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Red lights on Thomas Street — newly-elected mayor initiated the raid on the bawdy houses
Sep 19, 2013

 

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
Winnipeg Alderman (now councillor) John Russell had a valid argument when he asserted during a council meeting that the ministerial  association solely persecuted the women involved in the sex trade, while ignoring the men who frequented the brothels on Thomas Street (today’s Minto Street).
Dr. Frederick DuVal, the leading advocate for the ministerial association against prostitution, continually claimed during his lectures and sermons that women were responsible for the persistence of the social evil (Reverend Frederic B. DuVal: Winnipeg’s Fearless Foe of Social Vices, by Melanie Methot, Manitoba History, Winter 2002-03).
In his 1911 pamphlet, The Problem of Social Vice in Winnipeg, written at the request of the Moral and Social Reform Committee, DuVal stressed that the prostitution problem should be solved by men. Men, not women, were asked to attend his talk at the 1903 “monster mass meeting” against a segregated district for bawdy houses on Thomas Street. 
 It was DuVal’s belief that “if there were no more prostitutes, logic has it that men would simply not engage in the sex trade! DuVal focussed his energies on reforming prostitutes rather than ‘purifying the souls’ of patrons. What emerges from analysing his solutions is his Presbyterianism” (Methot).
The brothels were never short of clientele. Besides Winnipeg men, whether white-collar or blue-collar workers seeking female companionship in a city with a scarcity of women — in 1906, the ratio was 1,000 females to every 1,271 males — there was a constant transient population, especially towards the end of summer when the “Harvester Special” trains arrived to spill out thousands of young men from the East, who, before they fanned out to labour on Western Canadian farms, took time to sample the city’s earthly delights, including its prostitutes. 
If Duval wasn’t so fixated on his condemnation of female prostitutes, the minister would have realized it was the presence of so many men willing to pay for sex who really made the existence of the brothels possible. 
But as historian Alan Artibise wrote in his book, Winnipeg: A Social History of Urban Growth, 1874-1914, the segregation of prostitution to one area of the city also resulted in Winnipeg gaining a reputation “as a safe place for prostitutes to operate and they flocked to the city in droves.”
With so many involved in the sex trade, it was becoming increasingly difficult for the police to exercise real control over the brothels. “Such a thriving business was suddenly too big to hide from public view for any great length of time,” wrote Artibise.
By 1903, Thomas was not an isolated street from the rest of the city. The rapid population growth of Winnipeg meant that homes were invading the segregated district, arising in an emphasis by the public and church leaders for a call to action by the police.
“Any sign that an immoral traffic is being carried on in any house, so as to attract the attention of neighbors, should be a matter of police investigation,” wrote DuVal in his pamphlet. “And as soon as the police are assured of immoral traffic, it should be suppressed.”
Alderman Thomas Sharpe, a candidate for mayor in the December 9, 1903, civic election, attended the mass meeting and supported the resolution that the police commissioners enforce the law and have the prostitutes evicted from Thomas Street in the city’s West End. As such, he received the endorsement of the ministerial association.
The “purity” motion  introduced by aldermen John Wells and John Cockburn at city hall, which supported the mass meeting resolution, did not go to a vote. Instead, a motion to adjourn was carried. 
With all the growing publicity surrounding the brothels on Thomas Street and the zealous preaching from the pulpit by DuVal and other members of  the ministerial association, their continued existence became an issue in the December civic election. Initially, John Arbuthnot had indicated he wouldn’t be an incumbent in the election, but when it became evident that the ministerial association was pressing candidates to support their view that the police shutdown the brothels on Thomas Street, the mayor said he was prepared to run again.
Arbuthnot told the press that he stood by the policy of a segregated district — more commonly called a red light district — that had been in existence for years, claiming that concentrating brothels in one area of the city prevented their expansion into other neighbourhoods.
Meanwhile, when DuVal, the Presbyterian pastor at Knox Church, was interviewed by a Manitoba Free Press reporter (published November 18, 1903), Arbuthnot’s day earlier statements on the issue of Thomas Street were disputed by the minister. According to the mayor, the ministerial association admitted prostitution in Winnipeg could not be totally eradicated, “and when asked what suggestions it had, nearly all the members of the association favored moving the Thomas Street resorts to some district east of Main Street, near the river.”
DuVal said statements made by the mayor were entirely false.
“It was our opinion that no compromise could be rightly made with the houses of ill-fame which were even now becoming institutionalized in our city,” asserted DuVal, “but that the exercise of police authority for their suppression was the only reasonable, safe and lawful attitude to be assumed toward them.”
DuVal said at a meeting with the mayor and the police commission on November 18, “that segregation does not segregate and regulation does not regulate: that all public obtrusive manifestations of prostitution should be sternly repressed.”
Arbuthnot was so incensed by DuVal’s obsession with prostitution that he proclaimed: “The man chiefly responsible for all this agitation has by his own admission been thinking about this for twenty years and is now so saturated with the subject that it has to belch out of him somewhere!”
Alderman Wells claimed that it was necessary for all members of city council to go on the record and publicly acknowledge their stand on prostitution in Winnipeg. To make sure the public knew how each member of the council felt on the issue, the alderman said he would re-introduce his “purity” motion at the next council meeting, expecting the vote to show once and for all the position held by each alderman.
Although Arbuthnot had initially indicated a willingness to run for mayor, he eventually decided against filing his nomination papers in recognition that the anti-vice campaign had gained too much momentum, although it wasn’t the sole issue of the election campaign. Actually, it took a back seat to “the thorny questions of municipal versus private ownership of power, municipal operation of the streetcars, the need for more bridges, lower water rates, and a better water supply. Above all there were recurrent municipal financial crises” (Red lights on the Prairies, by James Gray)
Thomas Sharpe, who served as an alderman for four years previous to the election, was elected mayor in a landslide victory, receiving 2,397 votes as opposed to John Mitchell’s 1,404 and Robert Barclay’s 704. Sharpe had promised during the election campaign that he would close the brothels on Thomas Street within six months if elected mayor, and didn’t disappoint those who voted for him on the basis of this promise.
The new police commission following the election was made up of Winnipeg Police Magistrate Thomas Daly, who replaced ex-Police Magistrate George Baker; Mayor Sharpe, who replaced ex-Mayor Arbuthnot; while aldermen J.C. Gibson and John Russell, replaced aldermen Robert Barclay and James Latimer. Prior to the New Year, the former police commission had issued a statement in favour of the segregation of vice in the city, but it was an opinion not shared by the new commissioners.
In fact, during the very first meeting  of the new police commission headed by Sharpe, the sole topic discussed was taking quick action against the prostitutes on Thomas Street. The only statement Mayor Sharpe would make afterward was that: “The commission made up its mind to do away with the houses, and you see the result.”
The result of the in camera meeting was a raid on Saturday, January 9, 1904, ending 22 years of segregation of the sex trade on Thomas Street. To ensure news of the raid wouldn’t be leaked and the brothel keepers warned, the police commission met at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and a motion was passed at 6 o’clock to close the bawdy houses. It was later reported that the motion to raid the bawdy houses was proposed by aldermen Gibson and Russell.
“At 7 o’clock when the night shift of patrolmen reported for duty they were bundled into cabs, only three of them going into the streets (for their regular patrols),” reported the Free Press on January 11. Only one officer was left at the police station to answer calls. 
(Next week, part 3)