> Zed Book Club / How a Survivor of Femicide and the Murderer’s Niece Came Together to Tell a Horrific Story
Margaret Carson. Photo: Courtesy Dundurn Press
How a Survivor of Femicide and the Murderer’s Niece Came Together to Tell a Horrific Story
In a Q&A about "The Castleton Massacre," Margaret Carson and Sharon Anne Cook talk about what motivated Robert Killins to slaughter his family and why the victims should not be forgotten / BY Kim Hughes / September 23rd, 2022
True crime stories don’t come more tragic, byzantine or flat-out bizarre than the one described in The Castleton Massacre: Survivors’ Stories of the Killins Femicide, which chronicles the slaying of four female members of an extended family in one night, and was co-written by a survivor and the murderer’s niece.
On May 2, 1963, in the tiny Ontario town of Castleton, Robert Killins slaughtered his former wife, Florence, 43, the couple’s 19-year-old daughter, Pearl, his sister Gladys Killins, 61, and seven-year-old Patricia, Florence’s daughter with her late partner, A.D. Hall. Both Florence and Pearl were pregnant, Pearl almost at term. Gladys’ dog Taffy was also killed.
Miraculously spared that night was 12-year-old Margaret and her 10-year-old brother Brian, also the children of Florence and A.D. The victims died in their homes, which were next to the threadbare shack occupied by Robert Killins.
For Margaret and Brian, whose vivid recollections propel the book’s most chilling passage, the trauma kept coming. Suddenly orphaned – their dad, A.D. Hall, died in 1962 — the pair were sent to live with Calgary relatives whom they had never met: Robert Killins’ younger brother, Harold Killins, his wife Ethel, and their children Wesley, David and Sharon.
The Castleton Massacre, authored by survivor Margaret Carson, 71, and Sharon Anne Cook, 75, the niece of Robert and daughter of Harold), tells the almost unbelievable story of several families brought together first by circumstance, and later by calamity.
As they write in the prologue, “As a family memoir, this reconstruction has given us some insight into the baffling decisions made by this murderer, and perhaps illuminates some of the dark corners of other instances of domestic violence that lead to murder.”
That Carson and Cook relate this disturbing personal story dispassionately and coherently is a testament to their diligence. Through oral histories gathered from those with a connection to the original crime, the pair painstakingly recreate the night of the murder, while exploring everyone’s back story.
As well as many family photos gathered by Margaret Carson across the decades — she and Brian were uprooted from Castleton with literally no possessions save a cross and a watch their mother was wearing when she died — the book includes reproductions of Gladys’ accomplished watercolour paintings.
As Carson, in Mississippi Mills, Ont., and Cook, in Ottawa, tell Zoomer in the following Q&A, all the women lost that May night in 1963 were exceptional in their own way.
Kim Hughes: Is it fair to say the goal of the book is to spotlight the issue of femicide while restoring the dignity of the murdered women?
Sharon Cook: Yes. Given the norms of the era, there was this perception that somehow these women deserved what they got. Today we understand these were blameless individuals who in fact should be honoured for having held off the homicides for as long as they did. The fact that Florence and her partner A.D. held Robert off for 16 years is remarkable, with him living outside their home in a shack. He would not be banished or eliminated from the scene. How Florence carried on with a relatively normal life under this pall of a violent man is astounding.
KH: Margaret, one of the most heartbreaking things in a book full of heartbreak was how marginalized you and your brother were by your community — before and after the murders — because your parents, Florence and A.D., were unmarried. Have times changed?
Margaret Carson: I think they have changed. When I hear news reports of incidents like this, I stand very still and listen. And it does seem as though the community rallies around children. There are supports for children now, schools bring in counsellors. And it’s not embarrassing for people to live common-law. Even after all the years my mother and father lived together, we still had to stand at the back of the church during my father’s funeral. My heart goes out to those little children that were us. And in writing this book, I had to honour the integrity of that 12-year-old girl and 10-year-old boy.
KH: Why didn’t Florence or A.D. approach the police for help to get Robert off their property?
SC: They might have, though we didn’t find evidence of it. But the norms of that era included the sanctity of the home. It was assumed Florence’s home was also Robert’s home, even though it wasn’t, and it’s doubtful the police would have done anything at all. Pearl once had a boyfriend who was threatened by Robert. The boyfriend’s father did go to police with Robert’s threatening letters, and the police blew it off. So, I think Florence and A.D. tried to hold off the inevitable eruption. And they did try to flee, at points moving to Orangeville, to Brighton. But then A.D. died. We believe that was a precipitating factor [to the murders].
KH: The murders were a kind of perfect storm of awfulness: your mother and her children caught in a cycle of poverty in a rural setting in an era when domestic abuse was ignored. You all were trapped.
MC: For years my brother and I were waiting for the other shoe to drop. Even after we moved in with Sharon’s family out west, we were waiting for the next thing to happen, which luckily never did. It took us a long time to trust the environment around us. I don’t think we realized we were poor. In telling this story, we wanted to open this conversation about femicide, to be able to talk about this after six decades of silence.
KH: To some degree, you have both been writing this book your whole lives. What was the specific moment when you put pen to paper?
SC: Just before the pandemic. My son, Tim Cook, is a historian and he has always been very interested in this story. He said, “If you don’t get this together, everyone who was ever associated with this story will be dead. And you are dependent on those people for their oral histories.” By that point we had already lost some people, such as my father, who knew more about the backstory than anyone, even though he was frozen emotionally and couldn’t come to terms with the fact that his brother had done this. Getting Brian and Peg fully on board was the first step. Brian had never talked about this, even with his children. But this has liberated him. I also needed my brother’s buy-in. So this book required a lot of talking through the family to make it happen.
KH: Margaret, how did you get buy-in from yourself to relive this nightmarish story?
MC: My three children and seven grandchildren would ask questions, and I felt that they had to be able to talk about this. There’s such a silence about femicide and I don’t know why. I wanted to restore power to the women who were murdered. Every time I stand up to make a presentation about this book, I feel stronger. This has surprised me. Someone once asked me if I hated my mother. I was shocked by the implication that she was somehow to blame for what happened. Setting the record straight was essential. I do not want anyone to ask that question of a victim of femicide.
KH: Sharon, of all the crazy revelations unearthed in the telling of this story, what struck you as the craziest?
SC: Robert’s lifestyle. This was a person who was very well educated and continued to educate himself throughout his life. He had been a man of the cloth. [Killins attended Queen’s University and served as a United Church minister]. Yet he ended up living in an unheated shack with no electricity or running water so he could stalk people before murdering them. This man was utterly isolated from everyone, including Pearl, the daughter he loved. What causes a person to move from being a star in an admittedly small firmament to being a mass murderer? That’s quite a slide.
By contrast, my father Harold Killins was a wonderful man who could never say anything bad about his brother, even though he was a mass murderer. That’s pretty crazy, too, especially given that my father was in every other way a highly moral man. But he had this one huge blind spot. Luckily, he was an outlier in this family of weirdness that produced Robert and Gladys. And I think their mother was plenty weird, too.
KH: What would the murdered women have thought of this book?
MC: I think they would feel their dignity was restored. They were buried in unmarked graves and completely forgotten. We didn’t speak of them after we moved into our new home. Those women disappeared. The perpetrator didn’t just take their lives. He took their voices.
KH: Why is this case not more famous? I mean, yes, it happened 60 years ago but people are still talking about Jack the Ripper…
SC: Four reasons. Femicides, until very recently, were invisible. It wasn’t until the Montreal Massacre in 1989 that there was an acknowledgement that the killing of women because they are women could tell us something about the society we live in. Secondly, it happened in a rural setting, away from media outlets. Thirdly, I think class was a factor. Compare this case to the one outlined by Charlotte Gray in The Massey Murder from 2013. [It’s a] wonderful book that shares many resonances with ours, except her book spotlights a wealthy family. The women in our book were poor. Like many women, Florence’s poverty drove her back to the perpetrator. She couldn’t survive without the little bit of money he had coming in through welfare.
Finally, I think there was this attitude that women murdered by domestic or former domestic partners somehow deserved it. Margaret recalls a story in the book about how, the day after the murders, she and Brian were in hospital and overheard a nurse saying to another nurse, ‘Well, she got what she deserved.’ You obey your man or face the music.
I also think it’s convenient for us to forget events like this because if we keep uppermost in our minds the fact that women are being murdered all the time by enraged partners — or people who think they’re a woman’s partner — then we’re off the hook in terms of providing protection for those women which requires funding and which is currently scandalously underfunded. If we forget stories like this one, it becomes someone else’s problem.
KH: What was the hardest thing to get right with this book?
MC: Going into the details of that actual night [of the murders]. That took many tries, and it took a lot out of myself and my brother. It was hard to get this right. I mean, Sharon is related to the perpetrator. I am not. It’s phenomenal that we were able to write this memoir about these different but interconnected families.
I don’t think this book could have happened before now. We needed a better understanding of the world. We didn’t want the book to be sensational. Sharon and I wanted to take a broader look at this subject, to honour these women in my family but all the women this has happened to. It’s only been in the last few years that language has come to reflect these lived experiences. I really hope this book touches someone.