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Vice in Montreal

The address was 312 Ontario Street. A series of apartment buildings stuck together made up the city’s largest complex of brothels to date, where the mere mention of the numbers “312” would turn many cheeks beet red. Filled with over 80 rooms and employing about 80 women, it was run by the once notorious “Madame Bobbe.”

Opened for business from the World War I era until the 1950s, the first floor of the building was the place to drink, dance, and socialize, while the upper floor was reserved for socializing of the more intimate kind. The second floor layout of the 312 was described as a “honeycomb” of rooms where locals, tourists, and soldiers alike could indulge in a number of pleasures and some morally-questionable activities; all feasible even with a police station right around the corner.

And the whereabouts of this address? In none other than the city of Montreal.

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What the infamous area of Ontario Street looks like today, with apartments filling the top two floors and a bistro, burger joint, and a bar on the main floor (all photographs by the author unless indicated)

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The apartment complex of the old “312”, present day

The Centre d’Histoire de Montréal is currently hosting an exhibition entitled Scandal! Vice, Crime, and Morality in Montreal, 1940-1960, which documents many aspects of Montreal’s glory days along with its downfall. Various experts, including local authors, professors, former police officers, taxi drivers, and performers, were interviewed for Scandal!.

It begins with a layout of a typical Montreal club from the 1920s and 30s, with images and biographies of celebrities who spent a great deal of their time performing in the city, such as Montreal-born jazz musician Oscar Peterson and American exotic dancer Lili St. Cyr. The walls are filled with quotes from journalist Al Palmer, images of the Montreal club scene during the era, as well as maps identifying the locations of the clubs, bars, and brothels that existed in the first half of the 20th century. Along with the recorded interviews (audio and visual) offered in English and French, people can sit and listen to many experts on this time period. As one voice says: “Las Vegas was one thing, but Montreal was big.”

article-imageBeer ad in 1920 on Boulevard Saint-Laurent in Montreal (via Archives du Musée McCord)

With a large port, a multicultural population, and a large number of bilingual citizens, Montreal developed into North America’s sin city. The port made everything easily accessible, as Montrealers worked to satisfy the growing needs of the public, whatever that entailed. Booze was served, bars stayed open late, and brothels opened.

The bars were known as “blind pigs.” They stayed open late and served alcohol without permits, therefore a “blind” eye was turned. During the era of the American prohibition, which lasted from 1920 until 1933, actors and other artists from New York and Chicago heard rumors about a city just north of the border that served alcohol in clubs. Thus they started to flock to Montreal, where the party showed no signs of stopping. “Some clubs were opened 24 hours,” explains Oliver Jones in Scandal!. “There were after-hours clubs where musicians would go after a show to play jazz.”

Hot spots such as the Tour Eiffel, El Morocco, Normandie Roof, and Bellevue Casino were just some of the main spots for drinking, dancing, and then some, with their main locations clustered around Ste-Catherine’s street, now a famous area for shopping in the city. These were for the city’s straight population, while bars like the Tropical, the Monarch, Starry Sky, and Blue Sky were hang outs for Montreal’s gay and lesbian community.

In an interview in the exhibition, Montreal professor Line Chamberland described the life of a bar called the Point de Paris on St.Andre and St. Catherine’s. “The bar was divided”, she explained. “The left side was for the lesbians. Women’s bathroom on the left side, so there was no need for men to go on that side.”

The Monarch bar was a big “all-male” bar on 1422 Peel Street. Armand Larivee-Monroe, a floor-show emcee who worked in gay clubs around Montreal in the 1950s and 1960s, discusses in Scandal! the life of a gay man in Montreal. “Actions such as handholding, kissing, and slow-dancing weren’t allowed in public, all displays of affection like that. But being gay wasn’t illegal at the time.” He continues, “They couldn’t promote gay clubs in the papers, but underground papers with code words like ‘debauchery’ referring to the vice and other underground activities were used to describe the life in these clubs in the ‘petits journaux jeunes’ such as ‘Ici Montreal’ and other small weekly papers.”

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Map indicating Montreal’s former “hot spots”

The exhibition examines a day (or night) in the life of the 312. The brothels were opened and run by women. One main lady — a “madame” — ran the brothel and they employed a growing population of female workers who didn’t want to spend a 12-14 hour day in a factory. Montreal professor Karen Herland described the brothel life: “It was an industry managed by women, for women. When the girls got caught it was their ‘madame’ who went to the court to pay their fine. It was a decent life for a woman; they got room and board and you could drink every night.”

As for public outcry, “the city had a sort of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. People would turn a blind eye for the most part.” While many church-goers and specifically the League of the Sacred Heart made efforts to calm the vice, Montreal didn’t stop. 

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A former “madame’s” business card

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A “sheik” brand condom from the 1940s

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Prophylactic kit

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Poster for venerial disease, displayed around Montreal during WWII

Montreal saw an influx of sexually transmitted diseases spread by soldiers who passed through town and invaded the brothels. “During the 40s, because it was a port city, there were a lot of soldiers passing through town,” explained Karen Herland. Public health became an issue for the city. Anouk Belanger, sociology professor at UQAM (Universite de Quebec a Montreal) added, “the disease vector was the army.”

In an interview that can be heard through headphones available in the “312” section of the exhibit, Belanger and Herland summarized the events leading up to the eventual closing of the “312” and a good portion of Montreal’s red light district. From 1940-1943, there were over 4,000 reported cases of STI’s within the Canadian military, and Montreal’s red light district was directly targeted. Major General Renaud threatened the city. “Renaud gave the city an ultimatum: ‘Clean up the red light, or I’ll send my soldiers through Halifax,’” Herland stated.

The city couldn’t afford the loss of the military passing through town, so in 1944 many brothels were forced to be shut down. “In an instant, he single-handedly accomplished what any group opposed to this type of behavior couldn’t get done,” Herland said.

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Mug shots of brothel owners

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Copy of newspaper headline from 1939

During this same period, Montreal became a player in one of the 20th century’s largest drug trafficking networks: the French Connection. Heroine was exported by the Marseilles mafia, led by the Corsicans. Due to Montreal’s large Italian population and its bilingualism, it was easy for Europeans to conduct their business in the city.

While larger cities like New York wanted to take over the trade, the French and Italian traders felt more comfortable working with Montreal’s population. Thus Montreal became the main North American hub for heroine by the early 1950s. All of this was led by Vic Cotroni, one of Montreal’s most notorious figures to date.

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Mug shot of Vincenzo “Vic” Cotroni

There was more clean-up to be done. The blind-eyes turned to picking sides, and as the news of the brothels closing unfolded, the citizens became more invested in the state of its city. As the small weekly newspapers once served as an insight into the world of vice, they transformed into a platform for tackling it.

In 1949, a man named Pacifique Plante, a lawyer who unsuccessfully ran for the position of chief of police, published a series of articles in one of the city’s French-language newspapers Le Devoir, entitled “Montréal sous le règne de la pègre” (“Montreal in the grip of the underworld”). This opened the doors for much debate and change. Plante worked for the “morality squad,” a division of the Montreal police department formed in the 1940s, and successfully closed down everything from brothels, clubs, blind pigs, to even some church bingo halls. 

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Mug shots and biographies of various Montreal criminals

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Poster by Montreal’s former Public Morality Committee

The newspapers continued on the subject of commercialized vice, and in 1950, a “Public Morality Committee” was formed by the citizens. Police officers, police chiefs, and politicians were put on trial under Judge Caron for tolerance to all the vice and organized crime that occurred all over the city.

Plante was called to be the main prosecutor, even though many of the police officers in question were under his supervision during the raids and shut-downs by the “morality squad”. His assistant was Jean Drapeau. A year and a half later a report was released by Caron, and around two dozen police officers and some police chiefs were found guilty of infractions and were fined. Only a few months following the commission, Jean Drapeau ran for mayor and won. He chose Plante as his police chief.

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Mayor Jean Drapeau (left) and Pacifique Plante (right)

Many on the police force accepted bribes for numerous reasons, the main one being their uncomfortably low salaries. Charles Latulippe, a former Montreal police officer, explains: “Policemen weren’t well paid. You had to know someone to get in.” 

Eventually Plante was dismissed from the force in 1957 by Mayor Fournier and fled to Mexico, “where he finished his days.” 

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The corner of Ste-Catherine and St-Laurent today 

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Sex shops and video stores on the corner of Ste-Catherine’s and St-Laurent

While many brothels have closed and the landscape of the city has modernized, Montreal still offers some glimpses of its heyday. On the corner of St-Laurent and Ste-Catherine streets, strip clubs, and adult shops remain. The ongoing gentrification of the city does not overshadow the continued corruption of many Montreal politicians; the city’s previous two mayors have resigned due to numerous corruption allegations over the past three years. 

article-imageStreet art in Montreal (photograph by Julian Stallabrass)

Scandal! Vice, Crime and Morality in Montreal, 1940-1960 is at the Centre d’Histoire de Montréal until October 2015.