The bare naked truth about pioneer brothels and how the West was won

JAMES H. GRAY November 1 1971


The bare naked truth about pioneer brothels and how the West was won

JAMES H. GRAY November 1 1971



The bare naked truth about pioneer brothels and how the West was won

Nothing like the great mass migration into Canada’s West during the first decades of the 20th century had ever happened in the world before. Between 1900 and 1915, the combined efforts of government, railways and free-lance land agents lured more than one million immigrants to the three prairie provinces.

Their coming ushered in the bawdiest, brawlingest, drunkenest and backbreakingest era in prairie history. It was also the most puritanical, law-abiding, Sabbatarian and pietistic. It was an era in which the forces of self-righteousness collided head on with the entrenched forces of prostitution. That was a collision which generated uproarious civic turmoil, made and unmade reputations and political careers, disrupted the even tenor of law enforcement, and turned Protestant pulpits into launching pads for morality crusades.

Whether the newcomer detrained at Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary or Saskatoon, the view from the station platform was remarkably similar. Hotels and bars caught his eye in any direction. Beyond the hotels were wholesale warehouses and retail stores, and in the distance houses for the citizens were being frantically carpentered into existence.

The overwhelming male population was hived together in housing congestion that was soon beyond belief and far beyond the ability of any figures to describe. Between 1901 and 1911, for example, Calgary grew from 4,398 to 43,704, and Edmonton from 4,176 to 30,479. In all the cities houses were built before sewer or water connections were possible. So they became cities of backyard privies which filled the surrounding countryside with nauseous odors on the hot summer nights.

In addition to being overwhelmingly male, the immigrants who caused such congestion were also predominantly young, predominantly single and predominantly robust. In the age of the railroad builders, all the heavy work was done by strong young backs. They dug, graveled, tied and graded the rights of way with pick, shovel and wheelbarrow. On construction jobs, where there was little mechanization, the men sometimes worked a 16-hour day.

Here, in short, was a male population in the prime of life, glowing with the virility of youth and in the superb physical condition that a steady diet of hard work produced. If they were not driven by sheer animal exuberance to seek the female companionship of the brothels, they would have been driven to do so by the stinking atmosphere of their overcrowded rooming houses. Of this there cannot be the slightest doubt. When the young settlers downed their tools on payday, a visit to their favorite bordellos was close to the top of the evening’s cultural agenda.

The social upheaval engendered by the booze and the broads was surely of greater continuing interest to the pioneer communities than all the other issues put together. Yet historians have managed to create the illusion that the West was settled by monks, eunuchs and vestal virgins, interested only in debating such ethereal issues as free trade, the Manitoba Schools question and discriminatory freight rates.

No such society could ever have turned prostitution into a major industry, as it clearly was in Winnipeg where 200 women were employed in the 48 McFarlane Street and Annabella Street brothels, in Calgary which once boasted three segregated areas, and in Edmonton where the brothels spilled over from Kinistino Street in all directions. How many girls plied their profession on the prairies can hardly be estimated. In Winnipeg police magistrate Daly once complained that there were hundreds of streetwalkers there. One Edmonton madam, in 1914, put the number of practising prostitutes at between 400 and 500. Regina, Moose Jaw and Lethbridge all had their brothel districts although they functioned on more modest scales than those in the larger centres.

Winnipeg was both the first prairie city and the accepted trend setter for the cities that came after. After Manitoba joined Confederation Winnipeg went on such a binge of hotel-saloon building that in 1876 the YMCA was able to couple it with Barrie, Ontario, as the two most wicked communities in Canada. Brothels were opening up everywhere. The Reverend J. B. Silcox of the Congrega-

tional Church was moved to say of the period: “On the outskirts of Ephesus were the infamous Groves of Daphne where crowds of licentious votaries held a perpetual festival of vice. So on the western outskirts of our city stands in unblushing impudence the same monstrous iniquity throwing its blighting shade over our fair city. There in these abodes of vice are the depths of immorality, debauchery and death. In their swinish precincts the youth of our land are beguiled and ruined, body and soul. Let us drive out these leprous libertines who out-Judas Judas!”

Like all Winnipeg policemen, Chief John McRae was an imposing figure. Over six feet in height, he habitually wore the peak of his cap well down over his eyes, whose color matched the steely grey of his moustache. That there was steel in his personality as well as in his mien can be assumed from the fact that he survived for more than 20 years as head of the Winnipeg police department and built it into one of the best in the country. But he was also a man who knew how to obey orders as well as give them. On January 7, 1904, the new police commission gave the chief his orders — raid the Thomas Street brothels and drive the prostitutes out of business.

It did him no good to argue that this would spread the women all over the city. Orders were orders, and the chief laid his plans to carry them out. To prevent a leak to the district, no one on the force was taken into his confidence. When the night shift arrived for duty the following Saturday, he gathered the entire force together and issued his instructions. They were to proceed at once to the Thomas Street houses, arrest all the women keepers and their employees, and transport them bodily to the police station in the conveyances provided. For the occasion the chief called in a dozen hired hacks to supplement his own horsedrawn paddy wagon, and assembled them in front of the James Avenue station.

The long procession moved down Main Street and out Portage Avenue at a leisurely pace. By the time they got to Thomas Street the houses were beginning to jump with the usually brisk Saturday trade. The raid went off without a hitch, accompanied by considerable confusion and shouted protests from the customers. Individual houses had been raided before, for unseemly conduct or on suspicion of harboring fugitives from the law. But a raid on the entire settlement violated everybody’s sense of the fitness of things, including, if truth were known, that of most of the raiding policemen.

It quickly became apparent that the transport facilities were inadequate. While they waited for the arrival of more hacks, the raiding party sorted out its catch. The madams were all identified, as were the working prostitutes. The names of the customers were taken and then they were ordered on their way. But it was not a particularly cold night so they gathered in front of the houses and awaited further excitement. As the police emerged from the houses with their prisoners in tow the crowd jeered loudly and followed the parade of prostitutes and escorts all the way to the police station. There they stood 10 deep in front of the station and hooted at the police in the late-arriving hacks. The police bag for the night included 12 keepers of bawdy houses, 72 women inmates, and four male porters. While the arraignments were taking place, the chief thoughtfully ordered a guard to be posted against looting in all the houses that the raid left vacant. The women who ran the joints were all fined $40 when they pleaded guilty, while their employees were each assessed $20. All were warned by the magistrate that the era of segregated prostitution was over for Winnipeg and that they must either reform, leave town, or face much stiffer penalties if they ever again appeared in court.

“When the young settlers downed their tools on payday, a visit to their favorite bordellos was close to the top of the evening’s cultural agenda.’’

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Little attention was paid to the warning from the bench. The women paid their fines, disposed of their houses, and moved to better locations closer to their customers. One madam, Doris Vennette, moved several times before landing permanently on Annabella Street, where she remained for the next 20 years. Minnie Wood, who enjoyed a 30-year reign as queen of the brothels, moved from Thomas Street to James Avenue, where she lived until the Annabella-McFarlane district was opened in 1909.

The earliest documented case of prostitution farther west in Edmonton was that of “Big Nellie” Webb, and it can be taken as an example of both the fundamental connection between booze and illicit sex and the casual, even cavalier, attitude habitually taken by the police toward prostitution. It can also serve as evidence that pioneer prairie prostitutes had few rights that anyone else was bound to respect. The Nellie Webb case begins with a oneline item in the Annual Report of the North West Mounted Police for 1888. On October 31 of that year Nellie was convicted and fined $15 for keeping a house of ill repute in Edmonton. Behind that apparently simple fact was this story:

On October 24, three Mounted Police constables named Thomas, Cairney and Cudlip left their Fort Saskatchewan headquarters for Calgary by way of Edmonton. At Edmonton they decided to delay their departure to get thoroughly drunk. When they reached that stage they decided “to paint the town red” and went prowling around in search of a brothel. In their search they blundered into three private homes and were run off by angry householders. Eventually they got headed in the direction of Nellie Webb’s house of ill repute. Nellie saw them coming; being a woman of the world, she knew that roistering drunks spelled trouble and that, of all the customers she could do without, three drunken Mounties headed the list. She locked her doors and hoped they would go away. When she failed to respond to their pounding, they proceeded to break the door in. While this was happening, Nellie got out her gun and fired a shot through the broken door. Her bullet lodged in Cairney’s leg and the attack was halted, but only temporarily. The Mounties sobered up enough to arrest Nellie, charge her with wounding with intent, and lug her off to jail. While Nellie was awaiting bail the NWMP stationed two other Mounties in her house to protect her property against thieves. They go so drunk on Nellie’s booze that they passed out and per-

mitted a stranger to steal both their guns. The Mounted Police then held an official inquiry, following which one constable was fired and another was suspended for a month. Nellie, meanwhile, pleaded guilty to keeping a house of ill repute, paid her fine, and was released on $2,000 bail to await trial.

The affair excited the attention of Frank Oliver, editor of the Edmonton Bulletin, who let fly at the Mounted Police with both barrels. “This,” he thundered, “is one of the most disgraceful affairs that has ever occurred in Edmonton, through a set of men who are supposed to protect the citizens and their property . . . The men are not so much to blame for the contempt in which the force is held as those who have charge of it!”

There is one baffling aspect of the Nellie Webb story. Why did the three Mounties from Fort Saskatchewan have to go blundering into three respectable houses before they were given directions to Nellie’s place? Everybody in the settlement must have known where Nellie lived. Edmonton

was not a community in which the police should have had much trouble keeping a casually benign eye on the houses of ill repute. The Mounted Police knew where they were, as they knew in Calgary, Lethbridge, Macleod, Medicine Hat and Regina.

In Edmonton, as elsewhere, the Mounties let the girls alone as long as the houses were operated with reasonable decorum. Once or twice a year they would raid the houses and haul the inmates before the Mounted Police inspector, who would fine them nominally and send them back to work. The standard fee extracted was $10 to $15 and costs for the madams and five dollars or $10 and costs for the inmates. Periodically, when something more than prostitution was involved, such as theft or bootlegging, the tariff might go to $20 and costs for the keepers and $15 and costs for inmates. Ten years after the Nellie Webb case these rates were still in force in Alberta. It can be assumed from the $15 fine that the police regarded Nellie’s case as one of moderate seriousness, far less important, for example, than keeping liquor for sale illegally, which cost $50 or $100, but more so than keeping a filthy pig-

pen, which carried only a five-dollar penalty. In any event, nobody ever bothered Nellie again, which put her a couple of notches above her Lethbridge and Fort Macleod sisters whose names appeared regularly on the Mounted Police dockets. It seems clear that the police and the madams mutually accepted a system of fines in lieu of license fees.

Chief A. C. Lancey, who took over in Edmonton early in 1909, had flitted from one police job to another during the previous decade. He had served in the NWMP, then had worked as a railway detective, and had also worked in Montreal. Like all new brooms, he swept a clean path through Edmonton. He beefed up the police department, cleaned out the incompetents, put the men on 12-hour shifts, and continued the system of patrolling the Old Town bars from the inside. With a doubled force in his first year of operation Chief Lancey was able to report the arrest of 479 drunks, 39 gamblers, 26 prostitutes, and 60 various and sundry assaulters. Yet prostitution continued.

Any estimate of the number of brothels which existed in 191 1 to service the 8,500 unwed Edmontonians has to be mainly conjecture. But from evidence which came out later it could hardly have been less than 50 and could easily have exceeded 100. That Lancey ran the kind of town Edmonton wanted him to run can hardly be doubted. But after two years on the job he decided to switch to a better post as a provincial liquor inspector. He resigned in March, 1911, and R. W. Ensor was brought in from Regina. Ensor’s first action was to impose a blackout on all police news as he began to tighten up on law enforcement. He lasted six months and then the city invited Lancey back at a good raise in pay. It was a short honeymoon. The first trouble started when the ratepayers on Kinistino Avenue held an indignation meeting a month after Lancey returned. They petitioned City Hall to close down the Kinistino Street dance halls which, they said, turned into riots three or four times a week. The union of Edmonton and Strathcona was going through and this entailed the expansion of the police force from 44 to 81. Gambling was getting out of hand and, while raids on gambling dives increased, convictions became more difficult to obtain. Then G. S. Armstrong was elected first mayor of the newly combined city, and a system of government by commissioners was adopted for the civic departments. Theoretically this took the police department out of politics, but that did not stop the aldermen from keeping their hands in.

When drunken Mounties came pounding on her brothel door, Nellie got out her gun to shoot

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Early in July, 1912, Detective Ernest Seymour became involved in a police station altercation with a local citizen he had arrested for being drunk and disorderly. The citizen was rather seriously roughed up and filed assault charges against Seymour. At its next meeting the city council passed a resolution instructing Chief Lancey to suspend Seymour until after his trial. Lancey refused. The aldermen insisted by passing a second resolution. Again Lancey refused, and when Seymour came to trial he was acquitted. Lancey then resigned because, he said, he was tired of the police business and aldermanic interference and wanted to try something else.

With the appointment of Silas H. Carpenter to succeed Lancey the lidwent on in Edmonton tighter than it ever had before. Carpenter had been a police inspector in Montreal and he had 15 years’ experience behind him when he took the job. He turned out to be a very straight-laced character indeed.

When any police crackdown on prostitution occurs, it usually ends the cooperation of the brothels with the police. The madams and inmates stop pleading guilty and can only be convicted with evidence which will stand up in court. Gathering such evidence becomes the function of undercover men who visit the brothels, pay for the service with marked money, and trigger raids to catch the women with the incriminating currency. Chief Carpen-

ter added 10 of these agents to his detective department, and the photographer who took their group picture neatly summarized the general public’s attitude toward all such hired informers with these cut lines: “Here are five city detectives and 10 of the police department pimps whose activities often provoke the scornful comment of the magistrates when they appear in Court.”

Chief Carpenter might well have failed in his efforts to clean up Edmonton, but he was giving it his best effort when his world collapsed around his ears. Whether the main muscle in the collapse was supplied by Alderman Joseph A. Clarke or W. J. McNamara

open town, just as long as the excesses didn’t show.

Clarke was a graduate in law from Osgoode Hall in Toronto, where he had been a varsity football player. Instead of practising his profession upon graduation, he took off for the Klondike during the gold rush and spent the next 10 years in the Yukon. He turned up in Edmonton in 1908, hung up his shingle, and was soon settled into the role of the Bob Edwards [editor of the Calgary Eye Opener] of Edmonton politics. In a long interview in the Journal, he described himself as a “radical conservative of socialist leanings,” and as the former “stormy petrel of Yukon politics.” Whatever else he was, Joe Clarke was no shrinking violet. He immediately ran for the city council and was elected alderman.

On February 1, 1914, Mayor McNamara fired Chief Carpenter and sent the town into a turmoil. Then he fired the head of the morality squad.

On February 2, A. C. Lancey became chief of police for the third time in five years. What happened during the next four months, which ended in the final firing of Lancey, depends on the weight to be attached to the evidence before an inquiry which undoubtedly established a Canadian record for plain and fancy perjury. Lancey’s evidence is perhaps as credible as any. His story was that immediately upon his appointment he was invited to a meeting in Mayor McNamara’s office in the Tegler Block which was attended by the mayor, Joe Clarke and Aldermen Kinney, May and East. His instructions were to let the whorehouses run as long as there were no complaints but to stage a big raid now and then to create a splash and to let the public know he was on the job. The aldermen denied attending any such meeting or being a party to any such orders. Chief Carpenter, however, said that when he first came to Edmonton Joe Clarke had come forward to explain the sort of place Edmonton was. Conditions there, Clarke had advised him, were far different from those in the east. Edmonton people were more free and easy and they wanted segregated areas of prostitution and open gambling under police control. “I told him that no chief of police had any legal right to permit any such thing,” Carpenter said, and that was the end of that.

But with Lancey on the job, the word went out that Edmonton was back in business as a wide-open city and many of the girls who had left after the Carpenter crackdown returned. Several of the former Lancey lieutenants who had been fired by Carpenter were rehired, including Sergeant Seymour, whose blundering be-

The houses ran quietly enough until the police tried a crackdown, and then all hell broke loose

will probably never be known, but reasoning after the fact clearly points to Clarke as the architect of the disaster. Bill McNamara was a successful real-estate operator and promoter who was smitten by political fever and was elected mayor. The disenchantment with the Carpenter crackdown had spread through the city until the mumblings of discontent reached City Hall. Most Edmontonians wanted a wide-

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havior eventually cost Lancey his job. As the town opened up, the underworld quickly moved in to take advantage. The one who played the biggest role was William Wheeler, who was described by a friend as “a pimp, a tout, a gambler and a damned nuisance.” Wheeler had wandered into Edmonton in 1910 and worked as a bartender for a year. Then he bought the Waverley Rooming House, and ran it as a notorious brothel until 1913. Next he took over the management of the Dominion Club on First Street adjacent to the Lewis Brothers’ restaurant. He circulated the word that he was the official go-between for the police with the underworld and started to try to put the squeeze on the prostitutes for protection money.

As spring came, Commissioner Booth, Lancey’s superior, discovered that nothing much was being done to clean up the town. Unlike a lot of other people Booth was against a wideopen city policy for Edmonton. The reports from outside sleuths he had hired to spy on the police department were noncommittal, so he went out to investigate conditions on his own. He found streetwalkers on every block. He watched them taking their pickups into brothels. He passed the addresses along to Lancey in the form of instructions to raid. Occasionally, the instructions were carried out. The only complete success Booth scored was in the crusade he launched against lace curtains on brothel windows. He complained to the chief that pedestrians strolling along First Street and Jasper Avenue could watch through the lace curtains as the prostitutes served their customers. The lace curtains were all removed in favor of green blinds which put off the public view of the interior of the brothels.

For his part, Chief Lancey was having trouble getting his orders obeyed. Once he planned a raid on a gambling club and gave Detective Seymour orders, to hit it between eleven o’clock and midnight. But Seymour said he had become preoccupied with two Negro streetwalkers from north of the CNR tracks who were soliciting customers under false pretenses. They were powdering their faces with flour, he said, in an effort to hide their color — an outrageous subterfuge! He was determined to catch them in the act, so when he had spotted them he had given chase and didn’t get around to the gambling raid until well after midnight, when the gamblers had all left. His next raid on the Dominion Club on First Street was straight out of Mack Sennett and the Keystone Cops. Detectives Seymour and Burbeck with a couple of helpers turned up at the club at 1 a.m. on Sunday morning,

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May 17, 1914. The club was jammed to the rafters and all the crap tables, card tables and gambling wheels were operating at capacity. Instead of surrounding the club the police simply broke in the front door. They made such a racket that they alerted the gamblers, who left by the back windows. In short order the crowd of 200 dwindled to 50. The police took the names of the inmates and, having forgotten to bring the patrol wagon, stood around in confusion for some time wondering what to do next. Along came Bill Wheeler, the self-styled fixer, with a friendly suggestion. “\yhy,” he asked, “spend the rest of the night hauling all the equipment down to the station as evidence?” He would be responsible for it and they could send around for it Monday at their convenience. He would even guarantee the keepers would all turn up in court and plead guilty. The detectives accepted the suggestion and went home. Fifteen minutes later the games were all back in full swing and continued without interruption for the rest of the weekend. Naturally the story of the raid got out and the police department became the city’s biggest joke. The public was still laughing a week later when Commissioner Booth blew up in anger and fired Chief Lancey. But not before another maladroit exploit by Detective Seymour.

The day before he was dismissed the chief handed Detective Seymour a list of 30 houses which Commissioner Booth had ordered him to close down. Instead of staging the raids, however, Seymour took the list to Bill Wheeler. If the houses were to be closed anyway, Wheeler suggested that they ought to put the bite on the girls for some protection money before it was too late. He got into a taxi and started making the rounds. When he got back to Seymour he explained it had been a wasted effort, that “someone else had been around with the big mitt before I got there and the girls would not come through.”

The combination of the abortive gambling raid, the plague of streetwalkers, and the firing of Lancey provoked the biggest public meeting in Edmonton’s history

The meeting passed a resolution demanding that the attorney general launch an immediate inquiry into the Edmonton police department and all its works. This time the city council gave in and joined in the request for an investigation.

During the two weeks of hearings, everybody contradicted everybody else. Witnesses disappeared and were never heard of again. It was demonstrated beyond doubt that a protection racket was being set up in Edmonton.

When Judge Scott brought down his report he found that the mayor and his cohorts had in fact determined to turn Edmonton into a wide-open city and had not been justified in the firing of Silas Carpenter, whose reputation alone seemed to emerge unscathed. The following day the Temperance and Moral Reform Society clamored for the resignation of Mayor McNamara. The mayor, however, was off promoting oil. Joe Clarke turned up and fired off a tirade that all but disrupted the meeting. McNamara ignored the demand, but at the next meeting of the city council on August 6 he could not ignore Joe Clarke.

“You,” shouted Clarke, “are a liar and a perjurer.”

“You tried to get control of the police department and I stopped you!” the mayor screamed back.

“That’s a lie, a deliberate lie,” Clarke replied. “You went onto the stand and swore to what was false and now you are making yourself into a perjurer.”

“I said nothing of the sort,” McNamara replied.

“You did and you are a deliberate,

malicious liar,” Clarke shouted back, “and I’ll mop the earth with you.” The antagonists ran out of breath, or insults. Order was restored and the aldermen proceeded to complete most of their routine business. As adjournment was moved, McNamara arose and yelled at Clarke:

“You are a liar, Joe Clarke. You are a liar and a thief and a blackmailer! And you are a dirty coward as well! Now mop the floor with me!” The fight was on and the aldermen and city officials scattered in all directions. The combatants pushed and shoved and wrestled each other for a couple of minutes and then the fists flew in earnest. Since McNamara was getting the worst of it, his chauffeur rushed to his defense. He grabbed Clarke by the throat and held him while McNamara beat a tattoo on Clarke’s face. Clarke got free, shook off the chauffeur, and drove McNamara out of the council chamber and into the fire-escape room. Then they fought back into the council chamber, where the aldermen, who by now thoroughly disliked both men, pulled them apart. They moved out of the City Hall onto the street, where the fight

broke out more violently than before. After 10 minutes the general public took a hand and broke it up. Clarke was bleeding from one eye; his other eye was black and blue, and he had a cut on his cheek. McNamara had a blackened eye and badly bruised face.

That was the political end for Mayor William J. McNamara. It looked for a while as if Joe Clarke had also been marked for oblivion. George Hill, the new chief selected to succeed Lancey, was a no-nonsense Scot who had been a police inspector in Edinburgh. The dust was not yet settled on the Scott report before Hill arrested Clarke on four charges of aiding and abetting the commission of criminal offenses. The charges were based on a confession obtained from a burglar from Saskatoon, who claimed that Clarke had arranged with the Saskatoon police department to send three Saskatchewan thugs to Edmonton to start a crime wave there in order to discredit the new chief of police.

Clarke was quickly brought to trial but acquitted. His accuser changed his story, claiming to have fabricated it at the instigation of the Edmonton police in order to destroy Joe Clarke. The Saskatoon chief of detectives testified that the charges against Clarke were false.

Joe Clarke ran for mayor for the 1919-20 term and astounded everybody by winning. Some years later he served another couple of terms on the city council and was mayor again for three years in 1935, 1936, and 1937. When he died in 1941 at the age of 71 he was eulogized by the Journal as one of the city’s greatest sports supporters. No mention was made of his early efforts to turn Edmonton into a wide-open town modeled on the authentic Klondike of his youth.

Meanwhile for the old-time whores along Kinistino Street, history had come almost full circle. But not quite, for in common with the other redlight districts of the West, the onset of prohibition closed the bars and profoundly affected their trade. To stay in business they had to rely more and more on revenue from illegal booze, and the penalties for bootlegging were out of all proportion to profit for the amount of booze a brothel could sell. Besides, as elsewhere, the automobile and a loosening of moral restraints were introducing a heavy injection of unfair competition into their trade. Like a fading actress, Kinistino Street made a valiant attempt to recapture its past lustre. Like the other fading actresses of the prairies she never quite made it.

This excerpt is from Red Lights On The Prairies, recently published by Macmillan of Canada.

"You're a liar, Joe Clarke,” said the mayor. "Now mop the floor with me!” So Joe hit him