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A romantic era of incorrigibles, scallywags and thieving scoundrels

In this Following Up feature we pick up the story of Guelph’s scandalous past with local author and historian Bonnie Durtnall and her second book in the Bawdy Houses series

Many of us look back on days of yore with idealized images of a simpler time void of the scandals and controversy dominating today’s headlines, but as the late US politician George Ball once said, “Nostalgia is a seductive liar.”

Case in point is the long list of headlines uncovered by local labour historian Bonnie Durtnall that reveal dark truths from Guelph’s past that are unlikely to rouse sentimental yearnings for the good ol’ days. 

“I enjoy doing this research,” said Durtnall. “It’s a change from labour history and sometimes it can be extremely funny to read or look at.”

When GuelphToday last spoke with Durtnall in April of 2019, she had just published, what would be, the first in her growing series of Bawdy Houses books about Guelph’s unvarnished past. Writing a second book on the topic was the furthest thing from her mind at the time as she turned her focus back to researching the city’s labour and industrial history.

Durtnall has spent countless hours at the Wellington County Museum and Archives, The Guelph Civic Museum and the Guelph Public Library combing through court records, government publications and newspaper accounts from the last half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. It is a labourious process that was further complicated by the arrival of  COVID-19.

“Doing research was a challenge when the library wasn’t open because there is only so much you can find on the net,” she said. “I haven’t been able to go into the archives and that means looking at city directories on microfilm, which drives me crazy.”

Among the many newspaper reports she has amassed are accounts of the life and crimes of Guelph’s “underbelly” that didn’t grace the pages of the first Bawdy Houses book.  

“People were asking about it and saying, ‘I want to read more’ and my partner Mike said, ‘you should have another book’,'" said Durtnall. “I went back to those old pages and found enough material to do another book.”

The new book reintroduces readers to the notorious bootlegging brothers Joe and Sam Veroni and infamous bawdy house madams Lena Rosas and Mabel Gray as well as a new cast of colourful characters who kept police and magistrates busy.

“I touched on young scallywags and then I went on to the scoundrels and thieves,” Durtnall said. “In Guelph there were plenty of scoundrels running around.”

Many of the stories would be lost to history if not for the work of local reporters who often leaned heavy on gossip at the expense of fact-based, objective journalism.

“Reporting in the 1800s and into the 1900s was done with more flourish because of the language and the morality of the time,” said Durtnall. “There is moral indignation reflected in their Victorian values and it comes through when they are dealing with certain people.”

Racist views about the city’s immigrant community were thinly veiled and the same was true for the lower classes. Homeless men, aka ‘bums,’ were treated more like criminals than victims of poverty.

“I couldn’t do bums again because I really said all I could about bums, so I decided to look at who they called incorrigibles at the time – the youth,” said Durtnall. “Incorrigible youths, was actually considered a legal category.”

Children were essentially the property of their parents with few legal rights or protections.

“Before 1892 a child of any age that was considered incorrigible could be put in jail,” she said. “In 1892 they raised the age limit to ‘incorrigible youths’ over the age of seven.”

Durtnall found a story from 1868 involving 10-year-old John Kerr who pled guilty to stealing a pair of gaiter boots and was sentenced to one month in jail. When the sentence was passed, his mother, “cracked her son on the head with her knuckles and told him he deserved 15 times as much.”

Another case from 1869 involved a homeless, orphaned, 10-year-old boy named Andrew Scott who was convicted of vagrancy and sentenced to 21 days in jail.

Some judges, such as the long-serving magistrate Frederic Watt, offered incorrigible youths an alternative to jail time – the strap.

“He didn’t do it without their parents’ permission,” said Durtnall. “It was generally on the bare buttocks.”

The naked truth for young people could be very Dickensian but it wasn’t always so dire.

“There was a serious side, but I decided to look at the fun things as well,” said Durtnall. “One thing the boys loved that horrified good church-going folks at the time was swimming in the Speed River nude.”

Bylaws dictating where, when and how you swam in the Speed were strictly enforced with officers recruited to walk a beat along the stretch of river between Kate’s Hole, near Goldie Mill, and Gow’s Bridge.

“According to the bylaws you were to wear clothing that went from your neck down to your ankles,” said Durtnall. “When boys, who swam in the Gow’s Bridge area, saw the police coming they would swim to the shore, put on their clothes and run away.”

Getting away was a popular theme with the public and newspapers sometimes blurred the line between fact and fiction for a good story such as the 1876 case of convicted highwayman Chris Curtis, aka Christopher Smith.

“He was a romantic figure described as a modern Dick Turpin and he caught the attention of young women because he was good looking with dark hair and ‘a hatchet-shaped face’,” said Durtnall. “He was captured and jailed for robbing an attorney, but some friends helped him scale the prison-yard wall and escape.” 

There were cases where people literally got away with murder.

On a Tuesday afternoon in January 1871, local undertaker Nathan Tovell was mercilessly beaten, in broad daylight outside a popular bar on Macdonell Street and died a few days later from his injuries. No witnesses came forward and no arrest was made.

Shortly after midnight, Sunday Jan. 12, 1919, 22-year-old Fortunato Tedesco was shot and killed outside his parents’ home at 120 Morris St. in The Ward. Thomas Veroni, son of aforementioned bootlegger Joseph Veroni, was implicated but no charges were ever laid.

Some didn’t get away such as Clarence Dickinson, charged with murdering his 19-year-old sister Megan and 55-year-old mother Amy-Rose at their home on Raglan Street in 1942 and William Callahan charged with murdering his tenant William Norrish in 1946 and burying him in the crawl space beneath his home on Dublin Street.

Murder is the last subject heading in the lengthily named, Bawdy Houses, Scallywags, Thieving Scoundrels & Illicit Booze, Prostitution & Murder Guelph 1855 – 1960, but there is no shortage of scandalous stories in the archives waiting to be discovered.

Durtnall is aware that some people would prefer to banish these tales to the dustbin of history and wax poetic about the good ol’ days, but as the poet Carson McCullers wrote, “We are homesick most for the places we’ve never been.”

There is nothing wrong with celebrating our history, but the stories in Durtnall’s books remind us of the progress we’ve made as a society and to be grateful for what we have here in the present.

“People ask if I’m not afraid of writing about this and I say no. I am talking about something that is past.”

Copies of both Bawdy Houses books are available at the Bookshelf or directly through Durtnall by visiting her website