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.