Red lights on Thomas Street — city officials declared street a “segregated district” for bawdy houses


by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
In an earlier era, city police tacitly condoned prostitution by relegating brothels to a specific neighbourhood that was officially referred to as the “segregated district.” It was an example of the old adage, “Out of sight, out of mind,” although those families living in the shadow of the “ladies of the evening,” who practiced the so-called world’s oldest profession, would have argued otherwise.
Perhaps the most infamous of the segregated districts in Winnipeg’s history was Thomas Street (now Minto Street) in the city’s West End, where brothels eventually abutted family homes. At the time, Thomas Street would have been considered a suburban neighbourhood of the city. Winnipeg’s boundaries had been expanded westward to St. James Street in 1882, which placed Thomas Street within the city’s Ward 3 in the West End.
As a result of the proliferation of “bawdy houses” along the street, among other vices, Winnipeg was gaining a reputation as the “Wickedest City in the Dominion” to the consternation of the city’s business elite boosters and community-minded citizenry.
The most infamous incident in the early history of Thomas Street was the murder of William Burton by Paul Brown in May 1898. In a scene reminiscent of the American Wild West, Brown shot and killed Burton while both men were on the street in front of a store. Brown then turned his revolver on three women, including Burton’s wife. The three narrowly escaped sharing the fate of  Brown’s male victim, although one young woman was seriously wounded, but she recovered from her bullet-inflicted injuries.
Burton was employed as porter in a brothel run by Chrissie Gibson, while his wife was the cook in the same establishment. Brown had been a patron of the brothels on Thomas Street. He would later be convicted and was to be hanged for the “cold blooded murder” of Burton, but his execution was overturned when he was declared insane.
With such a notorious reputation, it is little wonder that on the evening of November 16, 1903, an over-flow crowd of 1,500 Winnipeg men gathered at the Winnipeg Theatre to hear a group of ministers led by Frederick B. DuVal, the Presbyterian pastor of Knox Church, denouncing the city’s police commissioners for not acting on a previous ultimatum to rid the street of the brothels.
Described by historian James Henry Gray as a “pint-sized zealot with a hard glinting eye and luxuriant chin whiskers,” Du Val was the leading and most vocal figure in the campaign against a segregated district for prostitution (Dictionary of Canadian Biography).
“Segregation does not segregate and regulation does not regulate," he thundered at the Winnipeg Theatre meeting. “It is inevitable that segregated areas become nests of crime.”
Under the headline, Monster Mass Meeting in Moral Crusade, the Manitoba Free Press reported on November 17 that the meeting of the “anti-social-evil movement” was chaired by Robert Thomas Riley, a founder of a number of financial and insurance companies in Winnipeg, including the Great-West Assurance Company, who outlined the history of the “houses of ill-fame” on Thomas Street.
Twenty years earlier, a number of brothels had been located about a kilometre outside the city’s centre along Portage Avenue. But as people moved westward, they “found these places objectionable, and demanded action by the police commissioner and others.”
Alarmed by the public outcry against their establishments, the brothel owners hired attorneys who consulted with city officials. A bargain was then reached “or a tacit understanding arrived at that the houses should be removed to a locality where they would be entirely alone, and there the occupants were not to be interfered with so long as they conducted what were called ‘respectable houses,’ committed no crime, and gave assistance to the police in searching for criminals.”
Another provision agreed upon was that the prostitutes were not to venture into the centre of the city. 
Gibson ran afoul of this provision when she visited a downtown restaurant with two other women — Minnie Olson and Flossie Brown — from her “resort of questionable character on Thomas Street,” who imbibed too freely and “became rather indiscrete” (Free Press, June 11, 1898).
When they appeared before the police court magistrate, Olson and Brown each received a $20 fine, while Gibson was fined $40.
It was alleged by Riley that the agreement with the madams of the brothels was reached with the chief of police, the police commissioners and “the best citizens” of Winnipeg. Of course, there were no minutes taken during the negotiations, nor would anyone involved publicly admit to being a party to the meetings.
“They (the madams) went out about a mile and built houses, and from that time we have had the Thomas Street colony, which has grown until there are ten or twelve houses,” explained Riley.
He alleged that about 75 occupants of the brothels were from the United States, and that the owners of the establishments, besides having sex for sale, were also making hefty profits by peddling liquor to patrons of the bawdy houses.
Riley urged that the mayor, acting in his role as chief magistrate, to tell the police to do their duty and enforce the law. The mayor at the time was John Arbuthnot, who chaired the police commission, so he had the authority in conjunction with the other members of the commission to force the hand of Police Chief John C. McRae. Unfortunately for the citizens’ committee on social reform, McRae favoured the continuance of the “segregated districts,” and was a very reluctant participant in any police action against the brothel owners.
Rev. DuVal told the audience about a series of correspondence over an 18-month period between the ministerial association and the police commissioners. After receiving an October 13, 1902, letter from the ministerial association, the police commissioners replied that “direction had been given to the police force to exercise their best endeavors to lessen the vice, but they were unable to devise any means by which in their opinion, the eradicating of the vice altogether could be accomplished.”
According to the ministers, they had not asked that the vice be eradicated, but that the police do away with the openly public exhibition of the vice.
The ministerial association had received a November 17, 1902, petition containing the names of 1,000 men and 625 “mothers and daughters,” acting on their own initiative, to press the case for intervention by the police which was forwarded to the police commission.
After repeatedly sending requests for a meeting between the ministerial association and the police commission and receiving no reply, the association issued an ultimatum on October 19 that if no reply was received within two weeks, “the committee would take what further action they deemed wise.”
When they received a reply that the mayor, who chaired the commission, would be absent during that period, negating the possibility of a meeting, DuVal said the decision was reached to hold the mass meeting and appeal directly to the people for their support.
Rev. W.C. Vincent told the men attending the mass meeting that pastors had continually witnessed “fine young men and women from the east ..., tracing their fall subsequently through evil associations, drink and the social evil.
“He recalled an interview with the city council the members of which thought that segregation would confine the evil to the western houses. It was his business to tell them that the rest of the city was not free; he told of rooms kept in hotels, of houses on many streets in the heart of the city, of rooms in which the vile pictures were kept, of the vice at River Park.
“For this he was threatened with prosecution (by the River Park manager), but he promised, if brought before the court, to tell a great deal more, and the manager admitted that he had closed the dancing, because at the last dance there was not a decent woman on the floor. After having gone to the police commissioners he had learned the meaning of the word ‘bluff.’”
A Mr. Gaze told the audience at the mass meeting that he had lived on Thomas Street for 16 years and for 13 of those years had been “under the curse” imposed upon him by the police commissioners.
Years earlier, Gaze had purchased three lots on Nellie Street and built a home for $1,500. Once he was comfortably established in the neighbourhood, the “colony” was moved from Portage Avenue to Nellie Street, “and placed right in front of him.”  
Gaze’s appeals to the police commission went unheard, so he bought 12 lots on Thomas Street and moved there. Then Gaze tried to sell his property on Nellie Street, but he could find no takers. As a last resort, he tried to rent his house, but couldn’t find anyone willing to lease the property.
Children played in his vacant house on Nellie Street and accidently burned it down. The city subsequently took over his properties for tax arrears. Gaze refused to pay his taxes, since he felt the city’s assessment overvalued the lots since they were next to brothels and his house had been destroyed by flames.
When he returned from a trip to Brandon, Gaze found a brothel had been established six feet from his fence on Thomas Street. He complained to police commissioner Judge William Davis Ardagh (1828-1893), who told Gaze that he felt sorry for him, but the brothel had been located on the street by the recommendation of the police chief, who claimed there was not another residence within 800 yards.
It was Gaze’s belief that McRae had lied to the commissioner, but under the present circumstances there appeared to be nothing that he could do to reverse the decision to locate the brothel next to his home. His only option seemed to be another move, but he had invested too heavily in his Thomas Street properties so he didn’t have the funds needed to relocate to another neighbourhood.
Gaze said his property was continually intruded upon by drunken individuals who were patrons of the brothel and that his fences had been broken by these home invaders. In addition, his wife was isolated in their home since no one was willing to visit her as long as the couple lived adjacent to the brothel.
A. Congdon, a school trustee, said that children were in the constant presence of vice, since two large schools and a smaller school were a short distant from the brothels on Thomas Street.
According to Dr. Kirkpatrick of the Manitoba College, “side by side with schools and colleges are institutions of evil, protected under the aegis of the city, undoing that which the colleges were attempting to accomplish ...
“We all shared in the pride and honor of the city, and we also shared in her shame, and it is our responsibility, right and duty to rise and declare that this thing shall not be; we shall have this blot wiped out.”
Rev. Charles William Gordon, who wrote popular books under the penname Ralph Connor, proposed a resolution calling for “those officials entrusted with the laws that deal with public morality” to “rigorously and impartially enforce those laws.”
The intent of the resolution was to have the police commissioner remove the “houses of ill-fame” from Thomas Street.
To emphasize that the people intended to steadfastly pursue enforcement of vice laws by the proper authorities, the resolution contained the threat to support only those candidates in the upcoming civic election who took a position favouring a clamp down on the social evil perpetrated on Thomas Street.
Speaking on the resolution, Thomas Ryan said that from 1885 to 1889, when he was an alderman (councillor) and then mayor in the last year mentioned, a few members of city council had attempted to curb vice in Winnipeg, but found that the “government, police commissioners and police were against them and they could do nothing.”
Since then, Ryan said the public had been educated on the evils of vice to the point that official indifference or apathy could no longer be tolerated.
The resolution was unanimously passed during the mass meeting.
At a council meeting on the same evening of the meeting at the Winnipeg Theatre, Aldermen John Wells and John Wesley Cockburn proposed a motion that essentially reflected the mass meeting’s resolution. The motion mentioned the ministerial association’s efforts to end social vice and demanded that the police commissioners “immediately” carry “out the law particularly referring to the illegal resorts on Thomas Street.”
A furor erupted in the council chambers, with the majority expressing indignation that the two alderman had brought the motion forward in the first place. calling it an intrusion on the council’s authority.
“The ministerial association is not running the city,” was the mayor’s reply to the motion.
“The proceedings of this council should not be influenced by movement organized by any one class in the city,” said Alderman John Russell, the chair of the finance committee. “I cannot conceive of a viler crime than a man in a pulpit to direct young men where to go to commit a crime with protection of the police and city. Why do they persecute the fallen women who must suffer in their debased position while men who frequent the places are let off without a word.
“Devils in hell couldn’t persecute these women worse than these men, who, instead of visiting them, providing relief and showing them the error of their ways as they should do, cry out to drive them away or drive them to a suicide’s grave.
“Punish the men. The women were dragged into their filthy trade by disreputable men (today they would be termed ‘pimps’) and why should we trample them under foot and let the men, the real criminals, walk our streets under the false colors of honorable citizens.”
Mayor Arbuthnot asserted that it was up to the police commission to address the matter in order to maintain its independence from political interference. Such motions were not worth the paper they were written on, he further commented.
Russell said the police commission was made up of two alderman who at one time were opposed to the brothels, the police magistrate, a judge of the county court and the mayor, who were assisted by the advice of the advice offered by the police chief.
“With such a board as that,” Russell continued, “composed of honest men and none of them being given to dissipation, and when they are unanimous in following out a policy I feel inclined to pay a great deal of attention to their decision.”
(Next week: part 2)