Monday, November 14, 2016

Montreal Vice and Corruption and My Grandfather

I never have liked this time of year. You look at the clock, thinking it's about 8.30 at night and it's only 5.25.

And this year, November 2016 is especially crappy. No kidding!  Gosh, I have this sickening sinking feeling in my stomach all the time.

So, what to do? Breath, for one. Then start on another writing project. What else?

So I don't have to read the headlines for the next long while.

I found this photo in an old archived Quebec newspaper: now I just have to describe the architecture. It looks Romanesque. But, is this room in the Old Courthouse from the 1800's or the new one  completed in 1925... I guess the really old one.

There's a newer courthouse now, all black windows and modern. I must figure out where the old one was.

It's of the opening of the Coderre Commission into Police Impropriety, October 1924.

During WWI, a group of Montreal social reformers got very concerned about prostitution around the barracks and that interest led to a post-war inquiry into Montreal vice.

The inquiry lasted a few months, cost many thousands, spawned 10 thousand pages of testimony and the final Coderre Report, published in early 1926, condemned Montreal as a place where vice had its tentacles in every corner of the city, but didn't end up changing much. 

Oh, they pulled back the hour of closing for dance halls by one hour from 1 to 12 am. Woo Hoo!

I've written about it in Milk and Water, my play on Amazon Kindle.  Milk and Water has my grandfather, Jules Crepeau as a character and so will this next bit. He was Director of City Services and embroiled in many scandals at the time. 

Grandpapa's name was brought up at this Commission by a certain Constable Trudeau, who appears to have been a real character, with an agenda.

Trudeau hated movie houses where boys, he thought, picked up bad habits, and while on the stand he was the one who changed the conversation about coal sellers ripping off their customers to the motion picture houses. He said citations against said entertainment venues that broke the by-laws were often cancelled by my grandfather. 

He also said something rather scary, "One day there's going to be a catastrophe. One day there's gonna be a fire and children won't be able to escape." (Paraphrased.)

Then, my grandfather fired him, before the Commission had come to a close.  Then a couple of years later there was a terrible fire where 72 children died, crushed in a rush to the door.

(Some accounts said mysterious men forced escaping children back up into the balcony.)

But, today, I'm starting on a larger, scarier venture. I'm going to write about the Laurier Palace Fire - and it all starts here, for me, with Trudeau's bizarre testimony fingering my grandfather for over-reaching his power.

Luckily the proceedings were well-described by the Quebec papers and this picture, from a French tabloid shows me exactly what Room 24 of the Palais de Justice in Montreal looked like in 1924.

All men in the picture and I can guess who they are. They are representatives of the Group of 16, churchmen and Rotary Club, Montreal General Hospital.  Mostly Englishmen, if not all English.  

Dr. Haywood Sir  Herbert Ames. Reverend Symonds.

The Group of 16 had initially had some radical women on it, but they got shaken off around 1920.

Like I said, Trudeau appears to be quite a pill. He's a lowly Constable but he's lent the Chief of Police 600 dollars.  He's someone's operative, that's for sure.

Stranger Things: 1927 Montreal

From Jules Crepeau's City Hall File.

"One of these days there's going to be a catastrophe. If a fire breaks out these days, many of those inside will not be able to get out."

These are the prescient words of one Montreal Constable Conrad Trudeau, uttered on December 13, 1924 at the Coderre Probe into Police Impropriety. (Yes, another one of THOSE.)

Trudeau was referring to movie houses, where young children all across the Western World, mostly boys, hung out, despite it being illegal for children to attend movies alone.

Trudeau did not like the motion pictures. He felt that boys picked up bad habits there.

Then, in 1927, just as Trudeau predicted, there was a fatal fire in a movie house on Ste. Catherine Street East. It was the Laurier Palace fire, a real game changer in the province of Quebec, whereupon it became illegal for children under 16 to attend the cinema  even in the company of an adult!

Burnt out Laurier Palace.

The  Catholic Church, a huge force in Quebec, also had a big part (despite being a big investor in the new mega-cinemas of the era ) along with the French nationalists, who I suspect were worried about the new talkies, and even Big Labour who didn’t want people working on Sundays.  A 360 degree coalition.


Back in the 1960's, my mother explained to me  why I wasn’t allowed into the nearby Snowden theatre.  She described with sadness how ‘little babies’ had died in this big fire in Montreal years before. 

I conjured up images of bawling infants in their mother’s arms, but, in reality, the victims were children 4 to 16.

What my mother didn’t tell me, back then in the Beatles Era, was that her late father, Jules Crepeau, as Director of City Services in the 20's, the top ranking civil servant, was deeply entangled in both the Coderre commission scandal and the Laurier Palace Fire tragedy. 

At the 1924 inquiry, Constable Trudeau also spoke out against my grandfather, charging him with wielding too huge an influence over the police, forcing officers to cancel citations against cinemas that had broken the rules.

Trudeau, whose job it was to police motion picture houses, also said "les theatres de)United Amusements» n’attiraient que des sentences suspendues ou $5. 

He did not mention that my grandfather’s brother, Isadore, was VP of United Theatre Amusements, a huge company in the process of building some of the grand Montreal movie theatres of the era.

A few days later, my grandfather proved the Constable right by having him fired for a bribery incident. (Trudeau was clearly corrupt; he had 'lent' money to the Chief, large sums, many times, as a friend. LOL. But, it wasn't for favors, he said. "I am still a constable, after all" he cheekily told the Court. I know for a fact, from the grandson, that one lowly constable back then owned four homes.)

Still, Juge Coderre tore into my grandfather in his final report. The Chief of Police had testified  that my grandfather was his boss. Coderre wrote he could not see in The new 1921 City Charter how my grandfather had power over the police.

Crepeau family circa 1927 at Atlantic City.

All this got recounted in a full page story in 1926 in the New York Times, because it became part of the testimony at the US Senate hearings into prohibition.

Seventy-two children  died at that Sunday matinee in January, 1927, neither immolated by flames nor asphyxiated by smoke, but killed in a huge crush to the door caused by  someone yelling “Fire!.” 

My grandfather was the first to speak about it at an initial inquiry, one that attracted little interest according to the Gazette article.

“Yes,” said my grandfather,  “The Laurier Palace had been delivered a citation for not paying a license fee, but they had paid and the paper work was going through when the fire happened.”

But, soon, with the many  sad funerals that followed, public indignation grew precipitating a public inquiry where my grandfather was called upon once again to testify, this time along with parents, cops and community leaders and even a few theatre owners.

May policemen lost their children in the fire: they had been given free tickets by the movie houses.

During this second inquiry, the movie houses were condemned, not only as dangerous fire-traps, but as immoral agents.  There was a hint of anti-semitism about the proceedings. 

School principals, counter-intuitively, stood up for the cinema, one claiming that children’s learning was enhanced by the movies. 

Suspiciously,  no one brought up Constable Trudeau’s 1924 testimony at these 1927  hearings.  However, Le Devoir reprinted some of Trudeau's testimony right after the fire saying this:

À l’occasion du sinistre du «Laurier Palace», il est intéressant de relire la déposition de l’agent de police Conrad Trudeau lors de l’enquête de la police présidée par le juge Coderre:

This according to a bit re-published in Le Devoir, 2010, that is online.

The paper did not seem to reprint Trudeau's prescient words: One day there's going to be a catastrophe, (maybe they were expunged from the record) or mention the fact that he was fired by my grandfather, on an unrelated bribery charge, right after he gave testimony. 

As far as I can see,  Le Devoir liked my grandfather. That paper published a long tribute to him after his death in 1938, basically saying he was the smartest man at City Hall. This obit also explained how no other paper has bothered to give my grandpapa his due.

Grandpapa’s big career would end a few years later in 1930, when new Mayor Camillien Houde forced him to resign, over a Montreal Water and Power money-flip that cost taxpayers  4 million; one that hugely benefited the big English industrialists of the era.

Jules should have informed the hapless aldermen of City Hall that the people were being swindled, so the story goes. (Read about it in Milk and Water.)

Houde gave an impassioned speech at a 1930  City Hall debate over my grandfather’s resignation (his lower dentures flew out, apparently, and he deftly caught them and popped them back in) “People wanted revenge for the Water and Power scandal, “ he said. “They also wanted revenge for the Laurier Palace Fire.”

Funny that Houde brought that up, right then. I think anyway. 

27 alderman voted to accept my grandfather’s resignation, 8 ( Jewish aldermen among them) didn’t. 
My work-a-holic grandfather, 60 years old and in perfect health, would leave City Hall, still the second highest paid employee with  a huge pension of 8 thousand a year.

He would soon go bankrupt due to bad investments and the Depression, I guess. I have a ledger that shows he was betting on Greek olive oil and

In 1937, he was run over by an off-duty policeman on Royal in NDG .  He died a little later from complications from the X-Rays he received for his broken bones.

My mother, 16 at the time of her father's death, always told me it was an accident that the policeman in question was quite contrite, she remembers.

Other older relations believed it was attempted murder.

Jules' brother, Isadore Crepeau,had died four years before, falling out his 7th floor St James Street office window!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

100 years ago, many women said they didn't want the vote.

Here's a 1909 Editorial from the Ladies' Home Journal claiming women don't want the vote, an oft-cited anti-woman-suffrage argument.

I write about it in Furies Cross the Mersey.

A Few 'Restless' Women
Suppose we take the noisy clamor for the right of women to vote and reduce it to a practical test or two. Now we are certainly led to believe by the speeches of the female suffragists, that the American women really want the ballot - in fact, that definite statement is repeatedly made.  But just what is meant by the phrase "the American Woman" isn't always made clear.  How large a part of American Womanhood does it include?  Let us take an expression or two direct from women. Not many years ago an American President received the customary petition that is familiar to every President, asking him to incorporate into his next message to Congress a recommendation that the subject of women's suffrage be seriously taken up with the view of giving women the right to vote. The President was fair-minded. He was willing to see both sides, so he determined to test the truth of the phrase in the petition, that is " this was practically the unanimous desire of American womanhood as a whole," but that "men had refused to recognize the fact." That evening he handed the petition to his wife and asked her "What do you think of that?" "I really don't know," she answered. "I have never thought about it." The President said, "but the petition says it is the unanimous desire of American women."
"Perhaps it is," she answered. "Why don't you find out. Pick fifty women whose opinion you respect and write and ask them."

The President did.

There were 46 answers. Thirty four had no desire at all to vote. They were 'too busy' or left politics to their husbands. Eleven were absolutely indifferent.  One lonely lady said "she might vote" but added "probably, when the time came, I wouldn't bother to vote." Here, then, were forty-odd intelligent, representative women, and yet not a single one actually wanted the ballot!

…The simple fact  of the matter is that the vast majority of American women have not only no desire to vote, but, to use their own words, they are not bothering about the question. This is the actual condition that American suffragists confront, not the antagonism of men, for men, as a body, are not antagonistic, they are indifferent, perfectly content to let women fight this question out among themselves and find consensus among themselves. And up to this date that consensus is distinctly that the average woman's common sense, and particularly her knowledge of her own sex, teaches her that she is unwilling to run the risks, which she knows, far better than men, would accompany an extension of the franchise to her sex.  The field of politics as a new excitement for a few restless American women is barred to them by their own sex
Ladies' Home Journal February 1909