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Encountering Emily: Alberta Women’s Responses to Magistrate Murphy 

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Gardens and grounds at Provincial Hospital, Ponoka, 1912Confidence in the law as a transformative tool gave rise to this utopian vision of the future where women's work in the home was no longer unpaid and unacknowledged, where husbands were considerate of wives, where children's needs for support and education were provided for.

Yet despite the power of her inspiration for so many women, Murphy's larger-than-life persona has recently become a lightning rod for debate. Murphy's racism and her support for eugenics are now infamous.5 We wonder now how we ought to relate to a historical figure who was both a fearless champion of women's equality, and an outspoken advocate and powerful agent of inequality in the areas of race, religion, and mental and physical disability. Yet as we struggle with our own ambivalence around Murphy's legacy, it is interesting and instructive to look back to the voices of the Alberta women who encountered Murphy in her work as the first woman police magistrate in the British Empire. We should not be surprised to find our own conflicted responses to Murphy reflected in the responses of the many Alberta women whose lives she influenced. Indeed, Murphy's exuberance in the exercise of legal power was not always met with accolade and support even in her own time. A fascinating critique of Murphy's sensibility and lack of compassion for women who failed to measure up to her standards is found in an exchange of correspondence, dated February, 1921, between Murphy and a woman named Virginia Clin. Clin, having been released from the mental hospital in Ponoka, wrote to Murphy to complain about her treatment there. Clin had some considerable savings she had hoped would provide her with the means to live once she got out of the hospital. These savings appear to have been devoured by an account rendered by the hospital to cover her stay there. One can imagine the disappointment, frustration, and alienation Virginia Clin must have felt upon receiving the following letter from Emily Murphy.

Miss V. Clin.
Halkirk, Alberta

My dear Miss Clin:

I have your letter of the 16th of February. It is indeed regrettable that you have had to pay out your savings on account of ill health, for I am sure you have been a thrifty, hard-working girl to have saved the amount of money you mention. Still we are all subject to a like misfortune, none of us being immune from sickness.

According to your letter, you were in the hospital for about 1600 days, and during that time paid out $917.00 which sum included your transportation, board, laundry, food, medical attention etc. The hospital charges $1.00 a day apart from transportation, so you see the total account would be $1600.00, and that the hospital stood to lose approximately $700.00 on your illness.

I may say that $1.00 a day only pays for the actual expenses of the patient, and does not cover the costs of staff, buildings, and upkeep. These are all borne by the tax-payers of Alberta.

I would like to point out too, that if you had remained ill for the rest of your life, the hospital would have kept you without any remuneration whatsoever. When you come to think it over like this, you will, I am sure, agree that you have not been looking at it properly.

After all, apart from the financial end of the question, you owe a debt to the hospital that money could never repay, in that they restored you to sanity again. Never forget that.

If I were you, I would forget any grievance which you feel you may have, because if you brood on it, you may become insane again. Don't let yourself think for a moment that you were held improperly, for the Government is only too glad to get rid of their patients upon whom they are losing money.

Think kind, helpful thoughts like a good girl, and I am sure all will be well with you. You say you were a friend of Irene Lewis. Poor Irene was not so fortunate as you, for you know she died in one of her spasms. Esther Lewis is home again and doing well.

I am glad you wrote to me, and hope this letter will straighten out your difficulty.

Yours very truly,

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