Published on the ‘Looking Back’ page of the Montreal Gazette on February 14, 2011.
Life was hard for most Montrealers who lived during the Edwardian period. Working virtually from sunrise to sunset six days a week, there was never much time for the celebratory distractions with which we are so familiar today. St. Valentine’s Day (as it was known at the time) became somewhat of an exception, however.
Many early twentieth century Montrealers used the gushy occasion to send greetings to one another via the Post Office. Given the anonymity of the exercise, some missives were downright discourteous. “Postal deliveries today were augmented by thousands of loving and deriding messages, but with all fairness to the sentimental youth of Montreal it can be assumed that the sweetheart tokens predominated,” reported the Montreal Star on February 14, 1910.
That particular year also saw the emergence of the cartoon, as a means of communicating one’s feelings, be they positive or negative. “If a man thinks ill of his mother-in-law now-a-days,” continued the same account, “he sends her a surreptitious description of herself from his point of view. These caricatures are made to describe every trade and profession under the sun, and in many places it is regarded as a solemn duty once a year to stab at your neighbour through the medium of the post.” All the same, not all manifestations of the annual mid-February rite were so playfully unkind.
For instance, on Valentine’s Day 1906, the Montreal Star reported the odd story of the legal tribulations in Westmount’s Police Court of a strikingly beautiful young Swedish girl who worked as a domestic in the city. The young woman, one Hilda Christiana Sjo’berg, was accused of having stolen a few items from her mistress earlier in the month.
Sjo’berg, who had left her own country due to the political unrest brought on by Norway’s struggle for independence from Sweden, later admitted to the theft but offered no rational explanation as to why she had done it.
As the clock struck ten that Valentine Day morning, Police Magistrate Edmond McMahon walked into the chamber and took his seat on the bench. At that point, the visibly distraught young woman (a native of the Scandinavian town of Sunsvall) was brought in by a rather burly officer of the law. “Tears were flowing from the dark-blue eyes of the young Swedish girl,” reported The Star in its typical mawkish Edwardian style.
As the learned judge was about to impose his sentence on the frightened servant, an equally attractive gentleman stepped forward and offered to intervene on the young woman’s behalf. His name was William Brown, 22 years of age, and a native of Bolton, England. The young man was happily employed by one the larger companies in Montreal and was quite settled in this city. He declared solemnly that he was willing to pay any fine on Sjo’berg’s behalf if only Magistrate McMahon would give the youthful Swede her liberty.
The judge, with a most serious look on his face, asked Brown quite matter-of-factly: “Why? Are you in love with the young woman?”
“I am smitten to the very heart with her at first sight, and I do not want to see her go to prison,” he answered earnestly.
“Do you really love the girl?” the magistrate persevered.
“I love her with all my heart,” came the reply.
“Would you marry the young lady?”
“I would marry her on the spot, if you would liberate her.”
To everyone’s surprise, Judge McMahon (who was also Montreal’s coroner) made the arrangements then and there. He requested the indulgence of Reverend Ernest Bushell, rector of Westmount’s St. Matthias Church to perform the marriage ceremony. Accordingly, the couple (who knows what the young woman thought!) was married that very evening – Valentine’s Day – at seven o’clock in the Town Hall by the Anglican priest.
Needless to say, the story was the talk of the city in the days that followed.