by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
Thanks to a popular television show and a multitude of movies, Treasury agent, or T-man, Elliot Ness and gangster Al “Scarface” Capone are familiar figures from the Prohibition Era in the United States. But instead of sobering up America, the National Prohibition Act, known informally as the Volstead Act, led to a out-of-control crime wave, typified by the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, and a citizenry intent upon flaunting the law, typified by the proliferation of speakeasies.
What is probably surprising to Manitobans is that this province had it’s own experiment with prohibition, which was as equally unsuccessful as the American version, although much shorter in duration than its U.S. counterpart at seven years versus 14 years. Manitobans learned earlier and more quickly than the Americans that prohibition, despite being touted as a cure for the social evil of rampant intoxication, had the opposite effect. In essence, making alcohol illegal, made it more desirable. As a result, prohibition failed miserably in its goal to establish a province filled with teetotalers.
Initially, Manitoba Premier T.C. Norris, who’s government passed the 1916 Manitoba Temperance Act, pointed to statistics that showed public drunkenness infractions in the courts had diminished in order to demonstrate the effectiveness of prohibition. But this was misleading, as people merely changed their drinking habits, taking to the bottle in their private homes and in illegal “blind pigs,” away from the prying eyes of the government and its courts.
Many would also be surprised to know that Winnipeg, similar to Chicago, had its own Elliot Ness. Alexander McCurdy of the Manitoba Provincial Police (MPP) was appointed the chief morality officer in 1918 and was charged to enforce the temperance act, which was passed by the provincial legislature after Manitobans overwhelmingly voted, 50,484 to 26,052, in favour of prohibition in a plebiscite.
Manitoba’s prohibition law was not as severe as the Volstead Act. A number of loopholes existed that made it relatively easy for most Manitobans to obtain alcoholic beverages. The only group to suffer the full effect of prohibition were hotel and bar owners, who were forced to shutdown their highly-profitable drinking establishments.
Under Manitoba’s prohibition law, all previously legal bars were closed, alcohol could only be consumed in private residences, liquor could only be purchased through government sanctioned dispensaries and only for industrial scientific, mechanical and medicinal purposes, and distillers and brewers could be licenced to manufacture alcohol, but only for export outside the province.
The inclusion of “medicinal” purposes meant that doctors’ prescriptions for alcohol were widely abused, as shown by the long line-ups at pharmacies during the December holidays. In 1921, two years before prohibition ended in Manitoba, doctors issued 1,211,461 prescriptions for intoxicants in the province.
Crafty alcohol distillers marketed their products as medicine. The Bronfmans created the Canada Drug Pure Company to store and sell liquor across the prairies for “medicinal” purposes.
So-called medicinal remedies were loaded with alcohol, such as Hall’s Great Discovery, which contained 43 per cent alcohol, Hottetter’s Bitters had an alcohol content of 46 per cent, and topping them all was Hamlin’s Wizard, which had a mind-numbing 65 per cent alcohol content.
Since each province had its own prohibition law that included a clause limiting distillers to exporting their products out-of-province, Manitobans could telephone a Sask-atchewan or Ontario warehouse and have a bottle sent by post to their home, where it was perfectly legal to consume intoxicating beverages.
But this changed in 1920 when the federal government for the first time allowed Manitoba to legislate against the importation of liquor into the province, which consequently led to an increase in bootlegging and rum-running.
Recognizing that they could earn more by converting their crops into alcohol, many rural farmers set up stills and shipped their home brew to grateful urban costumers.
Prohibition, as was the case in the U.S., had the unintended result of encouraging normally law-abiding citizens to become law-breakers, as well as contributed to a proliferation of illegal actives by opportunist hard-core criminals.
Speaking before a U.S. Senate committee in Washington, D.C., investigating the Volstead Act, Francis William Russell, the president of the Moderation League in Manitoba, said: “Western Canada never had such a crime wave before as we had during the last two years of prohibition. Thank God, we did away with it. It went out with the bootleggers and the rum-runner.”
Clandestine “blind pigs,” or “speakeasies,” opened across Winnipeg and served illegal alcohol to thirsty customers.
In his book, Manitoba Medicine: A Brief History, Ian Carr wrote that on some Winnipeg streets every third or fourth house was a bootlegger’s.
Under the provisions of Manitoba prohibition, once-legal hotel bars were ordered shutdown, but that didn’t prevent some hotels from flaunting the law and establishing speakeasies. One of the more infamous of these speakeasies was in the Stockyards Hotel at the corner of Marion and Archibald in St. Boniface.
The hotel was a short distance from the 137-acre Union Stock Yards on Marion Street, which was the biggest employer in St. Boniface, where cattle was received from all three Prairie Provinces and shipped to Eastern Canada and exported to Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska. At the stock yards could be found salesmen, buyers, shippers, producers and yard employees, some of who periodically visited the hotel to slake their thirst.
The Stockyards Hotel was frequently raided by morality officers, as was the case in the early morning hours of November 11, 1920. The morality squad had been alerted by a “spotter,” or paid informant, that liquor was being sold at the hotel, which resulted in McCurdy ordering the fifth raid on the premises. He was accompanied by MPP morality constables James Uttley, Jack Dineen, A.W. Miller and Fred Cawsey. None of the men were armed when they conducted the raid.
What actually happened during the raid is somewhat confusing, as the many eyewitnesses gave conflicting accounts to investigators and to newspapers, as well as at the subsequent inquests. But some major details of the case became clearer as the investigation progressed.
What is not disputed is that five morality officers entered the hotel at 1 a.m. on Remembrance Day 1920, and that McCurdy sent Miller, Cawsey and Dineen to conduct a search for liquor in the hotel’s restaurant.
According to the November 12 Manitoba Free Press, the ground-floor “cafe ... was well filled and the three members of the raiding squad were left there to round up the early morning patrons, while McCurdy and Uttley started upstairs.”
Upstairs on the second floor of the three-storey hotel, McCurdy and Uttley opened the door of Room 8, where they saw a man and a woman in bed. Both occupants of the room were said to be undressed. The two morality officers, in an act of chivalry typical of the era, closed the door to allow the man and woman to get dressed. It was “a simple act of decency that turned out to be a deadly mistake” (Line of Fire: Heroism, Tragedy and Canada’s Police, by Edward Butts, 2009).
“Seeing one man edge from the group (in the restaurant) and start upstairs,” Cawsey told a Free Press reporter (November 12), “Miller started to follow, but returned shortly, and told me the man had a gun. He asked me what we should do. Just then, we heard a number of shots fired upstairs, and I started up on the run.”
Cawsey related the following in his capacity as a first-hand witness of some of the events: “Reaching the head of the stairway I was confronted by the man with the revolver. He fired pointblank at me, but the gun missed fire. I ducked into a bathroom at my right just as he pulled the trigger a second time.
“The cartridge exploded this time and the bullet narrowly missed me.
‘The gunman was hidden in an alcove and commanded a full view of the stairway. None of us was armed, so I knew that Dineen was taking a long chance as he came up the stairs. I shouted to him to make for the bathroom, but just then a number of shoots rang out and I saw Dineen fall. I reached him and dragged him into the bathroom. While I was attending him the two men escaped.”
In later accounts, the man who occupied Room 8 burst out of the room with a “companion,” and both were firing their revolvers as they made good their escape.
Once the two armed men fled, Cawsey went into Room 8 where he found Uttley and McCurdy lying on the floor. “McCurdy was unconscious and Uttley pretty well knocked off.”
Cawsey then hurried out of the room to telephone the MPP office and call for an ambulance.
Cawsey said he didn’t get a good look at the gunman, since he was intent on avoiding him in order to save his life.
Miller later related that he rushed out the hotel to alert the authorities.
It was a guest who telephoned the St. Boniface police about the shootings. Police Chief Leo Marell and the “night force” arrived at the hotel and found McCurdy and Uttley unconscious in Room 8, and also saw that Cawsey was caring for Dineen in the bathroom.
The injured men were then rushed to the St. Boniface Hospital.
“Dr. N.A. Laurendeau, who was attending the injured men, said McCurdy died at 8:10 a.m.,” according to the November 12 Free Press. “The bullet entered his skull above the right ear and, passing through, came out the other side of his head at about the corresponding spot. The bullet caused a hernia of the brain which brought death. He was shot in the right arm also.”
McCurdy had come to Manitoba 30 years earlier and began farming in the Sanford region. Fourteen years later, he moved to Winnipeg and became a contractor and house builder. While in Winnipeg, he was active in the social and moral reform movements, which led to his appointment as the MPP’s chief morality officer.
Jack Dineen had three bullet holes in his back and was in critical condition, as was Uttley, who hospital authorities reported had received several bullet wounds and was on his “death-bed.”
Uttley died in St. Boniface Hospital on November 16, becoming the second victim of the shootout. His last words, witnessed by J.J. McLean, who was at Uttley’s bedside at the time of his passing, were, “I’ll stand by Alex McCurdy as long as I live — there’s no one like McCurdy.”
Of the three officers shot, only Dineen survived, despite the life-threatening wounds he sustained. He later returned to duty with the MPP.
More testimony about how the two men came to be shot by the gunmen was revealed during inquest into the death of McCurdy at the Provincial Police Court on Vaughan Street. At the inquest, a statement by Uttley was read by MPP Inspector Spencer. In it, Utley said that when they entered Room 8, they found a man with a woman by his side. The man was observed to be in his underwear. They withdrew to allow the woman to dress and then returned to the door of the room, which was thrown open from the inside and a man began to shot at the officers. McCurdy and Uttley closed with the shooter and managed to take his gun away.
Another shooter arrived in the room and shot McCurdy in the temple, according to Uttley’s statement. McCurdy reeled and then fell, smashing a window near the head of the bed.
In its summation of Uttley’s statement, the Free Press (November 16, 1920) reported: “The murderer then turned the gun on Uttley and shot him twice — in the back and in the shoulder. Seeing both disabled the gunman left the room. At the time Uttley shouted for help, and there was a quick response from Dineen and Cawsey. The last named was leading as the two bounded upstairs.”
According to a statement by Dineen, read at the inquest by MPP Constable Phillips, after Cawsey ducked into the bathroom, having just avoided death when the gunman’s pistol misfired, the shooter turned his attention to Dineen, who wasn’t as lucky as Cawsey. The morality constable was shot in the side. When he dropped to the floor, the gunman fired three more times at his prostate form.
At the November 17, 1920, coroner’s inquest into the death of McCurdy, it was revealed that the woman in the room was Christina Johnson, a chambermaid at the hotel. But Johnson didn’t provide much in the way of clarification of what occurred.
Johnson testified that she was passing Room 8, when she was called in by the “gentleman” occupying the room. In the later inquiry into Uttley’s death, Johnson said she was called into the room to attend to an electric light.
Johnson said she went in and had not been in the room for two minutes when there was a rap on the door and two police officers entered. According to Johnson, she was not undressed, but wearing her working apron and boudoir cap, and that she was siting on the edge of the bed at the time.
This contradicted Uttley’s statement, which claimed Johnson “was undressed except her shirt.”
Johnson testified that the man in the room asked, “What is this?”
“You are under arrest,” was the response from the morality officers.
Quickly thereafter, the shooting began. Johnson said she didn’t know who fired first, but a second man entered the room and a general scuffle ensued.
“How many shots did Brown (the alleged name of the man in the room) fire?” she was asked.
“I could not say exactly.”
“How many shots did the other fellow fire?”
“I cannot say.”
She was then asked what happened after the shooting. Johnson said she went into a girlfriend’s room and then with the friend began walking away from the hotel, “as they were scared” (Free Press, November 18). She then went to her mother’s home on William Avenue.
After questioning by John Allen, Manitoba’s deputy attorney-general, Johnson replied that one of the guns was held in her face by a man with a bald spot on his head.
Allen challenged her testimony: Was it the man in the bed who did the firing?”
“Apparently,” she replied, “both of them were firing, because the shots seemed on the quick.”
“Did you see a revolver in the hand of the man who was on the bed?”
“Yes,” Johnston said.
“Where was he when you first saw the revolver?”
“Standing at the foot of the bed.”
“The man in the bed was undressed?”
“I didn’t say he was dressed, I said he was in bed.”
“How was he dressed when you saw him fire the revolver?” asked Allen.
“He jumped up in his underwear,” Johnson replied.
“He was firing in his underwear?”
(Next week: part 2)