Eccentric trapper Joe LaFlamme brings wild animals to Toronto.
On a cold morning in January 1925, burly northerner Joe LaFlamme stepped off an express train at Toronto’s Union Station with his assistants, Bill Fortin and Isaac Lewis, and a sizeable menagerie: a Belgian Shepherd, 10 huskies, and four wolves. To the amazement of onlookers, LaFlamme and his assistants promptly harnessed all 15 animals into a dogsled, which LaFlamme proceeded to ride up Simcoe Street. The Wolf Man was in town.
Télesphore “Joe” LaFlamme was born in 1889 in a small town outside of Montreal. As a young man, LaFlamme worked as a streetcar driver and police officer in Montreal, before relocating, in 1920, to Gogama, Ontario, a small lumber town nearly 200 kilometres north of Sudbury. LaFlamme found a variety of ways to make money in Gogama, including running a hotel, which served both legal and bootleg liquor. His local legend began a few years later, however, when he began trapping and, to a limited degree, taming wild wolves, and training them to pull a dogsled.
In one 1938 Toronto Telegram article, LaFlamme suggests that he first experimented with wolves in an effort to develop a faster and stronger team that could outrun the police when transporting illegal alcohol. In her 2013 biography of LaFlamme, Wolf Man Joe LaFlamme: Tamer Untamed, author Suzanne F. Charron suggests that LaFlamme’s first attempt came about out of necessity, due to both a spike in the local wolf population and the decimation of his existing dog team due to canine distemper.
After successfully trapping a wolf, LaFlamme would keep it on his Gogama property, attempting to earn its trust over several months before cautiously adding it to a team of huskies. In January 1925, LaFlamme told a visiting Toronto Star reporter that wolves “are good workers, and have much more stamina than huskies, even though they are the meanest animals in the world. They fight among themselves a great deal, and chew each others’ ears off.” The reporter’s visit to Gogama was likely in connection with the Toronto Star‘s plan to bring LaFlamme and his wolf/dog team to Toronto the following week to help promote winter recreation in the city.
LaFlamme and his company arrived in Toronto on the morning of Monday, January 26, for a week-long stay in the city. After harnessing his team at the train station, LaFlamme reportedly got into his sled and shouted “mush,” driving the dogs and wolves up Simcoe Street while his two assistants ran alongside. Not entirely sure of his route, LaFlamme used his 40-foot moosehide whip to snag a telephone pole at the corner of Queen Street, thereby stopping the procession. After conferring with Fortin and Lewis, the team started off again to the east, and then proceeded north up University Avenue to a veterinary hospital on Elm Street. According to the Star, “with the spaciousness of the avenue about them, they seemed to travel better and struck a steady pace. Here they made about ten miles an hour.”
On their second day in Toronto, professional photographer Charles Milne contacted the Star, noting “what wonderful faces both man and the animals had, and asking if he could make character studies of them.” LaFlamme and his assistants agreed, and took one of their dogs and one of their wolves to the studio. According to the Star, “the three men with the two animals went to the studio in a taxi, the wolf and the dog occupying one seat between them. At the studio the wolf was very nervous at first, but Joe LaFlamme patted and caressed him and indeed kissed until finally he quieted down and allowed a good picture to be taken of him. Mr. LaFlamme carried the wolf in his arms into the taxi.”
Two of Milne’s photos ran in the Star the next morning, serving as excellent promotion for the public appearances that the paper had planned for the day. In the afternoon, LaFlamme took a nine-animal team on a tour around the east end of the city, drawing considerable crowds along the route. Starting at the Prince Edward Viaduct, the dogs and wolves took LaFlamme east along Danforth to Main, south to Gerrard, west to Broadview, and then south to King and back downtown, with a few rest breaks along the way. “For several hours, Joe LaFlamme with his wolf cap, green hood and smock, and dog and wolf outfit did to Toronto exactly what the Pied Piper did to Hamelin,” wrote the Star. “He outdid the piper for he lured adults as well as children. The children raced after him on foot, and the adults followed in their motor cars. There were crowds on the sidewalks and street intersections all along his route, and also crowds in the centre of the road following him.”
LaFlamme’s tour ended the day at Queen’s Park. Approaching from College Street, the team reportedly drove straight up the main driveway of the parliament buildings and “dashed up the stone steps right into the main entrance,” stopping outside the office of Sudbury MPP and Minister of Mines Charles McCrea. Following a meeting and photo opportunity with McCrea and Premier Howard Ferguson, LaFlamme reportedly took a smaller sled with only four animals to an evening winter event staged in a rink at Varsity Stadium. Lest the public assume LaFlamme had fully tamed his wolves, the Star warned its readers that “although Joe LaFlamme has his wolves and dogs under good control, the general public is warned against going too near them. Please keep away yourselves, and don’t let your children or dogs go near.”
The next morning, the front page of the Toronto Star announced that one of LaFlamme’s wolves, a six-month-old cub named “Knabey,” had escaped from the downtown stable and that Toronto police had been instructed to shoot it on sight, if given the chance. LaFlamme and his assistants had been preparing for the day’s exhibition when Knabey got loose and ran into traffic, disappearing up Bathurst Street. “Joe LaFlamme is confident that the wolf will do no harm during its escape from captivity,” reported the Star. “He says that a six months’ old wolf will avoid humans as far as possible, and even if aggravated will not attack…In LaFlamme’s opinion it will make for some open space, such as High Park, and will there find a burrow or lair.”
While LaFlamme’s assistant Bill Fortin spent the day in pursuit of Knabey, LaFlamme and Isaac Lewis assembled a team and went on a tour of the western part of the city, drawing more astonished crowds as they went up Bay Street to Bloor, then up to Wychwood Park, then down through the Junction and into High Park, where they set up an outdoor camp. Near the shore of Grenadier Pond, LaFlamme and Lewis pitched their unheated tent, built a log fire, and chained the dogs and wolves to nearby trees.
They were soon joined in their camp by Fortin, who had managed to capture Knabey after cornering him near some freight sheds in the vicinity of Spadina Avenue. Grabbing the end of the chain that the wolf had been dragging behind, Fortin was able to lure Knabey from under the shed by using his own foot as bait. “I made a muzzle of the chain and dragged him out with his head between my legs,” Fortin told the Star. “Some men on the outside took and pulled me out by the arms,” to the applause of the freight and railway workers who had gathered to watch.
The next afternoon, LaFlamme’s team did a tour of downtown, drawing crowds along College and Dundas. According to the Star, LaFlamme braked suddenly at Dundas and Bathurst. “There, his wife, just in from the north, was waiting for him with an addition to his wolf family, a little brush wolf as tame as a kitten and just as playful. She took a seat on the sled and the wolf sat up in front of her, just like a dog.”
By this time, the Toronto Star was heavily promoting the climax of the week’s events, a Saturday exhibition of winter sports at High Park, with LaFlamme as the main attraction. “Some say our winters are inhospitable, but we should be hospitable to our winters,” read one editorial. “Toronto could and should put on annually a great winter carnival—staging all the sports that winter yields and that our climate privileges us to engage in. That is the idea that The Star would like everyone to take home from High Park and Grenadier Pond.”
As the carnival in High Park was sponsored by the Star, none of the other Toronto papers covered it, but it appears the event was nevertheless popular. Additional streetcars were pressed into service to meet public demand. “People were coming from everywhere on foot and in motor cars, on skis, snowshoes, toboggans, and bobsleds. Just as all Europe’s roads once led to Rome so all Saturday’s roads led to Camp LaFlamme on a little wooden promontory near the base of the ski jump,” wrote the Star, which claimed 50,000 to be a conservative estimate of the turnout.
LaFlamme harnessed two teams in front of the crowd: one of all huskies, and a second with a mix of dogs and wolves. “The huskies accepted the harness as eagerly as a hockey player gets into his uniform,” wrote the Star. “It was not so with the wolves. They are shirkers and snarlers.” Once all the animals were harnessed, LaFlamme led his teams on an improvised course around and across the pond, eventually steering his team up along the hillside, for fear that the ice on the pond might crack under the weight of the large number of spectators.
Following LaFlamme’s exhibition, the newly formed Toronto Ski Club (whose account of the event in their official history describes LaFlamme as “a reprobate old trapper from Northern Ontario”) organized a paper chase, in which some of their top skiers were deemed the “wolves,” and set off across High Park, periodically sprinkling paper confetti to mark their trail. The “hunters” from the crowd who were first to catch up to the skiers were declared the winners and awarded skis of their own, courtesy of the Toronto Star.
“The charm of the winter is inexhaustible,” wrote the Star at the conclusion of LaFlamme’s visit. “[LaFlamme] not only showed them something of the north, but introduced many of them to a Toronto winter playground which many till Saturday had never visited.” The Star also noted LaFlamme’s success as an entertainer. “Joe LaFlamme has been added to that long list of heroes which have established themselves in the hearts and the imaginations of Toronto, including Canada’s Loveliest Child; George McManus, the creator of Jiggs and Maggie; Stefansson, the Arctic explorer; Baby Stella; Tiny Tim; the marbles and jacks champions of Canada; the Empire’s Bonniest Baby; and Capt. Herne, the writer in the skies. Now Joe LaFlamme and his wolves have earned a place in this galaxy of stars.”
Spurred by his success, LaFlamme ventured into the United States the following year. Taking his team to New York City, LaFlamme dropped the puck before a hockey game at Madison Square Garden and reportedly drove his team around the ice in between periods. Following his successful wolf tour in 1926, LaFlamme spent the next few years back home in Gogama pursuing a variety of other projects, including mink farming, photography, and prospecting for gold. When he next visited Toronto, in 1930, he told the Star that he had sold most of the animals that he had brought to Toronto in 1925.
By the end of the 1930s, however, LaFlamme wanted to tour again, and this time assembled a team comprised entirely of wolves. On January 21, 1939, the Toronto Star ran the headline “Joe LaFlamme, the wolfman of the north, may pay Toronto a flying visit with his 11 wolves,” along with photos of LaFlamme, his wolves, and the small aircraft in which he proposed to fly them from Gogama to Sudbury to start his tour. Deciding that a long train ride from Gogama to Sudbury in especially cold weather would be bad for the wolves, LaFlamme’s proposed solution was to instead fly them to Sudbury in a six-passenger airplane.
The flight proved to be about as difficult as could be expected. Two of the wolves fought as he was loading them into the plane, leaving one of them too injured to make the journey. LaFlamme opted not to tie up the remaining 10 wolves, for fear that they might get entangled in their chains and injure themselves. According to the Star, all 10 wolves (only two of which had been muzzled) attempted to jump out of the plane as soon as it took off, and in the commotion succeeded in tearing off the plane’s fuselage. LaFlamme found himself trying to forcibly subdue 10 loose wolves until the pilot could level the plane, telling the Star “it was the first time since I have been handling wolves that I wished I had a gun with me,” adding “This was the most thrilling flight I ever made.”
As it worked out, LaFlamme’s 1939 tour missed Toronto, instead making stops in Montreal, New York, and Boston. Although he expressed a desire to keep working with wolves, he soon found that his age and health would not permit it. “The doctor tells me I’m overweight and I must reduce slowly,” he told the Star in 1945. “But I reduce so fast, I get sick, am no match for wolves. I still get along fine with wolves, but they are like women. You can never really tame them.” Fortunately, LaFlamme had found another wild animal that was easier to handle: moose.
Finding them considerably more docile than wolves, LaFlamme reportedly trained moose to climb the steps of his home and to help plough his farm. When he visited Toronto next, in January 1947, LaFlamme brought three tame moose and a deer, which he exhibited at several downtown public schools. According to The Globe and Mail, on one excursion, LaFlamme took at least one of his moose to the Royal York Hotel for a Rotary Club luncheon, up the steps of City Hall to meet Mayor Robert Saunders (who was unfortunately out), and to a downtown camera shop, where he (LaFlamme, not the moose) bought some film.
LaFlamme’s most unusual stop during his 1947 Toronto visit was to Glenn Ireton, a local public relations representative for Warner Brothers. The two had likely met a few years earlier, when LaFlamme had appeared in The Forest Commandos, a technicolour documentary written by Ireton, showcasing firefighting methods in Gogama. Although LaFlamme claimed not to be especially interested in Hollywood films, he was a fan of Bette Davis, and wanted Ireton to give her a gift.
Knowing that Davis was pregnant and about to go on a hiatus from film work, LaFlamme presented Ireton with an Ojibwe cradleboard, which he called a “papoose carrier.” LaFlamme’s biographer, Suzanne F. Charron, notes that Gogama was very close to the Mattagami First Nation reserve, and that LaFlamme had established a relationship with the local community, learning to speak some Ojibwe and sometimes presenting himself as an honorary chief. Accompanying LaFlamme’s gift was an explanatory letter which was published in Box Office magazine:
Dear Bette Davis,
I did just see now your pretty picture outside Canadian [Liberty] magazine. Yesterday or so hear you gone to have little papoose. Good. This also very good winter north Canada plenty moose, coon, beaver. Hear you never seen these thing in Hollywood. Maybe good idea. About papoose I send soon you papoose carrier chief squaw wear on back as carry 23 papoose. Squaw 75 summers no more use papoose carrier, so send you Bette Davis. Think this good idea. Also good idea use papoose carrier so lose no time and hurry back Hollywood and make more Warner picture. Maybe papoose on back all time. I like you Bette Davis also Indians too.
(Signed) Joe LaFlamme
Honor White Chief “Miganinvinna”
LaFlamme returned to Toronto that summer with a moose and a tame bear, which he showed at the CNE. After another year of touring, however, his health began to catch up with him, and LaFlamme moved back to Montreal, where he maintained a small zoo. He died in 1965.
In assessing LaFlamme’s unusual life, Suzanne F. Charron notes that “through his presence at sportsmen’s shows in Canada and the United States, he had come into contact with hundreds of thousands of people, many of them children and adolescents. His great love of nature and wildlife, especially wolves, might well have positively influenced a whole generation of young minds.”
One youth who was influenced by Joe LaFlamme was Charles Pachter, who, as a child, met LaFlamme and his moose at the 1947 CNE. That year, Pachter starred in the National Film Board documentary Johnny at the Fair, during which he roved the Exhibition and met a variety of entertainers and celebrities along the way, including Joe LaFlamme, although this scene failed to make the final cut of the film. Years later, Pachter became a highly successful artist, known in particular for his many depictions of moose. “As an artist who has made the moose famous,” Charron quotes Pachter as saying, “I trace my initial inspiration to that long-ago encounter with Joe LaFlamme and his pet moose.”
Additional material from: Box Office (Vol. 50, No. 16 – February 22, 1947); Suzanne F. Charron, Wolf Man Joe LaFlamme: Tamer Untamed (Scrivener, 2013: Sudbury, ON); The Globe and Mail (June 10, October 31, November 2, 1938; January 28, 1939; April 12, 1940; April 12, 1946; January 24, January 25, August 29, September 22, 1947; December 30, 1959; February 8, 1965); Fred Hall, ed., Fifty Years of Skiing in Southern Ontario with the Toronto Ski Club (1974: Toronto); Toronto Star (January 19, January 24, January 26, January 27, January 28, January 29, January 30, January 31, February 2, May 15, July 8, 1925; December 5, 1930; January 21, January 26, February 17, October 11, 1939; April 12, 1940; March 20, March 21, 1945; January 22, 1946; January 28, 1947; February 6, 1965); Toronto Evening Telegram (September 22, 1938).
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