered away, finished my breakfast, and headed back to my bedroom to get changed for school.
As I was about to go out the door, my mother stopped me. Composing herself, she delivered a carefully worded speech; it ran something like this: “When you get home from school, neither of us will be here. We are going on a trip, and we don’t know how long we will be away. A woman will arrive in an hour or so to care for your grandmother and prepare your meals. There will be a letter for you from us on the dining-room table. Please read it carefully and do as we ask.” Her formality of speech and rigid stance remain clear in my mind today.
I agreed, albeit a bit perplexed. I bade them goodbye, assured my grandma that I would be home right after school, grabbed my lunch and my homework, and rushed out of the house. As I walked, I reflected about how odd it was that Mom hadn’t told me where they were going on this impromptu trip, and that she didn’t know how long they would be away. My parents were not impulsive people, so I trusted that they would organize everything.
After school, there was indeed a letter waiting for me, and as I read it, I sank onto the sectional couch in disbelief.
Dad and I are flying to Ontario today to be with your cousins, Peggy and Brian. We anticipate being back in about ten days, but we will call you long-distance when we know more. A terrible thing has happened. Your Uncle Bob has murdered his family, Florence, Gladys, Pearl, and little Patsy. I feel very emotional as I write this because we have been in touch recently with Florence and I know she feared for her life. She was pregnant, and the baby was also killed. Pearl was close to delivering her baby, so that makes six people Bob has killed. I know that this will be a shock to you and I am sorry not to be there to cushion this, but we did not want you to hear about this first on tonight’s national news.
We might be returning with Peggy, and if so, I will need a lot of help from you.
I let the contents of the letter wash over me. My memory went back to the breakfast scene I had unwittingly interrupted. I realized that when I found my parents sitting staring at each other that morning, they had just heard the newscast of a mass murder in Castleton, Ontario. The perpetrator was my father’s older brother, Robert, a former United Church minister.
Fifty-six years later, Margaret — the “Peggy” my mother mentioned — and I embarked on a project to understand what happened that day and what had led up to it in the years before that set the scene for a mass murder. The journey to an understanding of the short- and long-term causes, the events on that horrifying day, and the process by which the survivors moved beyond the trauma of their lives has been intense and, occasionally, very painful. It has also been healing for the two survivors, Margaret and her younger brother, Brian. They have lived almost their whole lives with this tragedy hovering in the background. Over one short Thursday evening in May 1963, a man they had feared for years murdered their pregnant mother, little sister, pregnant older sister, and aunt. At the time of the massacre, the perpetrator was living outside their back door in a shack, charting every move the family made to and from their homes.
The mayhem of that night extended beyond the killings, however. Brian watched as a family friend engaged in hand-to- hand combat with the assailant to try to protect him and his sisters during the murderous frenzy; Brian was blown into a corner by a shotgun with his hair singed from the blast; he watched in shock as his teacher was shot repeatedly by the murderer. Margaret also witnessed the bloody combat and survived by hiding under a bed, finding herself staring directly into the murderer’s eyes as she cowered in the dark against the bedframe that held her captive; both children ran for their lives and survived, but at a huge cost.
Memory, trauma, grief, regret, and healing all figure in the aftermath of this horrific event. The role of the perpetrator, while seemingly straightforward as a malicious madman, was also multi-faceted. One might imagine that he can only be understood as heartless and evil, and yet in addition to being a vicious gunman he was also a brother and a son, and a much-admired brother and son at that. My own father, a kind and intelligent man, was also the perpetrator’s younger sibling. Unable to process what his beloved brother had done, he thought of him only as a “good man” who made one big mistake. Incomprehensibly, he even wrote a long letter to the surviving children years after Robert had wiped out their entire family in which he all but begged them to reconsider Robert in a positive light. Robert had a kind of dark charisma that captured the sympathy and admiration of even the most decent of people: a mixture of coiled fury, a hair-trigger temper that forced everyone into making compromises, and a momentary charm that soon became manipulative. Long before the murders, many people found Robert scary.
This book makes an important and timely contribution. Detailed and sustained historical research combined with a willingness to consider the larger Canadian context in all its complexity, makes this horrifying account a must-read. Following a pandemic that led to a distressing increase in domestic violence cases, this story from many decades ago allows the reader to consider both this singular family drama and the sadly perennial aspect of domestic abuse.
Marie-Hélène Brunet, Associate Professor, University of Ottawa
A gripping true tale of a man’s spiral into murderous rage and a woman’s vulnerability — but it also explores the power of oral history and asks how childhood traumas can ever be alleviated.
Charlotte Gray, historian and bestselling author
The Castleton Massacre is a compelling memoir that delves deeply into the family dynamics that preceded and followed an unthinkable tragedy: the slaughter of three women, a young child and two unborn babies in one dreadful evening of mayhem and murder in a small Ontario town.
The Castleton Massacre is a compelling, and meticulously researched, examination of an appalling Ontario tragedy. It is also a fascinating social history of settler families in the first half of the 20th century, and, most important, an urgent call for action regarding the many Canadian women and children who are still living with violent domestic abuse.
Jane Urquhart, award-winning author
Cook and Carson’s account of the massacre committed by Robert Killins...illuminates the lack of supports for abused rural women and the social beliefs about men’s entitlements and women’s duties that bind women to abusers.
Elizabeth Sheehy, Professor Emerita, University of Ottawa
Living with this story for sixty years, Cook and Carson have restored a voice to those silenced through horrendous violence. The authors separate fact from fiction and rumour from reality as they narrate the chilling descent of a killer from jealousy and rage to madness and murder. The Castleton Massacre will resonate in contemporary Canada where still too many women are killed by their partners. This is a story you will not soon forget.
Tim Cook, author of The Fight for History: 75 Years of Forgetting, Remembering, and Remaking Canada’s Second World War