Published in the Montreal Gazette on September 1, 2012
On November 25, 1907, an unidentified twelve-year-old girl and her sister (“a regular inmate of the place”) were each sentenced to a prison term of six months and a fine of $50 (or another three months) for having been found to be inhabitants in a disorderly house on Notre Dame East, near Plessis Street.
Only two nights before, the police had raided the house along with two others, one situated on Guy Street, the other on St. Charles Borromee (today Clark Street). The men were let off with lighter sentences – one received two months in jail while the others were given fines ranging from $10-$20.
The magistrate meting out the justice on that particular Monday morning was none other than Recorder Francois Xavier Dupuis, no stranger to the delicate question of the sex industry as it was practised in Edwardian Montreal. From the Bench that day, Dupuis stated that he had decided to have no leniency for such cases anymore. On a different occasion only a year earlier, another Recorder, Louis Wilfrid Sicotte, sentenced both Eugenie Dubois Adeline Gregoire to six months incarceration for “street walking” and “keeping a disorderly house” respectively.
For a brief period of time, it seemed that the City of Montreal meant business in its attempts to curtail prostitution.
However, only a few years later police officials had to admit that the frequent law enforcement raids and harsh sentences were only causing the ‘social evil’ to spread elsewhere in the city. In fact, the flesh trade was indeed thriving. In 1905, for instance, the city’s Red Light District is said to have contained some 150 houses of ill repute and perhaps 2000 prostitutes, this in a town of about 350,000 people.
For the churches, both Protestant and Catholic, the torrid situation was intolerable. One of the more militant anti – brothel campaigners was Reverend Arthur Thomas French, curate at the Church of St. John the Evangelist. From the Sunday pulpit, he regularly denounced the lax enforcement of the various laws overseeing the ‘disorderly houses’ scattered throughout much of the city.
In addition, in July of 1907, Reverend French sent a letter to Recorder Dupuis in which he clearly outlined his views on the matter. In essence, French, 53, wanted to attempt to close all the suspect venues and hand out more severe sentences to every one of those involved. He was not shy to express his thoughts on the matter, even meeting on one occasion with the premier of the province, Sir Lomer Gouin.
Although Recorder Dupuis had proved himself capable of handing out heavy prison terms, he never for once imagined that the phenomenon could be eliminated in such a fashion. The dogmatic magistrate believed that, ideally, the disorderly houses were there to be contained to a very limited area of the city as well as being relentlessly regulated. He reproached French for doing, in the learned judge’s opinion, more harm than good.
On February 25, 1909, Dupuis articulated his beliefs on the contentious subject and on Reverend French in his municipal courtroom. There was a big crowd present, including Olivier Campeau, Montreal’s Chief of Police. French’s arraignment was most unusual in itself while, at the same time, Dupuis’ views contrasted greatly from those of his colleague, Recorder Weir, who tended to share the attitude of the Anglican priest.
According to the Montreal Star: “Mr. Recorder Dupuis consumed nearly three quarters of an hour in making his deliverance and at times grew quite eloquent and emphatic, quoting the experience of by-gone days and even the doctrines of the saints in the support of his view that the ‘social evil’ could not be stamped out entirely and that it was better to segregate and regulate it than to attempt to suppress it”.
Dupuis then went on to list a series of rules by which he and Campeau agreed the game could be played, including one which forbade cabman from waiting outside ‘disorderly houses’ waiting to pick up a fare!
He chastised French for, in his opinion, having liberated the women from police surveillance “and disguised as decent women, have already invaded the restaurants, the stores. We find them in the rooms that they rent from poor families where they corrupt the boys of the household and very often the father of the family, and also the young girls with whom they become companions We find them in hotels which are menaced by the invasion of this legion of freed, loose women – free to rot the city. They live on Sherbrooke street, St. Denis, St. Hubert and such streets, at Westmount and all the fashionable neighbourhoods where they will find rich prey”.
Compelling words to which we do not know if the Reverend Arthur French was afforded to opportunity to reply.