A mere three days after the Moïse Tellier trial, The Montreal Star reported on another queer case:
Joseph Gagnon, the same party who was charged at the Police Court a few days ago with having stolen about $415, but who was [set free] for want of evidence, was brought [this] morning before the Recorder’s Court having been found drunk in company with a soldier last night. Detective Lafon testified that the prisoner was one of the most abominable wretches in town — quite a match for Tellier and Dufaux — being a Sodomite; his house on St. Mary street being frequented by soldiers and most depraved characters. He accosted respectable parties on the street and made most abominable proposals to them. The Recorder inflicted a fine on him of $10 or two months in jail.
This one short article is all we have to go on about the case. About this Joseph Gagnon himself, he has proven impossible to track. The somewhat ironically named Recorder’s Court – the old name for Montreal’s municipal court – was actually very poor at keeping records, and left us nothing about the case.
There were more than a dozen Joseph Gagnons in Montreal in 1869, but most of them were children, and apparently none of them lived on St. Mary’s Street (which has long since merged with Notre-Dame Est).
The most likely candidate (and this is very unsure) was a medical student in his early 20s. Another was a furniture-maker, also in his early 20s. There was also Joseph Gagné, who was at least once misindentified as Joseph Gagnon in records. Gagné was a tailor in his early thirties, and he lived on Notre-Dame where it merged into St. Mary’s – an address that put him two blocks from the Champs-Mars and puts the Montreal garrison barracks practically in his backyard.
These three lived alone. There were three other adult Joseph Gagnons as well, mostly in other districts and with families. It’s also possible there was another Joseph Gagnon in the area who was simply missed by official record-keepers.
The other names in the story are easier to track. Vincent Lafon was one of Montreal’s three police detectives. The France-born detective appears frequently in the crime pages of Montreal’s newspapers. “Dufaux” is a mangling of Pierre Dufault’s name. Dufault was convicted for a second time of bestiality earlier that same week, another example of the longstanding association in the minds of homophobic authorities of homosexuality with bestiality (they were in fact in the same section of the legal code).
Still, for all the gaps in the story, with a little bit of background knowledge the article says more than it seems to.
The first thing we can note is the crime Gagnon (or Gagné) was charged with. He was, notably, not charged with sodomy or attempted sodomy, which means that none of the soldiers or “depraved characters” he was bringing home ever charged him with rape or attempted rape. He also seems to have had a known reputation, and was astonishingly open about his intentions. Anyone going home with him knew what he wanted.
Indeed, the article hints at a third party who found him and the soldier, but clearly did not catch them in the act. Was this in public, maybe in the park? Or was it in his home? If he was not caught in the act, why arrest him at all? The law gave the police broad powers to arrest people for drunkenness, but they usually had to be doing something crude or offensive to public morals (though not necessarily illegal) in order to be charged.
It seems likely that whoever arrested him knew who he was, and why he was with that soldier. If this happened in his home, it would almost certainly have to be a police officer who walked in on them. And the police were clearly keeping tabs on him. Detective Lafon considered him “notorious,” and the best guess is that they had his apartment under surveillance.
Moïse Tellier had been followed home by a police detective. Could Lafon or another detective have followed Gagnon home, hoping to catch him in the act? That seems the most likely scenario. After all, The Star mentions he was bringing soldiers and “depraved characters” there.
In short, it seems that we are looking at another primitive sting operation conducted by the police – again, a police force that was new, hobbled by extreme underfunding, and far too few to deal with the serious crimes of a quickly growing Montreal. In other words, it was devoting resources to following, gathering evidence, and arresting homosexuals, and it considered this a priority on par with such things as robbery and assault.
Why? There was certainly no shortage of homophobia, either in its older, religious form or its modern “scientific” form that hinged on degeneration theory. Yet there were plenty of police forces of the era who barely had homosexuality on their radar, and by all accounts the Montreal police at the time had much more important things to worry about.
What seems even stranger at first – but which might explain things – was that Lafon had come from France. For all that France was romanticized for generations of gay men as a haven and a place of safety because it was the only place in the West where homosexuality was legal, things were not quite as welcoming as the rest of the world believed.
France had legalized homosexuality in a revolutionary fervour under Napoleon, but sexual minorities of the France of the late 19th century had suffered a seriously backlash. Theories of “degeneration” had taken firm hold of the nation, and brought with them modern versions of the Sodom myth: nations could be destroyed by perversions that could be spread. While homophobia is typically seen as religious in nature, the new wave of “scientific” homophobia breathed new life into the mania to contain, control, and generally persecute homosexuals.
The police stepped into the breach to quell public panic. France’s police did everything in their power to make the lives of lesbian, gay, and bisexual citizens miserable. Gay neighbourhoods were under surveillance. If gay men could not be arrested for the simple fact of homosexuality, then they could be arrested for a host of other things, from “public solicitation” to a host of other minor crimes.
We know very little about Lafon’s life or when he came to Canada, or if he was actually trained in France, but this kind of a sting would be in character with the work of French police. The goal would have been to catch him in the act, but when that failed he was given the “drunk and disorderly” charge. The purpose of the this would have been both to punish Gagnon, but more importantly to strike fear into the community around him.
The Star seems to have been a happy partner with the police in this. In the article, they are working to present Gagnon in the worst possible light. The robbery they allude to was not even mentioned in any earlier issue of their paper, or any other paper I have found. As he was judged “not guilty,” it would have been libellous for a paper to suggest he had committed the theft, and yet the article clearly does that. The implication is that Gagnon was a threat beyond simply his homosexuality, and that somehow being a “degenerate” conversely proved retroactively that he was guilty of the other crime.
Given the hatred of homosexuality among the general public at the time, one has to wonder why the paper would need to bother implying he was a thief. Reading between the lines, there is a possible answer to this – for as much as The Star wants Gagnon to be hated, there is no real indication that he was harming anyone. None of his lovers accused him of anything. Folks knew what he was, and yet it probably took a zealous police detective to try (and fail) to entrap him.
The Star was clearly trying to implicate him in some other criminal element, so that anyone insufficiently horrified by his apparently consensual homosexual acts will at least come to see him as a threat for other reasons. And while it is entirely possible that Gagnon needed to steal to survive – men who were more or less “out” tended to lead very marginal lives in a society that hated them – there is no way that The Star could know whether Gagnon was actually guilty. They need him to be guilty however, to make him seem like more of a threat than he actually was.
In the end, The Star really did not need to push homophobia. A new, uglier form of it had already taken root. Within a month, a vicious new era had dawned in Canada – mere weeks after the death penalty was officially removed for homosexuality, private citizens had begun to take up the effort of vigilante “justice” against homosexuals.
In the next article, we’ll look at the first recorded gaybashing in Canada, which happened in July of that same year.
Sources: My primary source is The Montreal Star article “Another Wretch” dated June 11, 1869. The information on Dufault was a few days earlier in the same paper. I searched for Gagnon in Census data, and in Lovell’s Directories for the years around 1869, but the first and last name are too common. There is no Joseph Gagnon on Saint Mary’s that year (which is now Notre-Dame Est). Some of the addresses are missing from Lovell’s, however, so it is possible authorities simply missed him. Saint Mary’s ended two blocks from the Champ-Mars, a location that put it right near the Montreal barracks, where the city’s soldiers lived. Census data and Starke’s Pocket Almanacfor 1869 and 1870, as well as ages spent pouring over newspaper crime reporting from that year, filled me on Detective Lafon. My information on LGBT life in France at the time comes from a series of books I’ve been reading in preparation for an article on World War I, though Queer Lives – a set of 19th-century French gay men’s biographies edited and put in context by William A. Peniston – has proved particularly enlightening.