The life of a pioneer family in Southern Alberta was difficult well into the 20th century. Farmers and ranchers not only faced the harshness of the Alberta winters and the problems of scratching out a meager living, but faced isolation, loneliness, and separation from those who would otherwise provide support, often resulting in tragic circumstances.
The Irvine family came to the Calgary area in 1910 and began farming just north of the city, in an area known as Butte (now the community of Sharp Hill). Alfred, his wife Henrietta, their son Harrison, and Henrietta's sister Ida had left their home in Grenfell, Saskatchewan to start a new life. While in Grenfell, the family had joined a religious group which would later be described as the "Apostolic" sect. Shortly after arriving in Alberta, their second child, Mary, was born. In August of 1912, Henrietta gave birth to a third child, Howard. Infant mortality was high in those days and Howard died in October of the same year, at the age of only two months.
Stricken with grief, Henrietta and her sister prayed constantly for the resurrection of the young baby. When the baby was not brought to life, Henrietta and her sister decided to fast, believing that a stronger show of faith would bring about the desired effect. Henrietta lay in bed with the body of her dead child on the pillow beside her until she finally died of starvation on November 8, two months after young Howard had died.
Alfred had up until this time no not interfered, but upon the death of his wife decided to seek the help of the authorities. A coroner's inquest was called immediately. Though his evidence at the inquest, Alfred indicated that his wife and sister-in-law were mistaken and confused and that their actions were not part of the beliefs of their group of "friends". On December 15, 1912, the coroner's jury brought in the following verdict:
"We, the undersigned jury, find that Henrietta Louise Irvine came to her death as the result of voluntary starvation. Further, we find that her husband, Alfred Henry Irvine, was guilty of culpable negligence in that he permitted his wife to inflict upon herself such privation as would by law of nature cause death following starvation"
Alfred Irvine was arrested immediately and taken to the RNWMP barracks for arraignment. The mounted police were confused as to what charges to bring forth against Alfred but, in the end, decided on a charge of manslaughter even though the evidence barely warranted the charge. Alfred was granted bail as he was needed at home and scheduled to stand trial in the new year.
The trial, apparently, never took place. There are no further mentions of the tragedy in the newspapers and no records of the trial in the legal archives or in the private papers of Alfred's lawyer. We do not know if cooler heads prevailed or if Alfred just left, but by the spring of 1913 Alfred, and what was left of his family, had moved to Portland, Oregon to start over once again.
The tragedy had taken its toll on the family, however. Mary Irvine, who at less than three years of age witnessed the death of her brother and starvation of her mother, suffered from depression and eating disorders for the remainder of her life. Alfred Irvine died in Portland, Oregon in 1956. Throughout his life he had in his possession and old trunk which he had forbidden anyone to open. The trunk was finally opened following his death and found to be empty.