They were two Hamilton girls with big, long-lashed brown eyes. Just a year apart in age, they lived across town from each other but in different worlds. Neither knew about the other; if they'd ever crossed paths in Hamilton, they weren't aware of it. But they were sisters, separated when they were little more than babies.
Now, after 53 years, they've found each other again, united after a series of bizarre coincidences. It's a happy ending to a story that started out as tragedy.
In 1951, Walter George Rowe, known to all as George, was executed after he accidentally shot a man during a bungled gas station stick-up.
"I slipped on the grease and the gun went off," Rowe said in his defence. He hadn't even been trying to rob the gas station, he said. He and a buddy were trying to get from Windsor to London to sell some guns they'd stolen. They hailed a cab and gave driver John Jolly a bogus address.
Once they got to London, Jolly stopped at a gas station to ask for directions. When he found out the street Rowe had asked for didn't exist, he got suspicious and picked up a phone to call police. Rowe pulled out a gun and ordered everybody into the back of the station, but Jolly didn't follow orders. He ran through a doorway and slammed a wooden door behind him. That was when Rowe's gun went off. A bullet ripped through the door and killed Clair Galbraith, 20, who had come to the garage to work on his car. Rowe didn't even know there was anybody there.
But because he killed a man while he was committing a crime, he was convicted of murder. It was London's last-ever hanging, 11 years before Canada's last executions. Rowe left behind his estranged wife and two little daughters.
His wife couldn't take care of both girls on her own, so she kept two-year-old Georgina but gave up 11-month-old Judi for adoption. Georgina's mother moved to Hamilton not long after her husband's death and struggled to make ends meet in the lower city. Coincidentally, Judi had been adopted by a middle-class family who lived on the Mountain. They gave Judi a stable and loving home, but she couldn't help but wonder about her birth family, whom she knew nothing about.
Judi, who doesn't want her married name made public, started her search for her birth family in earnest about 20 years ago. She was stunned when Children's Aid Society matter-of-factly read out her adoption records.
"When I found out about my father it was pretty shocking," she remembers quietly now. "I'll be honest - it was a bad day."
Still, she wanted to find out more. She and her husband Ron went to London to dig through old newspaper clippings, but they were all about the murder case and never mentioned her mother's or sister's names. Judi's youngest daughter Christine was a little curious about the family. Once or twice she searched the Internet for her grandfather's name but found nothing.
Then, last month, the 19-year-old dental hygiene student was idly going through a family photo album when she ran across a copy of an old George Rowe article. It inspired her to go to the computer again to see if anything new popped up. Something did. It was an article London historian Christopher Doty had posted. Christine e-mailed Doty to see if he had any more information about her family but there was little. But serendipity had a surprise in store.
Nine days later, on the other side of the continent, Georgina was doing laundry while her 17-year-old daughter Samara was fooling around on the computer. Bored, Samara called out to her mom for a suggestion for something to look up.
"I said look up my dad again," recalls Georgina from her Portland, Oregon home. Samara pulled up the same page Christine had the week before. Egged on by her daughter, Georgina e-mailed Doty to see if he knew anything more.
Initially he was cautious. After all, it was possible Georgina was just Christine's mother, even though they had different last names. He sent a carefully worded e-mail to Georgina asking if she'd ever heard of Christine. The response was no.
"I said, 'Well, you'd better contact her because she's your niece,'" says Doty.
"I was stunned. I still am. It still doesn't feel real," says Georgina. Georgina e-mailed Christine right away. "I was pretty shocked. I came running up the stairs and said, 'I just got an e-mail from your sister," says Christine.
The two women talked for half an hour that first time. Judi told Georgina she'd had a generally happy life in Hamilton. She married young and had four children. Georgina, a waitress, had a more difficult life. Her mother was killed in a car accident when she was 14 and her husband died in 1991, leaving her with just her daughter as family.
Now the sisters e-mail almost every day and have talked several times on the phone. They're still trying to get to know each other, but they've already discovered some common ground. Their daughters were born two years apart and looked alike as kids. They both have white Shih-Tzus that look almost exactly alike. They're both quiet, private people who put family at the centre of their lives.
Georgina hopes to visit Hamilton in the fall. The sisters can't wait to meet each other. "I feel like a gap has finally been filled," says Judi.
As for Christopher Doty, he's thrilled to have helped the sisters reunite. "If there was only one reason for my website to exist, this is a pretty darn good reason."
This article was originally published in The Hamilton Spectator in July 2004. It is reprinted with permission from The Hamilton Spectator. Further reproduction without written permission from The Hamilton Spectator is prohibited.