Study the history of gay and bisexual men long enough, and sooner or later you will have to broach the topic of cruising grounds.
It’s something of an uncomfortable topic for many gay men these days, but beginning at some point in the middle ages, every city of any real size in the West gives rise to a public area – very often a park or forest – where men met men for anonymous sexual encounters.
This formula does not seem to universal to all societies, or even necessarily exists in the West’s ancient past. Ancient Greece and Rome had their gyms and bath houses where men met men to flirt and even have sex, but the anonymity – the silence – of the cruising grounds was something different altogether. Part of the advantage of these areas was that the men knew nothing about one another. Each put the other at minimal risk.
It’s no accident that most gay neighbourhoods arise close to cruising grounds, and that the cruising grounds usually come first. There seems to be a kind of organic process that can be observed in Western cities, in which the cruising ground produces the gay community around it.
It’s not difficult to imagine why. Men who use cruising grounds sometimes move close to it, especially for those men for whom it becomes a major part of their lives. Those men can invite men into their homes instead of staying at the park, where conversation is possible as well as sex. They will frequent business nearby, and may even own them. They will become familiar with the other regulars of the park.
This inevitably creates informal networks and connections outside of the cruising ground, which in turn leads to the sharing of experiences, the creation of art, and the development of shared political and cultural views and values. Eventually the neighbourhood develops a reputation, which attracts gay and bisexual men who would not have joined the cruising scene given a choice. Luckily for them, an alternative then exists.
Still, this crystallization of a community on the edge of a cruising ground can only happen if the larger society around it is willing to grant at least a grudging tolerance – or if not tolerance, then to not consider its destruction a priority. Such a community will not form so long as the police and the neighbours are committed to its extermination.
And when a society decides to withdraw a permission it had previously granted – to make breaking that community a priority again – then the community will usually break or be forced to move. This happened to the British “Molly Houses” in the eighteenth century, and to Montreal’s twin gay districts in the 1970s.
Cruising grounds are harder to destroy. They have no institutions to target, no central figures to get at. They have to be attacked one man at a time. A concerted, constant effort will force them to change locations, but they will simply spring up in another park or public washroom. They are the lowest common denominator of a gay community, emanating from a simple mathematics of population. They are merely the result of gay and bisexual men having nowhere else to go.
Legend has it that “Molly Wood’s Bush” was used in Toronto since the 1830s, but the earliest solid corroborating evidence for a cruising ground exists for the Champ-de-Mars beginning in 1869, a three-block stretch of park in Montreal behind its decorative city hall and its silver-domed law court.
“Champ de Mars” (“Field of the God of War”) is an old French military term for a place where troops were trained and put on display. The original one for Montreal was located outside the city wall. After the British conquered Montreal and the wall was torn down, the park behind city hall was renamed in its honour.
In 1869, most of the island of Montreal was still farmland, but the section of city close to what we now call Old Montreal was heavily urban, cramped, and overpopulated. At some point before June of 1869, men from the rapidly growing city began frequenting the little patch of green space to cruise for sex. It was inevitable that sooner or later, they would attract the notice of the police.
Moïse Tellier’s Cake and Apples Shop
On any short article of LGBT history in Quebec or Canada sooner or later you’ll inevitably reach a curious reference to Moïse Tellier’s cake and apples shop. The version most often published is that the shop was a supposed notorious hangout for homosexual men in Montreal, raided by the police in 1869.
Hardly any of these lists go into any significant detail of the event, and none put it into any context. Indeed, there is enough evidence to suggest that the version almost universally given is wrong.
Almost everything we know about the shop and the raid comes from a single newspaper article in the long-defunct Montreal Star newspaper, in their June 8, 1869 edition:
Yesterday morning, an old man of 60 named Moise Tellier was brought before was brought before the Recorder charged with indecent assault on a Constable. Tellier lives at 477 Craig Street, the same premises occupied by James Butler of the Britannia Saloon, Dr. Perrault and several other respectable citizens. Tellier’s business is nominally to keep a small shop for apples, cakes and similar trifles. But the business is only a cloak for the commission of crimes that rival Sodom and Gomorrah. A house of prostitution were indeed decent compared to this den. It has been watched for sometime past by the police, and we regret, for the credit of our city and humanity, to say that several respectable citizens have been found frequenting it and evidently practising abominations.
The police apparently set up a sting operation, and one complicated by Moise Tellier’s connections:
A special policeman was sent there, and after a brief acquaintanceship, Tellier made ouvertures to him of a nature too abominable to be described. The policeman knocked him down and brought him to the station. We are sorry to say that Mr. Bourgouine was found to defend him. It appears that Mr. Bourgouine is counsel for the revenue department, that a son of Tellier’s is a whisky detective, and that most of the expeditions [police raids] against shebeens [unlicensed bars] are organized at Tellier’s house – certainly a respectable rendezvous. The miserable wretch fell on his knees and implore pardon of the court, withdrew his plea of not guilty, and threw himself on the mercy of the Recorder [Municipal Court Judge], promising to quit the practice and leave the place. The Recorder said he regretted he could not send him to the penitentiary. The law provided no imprisonment, but he would fine him $20, the highest prescribed amount.
The trial was mentioned in a blurb in the major French-language daily La Minerve the same day, but that newspaper went into no details other than to state the name of the accused, the crime he was convicted of, and the the fine. No other newspaper saw fit to mention it, and while some papers (such as The Montreal Herald) only published a small selection of local crime news, in others it is conspicuously absent. Both The Montreal Witness (a Protestant religious paper) and the L’Ordre (a Catholic religious paper) both routinely reported on local crime, but excluded Moïse Tellier’s arrest.
(This is especially glaring in the case of The Witness, which reported on prostitution, murder, theft, beatings, public drunkenness, and countless other crimes, but would apparently not report on homosexuality.)
The story is presented in modern lists of the gay history of Montreal as the first gay bar or secret club. It tends to be described variously as some kind of early speakeasy, and Tellier as some kind of patron and centre of an early gay community. I’ve seen it called North America’s first gay bar.
Yet it seems as though no one has ever previously made a serious effort to research Moïse Tellier and his life. There is enough information to sketch out some aspects of the man and his store, but what we know raises more questions than it answers.
The article in The Star, unsurprisingly, got his age wrong. At the time of the trial, Tellier was 53 years old. Eight years before he had moved to the address on Craig Street, we get a glimpse of his life in the 1861 census. He had lived on Sanguinet Street nearby, in a two-storey brick building with a wife, an elderly, never-married Cyrill Tellier, and six children – Georginie, Joseph, Josephine, Narcisse, Louise, and Philomine.
As for the son who was on the police force – assuming that that was not another mistake on the part of The Star – only Joseph could conceivably be old enough in 1869. It is possible Tellier had another adult son who was not living with him, but there are no police detectives named Tellier listed with the city police force in 1869 or 1870.
His wife’s name is completely illegible due to the enumerator’s poor handwriting and the condition of the document, but a Canadian government archivist’s best guess of “Emilie” seems plausible. There is a “D” in front of her name. Tellier is listed as “widowed” and “married.” The census at the time included the recently deceased along with some kind of indication of their status, and the “D” most likely stands for “défunt” – dead.
(The archivist who transcribed that page of the census interpreted the “D” before her name as “Dr.,” though this is six years before Emily Stowe became famous as the first woman to practise medicine in Canada. That is only one of many reasons why this is highly unlikely.)
The family moved almost every year, though there is nothing out of the ordinary for the time – nineteenth century Montrealers were very nomadic. There is no record of them before 1854, but given the poor record-keeping of the time and the many records destroyed by accident and violence, this is not surprising. It is also possible the family came out of rural Quebec before 1854, as so many had.
We have absolutely no idea how Tellier saw his own sexuality. The words “homosexual” and “bisexual” did not exist in English at this point. Contrary to what some historians believe, men did wrestle with what their sexuality meant, did form identities around it, did reach conclusions about the origin of their desires, and did categorize themselves and others before the words we use existed; but the authorities were completely uninterested in such things. They rarely recorded these identities, or if they did it was done to illustrate how unrepentant these men were.
So if Moïse Tellier had reached any conclusions about his own sexuality, we will never know it.
If the Moïse Tellier who moved into the storefront on Craig Street sometime in 1868 or 1869 looks nothing like gay community leader he’s sometimes made out to be, the idea that his store was some kind of secret gay bar or speakeasy seems just as unlikely. The shop was a small storefront crammed in beside a bar and a doctor’s office, and pressed up against a much larger house where a single family was apparently running a law office and a dental practice out of their home.
The fruit shop (as it is generally listed in guides) was narrow, and probably not long. It was brick, and in the one surviving photo that includes it, it looks to be only two storeys. At least five of Moise Tellier’s children lived with him, probably in living quarters on the second floor. It was small, humble even, and most likely very crowded.
As for what happened in June 8th, the facts generally agreed upon are that a) something of a homosexual nature was going on, b) Tellier was involved and implied to be for some time, and c) on June 8th he had sexually propositioned a constable. Tellier offered a not-particularly-sincere plea that he would repent and change his ways, and the judge was not convinced.
What was going on in the shop? Most of the assumptions about it are based on The Star’s ludicrous language that it was the site of “the commission of crimes that rival Sodom and Gomorrah” and that “A house of prostitution were indeed decent compared to this den.” Also, there was the accusation that prominent citizens were visiting it.
Leaving aside The Star‘s unreliability – in their effort to fulminate, they forgot to fact-check such basic details as Tellier’s age – I think what most people who’ve looked at the Tellier case have failed to grasp is that the kind of language that the paper used was simply how newspapers at the time talked about homosexuality (when they deigned to talk about it at all).
So The Star would have used the same language whether Tellier was hosting all-male orgies, or if he was one half of a discreet, monogamous gay couple.
As if to hit this point home, reporting three days later on a man named Joseph Gagnon who was bringing soldiers home with him for sex, they said he was “quite a match for Tellier.” This would be a strange comparison if Tellier was running a secret club while Gagnon was just bringing men back to his place.
By far the most likely possibility is that the widowed father of at least six was quietly taking men home from the Champ-de-Mars cruising ground across the street, most likely at night when his shop was closed and his children were asleep. Any “prominent citizens” frequenting it would have likely been his partners, though it’s not impossible he let others use his back room.
Anything more than this would have been pretty much impossible, given the homophobia of the times and the nature of the space he lived in. As disappointing as it might sound, Tellier was most likely just using his shop as a safer and warmer alternative to having sex in the Champ-de-Mars park, which was already being noticed by the police and by that new phenomenon – attested to in newspapers for the first time a month after the Tellier trial – the gaybasher.
There is one last mystery with regards to Tellier, and that is we don’t know what he was actually convicted of. Both The Star and Le Minerve claimed it was “indecent assault,” and Tellier admitted to homosexual acts.
But the judge lamented that he could only sentence he could give Tellier was a $20 fine, and there has never been a point in the history of Canada when same-sex sexual assault was so lightly punished.
To be fair, it was a confusing time in Canadian law. A new, consolidated criminal code was coming into effect the month after Tellier’s trial. But the original law had provided the death penalty for same-sex sexual assault (or attempted assault). The new law specified that any man convicted of “indecent assault” against another male was “liable to be imprisoned in the Penitentiary for any term not exceeding ten years, and not less than two years,” or a sentence up to two years in an ordinary jail.
The Recorder’s Court, ironically, kept very poor records, but what we do have seems to concur that Tellier was not charged with “indecent assault” – there was no such crime before the court that year, and no such crime remanded to the higher court of the Quarter Sessions.
All we have is a tally of each crime committed, and he was most likely one of the 86 people charged with the “assault or resist [of] any Officer” statute in the city bylaws, which was so broadly defined as to give the arresting officer wide powers. Given how specific “attempted sodomy” was in its definition, it was probably all they could have charged Tellier with.
Twenty dollars was worth a lot more in 1869, but the law said that the penalty should have been far worse. It would have been an appropriate penalty for “assault or resist” though.
The Guards at the Gate
I began this article by reflecting on the relationship of cruising grounds to the large community. The cruising ground is not just a steam-release valve for gay and bisexual men in a homophobic culture – from a social history perspective, it’s a larger community in embryo.
For a cruising ground to grow into a complex community, the rest of the world has to be willing to leave it alone. If the larger, homophobic culture perpetually polices the borders places like the Champ-de-Mars (or Molly Wood’s Bush, or Stanley Park) and harasses the men that use it, the seed it represents will never germinate.
The reason Moïse Tellier’s supposed gay bar has achieved a kind of mythic status without any real evidence that it existed is simply because people want it to be true. LGBT folk want to believe that someone carved out a space for themselves in a world that so viciously hostile. Montrealers want to believe that their city has always been a place where anything goes. Canadians want to believe that the country is more tolerant and compassionate than its neighbours, and always has been.
The reality is a lot more ugly. As short as Canada falls from its own ideals today, the late 19th and early 20th century was an especially intolerant age. Montreal was no exception to the rule, and in the 1860s violent religious bigotry was especially on display here. The Canadian Illustrated News opened its first issue of the year 1869 with a picture of churches burning in Montreal. Catholics and Protestants murdered one another in street riots.
And the competition between Catholics and Protestants had the side effect of spurring both on toward greater heights of moralism and fanaticism. Compared with Britain’s much more relaxed attitude toward religion and post-Revolutionary France’s anti-clericalism, Canada was medieval in its approach to the various branches of the Christian religion and the absolutism with which it applied them.
It is important to see Tellier’s arrest in this context. Since the days of the first European colonies, things had never been good for LGBT people here. Now society was rapidly becoming more racist, more fundamentalist, more bigoted – and more convinced that it had to root out corruption of any kind.
To see it another way, the Montreal police force was only five years old, had only a handful of officers, and had to police a city of more than a 100,000 people that was rapidly growing. They were underfunded, underpaid, and stretched thin. If they set up a sting operation, made two arrests, and almost made a third of men cruising the Champs-de-Mars in a single month (and they did) it was because they considered targeting the park a serious priority for their scant resources.
The Champs-de-Mars was frequented for at least a decade and a half, if a La Presse article from 1883 is any indication. It is telling that it never produced a gay neighbourhood around it. At some point the cruising grounds moved to the much larger Mont-Royal park, where a series of trails had been built in the 1870s, and where it was easier for men to meet each other without attracting police attention.
When Montreal finally got its gay neighbourhoods – two parallel ones, in fact – it is not at all surprising that one was at the foot of the mountain. The other was in a “tolerance zone” where the police avoided making arrests for vice crimes so that they could keep all that “vice” in one place.
That’s a story for another day. Before we move on to other topics though I would like to take a further look at the persecutions of 1869, to the case of Joseph Gagnon and at the beginning of gaybashing in Montreal.
Sources: My first sources were the series of Montreal Star articles – dated June 8th, June 11th, and July 17th, 1869. I checked a half-dozen other newspapers, but only Le Minerve even mentioned the Tellier case. I used the census for the years of 1861 and 1871, and Lovell’s directories over a period of 20 years – there only seemed to have been one person by Tellier’s name in the city at the time. I checked detailed city plans of the house. There were the usual sources – legal codes for the era. I used Starke’s Pocket Almanac for 1869 and 1870 for details about the police, as well as Constabulary: The Rise of Police Institutions in Britain by Hereward Senior. I hunted through archival photos and maps for details on the house itself, but only one photo included even a corner of the building. The block where the building was has been demolished to make way for the Ville-Marie Expressway, though in a photo from 1927, it appears that a factory-like building had already replaced it.