Mayor Thomas Foster: Meet Detective William Murdoch

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Earlier this year, fans of Murdoch Mysteries were treated to some Ontario History at its most beautiful—and bizarre.

The plot of the Season 8 episode, Murdoch and the Temple of Death saw our hunky Detective investigating a murder at a haunted temple north of Toronto. Rumour held that the building harboured a priceless treasure,  guarded by a troll.  

“Sir, they say that the Temple is cursed,” reports the impressionable but capable Constable George Crabtree, Detective William Murdoch’s right-hand man. “People say that anyone who goes inside the Temple of Death never comes out alive.”

And so Murdoch and Crabtree, with Coroner Emily Grace and several stalwarts of Toronto’s Police Station #4, travel north to Markham to investigate the dastardly goings-on.  

Before the hour is done, temple floors open to reveal secret tunnels beneath; codes are interpreted that give clues to the hidden treasure; and dungeon walls sprout deadly blades. And the hidden treasure is discovered.

But is it the Holy Grail—or a clever facsimile?

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After “Murdoch and the Temple of Death” was aired, social media buzzed, wondering where the episode had been filmed. A few of those queries came my away. It appears that in my part-time role as a National Historic Site adventurer, I’m a good resource for such information.

“Where was it filmed, Nancy?”

 “Is it a National Historical Site?”

 “Have you been there?”

So come along with me on a fascinating tour of the real Foster Memorial outside Uxbridge, north of Toronto. Along the way, you’ll meet the eccentric builder, former Member of Parliament and Toronto Mayor Thomas Foster.

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After a visit to the Taj Mahal in India in the late 1920’s, Toronto millionaire Thomas Foster was inspired to finally open his wallet. He planned to build a final resting place for himself, his wife and daughter.

Having made his fortune in real estate, Foster would spare no expense in creating his legacy. At the time, 1935, Foster’s free-spending ways shocked those who knew him as a dedicated skinflint. 

Born in Uxbridge, Foster began his working career as a butcher’s apprentice. Over the years, through wise real estate purchases, he became a millionaire. Foster became powerful politically too. He was elected to the House of Commons in 1917, serving a Toronto riding until 1921. In 1925, he was elected Mayor of Toronto.

Even after Foster had made his millions, his reputation as a Simon Legree was widespread. He was said to have instructed his cook to only buy small eggs instead of large or medium ones to save food costs.

A landlord with many rental properties, Foster did all maintenance and repairs himself, to save workmen’s costs.  

Foster’s penny-pinching ways eventually ended his political career. He lost his re-election as Toronto Mayor in 1927. The voters had clearly spoken on the Mayor’ refusal to increase his police force’s wages.

 

What Foster was willing to spend on was a contest he ran to find the Toronto woman who could produce the most children in a 10-year period. The prize? $125,000

Ah true life is surely stranger than fiction!!

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So Foster-watchers were agog with his grandiose plans to build a  great Memorial. Initial estimates ran to $100,000, a veritable pirate’s treasure in Depression times. When all was complete, the figure came in at over $200,000.  

Inspired by the Taj Mahal, Foster’s Memorial was complete by  1936. Its wide-open location in the rolling hills north of Uxbridge (Foster’s birthplace) had been chosen to allow maximum visibility for all who looked and admired.

The exterior walls of the Foster Memorial’s boasted the finest Ontario limestone. A copper roof of burnished emerald green added fine contrast to the magisterial grey stone. 

Inside, its soaring domed roof rested on 4 supporting pillars.  With an octagonal base, the structure measured 87 feet by 92 feet.  16 decorative marble pillars rose from floor to ceiling. All were inlaid with 24 carat gold.

Only the finest Italian marble would do for the Thomas Foster’s final resting place. The marble was inlaid with delicate mosaic tiles, arranged artistically to represent various religious symbols or images. They included the River of Death, the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, (beginning and end) and the laurel wreath of victory.

A large removable marble slab allowed access to the crypt below where bodies were interred. Doors wrought of solid copper, and hand-painted stained glass added elegance to the interior.

On the Foster Memorial’s completion, rubber-neckers drove from miles around to witness what real wealth looked like.   

Thomas Foster waited 10 years to be welcomed “home.” He passed away in 1945, at the age of 93.  In his will, Foster had bequeathed $80,000– a tidy sum in 1945– to maintain his legacy.

Little could he have imagined how inadequate that would be in the years to come.

When the town of Uxbridge took over responsibility of the Foster Memorial in the early 1990’s, it had fallen into ruin and disrepair. The building badly needed a needed new roof. To retain the copper, this improvement alone was estimated at over $1,000,000. What to do? What to do?

And so when production companies such as Murdoch Mysteries show an interest in renting the site, Uxbridge is glad to comply.  During the summer of 2014, the cast and crew moved into the area for several days to shoot the episode.

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Some alterations by the company’s Art Department needed to be made first. With the liberal use of props and computer-generated images (CGI) Thomas Foster’s legacy became the haunted, man-killing, treasure-hiding Temple of Death.

On the exterior, a combination of faux foliage and computer-animation images of trees and bush transformed the usually manicured grounds of the Memorial into an overgrown, shaggy tangle, hiding it from the outside world.

Most of the action takes place indoors—and looking down. One scene has Murdoch’s companion, Dr. Iris Bajjali, an Egyptian archeologist, pushing on areas of the marble floor to find the entrance to the crypt. Thanks to CGI she finds the “sweet spot’ and the floor opens.  

The two sleuths now descend into the tunnel below to search for the treasure. Unknown to them, a death trap of deadly knives and daggers await.

“All fake” admits Paul Aitken writer of the episode. “We built the dungeon in the Murdoch studio.”

Within a week, all signs of the Murdoch Mysteries cast and crew had departed the Foster Memorial. The building now resumed its life as a white elephant and testament to a politician’s excess.

Uxbridge-ians remain divided on the fate of Thomas Foster’ grand statement. Some advise bulldozing the site. History lovers are aghast

Open to the public over the summer months, the Memorial can also be rented for weddings and other  social events.

Note: The Foster Memorial is NOT presently formally designated a National Historic Site. 

One thought on “Mayor Thomas Foster: Meet Detective William Murdoch

  1. Yvonne Hertzberger February 3, 2015 / 9:51 am

    This is so cool. I wondered where that was and what it “really” looks like. How sad that is it falling into disrepair and not designated a heritage site.

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