Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
Crime knows no vacation. While many of us look to the holiday season for peace and good cheer, others find themselves on the wrong side of the law. For as long as inebriates have been hauled in for disturbing the peace or thieves have secured deeper-than-advertised discounts on Boxing Day specials, the police blotter has rarely rested during the closing weeks of the year. While the most sensational crimes garner headlines today, a century ago most of Toronto’s six battling daily newspapers published lengthy accounts of court proceedings no matter how small or unusual the charge. Fined a dollar for failing to secure your horse? Clumsy cab driving? Swearing in public? All of these misdemeanours earned you fifteen seconds of press infamy in 1909.
But we’re not interested in petty offenders. Give us illegal partridges, turkey liberationists, and cannibalistic ruffians.
A partridge in a pear tree—the ideal gift from your true love during the holiday season? Maybe, but anyone who intended to provide his or her sweetie with a full complement of gifts from “The Twelve Days of Christmas” in 1909 required black market birds. Clothing merchant Abraham Hadis learned all he ever wanted to know about partridge regulations when he was hauled into court for possessing the birds outside of their proper season. Trouble began when a provincial inspector caught his son with two cases containing sixty-four partridges, which father and son claimed were brought to their store at 155 Queen Street West by “a man from the country” who hoped to earn a commission on any sales. Hadis was brought up on twenty charges of violating game laws and made no attempt to evade responsibility. When lawyer J.W. Curry approached the bench and entered a guilty plea, the judge replied, “Well, I can’t do anything else than fine you on each charge; it will be ten dollars and costs, or five days in jail on each case.” Curry commented, “That’s a lot of time for a few partridges,” to which the judge replied, “Yes, but I still can’t help it.” Curry felt his client would rather go to jail than pay the fine, as “it seems like a case of the wealthy against the poor; this man is not well fixed.”
Hadis’ real problem may have been possessing too many birds. Overindulgence is a common side effect of the holidays, whether it’s downing one glass of booze-enriched eggnog too many or a sudden attack of gluttony at the dinner table. The Star guessed that the latter may have resulted in an embarrassing end to one Toronto resident’s Christmas:
A Christie Street citizen, whose name the police refuse to disclose, ate too much turkey and pudding on Christmas Day, and for half an hour after midnight he was found, clad only in his nightie, running along Van Horn Street [now Dupont Street], shouting for Shrubb to come and race him.
He was in a dream or trance or something of that sort, and ran all the way from Christie Street along Van Horn to Dovercourt Road before his cries attracted the attention of Acting Detective Mahony. The officer at first thought he was crazy, but when the man was wakened he seemed rational enough and thoroughly ashamed of himself.
Mahony helped him to secure some much needed clothing and then the citizen went home. He’ll dine more wisely next Christmas.
A far more painful walk was endured by milkman Albert Atwell, who fell into a hole in the front yard of William Cooper at 15 Avenue Road and cracked three ribs after landing on an iron pipe at the bottom of the pit. Atwell sued Cooper for sixty dollars and made his case at what proved to be a brief court hearing on December 23. Both the Star and the Telegram provided the play-by-play as Atwell and Judge Morson took centre stage:
Judge: Did you walk on the lawn?
Judge: Was there a sidewalk?
Atwell: Yes, your honour.
Judge (after brief conversation with Atwell’s lawyer): Non-suit, without costs.
Not every case was dismissed so easily. Shoplifting a turkey might not merit more than a sentence or two in a modern newspaper, but back in 1909 such a crime allowed the imagination of the News’ court reporter to run wild. It wasn’t just a theft—it was an act of animal liberation:
Turkee Gobler, poor old chap, was condemned to hang on December 24, the place of execution being W.J. Nichol’s store at 252 Queen Street East. His heart burning with pity, Robert Bastine, of 108 Oak Street, swore to affect a rescue. As the shades of sunset crept over the street, he emerged from his hiding place, and while the careless crowd passed the scene of execution, stealthily advanced to the rescue. With a fell swoop he cut the halter and as Gobler came to earth, deftly caught him in his arms and bore him off. But the doughty knight lived not happily ever afterward, for the law cast him into a dungeon, and charged him with theft.
This act of holiday terrorism earned Bastine three days in the slammer.
While eating poor Mr. Gobler is an accepted holiday dining tradition, sampling a savoury bite of a neighbourhood cop is not. As a Star headline proclaimed on December 23, “Martin Donaghue Learns That It Is Unsafe to Feast on Police.” The trouble began the night before when Police Sergeant McDonald encountered an intoxicated, stumbling “Sykes” Donaghue walking along College Street near Clinton without a hat. The officer, who most accounts indicate wasn’t a popular figure in the neighbourhood, asked Donaghue where his headgear was. “Down the street someplace,” replied Donaghue. “The wind blew if off. I don’t care. I’ve got lots o’ money to buy twenty hats.”
When McDonald told Donaghue to go home and behave himself, the officer received a steady stream of obscenities. As the Star put it in more genteel terms, “Donaghue became indignant and owing to the befuddled condition of his brain didn’t use proper discretion in his selection of language.” Result: an arrest for disorderly conduct. By now, a crowd had gathered to witness the mounting tension between the two men, which exploded into a fight after Police Constable Joseph Baird arrived at the scene and Donaghue launched into another cursing fit. Witnesses were unable to determine who struck the first blow—the Mail and Empire claimed Donaghue kicked McDonald in the thigh, while the Star claimed that the officer hit his prisoner in the mouth and bloodied his nose while Baird repeatedly hit the prisoner’s arm with his baton. Donaghue asked for help from the crowd, which arrived in the form of “little fellow” Herbert “Red” Evans, who promptly slugged Baird in the jaw. In the midst of this new development, Donaghue sank his teeth into McDonald’s wrist, which caused the officer to later seek medical attention. Donaghue and Evans, both described as having poor reputations in the neighbourhood, were hauled into court the following morning. According to one lawyer, “I don’t know why he should want to eat one of our new patrol sergeants. He’s been here before for this kind of thing.” Described by the Telegram’s court reporter as “the man with the cannibal appetite,” Donaghue received six months hard labour for his snack, while Evans’ father paid a ten-dollar fine for his son’s actions.
Arrests of inebriates like Donaghue over the holiday season were fewer in 1909 than previous years. Christmas Day saw one hundred and thirty people taken into custody for public drunkenness. As the Mail and Empire noted, “Most of them were treated leniently on account of the season, and the inspectors allowed them to go as soon as they could find their way home…only in the aggravated cases were fines imposed, and the majority of the prisoners formed a procession out of the dock, and will be in line for the New Year’s celebration.”
Additional material from the December 23, 1909 and December 28, 1909 editions of the Mail and Empire; the December 24, 1909 and December 27, 1909 editions of the News; the December 23, 1909, December 24, 1909, and December 27, 1909 editions of the Toronto Star; and the December 23, 1909 and December 24, 1909 editions of the Telegram.
Illustrations by Sasha Plotnikova/Torontoist.