Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/5/2010 (3394 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It's hardly a candidate for sainthood now, at age 137, but Winnipeg was one wicked city in its youth.
Public drunkenness, barroom brawls, bigamy, kidnapping, patronizing "houses of ill fame" — and that was just the first mayor and the police chief.
You wanna talk spirited energy? Back in the early 1870s, there were only a few thousand souls in this frontier town — most of them men — but there were about 30 saloons, one of which was often referred to as "The Bucket of Blood."
Imagine what was going on downtown by the turn of the century, when the population swelled to 40,000 and there were 58 brothels in Point Douglas alone.
"People complained that nude women were riding bareback down the street," says local history buff Matthew Komus during a recent stroll through the Exchange District.
If you knew the 'Peg like he knows the 'Peg — and you will, after taking his Death & Debauchery Guided Walking Tour — you'd understand why our fair burg was once called "the wickedest city in the Dominion."
The Exchange District has been offering walking tours since 1978 to show off its rich history and Chicago-style architecture. Komus, 31, developed most of the nine that are currently on offer. This year, however, he decided it was time to shine a light on Winnipeg's dark side.
"London does their Jack the Ripper tour. We wanted to add something that was a little more edgy and risqué to attract a new market," says the former manager of heritage programs for the Exchange District BIZ, who has a graduate degree in cultural resources management.
"We've had a really big focus on school groups over the last few years and, well, this one isn't for them."
The 45-minute tour basically starts out with Winnipeg's difficult birth — a politician was tarred and feathered for denying the first bid for the city's incorporation — and goes all the way up to 2003 and a grisly Albert Street murder involving actress Susan Sarandon's stolen necklace.
Ours begins in the Old Market Square — Fringe Festival and Jazz Festival central — where construction crews are currently completing a new $1.25-million, state-of-the art stage that is slated to become one of the hottest and busiest live performance venues in the city.
People hung out here in the 1870s, too. Literally. (Canada had capital punishment until 1976, remember.)
"We don't know for sure, but we suspect hangings were carried out near the stage," Komus says. "It wasn't a public execution, but you could apparently get a ticket from the sheriff to attend."
It was here, near the canopies where vendors hawk their wares during Fringe, that criminals once met their fate at the Winnipeg Courthouse. Constructed in 1873 for $40,000, the basement housed 44 jail cells, divided into four cell blocks (one for women).
It was supposed to be much harder to escape from than the first courthouse — a log building where all you had to do was "push open the door and walk past the pensioner" — because prisoners were brought up through a trap door.
"The most common crimes back then were being drunk in public or being found in a house of ill fame," Komus says of a time in Manitoba's history when it was illegal to drive without bells and insanity was considered a crime.
Apparently our first mayor, Francis Evans Cornish, was something of a poster boy for the brawling and often bigoted mentality of frontier Winnipeg. Described as a dandy, a political fixer and a rogue, he was accused of bigamy, assault, boisterous public disputes and padding the ballot boxes.
While sitting as police magistrate, as mayors did back then, Komus relates, Cornish was charged with driving his horse and buggy while drunk. The mayor pleaded guilty and fined himself five dollars but suspended the sentence on the grounds that it was his first offence. When he ran for MLA, he kidnapped his opponent.
Winnipeg's first chief of police, John Ingram, was reportedly another devotee of debauchery. "He was known for his love of women, wine and a good barroom brawl," says Komus, "After being found in bed with a prostitute, he was fined $8 and forced to resign."
That's only the beginning, folks. We don't want to give away all the juicy parts. So take the tour yourself and learn about:
— How Frank Mariaggi, who built Western Canada's first European hotel, escaped a lynch mob.
— Winnipeg's largest unsolved robbery.
— The scandalous contractor for whom the Kelly Building on Bannatyne Avenue is named.
— What happened in Room 309 of the Royal Albert Arms Hotel.
Komus cautions that, given some graphic content, Death & Debauchery is not recommended for kids under 16 —— or for the faint-hearted in general.
Tour the town
WEST TOUR: The West Exchange District Tour highlights the history and the architecture of buildings on the west side of Main Street. Included on the tour are stops such as Newspaper Row, turn-of-the-century hotels, and one of the earliest car dealerships in Western Canada. Red River College's Princess Street location will be open for an interior stop showcasing both heritage and innovative new green building designs.
EAST TOUR: The East Exchange District Tour highlights the history and the architecture of buildings on the east side of Main Street. Turn-of-the-century banks, the Grain Exchange Building, and the newly developed Waterfront Drive are some of the stops on the east. Participants will also have the opportunity to visit Hell's Alley and hear how the Winnipeg General Strike would shape the labour movement in Canada for generations to come.
Winnipeg Grain Exchange
Winnipeg General Strike
Death & Debauchery