Domestic violence is an old, ongoing and potentially fatal problem

I was so keen on reading The Castleton Massacre by Sharon Anne Cook and Margaret Carson that I drove two hours east of Toronto to attend an author talk at Warkworth Public Library in August. The book is a recounting of the true story of the murder of four members of a family in nearby Castleton, Ontario in 1963.

It has taken nearly sixty years for the surviving daughter Margaret Carson to collaborate with Sharon Anne Cook, another family member to share her first-hand description of the event in The Castleton Massacre: Survivors’ Stories of the Killins Femicide. This is the true story of not only that night of horror but the events leading up to the murders and the back stories of the people involved.

Castleton is a small Canadian town near a similar small town in southern Ontario where I grew up. If you have ever driven Highway 401 between Toronto and Kingston, you are familiar with The Big Apple tourist stop just east of Cobourg. North of this lies the little town of Castleton with a population of fewer than one thousand people where a horrific mass murder occurred in May 1963. I was in high school back then, and vaguely remember the press coverage of this event when it happened.

On a warm spring night, a former United Church minister murdered four people. The victims included his estranged wife who was pregnant with another man’s child, his pregnant, married daughter, his sister, and his six-year-old stepdaughter, for a total of six deaths including the unborn babies. His estranged wife’s other daughter Margaret, who was twelve at the time and her ten-year-old brother Brian miraculously escaped and survived.

In the beginning

Robert Killins was the eldest of three children and his family’s pride and joy. During the years after World War I when post-secondary education was unusual, Robert attended Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. His student years marked the beginning of signs that he might not be as gifted or as stable as he was perceived. Lacking direction or any inclination toward a particular career path, he opted to major in theology and became a United Church minister.

Robert and Florence Killins in 1938, the year they were married.

After being ‘moved on’ from his first two parish assignments for being difficult, he left the ministry and worked odd jobs as a carpenter. While still a minister, the thirty-one-year-old misfit had married an eighteen-year-old pretty young woman called Florence who was eager to leave a difficult home life. The match was fraught with difficulties from the beginning and a few years and one daughter later, she left the marriage. Robert refused to give her a divorce and stalked every move made by Florence and their daughter Pearl.

When Florence escaped across Canada from British Columbia to avoid Robert’s abusive behaviours, she landed in Colborne, a small town halfway between Kingston and Toronto. Here she sought legal advice from A.D. Hall a local lawyer in nearby Castleton. A relationship developed between Florence and A.D. who was himself a widower. Because she could not get Robert to grant her a divorce, Florence and A.D. lived common-law. Over the years they had three children together who assumed the last name of Killins because Florence was still legally married to Robert.

Two of Florence’s four children survived the massacre, Margaret (left) and Brian (right). Her eldest daughter Pearl (top) and youngest, Patsy (bottom) were killed by Robert Killins. Margaret and Brian managed to escape.

As the three children in Florence’s new family and her older daughter Pearl grew, they treated A.D. Hall as their father and loved him like a father. Robert had followed Florence to Castleton and became increasingly paranoid about the whereabouts of Florence and their daughter Pearl His abusive behaviours escalated with beatings, threats of gun violence and intimidation. When A.D. Hall died in 1962, Florence and her children lost all their support and they were left utterly defenceless against escalating abusive behaviours by Robert Killins.

The violence culminated in the murder of four people and two unborn babies on May 2, 1963, an act that was carefully planned and carried out by Robert. Florence’s two older children with A.D. Hall miraculously managed to escape the carnage. This book is co-written by Margaret, the surviving daughter nearly sixty years later.

The lesson

The overriding lesson in reading this true story is that so much more needs to be done to help victims of domestic abuse, particularly in rural areas. Back in the early sixties when this crime occurred, domestic violence was treated as a family problem and the police and community offered no support. They basically turned their backs on those in need of protection. Florence’s situation was complicated further by the fact that she and A.D. Hall were living common-law and had produced three illegitimate children together.

Small, rural communities back then were morally self-righteous and they frowned on common-law relationships. That left Florence, A.D. Hall and their children not only with no community support they were in fact shunned by the members of the community for their perceived sins. No help was available to Florence and A.D. to restrain Robert and curb his violent tendencies. Domestic problems were considered family secrets and not talked about.

There is much more support for victims of domestic violence now than there was in the sixties, but the deeper problems remain, particularly in rural communities where shelters are scarce and not always accessible for the victims.

This story also addresses the questions many people who have no experience with domestic abuse issues ask, such as, “Why didn’t she just leave?” or “Why didn’t she get help?” It also confronts the importance of recognizing and treating mental health issues before it results in a tragedy such as this.

I cannot recommend reading The Castleton Massacre by Sharon Anne Cook and Margaret Carson strongly enough. It reads like a novel but brings home the struggles victims of domestic violence are faced with in their day-to-day lives. It is still an urgent problem and not that far removed from what was experienced by Florence Killins all those years ago.

Written with sensitivity and impeccably researched, this book will deeply touch everyone who reads it. It will help you better understand a serious social problem that many victims still face every day of their lives. I could not put this book down. I was unable to buy it at the author event because they were sold out but it arrived a day later when I ordered on Amazon.

If you cannot obtain a copy of The Castleton Massacre by Sharon Anne Cook and Margaret Carsen from your local library or bookstore, you can have it delivered to your door at Amazon’s best price by clicking here.

(Disclosure: I may receive a teeny, tiny commission. Thank you.)


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Fauzia Irshad
Fauzia Irshad
1 year ago

Lynda, you described the events so well. Cannot agree with you more on the need to deal with mental illness and the resultant horrible consequences .

1 year ago

Wow – you sure brought that one home. Good insight and today still is dealing with the same mental health issues in rural Ontario.