In 1793, a 21-year-old Scottish merchant by the name of Alexander Wood crossed the Atlantic to make his fortune in the new colony of Upper Canada. He settled first in the town of Kingston, which was then Upper Canada’s major city. There he helped found a brewery.
He picked up shop and moved to the town of York – the future Toronto, but then just a cluster of wooden buildings in a clearing of the trees that bordered Lake Ontario. Wood had spotted a good business opportunity. York was small, but was well-situated along trade routes, and was rapidly filling up with immigrants.
The Scottish merchant opened an import/export business and a retail store. His store sold the things he’d imported from Britain – little necessities unavailable in Canada, and luxury items like tea and tobacco, ribbons and powdered wigs for men. Meanwhile, he exported the things Canada produced, such as flour.
Upper Canada at that time was run by a group of interwoven families known to their enemies as “the Family Compact” (“compact” meant essentially “conspiracy”). This group of monarchical Anglicans was very suspicious of anyone in that vulgar profession of trading and selling goods. Yet, Wood managed to charm his way into their inner circle in spite of their prejudices.
He became close friends with several of the Compact’s members, including William Dummer Powell and George Crookshank. He also became penpals with the the Family Compact’s unofficial leader, the Anglican Bishop John Strachan. Strachan said about Wood, “Our sentiments [opinions] agree almost upon everything.”
History does not record Bishop Strachan’s “sentiments” on attractive young men. Alexander Wood, however, quite liked them.
Wood’s close ties with the Family Compact and his community service with many volunteer organizations had won him a number of plum positions that raised his prestige (and filled his bank account). He became a lieutenant in the militia, a magistrate, and a commissioner for the Court of Requests (a kind of small-claims court), all while maintaining his import/export business and his store.
Then in 1810, a strange rumour started going around about this well-respected citizen. It was said throughout York that Wood had called in several young men, one by one, and told each that he had been accused of rape by a “Miss Bailey.”
“Miss Bailey” had apparently claimed to have scratched her attacker’s private parts, and now – Wood told each of these men – that in order to prove their innocence, they would have to take off their pants and submit to (as The Dictionary of Canadian Biography delicately puts it) an “intimate physical examination.”
One member of the Family Compact, fellow judge John Beverley Robinson, called Wood “the Inspector General of private Accounts,” a name that was apparently shouted at Wood in the streets. People began avoiding his store.
It’s become increasingly fashionable to claim that the rumours were made up by Wood’s enemies. Between homophobes on one side who’ve tried to erase homosexuality from Canadian history, and gay activists on the other who’ve tried to turn Wood into some kind of hero, Wood has been portrayed as a victim of a whisper campaign. Yet he himself admitted the truth of the rumours.
Wood’s close friend — the very uptight Judge William Dummer Powell — confronted him with the accusations, and Wood confessed: “I have laid myself open to ridicule & malevolence, which I know not how to meet; that the thing will be made the subject of mirth and a handle to my enemies for a sneer I have every reason to expect.”
If Wood was expecting remorse to win over Powell, he was sadly mistaken. Technically, fondling another man wasn’t “sodomy,” and thus wasn’t illegal – and wouldn’t be illegal until the “gross indecency” laws would be passed in 1890 – but abusing his power as a judge was a crime. In order to avoid a public scandal, Judge Powell had the evidence buried, on the promise that Wood leave Upper Canada and never return. Wood left his shop in the hands of his clerk, and set sail for Scotland on October 17, 1810.
In 1812, the United States – seeing that Britain was busy fighting Napoleon – seized the opportunity to invade Canada. Under the cover of this war, Wood slipped quietly back into the province. He took up his old posts as a judge and an officer of the militia, and went to war defending the British Empire from the Americans.
Perhaps it was because he had proved his loyalty and integrity in combat that the town of York decided to quietly look the other way. They forgave, yet didn’t actually forget. The nickname “Molly Wood” stuck — “molly” having been an 18th-Century word homosexuals had used for themselves that had mutated into an insult.
He went back to his old jobs, and resumed his friendship with powerful Family Compact members like Bishop Strachan and George Crookshank. One who wasn’t ready to ignore Wood’s past, however, was William Dummer Powell. Judge Powell had gone from being one of Wood’s closest friends and allies to being his most bitter archenemy.
After the War, Wood was one of the people doing damage assessment from the American invasion. After a few years of doing this, he inherited an estate in Scotland, went back, but couldn’t stay away from Canada. He returned in 1821, and stayed for 21 of his last 23 years. He closed his shop – it had never fully recovered from the scandal – and acted instead as an agent for absentee landlords.
When he was named to a war claims commission in 1823, Judge Powell – now chief justice of the Supreme Court – refused to swear him in. Wood sued for damages, and won – the court ordered Powell to pay £150.
Powell refused to pay, and instead published a pamphlet in 1831, detailing the whole scandal from 21 years before – but it was nothing the town of York didn’t already know.
In any event, it seemed that Powell lost the war of public opinion. Wood was on the committee of pretty much every charity and community service group, and on a number of government commissions. When Powell died, Wood forgave the debt, which had passed to his widow.
In 1826 Wood bought a lot of land in what’s now downtown Toronto. In an age when every patch of trees was seen as a blank spot on which to build stuff, and cities weren’t big on green space, “Molly Wood’s Bush” went undeveloped until the 1850s. Its association with homosexuality had never gone away, and never would.
Whether Wood’s reputation had drawn the homosexuals, or the homosexuals already there caused the reputation, no one will know for sure. But a gay neighbourhood gradually sprang up around Wood’s old property. Today it has become the Church and Wellesley area, Canada’s largest and oldest gay village.
Wood was also exchanging letters with the other infamous homosexual of his age, George Herchmer Markland. According to Del Newbigging — a researcher and the artist who created Wood’s statue —
”Correspondence between Wood and Markland suggests that they knew of each other’s sexual proclivities. This is one of the few bits of evidence to suggest that some sort of network might have existed in the early years of York.”
Wood returned to his native country a couple of years before he died, and passed away at the age of 72 not far from his birthplace in Fetteresso, Scotland. He’d never married – very strange for a man of his class at that time – and died without a will. His estate (after a long legal battle) passed to a distant cousin he’d probably never heard of.
Hurrays for Molly Wood
“Molly Wood’s Bush” is commemorated by three streets named for its founder – Wood Street, Alexander Street, and Alexander Place. Long before the legalization of homosexuality in Canada, a network of bathhouses and bars had mushroomed in the area, and it had a reputation of being a place for men who (like Wood) were “not of the marrying kind.”
Wood has been catapulted back into the public spotlight, particularly with the unveiling of Del Newbigging’s statue in Toronto’s gay neighbourhood. There’s been a backlash from a few people – I’ve heard complaints that we shouldn’t be holding up Wood as a role model because he was a less-than-decent figure. Some, it seems, would have him sent back into the shadows of history.
Still, even if our age can’t come to admire him because of a single gross mistake he made in the middle of his life, his own deeply homophobic era did. After he had died, Alexander Wood was called “one of Canada’s most respected inhabitants” by the British Colonist. The story of his friend and fellow homosexual, George Herchmer Markland, is much more tragic however. We’ll get to his story next instalment.
The approximate future location of Molly Wood’s Bush, marked on an 1813 ordinance map. The current Church and Wellesley intersection is marked with an asterisk.
Sources: I found it very hard to find primary sources on Wood, or at least sources detailing his personal life (his many contributions to committees and government commissions can be found all over easily-accessible government records on Early Canadiana Online). I’ve been unable to get a hold of his personal correspondence, for instance. Thus I’ve relied mostly on the two best-respected sources now available – The Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry for Wood and the people in his life, and Del Newbigging’s brief biography of him in Xtra.ca. I’ve augmented this with bits and pieces found in government journals, especially the journals of the legislative assembly, where Wood’s name appears frequently attached to war claims commissions after 1812.