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The Curious Case of Dr. Henry Head Gray

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:

Full entry: 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 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?

Menu cover for the 1891 annual dinner of Trinity Medical College (courtesy of

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?

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