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doty at the london jailDoty helps bring London-area history alive
by George Clark

A story in this week's Free Press by Patrick Maloney made me think about the contributions Londoner Christopher Doty has made to this community...

A degree in journalism in hand from the University of Western Ontario, Doty has carved out a career for himself in researching local historical projects for his website, www.dotydocs.com, as well as producing new video documentaries and restoring older film ones. He still finds time to review plays and even write his own. He's busy now on a play involving the Lucan- area vigilantes who were tried for the infamous slaughter of the Donnelly family 124 years ago.

Doty describes himself as a documentarian and a casual historian. I think he could better capture it in one word -- communicator. Using all the tools technology presents, from film, videotape and video discs, to his own website, Doty has managed to convey the stories of Londoners to Londoners, whether it be the escape of Slippery the sea lion in 1958, which put London's Storybook Gardens on the North American map, to the 19 people who were executed in London, in and around the old Middlesex County courthouse and jail.

It was the one of the latter stories, in fact, the last hanging ever to take place in London, that sparked the newspaper account of Doty achieving what many historians, casual or not, can only hope to do -- literally bringing history alive. It was the story of Walker George Rowe's hanging in 1951.

A Hamilton student attending Fanshawe College had only been told in recent years by her mother, who had been adopted, that her maternal birth grandfather had been executed in London. The student contacted Doty's website to see if he had more information concerning Rowe's family.

Within a week, Doty received another website query, asking the same question, from Portland, Ore. Making a long story short, Doty was able to inform both enquirers about each other, and family members, who had been separated by the adoption following Rowe's hanging, were put in contact with each other. A story about a hanging more than 53 years ago was brought to some form of closure with a bizarre twist through Doty's story-telling and his website.

Talking with Doty on the radio this week on Focus980, I learned more about the hundreds of hours spent in editing rooms, and in archives, looking through photographs and old stories, to bring back the stories of London's past. He said it can be very dirty work going through some of the old material, but he's never been afraid of getting his hands dirty. Again, this may not seem to most an attribute that would be important to historians, but without it, think of the history that would be lost.

Very much alive to all the aspects of story-telling, Doty told me the Donnelly play he is writing now will be staged in the same courthouse where the original trial took place, the Middlesex courthouse. He plans for his play to be performed next year, the 125th anniversary of that black tragedy on the Roman Line near Lucan.

This self-described casual historian says he was born in the '60s, one hour before Star Trek premiered on television. For a birth tied so intimately with galactic wanderers, he hasn't strayed far from home. But he has done much to make many of the stories of his community more accessible to more people. Many projects have ended up being broadcast on television or cable in London, be it the story of Slippery's famous escape and recapture, the history of the Grand Theatre or the flood of 1937.

Doty, who has a self-deprecating style that allows one quickly to understand he doesn't take himself too seriously, has not only brought history alive in London in the past, he continues to pump life into it with every new project with which he gets involved. It's a constant reminder that we don't have to look too far from home to find some of life's most interesting stories.

Mind you, it is helped a lot if the story-teller is as skilled and multi-talented as Doty.

This article was originally published in the London Free Press on July 10, 2004. It is reprinted with permission from The London Free Press. Further reproduction without written permission from The London Free Press is prohibited.