|Toronto in the 1850s, with edge of the Fair Green bottom-centre|
These weren't the kind of clowns you want to mess with. They were, by all accounts, a pretty rough crew. They were in town for just a couple of days — part of a touring show from the U.S. called S.B. Howes' Star Troupe Menagerie & Circus. Along with the clowns, there were acrobats and equestrian trick riders and a bunch of exotic animals: big cats, elephants, even a giraffe. The circus had already performed a few sold out shows that day — it was a rare big draw in a city that was just starting to come into its own.
This was the summer of 1855. And Toronto was growing very, very quickly. Forty thousand people lived in the city now — and new immigrants were flooding in all the time. With the very first railroads starting up, the population would double over the next 20 years.
But in a lot of ways, it was still a rough, pioneer town. It would be a long while before we got our reputation for being Toronto The Good. If anything, we were the opposite. There were 68 taverns along Yonge Street — an average of one every 1200 meters between here and Barrie. In the city itself, there were 152 of them. Plus 203 beers shops on top of that. And then, there were the brothels. We had a lot of brothels.
The circus was done for the day and the clowns had the rest of the night off, so they decided to take advantage of the local nightlife. They picked a brothel near the corner of King & Jarvis and settled in to have some fun. But the rest of the night wouldn't go as planned.
It seems the clowns picked the wrong brothel. This one was a hangout for some of the men in a local volunteer fire brigade: The Hook & Ladder Firefighting Company. And these weren't the kind of firemen you wanted to mess with either. In those days, there was no central, public, government-run fire department. When a fire broke out, all the companies who were nearby rushed to the scene with their horse-drawn engines to get there first and call dibs. Just a couple of weeks earlier, the Hook & Ladders had arrived at a fire on Church Street at the same time as another brigade. A fight broke out. As the building burned, the firemen rioted in the street. And when the police showed up, they got pulled into the brawl too. In the end, the firemen were charged with assault. And the battle became known as the Firemen's Riot. The Hook & Ladders were no strangers to violence.
|S.B. Howes' Star Troupe Menagerie & Circus|
But it wasn't over yet. Those firemen had a lot of friends. In those days, Toronto was still pretty much entirely run by a small group of Protestant, Tory elites. They were all members of the Orange Order, hung out together at the Orange Lodge, and made sure that other Orangemen got all the important jobs in the city. The police were pretty much all Orangemen. And the firefighters were too. Usually, they focused on beating up Catholics. But they were willing to make an occasional exception.
They say word reached the police before violence broke out. But of course the Chief of Police, Samuel Sherwood, was an Orangeman. That's how he got to be Chief of Police. In fact, years earlier he'd helped to organize a conservative Tory attack on a liberal Reform Party parade. One of the Reformers had been shot and killed. So when Chief Sherwood heard about the trouble down at the Fair Green, he dragged his feet for as long as he could. And then, eventually, he sent a few men to check it out.
By the time they got there, it had started. People were throwing stones. And while the circus performers and the carnies were apparently able to hold the mob off for a while, it couldn't last. Eventually, the crowd overwhelmed them. And when the Hook & Ladders arrived, all hell broke loose. They stormed the circus with pikes and axes, overturned wagons, pulled down the tents and the Big Top and set them on fire. They beat clowns to a pulp. Circus folk ran for their lives. Some dived into the lake for safety. It was mayhem.
|Council's inquest into the Circus Riot|
That, as far as most people were concerned, was bullshit. And it would keep on coming. A few months later, there was another Protestant vs. Catholic riot — and Chief Sherwood's memory was again suspiciously fuzzy as far as Orangemen were concerned. A few months after that, he was under fire again after freeing a suspect who had been accused of robbing a bank.
But by then, there had been another mayoral election. And for the first time in more than 20 years — since William Lyon Mackenzie's rebellion — a liberal Reform Party candidate had won. City council called for deep reforms to the way Toronto's police force was run. The government of Canada West (essentially what they called Ontario back then) agreed. An inquest was launched, and in the end, the whole old system was overthrown. Every single police officer in the city was fired and a new force was created from scratch. Half of the old constables would end up being re-hired and it took nearly 100 years before the Orange stranglehold on power in Toronto was finally broken. But the foundations of our current, modern police force had finally been laid.
You can read more about the riot and the history of the police here. And the riot in general here. They're both awesome sources.
I got Toronto's tavern stats from this piece, about a rivalry between Tory and Reform-minded doctors (most notably John Rolph, who'd played a huge role in Mackenzie's rebellion). It's a pretty neat read for anyone interested in the politics of medicine in the city in the 1800s (which I'm sure you all are).
There's a list of Toronto riots thanks to Google Books here.