The Prodigy and the Architect – A Haunting Love Story
Mystery, passion, betrayal, murder, suicide – it’s the stuff movies are made of. This movie could be a murder mystery, a thriller or perhaps even a spooky horror. The story is exciting, intriguing, sad, and even a bit eerie in the retelling and it all has its origins right here in Kamloops, with one woman.
Alma Victoria Clarke was born in Kamloops in 1896, near the turn of the century, when Sir Wilfrid Laurier was the Prime Minister of Canada, the Inland Cigar Factory had just been built and Kamloops had incorporated as a city only 3 years prior, boasting a population of 500. Her step-father, Walter was the owner of the local newspaper, the “Kamloops Standard” and her mother Elizabeth was a music teacher. Alma exhibited remarkable musical talent at a very early age which her mother devotedly cultivated. Even her teacher at St. Anne’s Academy recognized her talent and described her as, “brilliantly clever, well-adjusted and full of happiness and music.”
When Alma was six, the family left Kamloops. They spent a year in Toronto, and then moved to Victoria where she became something of a child prodigy, who was pampered and celebrated. This early exposure to fame was perhaps the foundation for both her strength and weakness of character. On one hand her future actions are self-centered and in some instances even cruel. Yet in other regards she is heroic, compassionate and a woman before her time.
Alma spent her formative years growing up between Toronto and Vancouver. She developed into an accomplished musician and composer in both violin and piano, performing with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to rave reviews. She also grew into a glamorous, carefree, beauty that loved parties, wore fashionable clothes, drank cocktails and smoked in public!
During her short life Alma was married three times, all with unhappy endings. However it was her third and last marriage that brought about her tragic end. Her first husband Caledon Robert Radclyffe Dolling was perhaps the love of her life. Had he lived things likely would have turned out very differently for Alma. But shortly after their marriage, WWI broke out and Dolling was killed in action two years later. Heart-broken, Alma joined the French Red Cross and became an ambulance driver. She was wounded twice in the line of duty and her heroism was rewarded with France’s highest medal for gallantry, the Croix de Guerre.
Her second husband, Thomas Compton Pakenham was smitten with the lovely, young widow and divorced his first wife to marry Alma. They moved to New York, where their son Christopher was born. However the marriage was an abysmal failure and within two years she left Thomas, taking Christopher to Vancouver to live with her mother.
The beautiful Alma seemed destined to be unlucky in love, so she threw herself into her music, giving lessons and performing at concerts and parties throughout Vancouver and Victoria. At one such engagement at the stately Empress Hotel in Victoria, Alma met Francis Mawson Rattenbury, Victoria’s celebrated architect who designed such famous buildings as the Empress Hotel, the Parliament Buildings and the Vancouver Court House (now Art Gallery).
When Rattenbury met 26 year old Alma in 1924, he was a successful 55 year old married man with two children. His marriage with Florence (Florrie) Nunn had long-since become a cold, resentful relationship where each partner inhabited a separate wing of their Oak Bay house. They never went out together in public, so it was easy for a relationship to develop between Rattenbury and Alma.
In a letter to a friend Alma wrote of Rattenbury ”Though I had resolved, as you know, never to marry again, but to devote myself to my music….Well my dear, if I don’t love him, I simply don’t know what love is.”
Rattenbury was determined to have Alma but, Florrie would not consent to a divorce. In an effort to convince her he hired a moving truck to remove the furniture from their house, but as the movers were taking the furniture out the front door, Florrie and her servant were returning it through the back door. His next course of action was to have the heat and electricity turned off in the house. Still Florrie refused to leave. His actions only incited further pity for Florrie and disdain for Rattenbury and his lover, who by this time shamelessly flaunted their affair in public.
But then Rattenbury did the unthinkable. He began entertaining Alma at his Oak Bay residence, even having her stay over at times. On one such occasion the pair was drinking and singing loudly as Alma played the piano. Daughter Mary felt compelled to intervene, stating that she was worried for her mother’s health due to the stress of having Alma in the house. In response, Alma began to loudly pound out a funeral march!
Finally, Florrie gave into the divorce. However, neither anticipated the effect their actions would have on their standing in Victoria society. Even after they had married and had a son of their own, the couple was shunned. Long-time friends avoided them on the street, Rattenbury’s children would have nothing to do with him, the architectural community refused him any further contracts and Alma was no longer sought out to perform. With dwindling financial resources the couple along with their son John and Christopher, Alma’s son from her second marriage, left Victoria behind forever and settled in Bournemouth, England.
Alma achieved a certain amount of success in her new home where she began to record and sell her music. Rattenbury on the other hand, found little work and for a man who had once led such a full, illustrious life this was traumatic. Additionally, the 30 year age gap between him and his still, youthful wife began to become evident. They no longer slept together and Alma would spend the day out shopping while Rattenbury sank into depression and thoughts of suicide, fueled by drinking. Likewise Alma began to drink quite heavily and there is some indication that she may have become addicted to cocaine as well.
Then in September 1934 the couple decided to hire a chauffeur, a move that would have disastrous results for all involved. 18 year old, George Percy Stoner, a “simple man”, came to work for the Rattenburys and within a month was moved into the spare room as Alma’s lover. On occasion they went away together, spending several nights in a London hotel while she lavished him with gifts. Oddly, Rattenbury didn’t seem to mind or truly didn’t know of the affair and was friendly with Stoner.
Things began to get complicated though when Stoner became resentful of any affection Alma showed her husband. Six months after Stoner came to work for the Rattenburys, the toxic combination of his jealous infatuation, Rattenbury’s drunken depression and Alma’s addictions came to a final, tragic head On March 24, 1935.
The day before, Francis and Alma had decided to go away and spend the night with a friend and potential business partner. George was consumed with jealousy at the thought of Alma going away for a night and sleeping with Rattenbury. She was eventually able to calm him and assure him that they would have separate bedrooms.
At 9:30 that evening Alma left her husband in his study and went to pack for the next day. She then went to bed and shortly after was joined by Stoner. Around 10:30 Alma heard groans from downstairs and knew that something was wrong with Francis. She went downstairs and found him slumped over in his chair, blood dripping from his head. At first glance she thought he had tripped and hit his head. But upon further investigation she realized the extent of his wounds. A doctor was called and Rattenbury taken to the hospital where he died shortly after from severe injuries to the back of his skull.
Alma and George were arrested as suspects. The highly publicized trial that followed was the biggest news to hit British papers since the sinking of the Titanic. Although there still remain questions as to who truly committed the murder, Alma was released and Stoner sentenced to hang. Initially Alma admitted to having hit her husband with a mallet because he had dared her and she could no longer stand his threats of suicide. But during the trial she admitted she was protecting Stoner who in a jealous rage had ended poor Francis’ life.
A few days after Stoners sentencing Alma, devastated and heart-broken, walked to the edge of the River Avon where she repeatedly plunged a knife into her heart, her body falling into the river. The following day British headlines once again reported the shocking news of her suicide. She was only 39 years old.
Public outcry over Stoner’s sentencing led to the collection of 350,000 signatures. People sympathized with the young man, believing he had been seduced into committing the murder. In the end his sentence was reduced and he was released after serving just seven years.
If it is true that ghosts walk the earth because of a broken heart or a restless spirit, the tragedy of Alma Rattenbury’s life makes you wonder if on certain nights, you might not catch a glimpse of her standing on the riverbank along the River Avon, where she last stood before taking her own life.
Or perhaps her ghost still walks the streets of Kamloops, the City in which she was born.
Both of Alma’s sons went on to lead happy family lives and have successful professional careers. Francis and Alma’s son John followed in his famous father’s footsteps and became an architect. He worked with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesen West. In 1998 John was invited back to Victoria for the one hundredth anniversary of the Legislature building.