Prostitution occasionally makes the news. Like the recent arrest in Winnipeg of an alleged serial killer who preyed on prostitutes. But I have a hunch that prostitution is a lot more common than we care to let on.
Just take a look at prostitution in the history of Brandon. And a scandal that erupted in the Brandon police department 100 years ago this summer.
Apparently prostitution has been quite common in Brandon. But you have to read between the lines. We are quite the proper people! We would rather not talk about — uh, ah, you know — prostitutes or sex for money.
Take this description from the Brandon Sun’s recent special feature about the Prince Edward Hotel. There was note of a situation in the 1930s, but "prostitute" or what she actually did was never mentioned. The reference was to "a young woman of easy (perhaps limited) virtue." And that "she was a favourite of the travelling salesmen" who stayed at the hotel.
We find many such polite accounts of similar goings-on in histories like G.F. Barker’s "Brandon: A City." There were plenty of "certain members of the opposite sex, unwanted within Brandon boundaries." These women operated what were described only by euphemisms, like "disorderly houses," or — my personal favourite — "beguiling haunts."
During Brandon’s early days in the 1880s, for instance, "Dandy" French had a "house of ill repute" in the North End. Once, she and four men were arrested for creating a disturbance. The men were let off, but the "haughty and infamous young woman" was fined three dollars. Another time, "Dandy" shot one of her customers in the head; he survived, she left town.
How about this scene in 1910 of men coming into Brandon after spending a season logging in the bush? "Then the lads, after eight months of enforced abstinence and with accumulated savings in their pockets, joyfully invaded bars and houses of forbidden pleasures …"
See what’s happening here? We are being treated to not only a sanitized history, but also a sexist history. Good, decent, hard-working men just want to have a little fun. Bad, undesirable, immoral women provide that fun.
Now, what about that scandal exactly a century ago?
The spark was an incident on August 8, 1912. Screams were heard in the night from a house in the 1500 block of Victoria Avenue. A young woman appeared to be held against her will. A neighbour phoned the police, but the police refused to intervene. Perhaps because it was at the home of Watson Boyd, the chief of police? Boyd was out of town, but his adult son Harry was in the house and was at the centre of the commotion.
Other complaints and rumours about the police were circulating in the city. A representative from the "Social and Moral Reform League" spoke at a public meeting and demanded action.
City Council responded by appointing a judge to conduct a public inquiry. The police were accused of being "negligent in the performance of their duties" with regard to "bawdy houses, gambling houses and prostitutes."
"Evidence of remarkable nature" was heard during the inquiry, according to the Brandon Daily Sun. More light was shed on the ruckus at Chief Boyd’s house. The neighbour testified that he heard young Boyd yelling at a woman, "I won’t let you go, even if I have to kill you to keep you." (The woman was identified as a prostitute.) But the police, instead of arresting Boyd, gave him money to take the train out of town.
An inquiry witness reported that Chief Boyd himself frequented a "house of ill fame." Another had "seen women of questionable character coming out of the Chief’s office at irregular hours." Other witnesses told of payoffs to the police.
Even before the judge presented his report, city leaders knew what they had to do. "Drastic Action is Taken by Council," read the headline in the Sun on Sept. 25, 1912. Police Chief Boyd was pressured into resigning and eight members of the force were fired. Only one constable, a recent recruit, was spared. He was promoted to sergeant and put in charge until a new chief and officers could be hired.
Prostitution? Sometimes the community just has to take notice.
» David McConkey is an active citizen. Contact him and read previous columns.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition July 30, 2012