Portrait of a Scandal

  • In the winter of 1868 a name Montreal society associated with art, good breeding, and culture became fodder for scandal mongers. The Notman name, synonymous with fine photography, was suddenly making headlines featuring the words "abortion" and "suicide."

    A dozen years earlier, two brothers fled their native Scotland . They were attracted to Montreal by its reputation for making the fortunes of go-getting Scotsmen. One was destined for fame, the other for notoriety.

    William Notman, the older brother, eventually owned the largest photography business in North America. His subjects ranged from royalty, Governors General, and the Fathers of Confederation to Sitting Bull and Harriet Beecher Stowe. His studio immortalized the faces and baronial mansions of the merchant princes of Montreal's legendary Golden Square Mile-the Molsons, Redpaths, Allans, and Van Hornes.

    By contrast, Robert, the younger brother, was drawn into a drama which shook up Montreal's polite society. After he seduced the beautiful and ambitious Margaret Galbraith, a student at the McGill Normal School, he arranged an abortion for her with an up-and-coming young doctor who soon after committed suicide.

    The subsequent trial of Robert Notman became cause-célèbre in the newly minted Dominion of Canada in 1868. Portrait of a Scandal depicts a society that distanced itself from sexual misconduct, while it lapped up its every detail.

  • Public Theatre

    Only a smattering of people witnessed the arrival of Robert Notman in shackles at the Palais de Justice on the morning of Monday, April 20, 1868 at ten o’clock. Only those ignorant of the workings of the court or greedy for the tiniest tidbit of interest in the case saw him being placed at the bar, or heard the long, complicated and confusing indictment against him. Court-house regulars knew that procedural matters would take up the first hour of the trial. But after the selection of the jury had been rancorously settled – it being exceedingly difficult to put together an unbiased jury – a tide of inquisitive observers swept into the chamber. On foot, on horseback, or by carriage, they came to be entertained, shocked and titillated. Some – perhaps many – came to glean information about the ways and means of terminating an unwanted pregnancy.

    The criminal court was located on the ground floor of the east wing of the court house. Panelled in wood to enhance the quality of the acoustics, it had generous dimensions and a twenty-foot-high ceiling. At the front of the room, the judge and lawyers looked like black birds of prey in their long gowns and flapping sleeves. They were the stars of the drama, at least as much as the woman at its heart, and far more so than the man whose fate hung in the balance as they speechified, wrangled, and objected, for he would never take the stand. Rounding out the supporting cast was a wide array of witnesses, a jury, the officers of the court and reporters scratching away furiously in their box, working to daily deadlines for the enlightenment of a larger audience.

    On the morning of Monday April 20, 1868, Lewis Thomas Drummond, the judge who would uphold the honour of the law in the case of the Queen versus Robert Notman, was in a state of high cantankerousness. A brilliant man of many parts and perplexing contradictions, His Honour decried the fact that his court room was stuffed to the gills with men, women and youths, all of them agog to view for themselves the principals of the drama – Miss Galbraith and the imprisoned Mr. Notman – and a notable supporting cast. As The Gazette reported the following day, “the list of witnesses … contains the names of many prominent citizens.”

    Judge Drummond was well acquainted with the vagaries and frailties of humankind. It was no surprise to him that “the nature of the crime and the social position of the prisoner” made the Notman case a cause célèbre. This understanding only heightened the deeply distressing nature of the matter for him. He knew the defendant, sympathized with the Notman family and held firm views of the crime in question.

    Defence counsel Bernard Devlin – a firebrand of the Montreal Irish community – moved for witnesses to leave the room. At this point, the judge gave vent to an extraordinary little outburst. He called for the strictest order to be kept in his chamber, and directed the court constable to clear it of all women and young people and to forbid their return. He then expressed the hope that “he would not again see scandalous scenes repeated, which he had witnessed when of counsel in the Patterson case in which the most disgusting details occurred.”

    In the distinguished career of Lewis Thomas Drummond as a jurist, politician and businessman, the case in which he had defended the backroom abortionist Jesse Patterson in 1861 was a mere footnote. But in April 1868, the Patterson case was still fresh in the memory of Montrealers. And quite possibly it still sat heavily on the conscience of the devoutly Catholic judge whose two sons were both Jesuits. Judge Drummond’s abrupt and angry ejection of women from the court room may well have been occasioned by a desire to deny them knowledge of birth control.


    The Notman case had been making headlines in the city since the beginning of March. By rights it should never have come to light had not a certain Dr. Patton, a newcomer to the city, lost his nerve and precipitated a chain of tragedies. Alfred Patton had served with distinction for several years as a ship’s surgeon, when he decided to hang up his shingle on Craig Street, near Place d’Armes Hill, in October 1867. Hard-working and popular, within weeks he had established “a fair practice.” So said The Gazette of Friday, February 28, 1868, as it announced his sudden death “under painful circumstances.” Painful, indeed: Dr. Patton was all of twenty-eight years old. The subsequent inquest and autopsy found that Dr. Patton had taken poison. In a matter of days, a police investigation led to the conclusion that he had killed himself.

    And that is when the furtive course that Dr. Patton, Robert Notman and Margaret Galbraith had been pursuing for some time became fodder for a society that distanced itself from sexual misconduct while it lapped up its every juicy detail. “The authorities are very reticent yet, although the whole affair is it everybody’s mouth,” wrote The Gazette on March 4. “It appears that Mr. Robert Notman, of this city, seduced a girl named Galbraith some time ago.”

    The reporter, or his editor, had so little consideration or sympathy for the twenty-five-year-old young woman – she was studying to be a teacher at the McGill Normal School – as to deny according her the Honourific of “Miss.” “The first intimation of the affair was that Galbraith was missing from her boarding house….” Since inquiries made at the homes of her friends yielded no information, “the assistance of a detective was obtained.” The paper didn’t disclose who was responsible for bringing a detective on board, but in the course of his sleuthing someone decided to search a trunk belonging to the girl. Letters in it were "said to implicate Mr. R. Notman.” Further inquiries revealed that Notman, a younger brother of the city’s most successful society photographer, had booked a suite at the St. Lawrence Hall, the city’s best hotel. There drugs were administered to Miss Galbraith and “an operation is said to have been performed on her the effect of which reduced her to such a state of distress and exhaustion that her life was despaired of, and this preying on Dr. Patton’s mind, induced him… to commit suicide.”


    Even with the court room cleared of women and young people, it remained packed with pumped up spectators. They fidgeted with impatience during the prosecutor's opening address. Heavy-handed, punitive and pitiless, Thomas Kennedy Ramsay was perfectly cast as Crown attorney. He had immigrated to Canada at the age of twenty-one some twenty years earlier, a descendant of a Scottish landed family. Like all successful English-speaking jurists in Montreal, he possessed an excellent command of French. Ramsay was famous for his aggressive manner and meticulous case preparations. He lived for the law, and remained a bachelor all his life. When he was named to the bench a couple of years after the Notman case, The Gazette commended his erudition and pronounced him "a man of the highest character." It then added a snide if understated dig: "He has in some respects made himself unpopular."

    Seeking to overwhelm by sheer volume of precedents and esoteric data, Ramsay bathed the jury in the sound of his voice. With dizzying speed, he reeled off statutes by year, number and section, so that the reporters in the box had a great deal of trouble keeping them straight. However, all accounts tallied as to the thrust of what the prosecutor said. The case, according to Ramsay, was of the greatest public consequence and gravity. Any person who administered a drug – "a noxious thing" – or used instruments to bring on a miscarriage was guilty of a felony. The significance of the offence lay not in its outcome. It wasn't necessary to prove that "the noxious thing" was able to induce a miscarriage, or even that the woman to whom it was administered was pregnant, "about which there might exist different opinions." What was crucial was intent.

    In other words, the indictment was couched in such a way that even if what Robert Notman had personally or through the agency of Dr. Patton fed Margaret Galbraith was ineffectual, and even if she was not pregnant at the time, he was guilty of felony since his intention had been to frustrate nature. This intention was made explicit by the stay at the St. Lawrence Hall and the operation performed by Dr. Patton.

    Ramsay concluded his opening with the usual legal pieties about the jury making its decision based on the evidence presented in court. Jurors were to disregard what they had heard or read about the case, and put aside any feelings of sympathy they entertained for the accused. Before calling his star witness, he tried to head off the line of argument he surmised the defence would use to discredit her: "he would warn the jury against any appeals to passion; or statements… that one of the witnesses for the prosecution was also implicated. No matter if witness was as deeply implicated as prisoner, that did not affect the matter. He would now call Margaret Galbraith as the first witness."

    The Gazette at this juncture capitalized and centred the witness's full name. This emphasis in newsprint signaled the current of anticipation that now ran through the chamber. The all-male crowd stirred in their seats, their loins possibly also stirring. Here comes the fallen woman, here comes the hussy, here comes Notman's whore.


    Adapted from Portrait of a Scandal: The Abortion Trial of Robert Notman by Elaine Kalman Naves, published by Véhicule Press.

  • What the critics have said

    "This history has it all: desire and illicit sex, privilege and penury, fame and infamy, the dramatic momentum of an absorbing novel. ... Kalman Naves have a novelist's eye and a historian's sleuth-like instincts, with the tenacity of both. "Read the whole article here.

    - Ami Sands Brodoff
      Montreal Review of Books, Spring, 2014

    "The chapters dealing with the actual trial… read like a John Grisham legal thriller."

    - Stuart Nulman
      Montreal Times, March 1, 2014

    "A fascinating account of a little-known abortion trial that took place in 19th century Montreal involving prominent members of the local Scottish community, including one Robert Notman, brother of William, the well-know photographer." Read the whole article here.

    - Shelley Pomerance
      montréal centre_ville, Spring 2014

    "Portrait of a Scandal has the air, build-up and tension of a courtroom procedural as historian Elaine Kalman Naves skillfully leads us through the abortion trial of Robert Notman, brother and trusted associate of the great photographer, William Notman. At a time when desperate North American women turned to abortion to end unwanted pregnancies, the judge made Robert’s trial a showcase for his personal vendetta against “this germ of destruction, this moral epidemic” rotting society. In Kalman Naves’ capable hands, Notman’s story is a spellbinding glimpse into the intimate lives of privileged Montrealers, illustrated by stunning photographs of all the principal characters, including Notman’s flamboyant defence lawyer and his nemesis, the plodding but determined prosecutor, and even the doctor who committed suicide [over the case].”

    - Elizabeth Abbott

  • Review of Portrait of a Scandal by Richard King
    January 9, 2014

    Richard King on CBC Radio reviews 'Portrait of a Scandal: The Abortion Trial of Robert Notman' for the Homerun book column. Click to listen.

    Interview on CBC's Cinq à sept
    January 11, 2014

    Elaine Kalman Naves interviewed on CBC's Cinq à sept. Click to listen.

Portrait of a Scandal

Pages: 214 pages
Publisher: Véhicule Press
Date: 2013

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