Meet Alexander Wood, the Pioneer of Toronto's Gay Village

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Meet Alexander Wood, the Pioneer of Toronto’s Gay Village

Delving into the complicated history of a man who helped found the Church-Wellesley Village.

At the corner of Church and Alexander stands an two-and-a-half-metre-tall bronze statue of Alexander Wood, the early Canadian merchant who owned much of the surrounding land that has since become the Church-Wellesley Village.

There is no known image of Wood, except for a vague Georgian silhouette portrait, and the absence of any definitive likeness freed sculptor Del Newbigging to take some creative liberties with the monument. Newbigging’s version of Wood casts him as a dandy, and he appears quite debonair: in his left hand he clutches a top hat and leather gloves, and in his right he carries a walking stick. His coat billows out behind him dramatically. “I have worked from the silhouette and researched the period for clothing styles,” Newbigging told Xtra when the statue was unveiled in 2005. “And I have added a gay flair which I am convinced he would have had.”

Newbigging is not the only one convinced of Wood’s gay bent. The plaque beneath the statue hails Wood as a “gay pioneer,” and at the unveiling ceremony, the president of the Church-Wellesley Village BIA praised Wood as “a great, gay citizen active in politics and community.”

The passage of time has cemented Wood’s connection with Toronto’s present-day gay community: in the neighbourhood around the statue, there is Wood Street, Alexander Street, and Alexander Place. Yet there is vanishingly little direct historical evidence that indicates Wood’s sexual orientation, and lingering, problematic questions about the 1810 sex scandal that came to define him in popular imagination.

Wood immigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1793, and the 21-year-old settled in Kingston, where he quickly established himself as a merchant and invested in the Kingston Brewery. When that business fell apart around 1801, Wood moved to south to York, which was then a small town of around 700 settlers. He opened his own shop, and found immediate success with an upper-class clientele, including the Lieutenant Governor. If you owned a horse-drawn carriage in York around the turn of the century, odds are it was purchased from Wood’s store.

A clique of ascetic, conservative Anglicans known as the Family Compact ruled Upper Canada at the time, and by and large, they did not accept merchants among their ranks. Yet Wood managed to ingratiate himself, chiefly with William Dummer Powell, an American lawyer who later served as chief justice, and the Reverend John Strachan, the Compact’s unofficial leader. “Our sentiments agree almost upon everything,” Strachan wrote of Wood in 1807. In short order, Wood was appointed a lieutenant in York’s militia, then a magistrate, and finally a small-courts judge. It was from this newly acquired position of social prominence that Wood would be knocked down by a salacious sex scandal.

In June of 1810, a resident of York whose name is recorded only as “Miss Bailey” reported to the police that she had been violently raped. Bailey was unable to identify her attacker, but she did manage to scratch her assailant’s genitals, and it was purportedly on that basis that Wood justified his very intimate inspection of several young men. There is a plaque beneath his statue that shows a man, pants down around his knees, presenting himself to Wood; it resembles the beginning of a period-piece porno.

Wood’s contemporaries did not take kindly to his hands-on approach in the investigation. The culprit was never apprehended, but Wood became known derisively as the “Inspector General of private Accounts,” and leered at in the streets. His mercantile competitors noted with glee that “no one goes near his shop.” His friend, Judge Powell, confronted Wood about the allegations of impropriety, and Wood admitted to a serious error in judgment. “I have laid myself open to ridicule and malevolence,” he granted. “The thing will be made the subject of mirth and a handle to my enemies for a sneer.” (This account of the scandal is drawn from Edith Firth’s entry on Wood in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.)

The problem, as historian Hamish Copley has written, was not that Wood fondled another man, because that would not technically count as sodomy, nor was “gross indecency” yet a crime on the books. But Wood had abused his power as a magistrate by compelling the young men to prove their innocence in such a demeaning way. There was to be a formal inquiry into Wood’s conduct, but Powell intervened and “from its odious nature, the investigation was smothered.” The condition was that Wood leave for Scotland, and he departed on October 17, 1810, with his clerk in charge of his shop.

By 1812, the population of York was distracted by the recently declared war, and Wood used the occasion as cover to return. He resumed his work as a magistrate and shop-keep, though sales still flagged and he eventually closed the store in 1821. The scandal was mostly forgotten, and Wood again struck up a friendship with Strachan, dining weekly at the reverend’s enormous estate on Simcoe Street. It was on Strachan’s recommendation that Wood was appointed to a panel tasked with investigating war claims in 1823, but his old friend Powell, who was by then chief justice, refused to swear him in on moral grounds. Woods sued, and the entire sordid affair was rehashed in court. Though Woods won his case, Powell refused to pay him damages. Wood returned to Scotland in 1842 for what was intended to be a brief trip, though he died there two years later. He was never married, and his estate passed to a distant relative.

In years before he died, Wood purchased an enormous tract of land: some 20 hectares of untamed forest east of Yonge and north of Carlton. The area was dubbed Molly Wood’s Bush, “molly” being a nineteenth-century slur for a gay man. Perhaps fittingly, it is precisely this area that went on to become Toronto’s gay village. Even before the advent of bathhouses and gay clubs, the land was reportedly a popular cruising spot. Yet besides the derogatory nickname and happenstance of history, there is scarce evidence that Wood himself might have been gay. The sex scandal implied as much, as did his perennial bachelorhood. And sculptor Newbigging points to Wood’s winking correspondence with George Herchmer Markland, another prominent resident of Upper Canada who was accused of homosexuality in the years after Wood’s return from exile in Scotland, as evidence of an underground network of gay men around this time.

There remains the thorny question of Wood’s conduct during the rape investigation. It brings to mind a distinctly modern parallel: the police officer in Virginia who was fired for insisting that his sexting investigation required a photo of a 17-year-old’s erect penis. Both are instances of sexual misconduct and abuse of power.

And yet, despite this uncomfortable line of thought and the murkiness surrounding Wood’s true sexual orientation or proclivities, he has been adopted as the earliest gay icon in Canadian history. There are very few explicitly queer monuments around the world, and even fewer that take the form of a traditional, outsize bronze statue, a medium typically reserved for monarchs and founding fathers.

So what is the basis of Wood’s appeal to the gay community today? Perhaps his apparent ability to bounce back from widespread condemnation has understandably endeared him to a persecuted population like Toronto’s modern LGBTQ community. “This statue—this giant, bronze gay man—is important not only to the lesbian and gay community,” said Dennis O’Connor, the former Church-Wellesley BIA chair, at the unveiling ceremony. “It’s a symbol for any minority community that has struggled and fought to be accepted for their place and home in our city.”

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