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Career as Police Magistrate

Heritage Community Foundation, Albertasource.ca and The Famous Five Foundation

Reading: Women's Police Court Letter

Reading: "A Straight Talk on Courts"


Emily MurphyThe best way a woman magistrate, or any other woman can be a savior is not to stoop and save, but to stand by the girl and let her save herself.

                       —Emily Murphy, 1919

Emily Murphy was appointed as Police Magistrate for the Province of Alberta in 1916, and served in that position until her retirement in 1931, when she began to devote more time to her literary and business pursuits. She was the first woman in the British Empire to be appointed to such a position.

Murphy's approach to the problem of crime was humanistic and progressive, as she was more concerned with correcting and rehabilitating offenders than with punishing them. She believed in eradicating the cause of misdemeanours instead of concentrating all effort on dealing with their effects.

Her book, The Black Candle, an exposé on the traffic in narcotics, was published in 1922. When a case involving two Chinese people accused of selling narcotics was set to appear before her in 1924, the defence attorney argued that she should not be allowed to judge the case as a result of her bias against drug traffickers and Chinese people.

As proof of her bias, he quoted selections from her book, such as her statement that "every drug fiend is a lawyer," her characterization of the "scoudrelly business of drug pedalling," as well as her question regarding social conditions and lifestyle, "If Chinese are allowed to live like rats in a cellar, what else can be expected?"

Magistrate Emily MurphyThe defense lawyer implied that Murphy stood to gain in terms of increased sales of her (out of print) book, and also argued that because the accused were men, they ought to be tried by a man. The judge who heard the argument against allowing Murphy to judge the case denied the request to move the case to another judge, on the basis that the lawyer did not provide proof that the accused were in fact men. Nor did he accept the contention that Murphy would profit from increased sales of her book due to publicity surrounding the trial. Nor did he consider the quotations from her book as providing evidence that they would receive an unfair trial.

This same lawyer, in the course of the trial, quoted The Black Candle as part of his defence of his clients. He claimed that the witness against the accused drug seller was himself, a drug addict. Since her own book quotes an expert on addiction who says that all users of drugs are liars, and that they cannot recover from the addiction, the witness for the prosecution must be a liar, and therefore, an unreliable witness. Thus, the charges against his client must be dropped.

Judge Murphy laughed at his arguments, noting that now he is using her book to defend his client, when a week prior, he was using it to prove that her views on the evils of narcotics prejudiced her and rendered her unfit to give an impartial verdict in a narcotic case.

Despite her controversial views, Murphy cared deeply about people, and took an active interest in those who appeared before her. Women, in particular, looked to her as a friend who could advise them and help them in times of trouble. She was also a staunch defender of the institution of marriage, and whenever possible, undertook to help resolve marital difficulties when they were brought before her.

In a 1931 article, she was called a "stern but fair" judge, a characterization that none who knew her would contest.

For More Information on Emily as Magistrate, See Readings.

Heritage Trail: Edmonton Bawdy House Raids 1911-1914:Part II
In 1911, the Edmonton City Council fired Police Chief Lanesy for being too lenient on drinking, gambling, and prostitution. Then the council did an about face and fired his replacement, Chief Enzer, for being too strict. According to historian David Leonard, in 1912 Edmonton's City Council rehired Lanesy as Police Chief and with an increase in salary. Listen Now
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