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How a Fight With Clowns Led to the Birth of Modern Policing in Toronto

A 19th-century bordello brouhaha led to big changes for Toronto's police force.

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An old-timey fire wagon. Image courtesy of Chuckman’s Other Collection

The Fight

The story of the initiating scrap is awesome, if only because of the participants.

If one year during the Toronto International Film Festival you’re engaging a Hollywood producer in conversation and have only a few seconds to pitch your action script before the bouncers drag you out from under the door of her bathroom stall, just fire off a three-word description of the two unlikely antagonists. Hollywood loves oddball enemies even more than unlikely buddy cops: cowboys versus aliens, mercenaries versus dinosaurs, Predators versus future governors of American states. Yet, inexplicably, no movie has been made of Toronto’s contribution to the genre: clowns versus firefighters.

In the mid-19th century, “Toronto the Good” was still an aspirational nickname. The prudishness of the late Victorian era had yet to tighten its clammy grip around the city, and frontier Toronto’s agglomeration of muddy shacks boasted a wealth of saloons and brothels.

On the night of July 12, 1855, members of the Hook and Ladder Firefighting Company descended on the house of Mary Ann Armstrong on King Street (suspected, according to newspaper stories from the day, of being a “house of ill-fame”). Firefighting at the time was as much a social club as a profession, and the volunteers were often rough-and-tumble types. There had been a minor scandal only two weeks earlier when members of the company fought with competing firefighters after both groups showed up at the same blaze. Eventually, the two sides joined forces to thrash constables trying to break up the melee.

As Toronto’s heroes settled down to business, several men entered the bordello. The new customers were clowns from the S.B. Howes’ Star Troupe Menagerie and Circus, which was in town for a two-day engagement. Led by a man named Meyers, these were not sad clowns or seltzer-spraying buffoons, or God help us, mimes. When not clowning, they were roustabouts, tough characters charged with the hard physical labour of setting up and tearing down the circus as it moved from town to town.

Accounts vary about what exactly happened, but all agree that a drunk fireman named Fraser either accidentally or intentionally knocked Meyers’ hat off. When Fraser failed to pick up the hat as requested, he was assaulted by the clowns, and a full-scale donnybrook broke out. Fraser and another local were seriously beaten before the carnies escaped into the night.

The Riot

A regular drunken cathouse brawl might have ended there, but the boys of the Hook and Ladder were staunch members of the Orange Order, as were most firemen, police, and members of the Toronto political elite. The militant Orangemen took pride in their pugnacity and in their role as representatives of the embattled Protestant Ascendancy of Ireland. An ongoing influx of Catholic Irish fleeing famine at home had not diminished their belligerence, and fights and riots between Orange supporters and the new arrivals were commonplace. If you needed a mob, the Orange Order could provide one.

The next day, Friday, July 13, saw a crowd of angry men and boys gathering at the fairgrounds where the circus was being held.

Police Chief Samuel Sherwood, upon hearing of the commotion, sent six constables to keep the peace in the afternoon, and bolstered the force with another six men as evening fell.

Neither Sherwood (a hapless non-entity who had been a tavern owner before securing his position through political connections) nor his men were up to the task. The situation deteriorated throughout the day, with the townsmen surrounding the tent, throwing stones and insults, and demanding that the scoundrel Meyers (who had long since decamped for Brampton) be handed over. Circus wagons were set on fire or thrown into the lake, while the carnies took refuge under the big top.

The subsequent arrival of the mayor and chief of police had little calming effect. At some point an iron bar was hurled into the attacking mob, injuring an Orangeman named Bird and further enraging the crowd.

As more wagons were overturned and burned, someone rang the fire bell and the Hook and Ladder company arrived, only to drive straight past the flames. They set about tearing down the circus tent with their hooks. When Chief Sherwood attempted to arrest a rioter, he was attacked and forced to release his prisoner.

While the Mayor was able to rescue one man who probably would have been killed by the mob, he was unable to quell the violence. It was only when a troop of militia arrived at the Mayor’s request that the crowd dispersed.

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The Aftermath

Following the riot, all of the police present testified that they were unable to identify any participants. One constable claimed it had been too dark, while another suggested that the riot had been carefully orchestrated to include only individuals not known to the police.

These cognitive lapses mirrored police work during other incidents, like the fireman-on-fireman brawl earlier that month, and the ongoing Protestant-Catholic street battles. The press and the public protested loudly at this perceived favoritism, and an investigation was launched. It highlighted deep problems within the City police force.

Police constables of the time were appointed at the whim of aldermen (city councillors), and no particular training was required or offered. As reported by the Globe, the enquiry revealed that once a constable was appointed “he receives a baton the next day, but no instruction whatever accompanying it.”

Beyond the lack of vetting or training, this system meant that constables were far more beholden to political power than to their nominal superiors. During the inquiry, when asked “What charge have you over the force as Chief of Police?” Chief Sherwood replied, “A very small one indeed.” He went on to say, “I give orders and instructions to the force, but cannot get them obeyed. As soon as I am out of sight, the men do as they please.”

While the inquiry didn’t change anything overnight, its revelations were the beginning of the end for the corrupt, inefficient, and archaic policing system of the day. City council made several attempts to form a policing board of commissioners, but it wasn’t until 1858 that a provincially approved board was able to formulate a new design for the police department. In February of 1859, the entire police force was fired (although almost half of them would be rehired, many of them post-Circus-Riot recruits). A regulatory regime resembling the one we have today was put into place.

What became of the angry clown Meyers, who inadvertently set Toronto on the path to a modern police force, is unknown.

Additional information from Crime and Punishment in Canada and July, 1855 editions of the Globe.

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