"A clown and a fireman walk into a whorehouse..."
It sounds like the opening of an off-color joke. But in 1855, it was the beginning of an incident that changed the political structure of Toronto, Canada.
"Hidden History" is a diary series that explores forgotten and little-known areas of history.
On the morning of July 12, 1855, the circus came to Toronto. With a population that had tripled to over 40,000 in just the past few decades to become one of the largest cities in Canada, Toronto was, in many ways, still a rough-and-tumble frontier town, filled with saloons, brothels, and lots of drunken rowdy men.
And the clowns and carnies of the "S.B. Howes' Star Troupe Menagerie & Circus", though Americans instead of Canadians, fit right in. SB Howe had been one of the first organized circuses to appear in the United States, the first to exhibit live animals like lions and tigers and elephants, and one of the first to begin regular tours from city to city. After a few days performing in one town, the traveling troupe would all pitch in to dismantle the entire show, pack it all on wagons, and move on to the next city where they would set up all over again.
When their performance at the Big Top ended on the night of July 12, a group of clowns from the troupe decided to go out for a night on the town, and eventually ended up at Mary Ann Armstrong's "social club" on the corner of King and Jarvis, one of the hundred or so brothels that peppered the streets of Toronto. By all accounts, the clowns had already visited a fair number of taverns and saloons, and were feeling pretty "comfortable".
As it happened, Mary Ann Armstrong's was also playing host to another group of young men that night, from the Hook and Ladder Firefighting Company. At this time, public city-operated fire departments did not exist: instead, there were several different fire companies in town, all of them privately-run and for-profit. Whenever a fire broke out, each company would rush to the scene, where the first to arrive would cut a deal with the building's owner to put out the fire--for a price. When two rival fire companies would arrive at the same time, it was not at all unusual for fisticuffs to break out as each tried to drive the other away. Indeed, just two weeks previously, the Hook and Ladder brigade had gotten into a melee with another company that got so out of hand that the cops were called in to break it up. Now, after another rough day of fighting both fires and other firemen, the Hook and Ladder Company visited a few taverns, got a bit unsteady on their feet, and also ended up at Miss Mary Ann's. And so, on the night of July 12, two gangs of half-drunk testosterone-driven young men were packed together into a small building full of attractive and available young women. What could possibly go wrong?
Stories vary as to exactly what happened. In some versions, one of the clowns and one of the firemen came to blows over the services of a particular young lady. In others, one of the firemen knocked the hat off one of the clowns; in still others, one of the clowns cut in line ahead of one of the firemen. Whatever set it off, the result was swift: a gigantic brawl broke out between clowns and firemen. By the time the cops arrived, the clowns had thoroughly beaten the snot out of the firemen, sending two of them to the hospital. The cops cleared the entire place out.
But it didn't end there: now, local politics entered the picture. Much of Toronto's population was made up of immigrants from Ireland, and they brought their Irish political and religious conflicts along with them. While the majority of the city's Irish community were Catholics, the Toronto city government was dominated by Irish Protestants--members of the Orange Order, whose avowed aim was to keep the Catholics (a large number of whom were migrating to Canada to escape the Irish Famine) in place as second-class citizens. This they did using roving gangs of toughs who routinely beat up Irish Catholics in the streets, and because the Orange Order controlled the police department, they were able to do this with utter impunity.
And so after getting their asses whooped by the out-of-town clowns, the firemen of the Hook and Ladder Company were bent on revenge, and counted on getting it. The next night, a gang of firemen accompanied by a mob of local Orange Order supporters gathered at the circus and set fire to some of the tents. Once again, a huge brawl broke out, with axe handles and clubs swinging freely. This time, it was the circus gang who took the drubbing: when the police finally showed up, the officers stood by and watched, allowing their fellow Orangemen to have their fun. The mayhem didn't end until the local militia, called out by the Mayor, arrived and deployed bayonets.
Of the hundreds of people who showed up for the riot, only 17 were arrested. At their trial a few weeks later, the police all suffered from a sudden attack of amnesia; on the stand, none of them could recall seeing any of their accused fellow Orangemen at the scene. All were acquitted.
But now, the population of Toronto had enough. At the next election, despite intimidation from the Orange bullyboys, for the first time in 20 years a Reform Party mayor backed by the Irish Catholic majority won office, and a committee was appointed to clean up the corrupt city government and the police department. Within three years, every single Toronto police officer was fired, the chief of police was replaced, and the whole force was reorganized into a professional nonpolitical force under the strict control of a new city government.
NOTE: As some of you already know, all of my diaries here are draft chapters for a number of books I am working on. So I welcome any corrections you may have, whether it's typos or places that are unclear or factual errors. I think of y'all as my pre-publication editors and proofreaders. ;)