“Media” to us means mostly electronic means of communication. In the 19th century, though, news, high art, and low entertainment were carried mostly in print. Novels filled the place of movies, serial short stories and articles in newspapers filled the place of sitcoms and TV news programs, and pamphlets filled the space of blog and forum posts online.
Poetry, meanwhile, was still a form of mass communication, and it was everywhere. It appeared in newspapers, was passed around and read at parties, and religious and political poetry would be handed out at meetings. Ordinary people read it, and it was used to advertise products. Politicians had to write poetry to prove their political street cred – much in the same way they might attend barbecues or rodeos to prove they’re just ordinary people today.
Social purity activists were very good at using the media. They mastered the use of newspapers, journalistic exposés, novels, and poetry to push their moral agenda and work toward the exposure and eradication of “degeneracy.” And even those who weren’t purity activists were happy to play the game of bringing “light on dark corners” – scandal, after all, has always sold papers.
Social Purity in Newspapers
Social Purity activists greatly influenced – and often owned – the newspapers. They spread their ideas through editorials, and influenced what news stories were covered and how they were covered. In 1897, a Presbyterian clergyman named J.A. Carmichael forced a major Winnipeg newspaper called The Leader to run his sermon criticizing the paper for its insufficient coverage of the evils of prostitution.
Interestingly, though, it was the French and Catholic Press that first called for moral crusades against homosexuality. It was the Irish Canadian that first broke the story of Francis Widdowes arrest (in very sensationalist terms). It was La Patrie that fretted that sex between consenting adults in the case of William Gray and John Pettigrew might corrupt “young boys.”
And it was the best-established French Montreal paper La Presse which called for a police crackdown on gay cruising, in its June 30, 1883 edition (though it was not the first paper to do so):
A great gathering of “friends” yesterday evening behind the Palais de Justice. From the twilight until midnight, one could see gliding among the poplar trees long, lanky beings with tapered legs swishing by with an effeminate air, coughing, and calling to one another in sugary tones.
The fresh air and beauty of the evening had attracted to this privileged place twenty of these hooligans, men-women who hold there their ignoble Sabbats. Many times, these brutes, fashionably dressed, had been brought before our courts of justice for having given passersby a view of their dirty pastime. Light sentences permit them to return to the pleasures of their race.
Yesterday evening, Clovis Villeneuve, a “dandy” affiliated with this nocturnal association, approached a citizen sitting at that hour on the steps of the Champs-de-Mars, chatted in a honeyed voice and…was seized by Lafontaine, constable of the central patrol.
The unlucky one was only sentenced to pay a $20 fine, or spend two months in prison.
The sentence was very light. Why not send this hooligan to the penitentiary?”
Protestant Social Purity activists were not far behind, however, in using the papers to push their agendas. Soon, every paper was reprinting sermons on Sodom and Gomorrah, and every Canadian city was being compared to it. Cases of “gross indecency” were finding their way into articles on the courts.
There had been finger-wagging about the morality of individuals brought up on sodomy charges before, but the call for mass arrests was something new. So was the description of gay spaces – the club in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, or the cruising ground in the Champs-de-Mars.
The press, it seemed, had discovered the informal networks that constituted the gay community in those days – brought to the public’s attention meeting places, modes of dress, and ways of speaking that characterized a previously invisible subculture. And now that “degeneration” was on everyone’s mind, the guardians of morality in the press called for the eradication of this subculture, lest it spread and corrupt what was seen as a new country.
The Journalistic Exposé
Christopher St. George Clark was not a moral purity activist. He was a reporter with the Toronto Publishing Company, and seems in his work to be rather cynical.
Nevertheless, his most famous work — Of Toronto the Good: The Queen City As It Is — played well to the Social Purity movement, which could never quite get enough dirt to satisfy its appetite. Indeed, the cover of the book advertises that it was “brought prominently before the world” to the International Social Purity Congress at Baltimore, Maryland, by the women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Of Toronto the Good is a journalistic exposé by a seen-it-all reporter talking to the city’s marginal citizens – its poor, its barely employed, its criminals – and the people who worked with them. Although he sometimes mentions “sinners” of the “Somerset” and “Oscar Wilde” variety, he only devotes one paragraph to the subject:
If saintly Canadians run away with the idea that there are no sinners of Oscar Wilde’s type in Canada, my regard for the truth impels me to undeceive them. Consult some of the bell boys of the large hotels in Canada’s leading cities, as I did, and find out what they can tell from their own experiences. A youth of eighteen once informed me that he had blackmailed one of Canada’s esteemed judiciary out of a modest sum of money, by catching him in the act of indecently assaulting one of the bell boys connected with a hotel in that city.
Clark then goes on to enumerate a number of cases of both same-sex sexual propositions and rape (making little distinction between consensual and forced sex) and mentions two prominent merchants who were well known among the city’s young men. After describing how open a secret homosexuality in Toronto is, he concludes, “this fact serves to demonstrate how little is actually known to the police of what is taking place right under their noses, while these very men and their acts of indecency are the talk of all the boys of the city.”
One thing that’s interesting to note about Clark’s descriptions that’s mirrored in the newspaper coverage of “gross indecency” of the time: journalists always went out of their way to describe sex between men as if it were an act of paedophilia. A sixteen year old or eighteen year old would generally be a “young man” in any other article, but becomes a “boy,” in these descriptions almost inevitably.
It’s worth noting here that the age of consent for heterosexuals was fourteen in Canada, and at that age a person could be convicted of “sodomy” or “gross indecency” themselves if they were a consenting partner. They could be sent to adult prison. By infantilizing the younger partner, though, the Social Purity activists and the journalists who catered to them were able to make homosexuality seem more predatory.
It’s difficult to think of poems as having once been mass media. But poetry once filled the place that electronic music now has in Canada. It wasn’t yet the private exercise of bohemians at odds with their society.
Still, poetry was considered a more respectable mass art form, and so there were fewer things you could get away with. Bible stories, however, were always allowable. Homosexuality is frequently hinted at by references to the “cities on the plain,” Sodom and Gomorrah.
By focusing on the Sodom story, poetry tended to make homosexuality seem to be a thing of the past, extinct in the modern world. One exception is in the work of Nova Scotia’s most prominent poet, Moses Hardy Nickerson, who put out a great number of morally uplifting poems. In his poem “Cupid’s Career,” he gives one of the only descriptions of homosexuality in the modern world in Canadian poetry of the time.
In “Cupid’s Career,” the god of pure love comes to an unnamed modern city. Nickerson’s city is a twisted, soulless, degenerate Gotham of a place. After meeting as number of “rivals” – love of gold, love of finery, love of empty sophistication – Cupid encounters yet another “false” love:
Soon he met another rival,
Painted [with makeup] to conceal a stain
‘Twas that lightning scarred survival
From the Cities of the Plain.
The image of the man in makeup seems to echo the effeminate gay men cruising the Champs-de-Mars in the La Presse article. If these portrayals are accurate, they seem to suggest something like the molly culture of England, which largely celebrated effeminacy. When the first first-person descriptions of gay life appear in the early twentieth century, such men – usually referred to even by themselves as “fairies” or “queens” – are a prominent part of the community.
As for Nickerson’s poem, it might be interesting to note that a previous stanza names Cupid’s homeland as “The Land of Delight,” and describes it (using a line from the bisexual poet Lord Byron) as “Where burning Sappho loved and sung.” The irony will probably not be lost on a modern reader, but clearly it was for Nickerson.
Social Purity and the Novel
Unlike poetry, the novel was not quite a respectable form of media in 19th century Canada. Novels were often cheap, lowbrow entertainment for the middle class and literate working class, and filled a niche like the Hollywood movie does today. They were often adventure stories of romance-bordering-on-pornography with absolutely no pretence toward a moral message.
Like with the debates among evangelical Christians now on the subject of video games, Social Purity activists argued whether their children should be allowed to read novels at all. Many Social Purity leaders advocated only reading non-fiction.
Other Purity activists argued that the novel could be a powerful tool of what they called “moral uplift.” One of these was Presbyterian minister Charles W. Gordon, better known by his pen name Ralph Connor. When Gordon wasn’t preaching fire-and-brimstones sermons against prostitution in Calgary – and urging citizens to publicly “out” the johns who went to the brothels – he was writing morally correct adventure stories for children that were intended to entertain while they taught the finer points of Presbyterian theology.
Gordon’s best-known book is The Man from Glengarry. Published in 1901, it was an international bestseller, and Canada’s most successful novel until Anne of Green Gables came out seven years later. In 1922, it was even turned into a made-in-Ontario silent movie.
For our purposes, what’s really interesting about The Man from Glengarry is that this 107-year-old novel contains what appears to be the first gay character in Canadian fiction. “Little Merrill” is an aristocratic and effeminate man whom the main character – the unfortunately-named Ranald “Glengarry” Macdonald – has managed to reform.
The name was likely inspired by George Merrill, whose status as the poet Edward Carpenter’s lover was England’s most open sexual secret. Gordon’s Little Merrill belongs to the gentleman’s club that the self-made businessman Ranald is now rich enough to join. Interestingly, although Merrill is supposed to be an ex-gay, his conversion seems to have been about as successful as that offered by modern ex-gay programs – that is, not at all:
The club-rooms were filling up; the various games were in full swing.
“Hello, little Merrill!” Young Merrill looked up from his billiards.
“Glengarry, by all the gods!” throwing down his cue, and rushing at Ranald. “Where in this lonely universe have you been these many months, and how are you old chap?” Merrill was excited.
“All right Merrill?” inquired the deep voice.
“Right, so help me—” exclaimed Merrill, solemnly lifting up his hand. “He’s inquiring after my morals,” he explained to the men who were crowding about; “and I don’t give a blank blank who knows it,” continued little Merrill, warmly, “my present magnificent manhood,” smiting himself on the breast, “I owe to that dear old solemnity there,” pointing to Ranald.
“Shut up, Merrill, or I’ll spank you,” said Ranald.
“You will, eh?” cried Merrill, looking at him. “Look at him vaunting his beastly fitness over the frail and weak. I say, men, did you ever behold such condition! See that clear eye, that velvety skin, that – Oh, I say! pax! pax! peccavi!”
“There,” said Ranald, putting him down from the billiard table, “perhaps you will learn when to be seen.”
“Brute,” murmured Little Merrill, rubbing the sore place, “but ain’t he fit?”
There are a couple of oddities of this portrayal – aside from the fact that Merrill is variously characterized as a pagan (“by all the gods”), and atheist (“lonely universe”) and a Catholic (“Peccavi”) in a few lines.
Firstly, Merrill is a young man going after an older man – a reversal of the older-predator, young-boy stereotype that had flooded Canadian papers. Secondly, Gordon seems aware of something that the ex-gay movement is still in denial about – that religion can’t make gay men into straight men. These two surprising bits of realism, plus the relative sympathy of the portrayal by a Social Purity leader, make me wonder if Merrill is based on someone Gordon really encountered in the course of his mission work.
Thanks to the climate of homophobia generated by the Social Purity movement, though, these portrayals were overwhelmingly negative. Yet the period just prior to World War I saw the first response to the negative images of homosexuality pushed by the Purity movements activists. For the first time, queers began to speak back through literature. The late 19th century and early 20th witnessed the first flowering of homoerotic art, of writers popularly perceived as gay, and finally – in the 1910s – a gay writer and his openly lesbian protégée.
Their story will have to wait for a future instalment. For now, we’re going to turn to how homophobia and racism became closely linked in the late 19th century, and how charges of homosexuality were used to demonize both the Chinese.
Sources: The La Presse article appears in their June 30, 1886 edition. Christopher St. George Clark’s Of Toronto the Good: The Queen City of Canada As It Is came out in 1898, and is now probably the most-referenced book on sex crimes in 19th-century Canada. Moses hardy Nickerson’s Carols of the Coast was published in 1892, and – “Cupid’s Career” notwithstanding – many of his poems are quite good. Last I checked, The Man from Glengarry was still in print from the New Canadian Library, which lists it as by “Ralph Connor,” Charles W. Gordon’s pseudonym. Gordon couldn’t publish under his own name because it would’ve damaged his credibility as a minister. The details about Carmichael’s crusade against The Leader and Gordon’s sermons against prostitution can be found Red Lights on the Prairies by James Gray.