The Curious Case of Dr. Henry Head Gray

Menu cover for the 1891 annual dinner of Trinity Medical College. The College was on Spruce Street, just a few blocks from the Toronto Necropolis.

by Jane E. MacNamara

As we work at transcribing the burial registers of the Toronto Necropolis, it is easy to get caught up in the stories of the people whose demise we are recording. A week or two ago, this entry caught my eye:

Henry Head Gray, M.D., age 26, born Dundas, Ont./ died Hamilton, Montana, US/ died March 29, 1891/ buried April 7, 1891/ cause: accidental poisoning/ Plot: N 64/ owned by Estate of John Gray/ officiating minister: G.M. Wrong/ undertaker: W.H. Stone

What took this young Ontario doctor to Montana? What was the Toronto connection that brought him all the way back to the Necropolis—in what seems like a remarkably short nine days? And of course, his death by accidental poisoning was really intriguing!

Tried-and-true genealogical research techniques told me to start with the known to get to the unknown—so what about other records of Henry’s death? Montana death records for 1891 are spotty. I had no easy access to Montana newspapers of the time. And I didn’t find a death notice or other account of Henry’s demise in the Toronto Globe. (I eventually located an obituary elsewhere, but more about that later.)

However, I did have at hand a transcription of the gravemarkers in the Toronto Necropolis published by OGS Toronto Branch in 2002. In plot N 64, the marker commemorates Henry Head Gray M.D., 1865–1891, as well as his father John Gray (1823–1872), mother Jane Head (1826–1904), a young Robert L. Gray (1861–1869), and Rebecca Gray (1821–1869).

Armed with this cluster of names, dates, locations and John’s occupation, I was able to locate the family in census records, through Ancestry.ca. In 1861, 37-year-old John was a “brewer” in Dundas, Ontario, but by 1871 the family had moved to Yorkville (now part of Toronto) and John was a “merchant”. Our Dr. Henry Gray seems to be the youngest of at least six children, with older siblings Caroline M. (born c1853), John H. (c1855), Eliza R. (c1857), Anna (c1859), and Jane (c1863).

By 1881, a widowed Jane Gray can be found living with her six adult and teen children, the youngest Henry at 16. Older brother John H., age 25, was now a merchant, perhaps looking after the family business.

By 1891, a 65-year-old Jane Gray is still living with three of her daughters: Caroline is a public school teacher, and intriguingly, Eliza and Jane are both medical students. Our Henry, of course, has gone to Montana, died, and been brought back to Toronto for burial just about two weeks before the census. Or was he?

City directories for Toronto fill in more details. These are available online as part of the Toronto Public Library’s digital collections. John Gray’s business was Gray Brothers, located on the west side of Yonge Street in Yorkville in 1870. In 1889, before Henry set off for Montana, the family lived at 259 Wellesley Street (at Rose Avenue). Eliza was a teacher at Park School, and Jane “Miss Jennie” taught at Bolton Street School. Our young “Harry” was a student.

What took the newly minted doctor, Henry Head Gray, to Hamilton, Montana?

The Montana Territory had only just become a state in 1889, and Hamilton was even younger, established in 1890 by copper mine owner Marcus Daly as a company town for his lumber mill. Did Daly advertise for a doctor for his workers?

Certainly Montana was very much in the news in Toronto. In the months before Henry’s departure, the Globe carried reports of new railway lines into Montana from western Canada. There were ads for special flat-fare excursions from Chicago on the “Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe” which included Montana on the list of exciting western states and territories. And Toronto’s Exhibition of 1890 was to include a Wild West Show with “fiery mustangs from Montana”.

But the “curious” part of this story is not why and how Henry died in Montana in 1891. The mystery is whether he died in 1891.

Here is the obituary I mentioned earlier—from 1914:

Henry Head Gray, MD. Trinity Medical College, Toronto, 1890; of Oklahoma City; was found dead in his room in the Blossom House, Kansas City, March 10, from the effects of poison, self administered, it is believed, with suicidal intent, aged 46. (Journal of the American Medical Association, March 28, 1914, page 1032.

This Henry Head Gray died almost 23 years later than our Henry, but also in March. The age 46 in the obit puts his birth year at about 1868, within two or three years of the 1865 recorded on our Henry’s gravestone.

Both men (if there were two) went to medical school in Toronto and graduated at about the same time. And both were poisoned…

Did someone take the diploma from the wall of Henry’s office in Hamilton when his body was shipped back to Toronto and assume his identity? Did the real Henry live on—out of contact with his Toronto family? In that case, who is really buried in plot N 64?

Or is it all just a remarkable coincidence?

7 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Dr. Henry Head Gray

  1. Bear with me through this as I can add a few details to your story… My Great-Grandmother, Fannie Macomber married Thomas T. Woodworth in Chicago in 1886. In 1890, they had a child, my Grandfather, Thomas James Woodworth. They lived in St. Paul, MN at the time of his birth. In 1901, Thomas T. died, in St. Paul (apparently came home drunk and froze to death outside the house – or so the story goes). So – according to family oral history, at some point Fannie moved to New Orleans to manage her lumber mills that were in Mississippi (I think this is bogus). Anyway, she met Dr. H.H. Grey, who was from Toronto, Canada and a veteran of the Boer War (again I think that is bogus). H.H. told Fannie that he had left a wife in Canada without divorcing her. After Fannie and H.H. Were married H.H. wanted to raise my grandfather as his own and changed his name to Cecil Head Grey. I do not believe that he ever formally adopted Cecil. The name Cecil came from H.H. claiming that he was good friends with Cecil John Rhodes (yes, the Cecil Rhodes that founded Rhodesia). The middle name – we now know came from H.H. In 1902 H.H., Fannie and Cecil moved to Oklahoma City, OK and H.H. was a staff physician at St. Anthony’s Hospital until his death (I’m still trying to verify this with St. Anthony’s). (Prior to moving to Oklahoma City he supposedly had a medical practice in Beaumont, Texas). I was able to locate his death certificate online which lists him as H.N. Grey but it is definitely him – poisoned with Cyanide. Within 30 minutes of finding his name to be Henry Head Grey, I found this wonderful article which certainly creates many questions.

  2. Dr. H.H. Grey was my grandfather’s step-father. According to family lore, Dr. Grey faught in the Bore War. On the way back from South Africa, he had an appendicitis operation and the sleeve that was holding his intestines together came loose. According my grandmother, he cut the incision back open push the sleeve back into position and saved his own life, as there were no other doctors on the train to help him. He also told my grandfather that he was a close personal friend of Cecil Rhodes (Rhodes Scholar fame. No one in our family mentioned Dr. Gray/Grey committing suicide. As a matter of fact, I was just asking my mother the other day if Dr. Grey was buried in Oklahoma City. She said no, that he was shipped back to his family in Canada. It was also told to us, that Dr. Grey left Canada without divorcing his wife and turned around and married my grandmother, Fannie Anna Macomber Woodworth Grey. All this sounds to unreal but we have nothing to go on.

    I check with the two oldest cemetaries in Oklahoma, Fairlawn and Rosehill and they said there was no Dr. Grey buried in either place and there was no land purchased by Dr. Grey or his wife at the time of his death for his last resting place. Maybe Fannie just paid to have him shipped back to Canada. The death certificate was so vague as it did not list any relatives. How on earth would they know to ship him to Oklahoma if no relatives were present to claim the body. Also, the body was discovered at 8:00 am according to the Coronar and they shipped him to be buried the same day from Kansas City, MO to Oklahoma City, OK??? Did you check the family plot in Canada to see if they have two bodies buried with the same name??? Please let us know what your investigation turns up. We would certainly like to know. Sincerely, Suzanne

    • i have been trying to find the heirs of a florence grey who is supposed to be the daughter of fannie grey; they lived in okc and i think this is related to the h.h. grey story

      • Doug,
        I just noticed your comment here. I have a Lillian Florence Rhodes in my tree that would have been my grandmother’s aunt but no relation to Fannie. I also have a Florence Macomber that would have been Fannie’s niece.
        Would be happy to invite you to the family tree on Ancestry. Write to me at
        scarp54 at gmail dot com.

  3. See this lawsuit from 1917 that contends that H. H. Grey’s original name was William M. Ireland, thus voiding his life insurance policy (as his suicide would also). Did he assume the other Henry’s identity? What did his sister Mrs. White, who presumably filed the lawsuit, know?

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