Torbay woman’s death shrouded in mystery

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Barb Sweet
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Son will likely never know the truth about his biological mother’s troubled past

A pair of news briefs in two competing daily newspapers wrapped up Christine Tapper’s death, first raising the hint of crime and then dispelling it with little explanation. Neither report answers the lifelong mystery that has haunted her son, Earl Manning, since she died at age 38.

“I am only going by what the rumours were at the time,” Manning said Wednesday of the long-held belief that Tapper had been murdered. “A lot of people, several people said.”

On the Monday following her June 13, 1959, death on Princes Street in downtown St. John’s, The Evening Telegram and its competitor, The Daily News, reported the death of an unnamed woman and said police were checking into her demise, reportedly caused by a drunken brawl.

The next Evening Telegram report said Tapper died of pneumonia.

The Daily News, which had also attributed her death at first to a brawl, published an odd correction that read in part, “It was mentioned that the woman died as the result of injuries received in a drunken brawl. The information as given, was received by The News in good faith from a supposedly reliable source.”

What happened to Tapper will likely never be known, given the several decades that have passed by.

And unlike in a Hollywood movie, there’s no box of evidence waiting on a shelf to be rediscovered by a cold case investigator.

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary has no record of Tapper’s death, said spokesman Const. Geoffrey Higdon.

Wednesday was the first time that Manning had heard her death attributed to pneumonia, or any type of natural cause.

When Texan Sean O’Neill  posted comments about Tapper’s supposed murder on a recent Telegram story about missing and killed women, Manning’s spouse, Marilyn Meaney, reached out to O’Neill who was about 11 at the time of Tapper’s death.

O’Neill knew Tapper, who was a prostitute, or “lady of the evening” as the occupation was then known.

O’Neill was part of gang of kids who grew up in the New Gower Street area and said neighbourhood prostitutes like Tapper were kind to them. He particularly remembers Tapper as a nice dresser who never cursed.

It was a tough area, O’Neill  told The Telegram, remembering his brother and his friends fashioning handguns from sawed-off 22-calibre rifles. O’Neill and his friends would go on the rooftop of a neighbourhood building and heckle women like Tapper while they entertained clients, though the women never knew it was them.

“They loved us kids,” he recalls, adding sadly the women’s lives were dismissed by many. “They were just unfortunate people in unfortunate circumstances. … There was always stuff going on up there.”

“She was murdered, no doubt about it. … People like (Tapper), the police didn’t put as much into it as a regular person who has a job, pays their taxes and has a name in the community. They didn’t really care.”

O’Neill said the paddy wagon would frequently sweep the area on Friday nights.

“Police would arrest those gals, use the billy clubs, knock them out and put them in the police vans,” he said.

“Nobody cared what happened to those women downtown.”

Manning was 15 or 16 at the time and didn’t really know Tapper was his natural mother, though his Uncle Henry, who lived around Flower Hill, introduced her to him a few times as his mother, leaving Manning befuddled.

Manning had been raised from an infant in Torbay by Tapper’s stepsister and did not know definitively about his connection to Tapper until he sought to go in the Army.

He does remember one remark by Henry — a half-brother to both Tapper and his adoptive mother, Mary Manning. The merchant marine veteran said when Tapper died that he wished Earl Manning was older so he could push further into the cause of her death.

Manning recalls asking Mary Manning for his birth certificate so he could complete his Army enrolment. In their old homestead on Indian Meal Line, Mary Manning was sitting on an old steamer trunk, sobbing, when she replied.

“She said, ‘No Earl,’ she said, ‘I am not your real mother,’” he recalls.

She passed him the document, which revealed he was Earl Tapper. (Years later he changed his surname to Manning, honouring his adoptive parents, Frank and Mary.)

“When I was young and (would) be out around playing with the kids, there was a couple of kids who used to make fun of me and say, ‘Your mother is a whore,’” Manning said.

He didn’t understand  why they would say such a stupid thing about Mary Manning, who was home raising her children. Now he realizes they were putting down his birth mother, whose occupation was well known in the community.

Later in life, Manning — who spent decades living out West before retiring and moving to Flatrock — discovered that Christine Tapper had given up two older children and one younger child.

In the 1980s, he met his two sisters, reuniting with one and then another through the Toronto-based TV program “Thrill of a Lifetime.” His brother found him in the 1990s.

Are all believed to have had different fathers. Only Manning and one of his sisters are still living.

Manning remembers Tapper as a good-looking woman with strawberry-blond hair.

“She always carried herself with dignity. She always had nice clothes on the three or four times I met her,” he said.

Marilyn Meaney said she remembers Mary Manning telling her in a mid-1990s phone conversation that Tapper had struggled with a love of drink.

“Mary Manning told me when (Earl Manning) was a baby, Christine sobered up and came back and wanted to take him back,” Meaney said.

“Mary and Frank were both frightened she would go off and leave him again when the urge got great.”

Mary Manning also apparently said that Tapper was pushed down over a flight of stairs.

Manning said it was suggested by some people at the time that the woman who owned the house where Tapper lived had done the deed. Other rumours suggested her head was bashed in by someone.

“To dig it up now, how would they solve it now? I would say everybody involved in that now is dead and gone anyway,” Manning said.

With slim chance of solving the mystery, he is still hoping to find photographs of his mother from relatives. Family lore has it that one of her sisters was so incensed at Tapper’s lifestyle that she had a gravestone for their father — a man who had disappeared years earlier — placed on Tapper’s grave in Torbay in an attempt to obscure Tapper’s presence on Earth.

Manning attended the burial, but with changes to the Holy Trinity cemetery, he has been unable to locate his mother’s grave. The parish office told The Telegram it only began keeping a record of burial locations about 20 years ago.

 Manning said he had a good life with his adoptive family, but wishes the timing of the disclosure of his connection to Tapper had been earlier.

“I don’t know why they tried to keep that stuff from me anyway. It was hush-hush. Everything was a secret,” Manning  said.

“Maybe Henry was right — I should have got to know her more.

“I am 16 years old joining the Army and they tells me I am adopted. Mother is already dead. It would have made things a lot more understandable if the two had come together a little bit earlier.

“I could have sat down and talked to Christine and said, ‘Why did you choose this life over us kids?’”

 

bsweet@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Daily News

Geographic location: Torbay, Princes Street, Hollywood Gower Street Flower Hill Flatrock Holy Trinity

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