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Archive for July, 2008

Toward the end of the 19th Century, the traditional silence of the Canadian media on the subject of homosexuality began to crack. The media had previously maintained a constant state of denial around homosexuality – claiming that it did not exist in Canada, at least not among Europeans, when it was mentioned at all. Gradually, though, newspapers began to cover sodomy and gross indecency trials.

Trials for sodomy had been mentioned in passing as far back as 1841, but only in a few newspapers. Details other than names and sentences were rare, though, and buried in among long columns reporting other trials. Most newspapers did not report them at all.

The first sodomy trial I’ve found in-depth coverage for was that of Francis J. Widdows, a Franciscan monk whose sodomy trial helped fuel anti-Catholic sentiments in a religion-divided Canada. It’s one of two of what I call “celebrity trials” for homosexuality covered by Canadian papers of the period. The other one – that of Oscar Wilde – received very different coverage.

The Queen versus Francis J. Widdows

The first arrival of Widdows on the public stage was in the pages of a newspaper called The Irish Canadian, though he is never mentioned by name. The Irish Canadian was a staunchly Catholic newspaper, and was possibly hoping to avoid the wave of anti-Catholic feelings the coming trial was likely to provoke:

We deem it our duty to put all men and lads, especially of the Christian Associations, on their guard against a corrupt monster, who takes a diabolical pleasure in singling out, and destroying the modest instincts of youth. This scoundrel is 26 years of age, hails from England, has dark hair and beard, shaven, and very black eye-brows meeting heavily over his nose, wears half a clerical suit. His height is about 5 feet 6 inches; he haunts theatres and other places of amusement where he singles out his prey, and the pursues it. When he tries to smile a certain strange and fearful grin distorts his face. He is such a figure as one would be supposed to meet in a back lane of Sodom and Gomorrah.

We feel bound to protect our youth and pursue this incarnate demon of impurity. We beg of our contemporaries to pass around, that all may be warned against this wretch. He has been for some time around Perth, and has lately turned up in Toronto where his hypocrisy and iniquity have been discovered. He pretends the convert, now from Catholicity and again from Protestantism. There is a warrant out for his arrest.

Given the tone – this demon cloaked in human flesh, haunting theatres and devouring the young – one might expect the article to be discussing a paedophile who’d attacked a string of little boys. Actually, the warrant brought the monk up on charges of gay sex with another adult in the crypt of a church, and it was most likely not a case of rape.

The The Globe (now The Globe & Mail) has the only complete coverage I’ve been able to find of the trial. It is one of our few looks at gay life in Canada prior to the 1890s. Widdows was being charged with have had “sodomy” with a man named James Rodgers, who was also at the monastery.

Their relationship had begun with a conversation about England. At some point in the trial, Rodgers admitted that it was he who first propositioned Widdows, saying, “I would like to have you in my bedroom.” Widdows said he would like that, too. Under cross-examination – Widdows represented himself – Rodgers admitted that he’d had sex with men “on many occasions both in England and Canada.” Widdows, meanwhile, was probably younger, and this seemed to have been his first time.

They had sex in the crypt of the church. Rodgers clearly must have felt guilty immediately after, because Widdows told him he would be “a fool to confess anything of that kind to the priest, as it was no harm.”

Rodgers went to the priest anyway. Widdows suggested Rodgers had been threatened into coming forward, but Rodgers said, “I was told only that it ought to be done.” Widdows then claimed that his views on the Fenians made him unpopular in his church, and that the charges had been fabricated to get rid of him.

The judge didn’t buy it. Widdows was convicted of, as the judge put it, “an outrage on humanity so repulsive and abominable, that in the language of the indictment, it was not fit to be named by Christian people.” Rodgers got off with a warning – probably because he had come forward – but Widdows got “five months’ imprisonment in the common gaol, with hard labour.”

If Widdows was a victim in this first case, he becomes an increasingly less sympathetic figure as his story continues, even to modern eyes. His conviction began Widdows’ very public crusade against the Catholic Church. Still claiming that the charges had been fabricated, he launched a lecture tour, claiming to reveal the dark secrets of the church from an insider’s perspective. In Toronto in 1881, he called his speech “Monkish Impostures, Ancient and Modern.”

This was the same period that had produced the memoires of Maria Monk, full of lurid (and false) accusations of seminaries linked to convents by secret tunnels, and of graveyards full of nuns’ babies. It was also a time in which men died in riots between Catholics and Orangemen. Not surprisingly, Widdows’ lectures were as popular then as the Da Vinci Code has been in more recent years. In Ingersoll, Ontario, alone in 1878, he packed the town hall to its capacity at 150 people.

In 1877 – in a Protestant church Dundas, Ontario – Widdows had not yet begun his lecture when a group of young men hurled rocks through the windows. One nearly hit Widdows, but he went on with his speech anyway, in spite of heckling and shouted reminders of his time in prison from his attackers. The Dundas Banner, one of the three papers to carry this story, seemed more upset that his fans might encourage “his endeavour to stir up religious strife and discord,” than that his enemies had assaulted him.

By 1885, Widdows had fled the country for New Orleans, prompting The Toronto World to say “Widdows is of many nationalities.”

In 1888, Widdows was charged again, this time in Scotland. The papers are vague about the specifics of the crime, but Widdows seems to have played a secondary role and was only convicted of a misdemeanour. His friend received a life sentence for something non-consensual he’d done with a young man, but Widdows only got ten years in prison. He turns up in 1898 in Cardiff, Wales, again preaching on the anti-Catholic circuit, prompting a paper named The Victoria Nation to say “there is enough vileness in Widdows’ corrupt composition to pervert the morals of the whole British Empire and provoke the Lord to rain brimstone and fire on the offending city of Cardiff.”

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde appeared in Canadian newspapers before his trial quite frequently. He was considered a trendsetter of the British Empire, and newspapers reported his wardrobe around the globe.

When Wilde went up on trial for gross indecency in London, however, it wasn’t mentioned in most Canadian papers. A notable exception was The Globe, which devoted a great number of front-page columns in the trial – beginning on April 24, 1895, when Wilde was called before the court. The paper mentioned that the writer was expected to “plead guilty to one offence.” On May 2, it announced that the jury was hung. On May 20, it announced a new trial. Two years later, as Wilde’s sentence was coming to a close, it published an interview with him, and an open letter by Wilde decrying abuse of children in the prison where he’d been confined.

The reporting in these articles is meticulous for the most part. However there is one small detail missing — The Globe never once mentioned what Oscar Wilde was charged with. Not is only is the phrase “gross indecency” absent, but so are the usual euphemisms like “unnatural offence” and “abominable crime.” To anyone outside of the reach of London gossip, it would be impossible to determine what Wilde was convicted of.

Only once did The Globe come close to admitting the nature of the trial. Reviewing five published poems by Wilde’s boyfriend Lord Alfred Douglas (whom the paper describes as “his friend”), it notes that in the poems “Lord Alfred Douglas calls for ‘his love’ to return to him.” It then publishes a poem by Douglas wishing death upon his father (the man who got Wilde charged).

Though Wilde’s trial was only covered by one English-language paper, the phrase “the Oscar Wilde type” – meaning homosexual – would begin to make its appearance in newspapers and other media. These began to report local cases with increasing frequency. With the trials of Widdows and Wilde, the silence had ended in Canadian media, and a public moral crusade had begun.

In our next instalment, we’ll look at the instigators at that moral moral crusade, the Social Purity movement.


Sources: All my sources this month are newspapers. My best source for both trials is The Globe. The Widdows trial is covered in July 24 1875, while information on Wilde can be found on a number of dates in 1895 (April 24, May 2, May 20, and June 26) and 1897 (March 8, march 18, May 21, May 31, and December 6). Lord Alfred Douglas is mentioned on June 9 1896 and December 1 1899 as chief mourner at Wilde’s funeral. For the Widdows trial, I also used The Irish Canadian June 9 1875, The Perth Courier May 4 1877, April 20 1888, May 18 1888, and April 15 1898; Toronto World March 10 1885 and December 8 1881, and The Woodstock Review March 15 1878. Some of these stories were reprints from other papers – I have mentioned the names of the original paper in the body of this article, but I’ve sourced them by the name of the paper where I found them.

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In November, 1891, at Montreal, two labourers – John Pettigrew and William Gray – became quite drunk. They started to have sex. Though I haven’t been able to find out where this happened, it must have been a fairly public place – the two men had the misfortune of being stumbled upon in the act by a pair of constables named Labaise and McLaughlin.

Pettigrew and Gray both tried to defend themselves on the grounds that they were under the influence of alcohol. Gray – who seems to have gone by the alias Thomas Macy – also tried to make himself out as the victim of a seduction by an older man (Pettigrew was 42 and Gray was 18). The court didn’t buy it, and handed them both the same sentence: two years in the Saint-Vincent-de-Paul penitentiary, and twenty lashes of the whip – a harsh sentence, even though they’d had a witness in to testify that they were otherwise of “good character.”

Pettigrew and Gray weren’t the first people charged under Canada’s new gross indecency law, but they were first to be sent to the penitentiary for “gross indecency” between consenting adults. It was the second conviction I’ve found – the first was a case of same-sex rape.

For the first few decades, cases of “gross indecency” between consenting adults remained rare. The law was most often used in cases of same-sex rape and paedophilia. However, this should not be misinterpreted as tolerance or open-mindedness on the part of the authorities. A close look at the trials and their press coverage shows that society was not more lenient toward this victimless crime than it was toward the other meanings of “gross indecency.” More likely, it was just that without a victim involved, these men were less likely to attract the notice of the police and courts.

One example will serve to illustrate the gulf between our values and those of our ancestors. One month after Gray and Pettigrew were sent to Saint-Vincent-de Paul, there was an especially horrific case of child prostitution. Six men were charged in the operation of a prostitution ring involving eight prepubescent boys over a period of months, working out of a candy store on Saint-Dominic Street in Montreal.

Now, the law on “gross indecency” specified that convicts could receive anywhere between two to seven years. Judges can, and normally do, adjust the number of years in a sentence depending on how serious they consider the crime to be. Judges can also suspend sentences if there are special circumstances, and police officers have some discretion in whether they make an arrest in the first place.

Keeping that in mind, it’s astonishing that most of the “Saint-Dominic gang,” as the papers called them, only got about two years – the same sentence as Gray and Pettigrew. In other words, the court decided that a one-time encounter between consenting adults was morally equivalent to the long-term sexual exploitation of small children.

Indeed, in the late 19th century (as today in some quarters) there was a great deal of confusion between paedophilia and homosexuality among the legal and editorial elites. In an article on Pettigrew and Gray, a Montreal newspaper named La Patrie launched into a moralizing lecture:

”It is sad to see certain people taking pleasure in committing such acts; but when, not content to lower themselves thus to the level of the brute, they go so far as to corrupt young boys by making them enjoy the commission of their crime – it’s one of the most abominable things.”

The comments are particularly odd given that there were no “young boys” involved in Pettigrew and Gray case. Yet again and again (as we’ll see in a later article) the spectre of paedophilia and corrupting the young was constantly raised in the crusades of the country’s moralists against homosexuality.

After Gray and Pettigrew, there was a trickle of such cases until just before World War I, at which point they began to increase rather rapidly. As before, most were working class – in an age where the poor were crammed into small houses with large families, or into bunkhouses with fellow-workers, most working-class folk were safer having their trysts in public than in private. By the end of the 19th century, though, they were more and more likely to encounter the large and growing police forces which had then begun to patrol the cities regularly.

There’s one other detail worth nothing – at the Kingston penitentiary at least, every man convicted of sodomy and gross indecency was automatically put into solitary, and remained there for their entire sentence. We know this only from the Kingston’s published lists of convicts in solitary, and no reason has been given.

The Kingston’s warden may have been trying to protect the other prisoners – homosexuality was thought to spread like a disease – or he may have been trying to protect the homosexual and bisexual convicts from the other inmates. Either way, it speaks volumes about late-nineteenth attitudes toward homosexuality.

Spies and Lawyers: The Beginning of the Police Raids

Half a year after Pettigrew and Gray were convicted for a drunken sexual encounter, there was another first: the first raid on a gay space in Canada.

As anyone familiar with our history in Canada is aware, police raids on gay and lesbian spaces have been one of the major themes of that history – well after the legalisation of homosexuality, police are still using vice laws to harass queer spaces into non-existence. And prior to legalisation, the police raid was the main tool used to try and contain and limit our community.

It might surprise some that the first such raid occurred not in a major urban centre like Toronto or Montreal, but in the tiny transport hub of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. If its members believed that the private club’s isolated location would keep it safe, however, they were mistaken.

There was one other remarkable detail – it wasn’t local police who conducted the raid, but the Canadian Secret Service, which was then Canada’s spy agency and which was in charge of national security.

A Montreal paper called Le Monde broke the story – the New York Times picked it up and translated it the next day, making it effectively international news. What follows is the original story, as translated by me:

”A terrifying scandal just broke at St-Jean. The police discovered a club whose members gave themselves over to acts against nature. A butcher, a drugstore clerk, an employee of the city, a lawyer, and another individual have been implicated in the affair. Four of the guilty have been arrested yesterday by the police.

The fifth accused, a lawyer, had taken the train to Montreal and other places. Unfortunately for him, the telegraph got there before the train, and as he was getting off, this individual was rounded up by police officers who were advised of his escape and who brought him back to Saint-Jean. There he rejoined his accomplices in prison.

It is impossible, given the obscene nature of the details, to add anything whatever to the preceding information.

More recently: — the five accused have been let off on bail. No one knows what became of them after.”

The finer details are filled in by research done by the Archives gaies du Québec. We even know their identities:

  • The lawyer was named Jules Quesnel
  • The drugstore clerk (unemployed) was called Joseph Prairie
  • The city employee was Delphis Brossard
  • the “other” – a tailor named Louis Pierre Genest
  • the butcher – if he real existed – is unknown.

The club’s name was “Les Manches de Ligne” (“The Fishing Rods”). They had been somewhat indiscreet – a sermon had been preached against them in the church a month before, and so the people of St-Jean-sur-Richelieu knew what they were about.

The Canadian Secret Service – the little-known Canadian secret police that existed from the 1860s to 1984, when they were merged into the spy agency CSIS – conducted the infiltration. That the Canadian Secret Service got involved shows how important raiding the Manches de Ligne club was – their mandate was national security, and protecting the interests of the British Empire (frequently interpreted in racist, nativist terms). Calling in the Secret Service essentially put the raid on the same level as, say, preventing an American invasion, which was another one of the Service’s preoccupations.
A team of agents under the direction of a detective named Carpenter was assigned to the raid. The agent they sent to infiltrate the club was named Oscar Malo. He was deep undercover, pretending to be a prospective member of the club.

Undoubtedly, the raid’s victims were relieved when the charges were dropped, but it would be mistake to see this as an act of compassion on the part of the courts and the Service.

Canadian police seemed to have realized immediately that it would be inefficient to try and round up the entire gay and bisexual male community simultaneously. Even with the new tool of the “gross indecency” laws – which made prosecution easy – the police brought charges only rarely.

The new police forces born in the nineteenth century saw it as their duty not just to catch criminals, but to prevent crimes from ever taking place. Frequent arrests with few charges meant that the entire gay community was kept in a state of low-level terror. Enough charges would be laid – and enough names printed in the newspaper – that the threat would never be seen as empty.

Over the next seventy years, this tactic would be used again and again. Some days, police would force their way into a known gay bar and take down the names, addresses, and occupations of everyone in it. Other times, there’d be arrests with no charges. However, there were plenty of charges laid overall, and the number of convictions and length of prison terms would keep increasing.
This tactic was highly effective. It kept queer men too afraid to organize politically until the 1960s, and completely destroyed a gay neighbourhood around Peel Street in Montreal in the 1950s. From the point of view of the police, it saved on the time and money required to secure convictions, while using terror and the threat of arrest to contain what was seen as a dangerous group.

Things were becoming much worse for gay and bisexual men in Canada. The new laws and law enforcement methods meant the beginning of an active, concentrated campaign of terror that would powerfully shape the next century of gay life.

This state repression was matched by hardening social attitudes. The moral reform movements begun in the 1830s and 1840s were becoming larger, more organized, and more uncompromising.

With this in mind, we’ll next turn to the growing focus in the popular press of the “problem” of homosexuality.


Sources: Most of my information comes from government documents and stories in the popular press. The information on John Pettigrew and William Gray/Thomas Macy comes from the Parliament of Canada’s Sessional Documents 1893, volume 10 – the return of convicts at the Saint-Vincent-de-Paul penitentiary – and from an article in La Patrie, dated November 10, 1891. La Patrie gets William Gray’s given name wrong. The details of the Saint-Dominic gang I retrieved from several issues of the Montreal Gazette in late 1891 and early 1892. The article on the police raid at Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu is in Montreal’s Le Monde, dated April 19, 1892. I would never have found it if it weren’t for the newsletter of the Archives gaies du Québec of October 2004, which also contained the details of the identity of the victims, and mentioned the New York Times article. Details from Gary Kinsman et al.’s Whose National Security helped flesh out the story of the Canadian Secret Service.

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