by Bruce Cherney (part 5 of 5)
Not all court cases involving prostitutes and houses of ill-fame resulted in the charges being dismissed. Samuel Levi was fined and imprisoned for using his bathhouse at the corner of Dufferin Avenue and King Street as a bawdy house. Winnipeg Police Magistrate Thomas Daly fined the man $50 and sentenced him to six months hard labour in prison under the provisions of the Vagrancy Act, which was the maximum sentence Daly could hand out.
“In sentencing him,” the Manitoba Free Press reported on September 28, 1906, “the magistrate stated that the evidence against him was overwhelming. There was no doubt that Levi had the prostitutes in his house by arrangement ... The women had all told the same story, and then there was the evidence of men who had visited the place a number of times.”
Levi’s defence was that the women were employed as waitresses, who were paid by cheque for their services. When overpayments of wages occurred, it was because he was periodically adding money he held in safe keeping at the women’s request. According to the women’s testimony, they sometimes turned over all the money they earned as prostitutes to the bathhouse owner, who would from time to time pay them with cheques.
In another instance, Martha Wright’s appeal of a police court conviction of keeping a “disorderly house under section 55 of the Criminal Code” was dismissed by County Court Judge Robert Hill Myers. In addition, a woman named Frobisher, who was an inmate of Wright’s brothel, lost her appeal.
Not all keepers of brothels entered a not guilty plea with the expectation of appealing their cases to a higher court. Josephine Jackson, the keeper of a house of ill-fame on Lusted Street, reversed her earlier plea of not guilty and was sentenced to three months in jail by Magistrate Daly (Tribune, February 14, 1906).
In some cases, women who plead guilty and were fined by Daly for keeping or being an inmate of a bawdy house were also told by the magistrate to leave the city within a specific period of time, which varied from one day to one week. Daly would often provide the details of a train’s departure time in order to emphasize that a prostitute was to leave Winnipeg as quickly as possible.
Lilly de Vallet, who was the inmate of one house of ill-fame, was fined $50 plus court costs “with the leave taking injunction attached,” according to the October 8, 1908, Winnipeg Tribune. Daly gave the “girl” one week to leave town.
An ongoing problem in obtaining convictions was that city police and morality officers were handicapped in their attempts to enforce the existing laws by a failure to obtain adequate evidence of a crime — sex for money — being committed.
In addition, the court questioned the methods used by plain clothes police constables hired by the morality squad to keep tabs on the alleged houses of ill-fame.
In the matter of Frederick Rigger, a cab driver who was charged with assaulting a police officer, Court of Appeal Justice William Perdue chastised the “special constables” for the methods they used to obtain evidence (Tribune, November 18, 1907).
Perdue said asking patrons (termed “frequenters” at the time) of suspected bawdy houses for their names amounted to an invasion of their privacy. “Although we all sympathize with the honest efforts made by the morality department to suppress this evil, still there were rights and liberties of people living here in this city which as British citizens we are all supposed to enjoy which certainly transcend all moral laws.”
The justice said there was a possibility that the methods used could be subverted, as the plain clothes officers might get it into their head that a particular house where two young women lived was used for prostitution when that was not the case. “They might demand names of people who were going to see them and damn the reputation and character of those living in the house.”
Winnipeg Police Morality Inspector W.J. Leach informed the court that the purpose of taking down names was to obtain future witnesses in cases against keepers and inmates of the brothels.
Perdue replied that such methods were illegal and tantamount to obtaining evidence by coercion.
“Remember,” warned the justice, “I do not ask you to express sympathy with these houses, and I have no sympathy with them, but the method employed to try and get evidence by asking men — who were likely to be inflamed with drink — their names, was, he considered, calculated to provoke a breach of the peace.”
The chief witness for the Crown against Rigger was special constable E.J. Chilwell, who sported a blackened eye, bruises and broken teeth as a result of his confrontation with the cab driver, who was alleged to have driven a patron to a Pacific Avenue bawdy house. Chilwell and another constable approached the cab as it pulled up and asked the names of the driver and man riding in the vehicle. The confrontation between the men took place on a sidewalk.
“There has been a lot of exceeding of duty on the part of the witness,” Perdue told the jury. “It is a monstrous thing that a citizen cannot walk along the street between houses or drive up to a door in a cab without being catechized (questioned).”
With such a damnation by Perdue of the methods used by the special constables, the jury took little time to declare Rigger not guilty.
The city-wide prostitution problem arising from the evictions on Thomas Street (now Minto Street) became one of the civic election issues in 1905. Ex-mayor John Arbuthnot returned to the campaign trail to challenge incumbent Thomas Sharpe — who initiated the Thomas Street raid — for the top elected position in the city. His entrance into the mayoralty race drew heavy criticism from the ministerial association, which accused Arbuthnot of wanting to restore a segregated district for prostitution in the city. It was an accusation that Arbuthnot denied.
Arbuthnot circulated a letter in which he claimed a number of ministers had made public statements that were “unfair and untrue ... in connection with what is known as the social evil.”
The former mayor said that since he left office two years earlier, the social evil had increased to an “alarming extent.” Arbuthnot alleged that the police had noted that there were 249 house of ill-fame spread across the city, “and go so far as to say that there are probably another one hundred and fifty.”
Of course, the ministers and Sharpe called these numbers a great exaggeration. In fact, a report by Morality Inspector Leach indicated there were 63 houses of ill-fame in the city. On the other hand, Arbuthnot was right when he said that the social evil had increased in the city since the Thomas Street raid. On Thomas, there had only been 12 brothels, but there was nearly six times that number by 1905.
Arbuthnot vowed to do everything in his power to rid the city of the houses of ill-fame, “if it was possible.”
Whatever Arbuthnot’s allegations, the electorate returned Sharpe as mayor on December 12, 1905, in what was described in newspapers as a “sweeping victory.”
Shortly after his election, newspapers announced Sharpe was launching another war against social evil. The mayor told the Free Press on December 29, 1905, that the council was unanimous in its desire to rid Winnipeg of brothels and their occupants.
“If a detective has to be placed outside the front and back doors of all these houses, they will have to go,” wrote Sharpe in a December 13, 1905, letter to the police commission. “The city has the money to fight the matter and will see it to the end.”
Sharpe was no longer mayor after 1906, but his policy of fighting social evil through constant police vigilance continued. A September 10, 1908, article in the Free Press, stated that the police were not inactive in laying charges in social vice cases, as over 200 charges had been laid against bawdy house keepers and “frequenters” during the past year.
“The difficulty has been one of securing evidence, the morality officers finding all places closed against them and not being able to see through walls and thus secure evidence.”
When it was suggested that the plain clothes policemen enter the brothels as undercover customers to obtain evidence, the reply from the police commissioners was that it was a preposterous suggestion as they would also be committing a crime.
“To get a conviction on a charge of operating a house of ill fame necessitated testimony from somebody who had visited the house and paid for the service,” wrote James Gray in Red Lights on the Prairies. “While the Chief was prepared to have his newly-formed morality squad keep watch on the houses from the outside, he categorically refused to send his men into the houses to become accessories to the commission of an offence. Yet if the police refused to fabricate evidence how could the law be enforced? By stool pigeons who would visit the prostitutes, pay them with marked money, and testify in court. In July 1905 the city acceded to a request from the police commission and put up a $250 ‘secret service fund’ which Chief McRae could spend buying testimony.”
Due to insufficient evidence, many charges filed were eventually dismissed. Typically, the accused would plea not guilty and be released on bail within a half an hour. Then an appeal would be launched in the county court, which could take up to four months to be heard. By that time, many witnesses used to obtain the earlier evidence given in the police court had either vanished or could not be found, so the appeals were invariably upheld for lack of evidence.
Police Magistrate Daly was so frustrated by the number of cases he had to dismiss that he began to ponder whether it was not more advisable to return to the methods of the past to control prostitution; that is, re-introduce a “segregated district,” comparable to the former Thomas Street red light district. One ally he had for the establishment of a specific district for prostitutes was Winnipeg Police Chief John McRae.
“As is well-known Chief McRae, as a result of his experience in dealing with the social evil, holds the private opinion that segregation is the solution of the difficulty,” according to a Free Press report on September 10, 1908. “As for an official opinion, the chief is said to have offered none, preferring to take his orders from the police commission without comment and to the best of his ability to carry those instructions out.”
The police commissioners may have issued orders to McRae to crack down on prostitution, but even they were coming to realize that the problem had grown exorbitantly since the Thomas Street raid four years earlier (Free Press, June 25, 1908).
In 1908, the commissioners sent letters to property owners renting houses to prostitutes, warning them that they would be prosecuted under the criminal code if they did not evict such tenants. The commissioners had discovered a provision in the criminal code that allowed for fines or imprisonment for landlords who rented houses to prostitutes.
But such a threat had little effect on the overall problem of prostitution, so the police commission was arriving at the same conclusion reached by Daly, who sent an April 20, 1909, letter to the commissioners to the effect that the justice system’s attempts to punish offenders had been a failure, and recommended that the commission return to the policy of a segregated district.
The commissioners agreed and passed a resolution revoking the policy adopted on January 9, 1904, which led to the evictions on Thomas Street, and told the police chief to use “discretion and (his) best judgment” to enforce the new policy.
Winnipeg was to once again have a red light district — the “order of old things” was re-instated on Rachel (now Annabella) and McFarlane streets in Point Douglas, regardless of the objections of the existing working-class residents living along these two streets. Ironically, Point Douglas had once been the enclave of the city’s wealthy, who would never have tolerated such an open display of the social evil in their midst. But Winnipeg’s elite had long since moved away to the south end of the city when the decision was reached to re-establish the segregated district in Point Douglas. Far less politically-connected blue-collar workers, the then dominate inhabitants of the neighbourhood, were not consulted and thus had no say in the propagation of prostitution in their midst.