Toronto’s Holiday Misdemeanours of 1909

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on December 26, 2009. The original artwork has been replaced with public domain illustrations from late 19th century books found at Old Book Illustrations.

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“Stealing.” Illustration by Louis Rhead. The life and death of Mr. Badman by John Bunyan (New York: R.H. Russell, 1900). Old Book Illustrations.

Crime knows no vacation. While many of us look to the holiday season for peace and good cheer, others find themselves on the wrong side of the law. For as long as inebriates have been hauled in for disturbing the peace or thieves have secured deeper-than-advertised discounts on Boxing Day specials, the police blotter has rarely rested during the closing weeks of the year. While the most sensational crimes garner headlines today, a century ago most of Toronto’s six battling daily newspapers published lengthy accounts of court proceedings no matter how small or unusual the charge. Fined a dollar for failing to secure your horse? Clumsy cab driving? Swearing in public? All of these misdemeanours earned you fifteen seconds of press infamy in 1909.

But we’re not interested in petty offenders. Give us illegal partridges, turkey liberationists, and cannibalistic ruffians.

A partridge in a pear tree—the ideal gift from your true love during the holiday season? Maybe, but anyone who intended to provide his or her sweetie with a full complement of gifts from “The Twelve Days of Christmas” in 1909 required black market birds. Clothing merchant Abraham Hadis learned all he ever wanted to know about partridge regulations when he was hauled into court for possessing the birds outside of their proper season. Trouble began when a provincial inspector caught his son with two cases containing sixty-four partridges, which father and son claimed were brought to their store at 155 Queen Street West by “a man from the country” who hoped to earn a commission on any sales. Hadis was brought up on twenty charges of violating game laws and made no attempt to evade responsibility. When lawyer J.W. Curry approached the bench and entered a guilty plea, the judge replied, “Well, I can’t do anything else than fine you on each charge; it will be ten dollars and costs, or five days in jail on each case.” Curry commented, “That’s a lot of time for a few partridges,” to which the judge replied, “Yes, but I still can’t help it.” Curry felt his client would rather go to jail than pay the fine, as “it seems like a case of the wealthy against the poor; this man is not well fixed.”

Hadis’ real problem may have been possessing too many birds. Overindulgence is a common side effect of the holidays, whether it’s downing one glass of booze-enriched eggnog too many or a sudden attack of gluttony at the dinner table. The Star guessed that the latter may have resulted in an embarrassing end to one Toronto resident’s Christmas:

A Christie Street citizen, whose name the police refuse to disclose, ate too much turkey and pudding on Christmas Day, and for half an hour after midnight he was found, clad only in his nightie, running along Van Horn Street [now Dupont Street], shouting for Shrubb to come and race him.

He was in a dream or trance or something of that sort, and ran all the way from Christie Street along Van Horn to Dovercourt Road before his cries attracted the attention of Acting Detective Mahony. The officer at first thought he was crazy, but when the man was wakened he seemed rational enough and thoroughly ashamed of himself.

Mahony helped him to secure some much needed clothing and then the citizen went home. He’ll dine more wisely next Christmas.

A far more painful walk was endured by milkman Albert Atwell, who fell into a hole in the front yard of William Cooper at 15 Avenue Road and cracked three ribs after landing on an iron pipe at the bottom of the pit. Atwell sued Cooper for sixty dollars and made his case at what proved to be a brief court hearing on December 23. Both the Star and the Telegram provided the play-by-play as Atwell and Judge Morson took centre stage:

Judge: Did you walk on the lawn?
Atwell: Yes.
Judge: Was there a sidewalk?
Atwell: Yes, your honour.
Judge (after brief conversation with Atwell’s lawyer): Non-suit, without costs.

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Drawing of a wild turkey by an unknown artist. Bilder-atlas zur Wissenschaftlich-populären Naturgeschichte der Vögel in ihren sämmtlichen Hauptformen by Leopold Joseph Franz Johann Fitzinger (Vienna: K.K. Hof- und Staatsdruckerei, 1864). Old Book Illustrations.

Not every case was dismissed so easily. Shoplifting a turkey might not merit more than a sentence or two in a modern newspaper, but back in 1909 such a crime allowed the imagination of the News’ court reporter to run wild. It wasn’t just a theft—it was an act of animal liberation:

Turkee Gobler, poor old chap, was condemned to hang on December 24, the place of execution being W.J. Nichol’s store at 252 Queen Street East. His heart burning with pity, Robert Bastine, of 108 Oak Street, swore to affect a rescue. As the shades of sunset crept over the street, he emerged from his hiding place, and while the careless crowd passed the scene of execution, stealthily advanced to the rescue. With a fell swoop he cut the halter and as Gobler came to earth, deftly caught him in his arms and bore him off. But the doughty knight lived not happily ever afterward, for the law cast him into a dungeon, and charged him with theft.

This act of holiday terrorism earned Bastine three days in the slammer.

While eating poor Mr. Gobler is an accepted holiday dining tradition, sampling a savoury bite of a neighbourhood cop is not. As a Star headline proclaimed on December 23, “Martin Donaghue Learns That It Is Unsafe to Feast on Police.” The trouble began the night before when Police Sergeant McDonald encountered an intoxicated, stumbling “Sykes” Donaghue walking along College Street near Clinton without a hat. The officer, who most accounts indicate wasn’t a popular figure in the neighbourhood, asked Donaghue where his headgear was. “Down the street someplace,” replied Donaghue. “The wind blew if off. I don’t care. I’ve got lots o’ money to buy twenty hats.”

When McDonald told Donaghue to go home and behave himself, the officer received a steady stream of obscenities. As the Star put it in more genteel terms, “Donaghue became indignant and owing to the befuddled condition of his brain didn’t use proper discretion in his selection of language.” Result: an arrest for disorderly conduct. By now, a crowd had gathered to witness the mounting tension between the two men, which exploded into a fight after Police Constable Joseph Baird arrived at the scene and Donaghue launched into another cursing fit. Witnesses were unable to determine who struck the first blow—the Mail and Empire claimed Donaghue kicked McDonald in the thigh, while the Star claimed that the officer hit his prisoner in the mouth and bloodied his nose while Baird repeatedly hit the prisoner’s arm with his baton. Donaghue asked for help from the crowd, which arrived in the form of “little fellow” Herbert “Red” Evans, who promptly slugged Baird in the jaw. In the midst of this new development, Donaghue sank his teeth into McDonald’s wrist, which caused the officer to later seek medical attention. Donaghue and Evans, both described as having poor reputations in the neighbourhood, were hauled into court the following morning. According to one lawyer, “I don’t know why he should want to eat one of our new patrol sergeants. He’s been here before for this kind of thing.” Described by the Telegram’s court reporter as “the man with the cannibal appetite,” Donaghue received six months hard labour for his snack, while Evans’ father paid a ten-dollar fine for his son’s actions.

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“Cheap Wine.” Illustration by George Du Maurier. Trilby by George Du Maurier (New York: Harper & Row, 1895). Old Book Illustrations.

Arrests of inebriates like Donaghue over the holiday season were fewer in 1909 than previous years. Christmas Day saw one hundred and thirty people taken into custody for public drunkenness. As the Mail and Empire noted, “Most of them were treated leniently on account of the season, and the inspectors allowed them to go as soon as they could find their way home…only in the aggravated cases were fines imposed, and the majority of the prisoners formed a procession out of the dock, and will be in line for the New Year’s celebration.”

Additional material from the December 23, 1909 and December 28, 1909 editions of the Mail and Empire; the December 24, 1909 and December 27, 1909 editions of the News; the December 23, 1909, December 24, 1909, and December 27, 1909 editions of the Toronto Star; and the December 23, 1909 and December 24, 1909 editions of the Telegram.

Vintage Toronto Ads: How to Light Up a Policeman’s Face

Originally published on Torontoist on November 13, 2012.

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The Telegram, October 4, 1912.

The main takeaway from today’s ad: when in deep doo-doo with law enforcement officials, a little bribery never hurts. Put a smile on a hard-working police officer’s face with an unexpected gift. Strike a match instead of his face. When the enjoyment of his richly flavoured, fine cigar causes him to drop his guard, take the opportunity to run like hell.

The jolly copper depicted by Yonge Street tobacconist Alfred Wilson resembles the stereotypical British bobby of the era. Chances are, after his initial delighted reaction, this policeman might have exclaimed either “Jolly good, sir!” (if it lived up to Mr. Wilson’s claims) or “What’s this all about, then?” (if it wasn’t a satisfying smoke). He also would not have looked out of place amid the Keystone Kops, who made their film debut around this time.

A century on, with smoking advertisements frowned upon, a similar sales pitch might replace the stogie with a fine, freshly baked, artisanal-quality doughnut.

Happy 50th Birthday, North York!

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on May 12, 2012.

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Cover of The Mirror Special Jubilee Edition, June 1972. All images in this article are taken from this publication.

The summer of 1972 was a momentous one for the Borough of North York. The growing suburban municipality celebrated its 50th anniversary that year with a series of special events throughout that spring and summer. Among the souvenirs was a special edition of the Mirror newspaper which traced North York’s past, present, and future.

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Photo: Doug Hyatt.

The Borough of North York Council enjoy a ride at Black Creek Pioneer Village after rehearsing a planned re-enactment of the first council meeting in 1922 (the councillor in the white coat and red scarf might be Mel Lastman, while Paul Godfrey may be third from left in the front row). North York was born out of a farmers’ revolt over their lack or representation on York Township council. During the early 20th century councillors were voted on by the entire township, which increasingly meant all of the representatives came from the southern, urban end of York Township. A petition was launched to separate the rural northern area, which was taken door-to-door by Roy Risebrough in his 1917 Model T. The petition succeeded: a bill establishing the Township of North York was passed by the Ontario legislature on June 13, 1922.

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Likely as a reward for his work in establishing the Township of North York, Roy Risebrough was named its first police constable. When he noted that he knew nothing about police enforcement, officials told him “you’ll learn soon.” In his 34 years as North York’s chief constable he never carried a gun and knew most of the township’s early citizens by name. Outside of occasional gas station robberies (which were mostly committed by Torontonians), crimes tended to be minor. “Ninety percent of the cases were settled out of court,” he told the Mirror.” I used to go round to the house and talk to the people. It was different in those days. Instead of taking them to court, you gave them a tongue-lashing. And in a month, they were good friends again.” In many ways, Risebrough was the stereotypical small town law enforcer, to the extent that at least one long-time resident believed he never wore a uniform so that he could slip away for a few hours to fish.

Make that almost never wore a uniform. When George Mitchell campaigned for reeve in 1941, he promised to make Risebrough wear official clothing. After his election, Mitchell took Risebrough to Tip Top Tailors to be measured. When the uniform was ready, Mitchell had Risebrough put it on before both men made an evening drive from Willowdale to Hogg’s Hollow. Mitchell said “Now I’ve fulfilled my campaign promise, Roy. You can do what you damned well like.” Risebrough never wore the full uniform again.

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North York’s planning department prepared a series of maps tracing the municipality’s growth. The following description was provided for the 1922 map (population: 6,000):

North York’s population in 1922 was scattered in small farm-based communities centring along Yonge. It continued the development spine of the city of Toronto. Various villages thrived along the Yonge axis—York Mills, Lansing, Willowdale and Newtonbrook. Many of the borough’s historic sites are located in the bygone villages—Gibson House, C.W. Jeffery’s home, the Jolly Miller Tavern, and the Hogg store, Dempsey Brothers’ store, York Cottage and the Joshua Cummer house. A population nucleus existed in a strip development at Humber Summit on Islington, on the road leading to Woodbridge. A small development existed at North West, at Wilson and Weston Rd.

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By 1945, the population had spread from both sides of Yonge. Most of the growth was in the area south of Wilson, between Yonge and Bathurst. By this time, Lawrence Park, was largely developed to its present extent. Humber Summit expanded more towards the Humber River and became largely a community of summer cottages. These were soon winterized for year-round occupation. North Weston expanded further to merge with the Pelmo Park area to its east.

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This map shows the vast population growth which occurred in the decade. It took place largely in the area west of Bayview. East of Bayview the township remained largely in farm use. With the exception of a few pockets, development took place south of Sheppard and west of Bathurst. It went as far north as Steeles between Bathurst and Bayview. Why the growth? New family formations brought the need for single-family homes. Unified water and sewerage in Metro helped speed development. The growth of car ownership brought people to the suburbs, starting in 1949. North York’s 1948 official plan helped planning and the comprehensive zoning bylaw of 1952 showed permitted land uses. By 1955 the Yonge St. villages had merged into the community today known as Willowdale. But only a small population had moved to Don Mills by 1955.

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It was during the decade 1955 to 1965 that North York changed from being a dormitory community for Toronto’s labour force. It became a more integrated urban community with the introduction of industrial and commercial developments and the jobs these provided. By 1965 Don Mills was developed to its present extent. Yorkdale Shopping Centre had been opened in the western half of the borough. Development had almost reached the northern limits of the municipality at Steeles and left a few remaining pockets of undeveloped land south of Finch, such as Windfields Farm.

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With the notable exception of Windfields Farm, the filling in of large subdivided tracts of land is now almost completed. What remains in the borough? There are vacant single-family and apartment building lots. Also, not all land is at its full potential use as, for example, where single-family homes stand on land planned for apartments. The planned population of the borough, according to the district plan program is 734,000 people. North York is expected to reach this figure sometime after 1990. During the 1966–71 period the major developments in North York include the Ontario Science Centre, Flemingdon Park and Fairview Mall Shopping Centre.

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During the debate over the Spadina Expressway, some North York residents protested in favour of the controversial roadway. Director of traffic operations S.R. Cole professed an open mind toward Spadina in his contribution to the Mirror special. “I simply note that if we had left the Lake Shore Blvd. as it was in 1945 and not built the Gardiner Expressway or the Don Valley Parkway, downtown Metro might be like some downtown areas in other cities—deteriorating, lacking in development. There might be no North York as we know it today. North York needed a downtown core to grow as it has.” Cole also believed that rapid transit on Eglinton Avenue was needed “sooner than the Toronto Transit Commission will likely propose it.”

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Sheppard Avenue, facing east towards Leslie Street. Photo by Doug Hyatt.

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Borough councillors were asked to write about the biggest challenges facing the municipality. Mayor Basil Hall thought traffic problems due to massive construction projects like the Yonge subway extension were the biggest concern in the present, while redevelopment to prevent urban decay would be required in the future. Controller Mel Lastman targeted municipal strikes and inadequate TTC service as his beefs, while fellow controller Paul Godfrey was determined to protect North York’s ecology.

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York University had existed for just over a decade, and operated from its main campus for seven years when North York celebrated its golden jubilee. The school’s first president, Dr. Murray Ross, noted the best course for York’s continued progress:

The only possible problem which could adversely affect York’s development is the kind of confrontation found frequently on other campuses in North America. We have avoided such difficulties at York thus far. It is not conflict of view which is inevitable in all families and organizations, but the manner in which conflict is resolved that is important. We have been able so far to work out our difficulties and differences in discussion and debate. If we are able to continue to do so, York’s future is assured. I predict, and I believe sincerely, that in the future York will enhance its already established reputation.

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When it opened in 1970, Fairview Mall was the first multi-level shopping centre in Metropolitan Toronto. Among its early attractions was the lengthy movator, which was removed during the 1980s.

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One of the many ads found in the Mirror special from North York’s major corporate citizens. The IBM complex at Eglinton Avenue and Don Mills Road is currently home to Celestica.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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The municipal ad on the back cover. “The astonishment of North York,” according to writer Robert Moon, “lies not so much in its multi-billion-dollar construction since the Second World War, which is profound in time and space, but in the creation of a quality place to live and work for 520,000 people, which is simple and grand in concept.”

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Click on image for larger version.

A collection of North York historical landmarks.

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Click on image for larger version.

The accompanying map.

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Some scenes in North York never change, such as the eternal traffic jam on the northbound Don Valley Parkway around Lawrence Avenue.

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While some of the corporate offices and landmarks shown in this ad are still present in Flemingdon Park (Foresters, Ontario Science Centre), others are long gone. As of 2018, Inn on the Park is a car dealership, IBM is Celestica, the Imperial Oil property is Real Canadian Superstore, while the Bata and Shell properties are now the Aga Khan Museum. The spotlighted property, the Ontario Hospital Association and Blue Cross building, is now bannered with ICICI Bank.

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Toronto Star, June 13, 1972.

Dispatching the Police Radio

Originally published on Torontoist on May 30, 2011.

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Inspector Charles Greenwood on motorcycle, circa 1932. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1009.

Imagine a Toronto City Council that almost turns down a request for additional funding from the Toronto Police Service and its union during a time of financial restraint. While a pay raise for officers, in our current political climate, doesn’t seem to constitute excessive spending, back in the mid-1930s funding requests for upgraded equipment were seen by some councillors as worthy of a ticket on the gravy train. In that historic instance, it may seem strange that implementing a police request to install a radio dispatch system to improve the force’s reaction to calls was regarded as a waste of taxpayer money.

According to a report prepared by the Board of Police Commissioners in 1935, the city’s police force was ill-equipped to handle rising levels of petty crime and armed robbery. Understaffing stretched the distance each street duty officer covered. Underfunding threatened to lay off 21 new recruits during the summer. The report asked city council for approximately $36,000 to fix 28 aging motorcycles, cover staffing costs, and provide radio-equipped cars so that officers could react faster to incidents.

When the proposal was submitted to city council, it was rejected by penny-pinching councillors who felt the new technology was a waste of money and, like other Torontonians suffering the effects of the Great Depression, the police should make do with what they had or less. Controller Samuel McBride felt that “one man on the street, to my mind, is better than five men in a car,” while Alderman Fred Conboy
noted that, despite the benefits of radio dispatching for efficacy, “I don’t think the police are going to the dogs just because there are a couple of bands of robbers running around.”

To the naysayers, Mayor James Simpson replied that “there are some who would have our Toronto police on foot chasing after high-powered cars employed by criminals. If it were not so tragic it would be laughable to realize that some people think Toronto is still a mud village.” He pointed to a report prepared for the police department that showed savings of $330,000 over 10 years by using a radio dispatch system instead of hiring 21 additional full-time officers. Alderman Robert Leslie had heard positive feedback regarding radio dispatching from friends on the Detroit police force and declared, “If this city is so financially embarrassed that it cannot find the money for this essential factor, then things are in a pretty bad way.”

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Cowan Avenue Police Station, September 8, 1932. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 1, Item 1164.

On June 27, 1935, as city council prepared for another vote, the Globe published an editorial supporting police radio and criticizing small-mindedness within City Hall:

The question of police radio cars is not a petty issue of local politics, but a matter of vital concern, and the sooner the people’s representatives in the Board of Control and council approach it from a proper perspective, the sooner will those people feel that the Controllers and Aldermen are more concerned with the safety and protection of their constituents than with their own group allegiances and piffling prejudices.

One of Simpson’s final pleas to opponents echoes recent criticisms of the Ford administration’s voting habits. “Toronto is in a class by itself because of its lack of airport facilities and radio-equipped cruisers,” the mayor noted. “Once Toronto was in the vanguard of advance but now in some very important features of civic administration she is sadly lagging behind.” Police Chief Constable Dennis Draper addressed council with his rationale for funding, which included the high recovery rate of stolen vehicles in Montreal after that city installed a radio dispatch system. Draper’s appearance upset Alderman J.R. Beamish, who felt the chief should shut up and carry on as best as possible. “The head of any department should never get so high that he thinks he can tell the city what to do,” said Beamish.

Leslie submitted three separate motions in favour of police demands. By an 8–7 vote, council refused to consider the motions and deferred them to a special meeting Simpson promised to call. This meeting would deal with police funding and another issue that resonates today: the building of a tunnel link to the new airport at Hanlan’s Point. Deadlock over the issue between city council as a whole (which increasingly supported funding police radio) and the Board of Control (where the majority opposed) threatened to continue for some time.

After a council-wide vote on July 9, 1935 which went 14–5 in favour of police radio, Controller Ralph Day signalled he would switch his vote to favour the proposal so that the Board of Control didn’t obstruct the majority vote. “I do not wish this proposed vote to be construed as a change of heart, but simply as a means of keeping up the friendly feeling that should exist between city council and the Board of Control,” Day stated. A few die-hard opponents, like McBride, remained. “We’re being horn-swoggled by the police department,” he stated. “Radio patrols are a luxury for the police and a lodestone for the people.” Anyone who needed an officer in a hurry would disagree with McBride.

Additional material from the June 15, 1935, and June 27, 1935 editions of the Globe; and the June 25, 1935, June 26, 1935, June 27, 1935, June 28, 1935, and July 9, 1935 editions of the Toronto Star.

The Black Bull of Yore

Originally published on Torontoist on April 23, 2011. Additional images have been included.

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Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto (first series) (Toronto: J. Ross Robertson, 1894).

Patio denizens and motorcycle enthusiasts may be relieved to hear news reports that fire damage at the venerable Black Bull was largely confined to the upper apartments and that the bar will reopen today. Had the three-alarm fire spread, Toronto would have lost what is debatably its oldest watering hole: drinks and hospitality were first served at the Black Bull in, depending on the source, 1833 (a year before York became Toronto) or 1838 (a year after William Lyon Mackenzie’s rebellion).

Based on a portrait of the bar in Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto, even in its early days the Black Bull attracted a parking lot full of hogs…of the animal variety.

York was a hospitable place in the old days, for the places of entertainment in every section of town were very much more numerous, when compared to the population, than they are now. Up to a recent period, when it was succeeded by a brick building, bearing the same name, however there stood at the north-east corner of Queen and Soho streets the antique-looking inn, shown in the illustration, with a swinging sign and wooden water trough and pump in front. This was the Black Bull Hotel, a favourite stopping place for farmers on their way to town from the west and north-west.

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The Globe, July 14, 1858.

The property was originally purchased by Peter Russell, for whom nearby Peter Street was named, in 1798 and was initially used for farming. Other illustrious families whose names remain on downtown streets (Baldwin, Willcocks) were owners of the property at Soho and Queen West over the first half of the 19th century. According to Robertson, the first landlord of the Black Bull Hotel was a Mr. Mosson. Between 1886 and 1889, the building was bricked and expanded.

Being a bar, it’s inevitable the Black Bull would eventually land in the police blotter. In a court case reported in the December 7, 1895 edition of the Globe, proprietor Richard Allcock and bartender Charles Bates were sued by carriage builder William Potter for $200. The plaintiff went to the Black Bull for a drink with a friend that September, but “while there a number of others congregated and had a drink at his expense.” When Bates demanded payment, Potter refused and a fight ensued. As Bates threw Potter out of the bar, the bartender struck Potter with such force that he lay unconscious for a week and was bedridden for a further five. The defendants denied the charges.

According to a 1903 classified ad, the Black Bull offered anyone looking for a place to stay a “large comfortable room, en suite or otherwise, for rent, with or without board.” That the ad didn’t use “quiet” as an adjective may have been due to incidents such as one that occurred on March 10, 1904. Four rowdy young men caused a ruckus in their room that night, during which they ignored the bartender’s attempt to quiet them down. When proprietor William Seager went up to the room, the men pounced and broke his leg. Two months later, when the incident went to court, Seager hobbled his way to the stand on crutches. His attackers received sentences ranging from 60 days to six months.

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Clifton House, 1972. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 2032, Series 841, File 48, Item 26.

For much of the 20th century, the premises operated as the Clifton House, a name it shared with an east end home for boys where beer was the only drink available in its beverage room. Articles published after the name reverted back to the Black Bull in 1977 indicated that it was “pretty rough” during its Clifton days. All we were able to ascertain about the Clifton was that it was among the 68 venues licensed to sell beer in Toronto in 1934. By the early 1980s, when the bar was owned by retired football players Bobby Taylor and Jimmy Hughes, the Star reported that “the only reminder of its past are the colourful residents who patronize the pub, along with Ontario College of Art students and a full range of athletic types.”

Additional material from Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto by John Ross Robertson (first series) (Toronto: J. Ross Robertson, 1894); the December 7, 1895 edition of theGlobe; and the December 23, 1903, May 26, 1904, November 1, 1934, and November 18, 1980 editions of the Toronto Star.

The Roar of Greasepaint, The Smell of Gunfire

Originally published on Torontoist on April 6, 2011.

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“Hundreds of onlookers thought they were witnessing an actual bank holdup and police-desperado gun battle at Yonge and Grosvenor today as these phoney [sic] officers raced onto the scene as part of the filming of a TV drams.” Photo by Madison Sale. The Telegram, September 10, 1958.

Wednesday morning, downtown Toronto. As a bank robbery unfolds a desperate man, hiding his identity underneath clown makeup, threatens to blow up the financial institution and anyone within it if his demands are not met. Outside the police prepare to swoop in—their every step monitored by a television camera crew filming the scene for an upcoming police drama.

While such a scene wouldn’t faze citizens used to seeing crime shows like Flashpoint and Rookie Blue filmed on Toronto’s streets, the reaction from passers-by was far different during the first decade of local television production. When a CBC crew filmed Power to Destroy at the Bank of Montreal branch at Yonge and Grosvenor Streets (now an A&W) on September 10, 1958, some of those who gawked believed they were witnessing an actual crime scene. As the Telegram reported in that evening’s edition, “for a hectic hour today the corner was the scene of what will probably go down in history as the most confused bank robbery staged in downtown Toronto.”

Based on an incident that happened in Montreal, Power to Destroy was chosen to lead off a new season of CBC’s Sunday night drama showcase General Motors Theatre. The cast included Douglas Rain (the voice of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey) as the clown-faced robber, John Drainie (veteran radio actor and an original co-host of This Hour Has Seven Days), and, as a cop, James Doohan (Scotty from Star Trek). The bank robbery sequence shot on the morning of September 10 was to be mixed in with live studio performances when the program aired 11 days later.

Given how the shoot went, it’s a good thing the robbery wasn’t transmitted live.

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“Despite the generous co-operation of real Metro officers, some of whom are seen here, director Paul Almond had to shoot the scene several times before he was satisfied. Traffic piled up and there was one collision as unknowing onlookers gaped.” Photo by Madison Sale. The Telegram, September 10, 1958.

Despite having genuine Metropolitan Toronto police direct traffic around the intersection of Yonge and Grosvenor, so that actor cops could rush into the bank, the outside world had a habit of interfering. One motorist who stopped to inspect the hubbub outside the bank blocked the way for a fake cop car, causing the actors inside the obstructed vehicle to stop 100 yards from the shoot.

Filming resumed as an ever-increasing crowd of onlookers tried to figure out what was going on. The Telegram reported that “the shooting of the bank robbery scene had such authenticity that a crowd of more than 200 gathered open-mouthed on the street, waiting for the worst to happen.”

The “worst” turned out to be outside drivers and other bystanders:

A woman driver tried to turn the corner and watch the officers in action. Her car ran into the rear of a car driven by another woman. As both argued, a middle-aged woman suddenly screamed at her husband. “I told you not to stand there. He’s inside the bank armed. Get back, Henry, get back.” A drunk wobbled onto the scene and warned all who would listen: “I know the guy that’s in there and he means business. They won’t get him without some shooting.” An elderly man turned to his wife and said “I don’t think he can get out of there with all these officers around. But we’d better move on anyways.”

By this time, bystanders who clued in to what was going on teased anyone walking by who was unaware of the situation—when one woman asked what was up and was told a bank robber had been shot, she replied “heavens, oh heavens.” As the morning wore on, the Telegram noted that the actors playing police officers “were shot over and over again, but their only wounds were sore feet from continuous running outside the Bank of Montreal.” Their fatigue wasn’t helped by incidents like a re-shoot caused by a traffic jam on Yonge Street. When the final scene was shot at noon, “a confused little man, hobbling on a cane, got in the way of the cameras. Befuddled by shouts to move on he tried to move in all directions at once and almost fell in front of two ‘policemen’ sneaking up on a bank window.”

The finished product was reviewed by the Star’s Gordon Sinclair, who felt Power to Destroy “was no world beater but it had some merit.” He praised the way the filmed sequences were spliced into the live drama, but criticized the high volume of background noise in scenes set in the bank and police station.

Additional material from the September 10, 1958 edition of the Telegram and the September 22, 1958 edition of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: And So The People Came

Originally published on Torontoist on June 23, 2009.

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Toronto Tonight!, February 9–23, 1989.

You’re flipping through the entertainment options for a night on the town in 1980s Toronto. Let’s see…a cabaret musical about sex that employs a double-entendre for its title…and it has nudity…and it features tunes like “Fellatio 101” and “I’m Gay”…and it hasn’t been shut down by the morality squad yet.

Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more?

Let My People Come was unveiled in New York in January 1974. Shows at its Off-Broadway venue quickly sold out, and soon there was a cast album, touring productions, and interest from film producers…yet the show never officially opened, as local theatre critics were never invited to the production. As Mel Gussow of the New York Times noted after he snuck into a performance, it had “all the earmarks of success except for blurbs in ads.”

The Toronto production sold out during its opening night at the Basin Street Cabaret at 180 Queen Street West on February 16, 1981. Local critics weren’t dripping with praise. Wilder Penfield III of the Sun seemed most engaged with the show, finding it more sweet than scandalous (he recommended that “connoisseurs of extravagant bodies and fantastic fantasies should head back towards Yonge Street”). He noted that “only the masochists, the deaf-and-blind, and the criminally stupid among us could have possibly been shocked by what followed,” and that the cast “take off their clothes with the innocent exuberance of skinny-dippers, and when they play at being wicked, you don’t believe them for a moment.” The Star’s Bruce Blackadar found it “totally unerotic, sometimes juvenile, faintly musical, and right out of the Sixties’ ethos. It was like going to watch a bunch of high-schoolers—although reasonably talented ones—take off their clothes while singing The Pirates of Penzance.” Ray Conlogue of the Globe was the least impressed—”While Hair had counter-culture optimism, and Oh! Calcutta! had Kenneth Tynan’s acerbic wit,” he noted, “Let My People Come had only the odour of opportunistic insincerity…supposedly celebrating the joys of sex, its songs are imbued with a penetrating joylessness.”

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Front cover of 1974 soundtrack recording (not from the Toronto production).

Another unimpressed observer was Ann Stirling Hall, president of the Canadian Association of Burlesque Entertainers. Her main beef was that the actors appeared to be able to get away with nudity while the city’s erotic dancers risked arrest if they removed their g-strings. “Do you know what would happen to me,” she told the Sun, “if I walked on stage, took my clothes off and said ‘this is my costume?’ I’d be laughed out of court. I’m not jealous. I think the entire idea behind the play is fantastic. But I just don’t understand Toronto. There are these tons and tons of regulations, and some people seem to feel the weight of the rules more than others.” Hall registered complaints about the production with the Ontario Human Rights Commission, who dismissed her discrimination case, and the Metropolitan Toronto Police morality squad.

Several members of the morality squad showed up for the February 19 show and issued a warning to the cast and producers that if they didn’t cover up they could face charges for violating the public-nudity section of the Criminal Code. The cast responded by wearing ballet slippers during the next performance. In preparation of any legal hassles, the producers had set aside ten thousand dollars for a lawyer. A spokesperson for the venue noted that earlier Toronto productions with actors in the buff (Equus, Hair, Oh! Calcutta!) had not faced problems and there had been few complaints so far. Attempts to shut the show down failed and it ran at several venues around the city over the rest of the decade. The show bared all for the last time in July 1989 at the venue shown above, now the location of the Drake Hotel.

Curious to hear what all the fuss was about? WFMU’s Beware of the Blog has the full Off-Broadway soundtrack for your listening pleasure.

Additional material from the February 19, 1981 edition of the Globe and Mail, the May 7, 1974 edition of the New York Times, the February 19, 1981 edition of the Toronto Star, and the February 18, 1981 and February 19, 1981 editions of the Toronto Sun.