Scandal! Vice, Crime and Morality in Montreal, 1940-1960.




Novembre 15, 2013 to December 30, 2016

Generally, nightclubs […] were entertaining people from the United States who were sitting there, with their mouth open, watching all this slightly risqué stuff.

William Weintraub, journalist and author of City Unique

Zenith and decline of the “wide-open city” of fun and forbidden pleasures

Postcard of St. Catherine Street, 1952. Centre d’histoire de Montréal

Canada’s largest city in the mid-20th century, Montreal was, as it still is, a port city and a transportation, business, and immigration hub. Manifestly Catholic in the daytime, it tuned into a capital of entertainment and adult gratification at night. Quebec having refused to adopt the prohibition laws that were passed in the United States in the early 1920s, Montreal acquired the reputation of a city of pleasure with an exuberant nightlife, where North-American tourists could come to enjoy themselves, drink, and go slumming without fear of raids or arrests. Besides the all-night bars, there were countless restaurants, movie theatres, nightclubs, and cabarets in the city.

Most of the showgirls in these years came from the United States; 1951. Photograph: Louis Jacques (Weekend Magazine). Library and Archives Canada, e005477044

Hello Montreal!

An obligatory tour stop for North-American entertainers, Montreal attracted big-name singers, jazz musicians, and burlesque stars like the famous American striptease artist, Lili St. Cyr, irreverently called “the Queen of Montreal”.

Lili St. Cyr, circa 1950. Centre d’histoire de Montréal

The underside

Existing in symbiosis with the city of glamour was the clandestine Montreal of crime and illicit activities. The “Paris of North America” was one of the last cities on the continent to still have a functioning red-light district during the Second World War. Hundreds of brothels operated openly, a few yards away from the best-known nightclubs. Gambling dens and bookmaking counters proliferated downtown and spread to the four corners of the city, enriching gangs who were also involved in heroin trafficking. The police weren’t doing enough to reassure honest citizens until the occurrence of shocking events provoked a major scandal.

Tourist homes present problem to the squad”, from the article “Morality Squad in Canada’s Largest City Proves Vice Can Be Conquered”, The Standard, August 2, 1947. Library and Archives Canada, e011067355

The murder of the King of Gambling, Harry Davis

In the summer of 1946, gambling kingpin Harry Davis was shot dead in full daylight in the centre of downtown Montreal, a scenario that seemed straight out of 1920s Chicago. An incorruptible young lawyer, Pacifique Plante, was appointed to head the morality squad. However, his energetic anti-vice activities soon caused him to be fired for excessive zeal.

Harry Davis, the King of Gambling, mid-20th century. City of Montreal Archives, P43,S3,SS2,vol.77,E-385-01

Scandal! Citizens take action

The mistreated crime-buster became the hero of the leagues formed after the Second World War by citizens worried by the growth of “commercialized vice”, which they attributed to a worsening of urban problems due to the war (the housing crisis, increased noise and crime). With the help of Plante and the press, ever on the alert, these associations succeeded in obtaining the public inquiry they had long demanded. Behind the police officers cited at the Caron Inquiry (1950-1953), the highest municipal authorities were accused of having allowed themselves to be corrupted by organized crime.

Montreal police lawyer Pacifique ‘Pax’ Plante,” from the article “Morality Squad in Canada’s Largest City Proves Vice Can Be Conquered”, The Standard, August 2, 1947. Library and Archives Canada, e011067351

Tolerance against reform

The sensational revelations of the inquiry enabled young reformist politicians like Jean Drapeau, elected mayor in 1954, to come into power on their promises to clean up, modernize, and democratize Montreal. At the same time, the increased use of the automobile, the expansion of the suburbs, and the advent of television sealed the fate of the city’s downtown nightlife.

Mathieu Lapointe, Guest researcher, The McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, McGill University

The witnesses

The Centre d’histoire de Montréal wishes to acknowledge the exceptional contribution of the following specialists, actors, artists, and eye-witnesses who generously offered their perspectives to the camera.

Réal BEAUCHAMP, Montreal Police officer (1955-1961).
Anouk BÉLANGER, professor, Département de sociologie, UQAM; specialist in popular urban culture.
Cmdt Sylvain BISSONNETTE, police chief (active) and historian of the Montreal Police Force.
Joseph BLUMER, Attorney; student at McGill University from 1952 to 1961.
Magaly BRODEUR, lecturer, Université de Sherbrooke; author of Vice et corruption à Montréal, 1892-1970.
Ethel BRUNEAU, singer and professional tap dancer (Miss Swing) who began her career in Montreal nightclubs in 1953.
André CÉDILOT, journalist and author of Mafia Inc.
Line CHAMBERLAND, professor, holder of the Research Chair on Homophobia at UQAM and specialist in lesbian history.
Jean-Pierre CHARBONNEAU, journalist and author of The Canadian Connection.
Jérôme CHOQUETTE, attorney; former minister in the Quebec government.
Robert CÔTÉ, Montreal Police officer (1959-1990).
Charles DARVEAU, Montreal taxi driver (1948- 1967).
Claude FLEURENT, Montreal Police officer (1961-1986).
Francine GRIMALDI, cultural commentator on the present-day Montreal scene and daughter of Jean Grimaldi.
Karen HERLAND, part-time faculty, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Concordia University; specialist in the history of prostitution.
Scarlett JAMES, producer and burlesque artist in present-day Montreal.
Oliver JONES, Montreal jazz pianist whose career began in the 1940s.
Monique LAJEUNESSE-TOUPIN, customer of Montreal nightclubs and cabarets in the 1950s.
Émilie-Cloé LALIBERTÉ, director of Stella, an organization that defends the rights of sex workers.
Mathieu LAPOINTE, historian; member of the scientific committee for the exhibition.
Mario LATRAVERSE, Montreal Police officer (1958-1987).
Charles-André LATULIPPE, Montreal Police officer (1946-1988).
Gilles LATULIPPE, actor and comedian.
Armand LARRIVÉE MONROE, floor-show emcee and important figure of Montreal’s gay scene in the 1950s and 1960s.
Claude LAVALLÉE, Provincial Police officer, Sûreté du Québec (1964-1972).
Anne ROCKHEAD, wife of Kenny Rockhead, owner of Rockhead’s Paradise.
Gaston SAINT-GERMAIN, frequenter of Montreal nightclubs in the 1950s.
Thérèse VALLÉE-FIORILLI, cigarette girl at Au Faisan Doré (1948 to 1950).
Marcelle VALOIS-HÉNAULT, resident of downtown Montreal from 1928 to 1950.
William WEINTRAUB, journalist, film director, and author of City Unique: Montreal Days and Nights in the 1940s and '50s.