In the spring of 1906, 15-year-old Blanche Tremblay was brought to the Montreal Recorder’s Court, which was located in the old Montreal City Hall building before it was destroyed by fire in 1922, and was charged by her mother with being a common vagabond. That meant she showed no interest in going to school or getting a job, and was living off her parents, who had their hands full raising Blanche’s seven other siblings. The Recorder (who was like a presiding judge), after hearing the facts in the case, sentenced young Blanche to six months in the city’s Women’s Jail on Fullum Street.
Romeo Vendette appeared at the Recorder’s Court in July of that year for violating two city bylaws: riding a bicycle without a lamp and breaking the city speed limit, which at the time was a dangerous 10 kph. Mr. Vendette pleaded guilty to both infractions, and was sentenced by the court to either pay a $4 fine (about $100 in today’s currency) or spend 23 days in jail; he chose to pay the fine.
Life in Montreal during the Edwardian Era (1901-1910) was a time when the line between the rich (the Golden Square Mile) and the poor (the City Below the Hill) couldn’t have been more clearer. While the city’s merchant princes were getting richer and living in their lavish mansions, Montreal’s working class and poor were dealing with less than ideal working conditions, paltry salaries, unsanitary living conditions, little or no social assistance and a high infant mortality rate. And conditions like that led not only to more susceptibility to health problems, but more likely to be exposed to vice and crime, and committing all sorts of violations against city laws and bylaws.
When that happened, the violators who were caught by Montreal’s finest were brought before the Montreal Recorder’s Court, where practically every Saturday, the Recorder (judge) would hear the multitude of cases and swiftly mete out justice, whether it be a fine (ranging an average from 50 cents to $20) or being sentenced to a minor or lengthy stay in a reformatory, or one of Montreal’s notorious prisons.
Local historian Robert N. Wilkins, whose previous book Montreal 1909 magnificently captured the daily life of the city and its people during a single year of the Edwardian Era, now takes another year during that period –1906–and examines how crime and punishment were dealt with in Montreal during that single year within its halls of justice in his new book Montreal Recorder’s Court, 1906.
Wilkins has done a terrific job doing the research for this book. Not only has he diligently gone through the microfiche of such newspapers as the Gazette, La Presse, the Montreal (Daily) Star and the Montreal Herald to get some contemporary accounts, he has also burrowed through the original Recorder’s Court documents that are stored in the City of Montreal Archives (which for most part, were found well preserved and intact) to sift through the mundane, interesting and tragic cases that were presented to the docket for city Recorders Robert Stanley Weir, Alexandre-Eudora Poirier and Louis-Wilfred Sicotte to hear and render their judgements.
The selection of cases he presents in the book represents a microcosm of how life among the city’s lowly led to so many crimes and violations that were committed such as vice, vagrancy, public drunkenness, animal cruelty, swimming in the Lachine Canal, domestic violence, assault, reckless driving, loitering, begging and sanitary violations for food and drink (especially milk).
The cases that are written about by Wilkins range from the sublime, absurd, melodramatic, ridiculous, sad and tragic. A typical case that involved many of Montreal’s underprivileged children focussed on 11-year-old Edward Johnson, who was brought to the Recorder’s Court by his mother for refusing to go to school or work, lying, swearing, and disobeying his parents. After corroborating testimony from the local parish priest, the neighbourhood police chief and an employer about young Edward’s constant incorrigible behaviour, the boy was sentenced by the court to three years in a reformatory located in Sherbrooke.
Why Wilkins chose the year of 1906 as the focus of his book could be regarded as random. However, there are two stories in the book that lends itself to the significance of why this year was chosen. First, it was the year when 59-year-old Antoine Toutant had the distinction of being the first pedestrian to be killed by a motorized vehicle in Montreal; second it was the year when a letter written by then-Governor General Lord Grey to then-Premier of Quebec Lomer Gouin in February outlined the horrid conditions of the Montreal city jail (which was also known as the “Pied-du-Courant” prison), which was located on Notre Dame Street East and dated back to the 1830s. As a result, Premier Gouin’s government decided to build a new penitentiary in Montreal’s North End, which became Bordeaux Jail, which opened in 1912 and still stands to this day.
Montreal Recorder’s Court, 1906 is an entertaining piece of Montreal’s hidden history. As well, through the court’s extensive archives, we get a rather interesting look at the seamy side of life in Montreal during its years as a dominant business and cultural Canadian metropolis. And thanks to Mr. Wilkins’ passion for every aspect of Montreal history, he certainly knows how to make the mundane and ordinary details into historically fascinating details.
To purchase a copy of the book, just send an email to email@example.com. Proceeds from sales of the book will benefit St. Michael’s Mission and Chez Doris.