Hello, my loyal true crime readers.
I need your help. I’ve had a difficult locating a photo of Irene “Frances” Gibbons and I’d love to include one in this article. If you come across one, or know someone who might have one, please reach out.
As always, thanks for reading!
Case File Overview
In 1975, Strathroy, Ontario was a small town that, by all appearances, should have been a safe place to live. It is conveniently located 35 kilometres (22 miles) west of London and near Highway 402, one of the major trade links between Ontario, Canada and the Midwestern United States.
At the time, Strathroy had a population of only around 7,500, so you might think crime would not have been a big issue… but you would be wrong. For instance, during the week of July 27, 1975, there were 70 “occurrences” investigated by local police – from tree limbs falling on vehicles, to hit and run accidents, to the cold-blooded murder of Irene “Frances” Gibbons.
Frances Gibbons was born in Oxbow, Saskatchewan to Thomas Gibbons and Mary Angela Tyrrell. After spending some time in Mount Brydges, Ontario Frances and her mom relocated to Strathroy, larger village a short distance away, in 1953.
Sadly, Frances’ mom died a couple years after they moved. Frances never married, and by time 1975 rolled around the 66-year-old was retired and had spent a couple decades living on her own. Before she retired, she worked at Kraftmaster, a factory in town that specialized in manufacturing art kits. This job was especially convenient for Frances because it was within walking distance of her house and she did not have a vehicle.
Everything started off as planned for Frances on Thursday July 31, 1975, in her quaint red bungalow on Keefer Street.
After dressing in her brown polka-dot dress and eating breakfast, Frances set off on the 20-minute walk downtown from her southside home. Typically, once a week her best friend Ruby Toner drove Frances into town so she could pick up groceries and run other errands. But this week Ruby was unavailable.
Once in town, Frances shopped for groceries at Foodland. She made the usual arrangements to have her groceries delivered later that afternoon. Then, she stopped in at Eaton’s on Front Street. During her errands, Frances passed by her neighbour Mina Hawkins on the street at approximately 11:00AM.
When she was done in town, Frances walked back home, arriving around noon. Once she settled in, she chatted with a friend on the phone – this was the last time anyone heard from Frances. Her groceries were delivered on schedule at around 4:00PM, but no one answered the grocery delivery boy’s knocks on the front door.
When Sandra Deboer, a young girl filling in for the usual newspaper carrier who was on vacation, delivered the newspaper she noticed the groceries in the grocery box on the front stoop and heard Frances’ dog Tommy barking inside the house. She later said Tommy was a “skittery, nervous little thing,” but he was barking more than usual on that Thursday compared to the other days of the week she had been by the house.
The next day, Sandra stopped by to deliver the newspaper and to collect payment for the week. She noticed Tommy was barking even more and the groceries were untouched.
On Saturday morning when Sandra arrived to drop off the newspaper she became very concerned. Tommy was still barking furiously, the newspapers from Thursday and Friday had not been brought inside, and the groceries were still on the stoop… margarine from inside one of the grocery bags had even melted all over the concrete by the door.
Something was clearly wrong.
Sandra went home and told her mother about what she had seen, and her mother quickly called the authorities.
Police forced open Frances’ front door at 9:35AM on Saturday August 2. Once inside, they found Frances strangled to death and posed on her back on her bedroom floor.
Authorities called the manager at Foodland and asked him to come to the house and identify Frances. Afterwards, the manager said, “Christ, all the years she lived here. I didn’t even know where she lived until I had to identify her body.”
Once authorities determined her schedule, they estimated Frances was killed sometime after she talked to her friend on the phone but before the groceries were delivered at 4:00PM. It was unlikely she would have left the groceries out on her front step in the summer heat if she was able to answer the door.
An autopsy was performed on Frances at London’s St. Joseph’s Hospital by Doctor Eleanor Davies. She confirmed Frances had been strangled to death with nylon stockings. She had been restrained with nylons and a “wad of rags, stockings, and other fabric was jammed into her mouth and down her throat.” The nylons used to tie her up matched the ones found in her mouth.
Frances’ cause of death was officially listed as “asphyxia resulting from blockage of the air passage and strangulation.” There was no visible sign of sexual assault. But Doctor Davies reported foul play was definitely involved.
DNA testing was not an option back in 1975. Frances’ entire house was dusted for fingerprints but nothing useful was found.
Her murder remains unsolved.
Case File Theories
Someone from her inner circle
Was Frances murdered by someone from her inner circle? Maybe. Some of the evidence suggests Frances was killed by someone she knew.
For one thing, Frances was a careful, perhaps even a scared, person who always kept her doors locked. It is unlikely she would have willingly let a stranger into her home, but there was no sign of forced entry. This seems to suggest she opened her door to someone she knew.
Also, the killer either had “good luck” or they were aware of Frances’ schedule. Was it someone who knew her friend Ruby would not be joining her that day on their customary weekly shopping trip? How many people in town could have known that information?
Not many. Frances kept to herself and did not have a large inner circle. It was reported at the time, “Those who knew her best didn’t know her well. And those who didn’t know her well hardly knew her at all.” People in town referred to Frances as “that quiet lady” and as “a bit of a recluse.” If someone from her small inner circle did kill her, given the limited number of potential suspects you would think her murder may have been solved.
Frances only had one living relative – a brother named Thomas Gibbons who lived in Hamilton, Ontario. At the time of his sister’s murder Thomas was 62 years old. There was some surprise in the community when he went through with his wedding only a week after the tragic loss of his sister.
But what motive could Thomas have had to murder his sister? Since Thomas was Frances’ only living relative I wonder if he inherited her estate. Nothing was reported about this, but if he did then I suppose it is possible this was his motive. I wish we knew if the authorities looked into his whereabouts the afternoon Frances was killed and ruled him out. It is important to note police never publicly suggested Thomas was suspect.
If it was not someone from Frances’ small inner circle who killed her, then who did?
Was Frances murdered by a stranger? This is also a possibility.
There was no sign of a struggle and none of Frances’ nearby neighbors reported hearing any commotion or screams. But police believe she may have been compliant if a stranger somehow managed to talk his way into the house and said he was only there to rob her.
Authorities also think it was possible the killer gained access to Frances’ home while she was in town and waited for her to return. There are a couple of problems with this theory. Why was there no sign of forced entry? And did the killer really just sit around and wait while she visited with her friend on the phone? It would be nice to know how long this conversation lasted. Five minutes? An hour? How much patience did the killer need to have for this scenario to be possible?
If it was a stranger killing, the motive likely was not robbery. A little money seemed to be missing from Frances’ wallet, but other valuables were left in the home. Why did her murderer leave them behind? Police even checked her bank records to see if she had made any withdrawals and brought a large amount of money home for some reason… perhaps her killer was after that. But nothing raised any red flags.
Maybe Frances’ murder was a sex crime. Even though there was no evidence of a sexual assault that does not mean the crime was not sexual in nature. It could be that evidence of a sex crime was missed. Moreover, tying someone up with nylons and then slowly strangling them to death is an intimate act and it suggests a predatory need for power and control over women.
In fact, Frances had told her best friend Ruby she had been receiving “funny” phone calls “practically every night” for two to three weeks leading up to her murder. She said the calls were placed by a man she did not know, but Frances refused to disclose the content of the calls. Were they embarrassing? Threatening? We will never know.
Frances did live across the street from what used to be Southdale Public School. She was killed in August, which means school was not in session at the time. This means her killer would have had ample opportunity to stalk Frances from the empty school grounds.
If Frances’ murder was committed by a stranger, was he a one-and-done killer? Or was he responsible for the death of other women?
Was a serial killer tormenting southern Ontario in the mid-1970s? Surprisingly, this is highly likely.
On November 8, 1975, an article in The London Free Press reported rewards totalling $38,500 (almost $200,000 in today’s money) were being offered to help solve the murders of seven southern Ontario women who had been killed over the previous 1.5 years.
In addition to Frances’ murder, two of the murders occurred in the Strathroy area.
On March 3, 1974, Judy Barksey, 19 years of age, was stabbed to death and her throat was slashed with a sharp object. Her body was discovered “in a pool of blood” near the Canadian National Railway (CNR) station behind Bailey Farm Supplies in Strathroy. Authorities believe Judy left her boarding house on Maitland Terrace and walked along Frank Street to Pizza Delight. Once there she picked up food and then took a fateful shortcut across the CNR property. Approximately 40 feet from her body police found soft drinks, candy bars, and a pizza; they believe Judy dropped these items as she attempted to fight off and escape her attacker.
Louise Jenner, also 19 years of age, had her throat slashed on October 20, 1975. The crime occurred in her home on Highway 81 in Mount Brydges, which is around 11.5 kilometres (seven miles) from Strathroy. Her six-month-old daughter was sleeping in her crib during the crime but was unharmed. Louise’s body was found by her husband only a few hours after she was killed. There was a car seen near their home around the time of the murder; it was described as a “late model Oldsmobile Cutlas with opera windows, medium brown with a cream-coloured vinyl roof.” But witnesses could not provide a description of the driver. Police checked over 1800 cars registered from Windsor to Barrie that fit the description of this vehicle but nothing came of the lead.
Were the murders of Judy, Frances, and Louise really connected? There was a tentative connection between Louise and Judy; they both worked at the same pizza place. The connection, though, was not that telling since their employment at the restaurant did not overlap, and they did not even work for the same owners. Also, no link was ever made between the young murder victims and 66-year-old Frances. Not only were their ages wildly different, but also they were both killed with a knife and Frances was strangled. No murder weapon was found at either of their crime scenes, whereas the stockings that killed Frances were left in her home. The only real similarities were all of the victims were women and no fingerprints were found at any of the three crime scenes.
Taking all of this into consideration I think Judy and Louise’s murders could have been connected, but not Frances’. But the authorities think otherwise.
The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) had no leads in the murders of Judy, Frances, and Louise, but given the previously low murder rate in the region – the last murder before Judy occurred in 1925 – even without much evidence linking the crimes they found it difficult to believe they were not related.
OPP Staff Superintendent J.S. Kay of the Criminal Investigations Branch said they “hadn’t ruled out a link between the three Strathroy murders.” He added there might even be a connection between the three murders and several others committed in nearby communities during the previous year:
- Pearl Inez Donald, 83, was stabbed to death in her home on October 14, 1975, in Oil Springs, 48 kilometres (30 miles) southeast of London.
- Aleitha Jane Henning, 57, was beaten and stabbed to death on September 20, 1975, in her home in Aton, 16 kilometres (10 miles) northwest of Mount Forest.
- Violet Semple, 81, was beaten to death and her house was set on fire November 2, 1975, in Markdale, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of Kitchener.
Despite the belief some, if not all, of these cases were linked, this information never helped to solve any of the murders.
For the three Strathroy murders alone, which includes Frances’ case, at least 10,000 interviews were conducted and mountains of paperwork were compiled. But Staff Superintendent Kay had to admit to the media “few solid leads had materialized.” Regardless, he stressed, “We are still looking for that common denominator.”
I think it is very plausible a serial killer was hunting in southern Ontario in the mid-1970s. Several of crimes discussed here may indeed be related. But it is still unclear if the person who stabbed and slashed the two young women to death in the Strathroy area is the same killer who strangled 66-year-old Frances. It is possible, but more evidence is needed for the theory to be rock solid.
So, are there any other options?
Murderer of Jane Burton McMurtie
Did the murderer of Jane Burton McMurtie also kill Frances?
In October of 1973 there was a murder in Hensall, Ontario – 64 kilometres (40 miles) north of London – that seems similar to Frances’ murder.
Like Frances, 93-year-old Jane Burton McMurtie lived alone. She resided in a large frame house on the main street in Hensall with her two beloved cats for 11 years after her husband passed away. She was last seen by neighbours on Thursday October 4, 1973, raking leaves out on her front lawn.
The next day when Mrs. Fred Vivian arrived – Jane’s friend who delivered meals and helped with housework – she became suspicious when there was no answer after she knocked on the door. And she found the backdoor unlocked, which was unusual. She went home and called Jane but could not get through. It was later discovered the phone lines to Jane’s house had been cut.
Jane’s friend called police. When they entered the home to do a welfare check they found Jane’s naked body on the floor of her bedroom.
The murder of Jane was, without doubt, a sex crime. The Centre of Forensic Science in Toronto determined she had been sexually assaulted, whereas such blatant evidence was missing in Frances’ case. But as mentioned earlier, it is extremely likely Frances’ murder was a sex crime.
Still, there are a couple of interesting differences in the cases. First, authorities found signs of attempted entry in at least two locations at Jane’s house… similar signs were never found at Frances’. Second, Jane’s phone lines had been cut – this did not occur at Frances’ house. However, it was later reported repairmen had been working on Jane’s phone line earlier in the week, leaving it quite possible whatever was wrong with her phone lines was somehow related to this work and not at all connected to her murder.
An autopsy on Jane was done at Stratford General Hospital. Jane, like Frances, was strangled with nylons. The nylons were not tied with a typical knot. Rather, the “elaborate and tightly fastened restraints [were] made by someone who no doubt had done this before.” It appeared as though the perpetrator had tied Jane up with one pair of nylons then grabbed another pair and tightened it slowly around her throat while they assaulted her.
Jane’s killing suggested the work of a “sadistic sexual homicide.” This was not the type of killing done by a panicked burglar who had been caught in the act. Moreover, this kind of killer seems extremely likely to kill again.
Did this killer murder Frances around a year and nine months after murdering Jane? I think this is a possibility given the similarities in the cases.
Forty-seven days after Jane’s murder, Llyod George Salter of Kippen, Ontario was charged with her murder. Little is known about this trial, but in April of 1974 a jury found the 39-year-old sheet metal worker not guilty after deliberating for only 3.5 hours after a 9-day trial.
As in Frances’ case, Jane’s murder remains unsolved.
Who do you think murdered Frances?
Frances was mourned by her few loved ones and laid to rest in Strathroy’s Roman Catholic Cemetery. Justice for Frances has yet to be attained.
And the community of Strathroy still waits for answers.
Shortly after Frances’ horrific murder, Police Chief William Smith said, “If a woman in this town isn’t afraid, then there’s something the matter with her.” The residents of Strathroy were terrified. Before the crime spree in the region, few people locked their doors. After the killings, locks sold out at the local hardware store.
The grocery store manager explained, “It’s a small town and people are shook. Not just old people, but everyone.” People were not only scared for their safety, but also they were worried about being questioned by police and having people in the community think they were guilty. This begs the question how much this reticence to share information hampered the investigation.
If you have any information about Frances’ murder, contact the Strathroy-Caradoc police at 519-245-1250. Or, if you can assist authorities with any of the other murders mentioned in this article call the Royal Canada Mounted Police at 613-993-7267.
Sources and Related Reading
Murder City. Michael Arntfield, Friesen Press, 2015.
“If A Woman In This Town Isn’t Afraid, Then There’s Something The Matter With Her.” The Windsor Star, March 13, 1976.
“Strathroy Murders May Be Linked.” The London Free Press, February 25, 1976.
“Tips On 7 Area Killings Worth $38,500 To Police.” The London Free Press, November 8, 1975.
“Strathroy Police.” The Age Dispatch, August 7, 1975.
“Woman Found Dead, Victim Of Strangulation.” The Age Dispatch, August 7, 1975.
“‘Quiet Lady’: Murder Victim Now Known In Strathroy.” The London Free Press, August 6, 1975.
“Murder Acquittal.” The Globe and Mail, April 5, 1974.
“Charge Laid In Hensall Murder.” Zurich Citizen News, November 22, 1973.
“Police Continue Hunt For Possible Clues.” Zurich Citizens News, October 11, 1973.
“Woman, 93, Victim.” The Globe and Mail, October 8, 1973.
“Ontario Highway 402.” Wikipedia, n.d.
“Strathroy-Caradoc.” Wikipedia, n.d.