Friday, August 23, 2019

Annoucing: The Toronto Dreams Project's Grand Tour of Europe!

If you're a long-time reader, then you know all about The Toronto Dreams Project — it's the reason I started this blog way back in 2010. For nearly a decade now, I've been writing fictional dreams about figures from our city's past, printing them on custom-designed postcards, and then leaving them in the places where that history happened so people can find them. It's a way to bring history to life and hopefully get more people interested in it.

But Toronto’s history doesn't end at our city limits; as a deeply multicultural city, you'll find our stories in places all over the world. Five years ago, your support allowed me to take The Toronto Dreams Project on the road to the UK — leaving dreams in places across England and Wales related to the history of Toronto.

Now, I'm getting ready for an even more ambitious adventure...

This September, I'm taking The Toronto Dreams Project on a Grand Tour of Europe. I'll be leaving about twenty different dreams about the history of Toronto in seven cities across four countries: Rome, Florence, Venice, Berlin, Barcelona, Marseille and Paris. Every one of those places is connected to the history of our own city in utterly fascinating ways by utterly fascinating people — from crime bosses to war heroes to bomb-wielding suffragettes.

You'll also be able to follow along on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as I share incredible true stories of our city's connection to those places. Together, we'll learn everything from how a fish from Kensington Market ended up as a major landmark in Spain, to the link between a baby born outside the Vatican two centuries ago and our very own hometown rapper Drake. We'll meet a University of Toronto spy as he's gunned down by Nazis in the streets of Paris. A prime minister searching for prophecies in Berlin. The movie star who brought fettuccine alfredo to America. 

I'll be sharing some stories about Canada's historical connections to Europe through Canadiana, too — so be sure to follow us over there as well, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Thanks so much to everyone who supported the Dreams Project's crowd-funding campaign. Without you, this would be just another trip to Europe. With you, it's going be a historical adventure bringing the history of Toronto to life in the alleyways, caf├ęs and monuments of a continent half a world away.

It all kicks off on September 7! I cannot wait to share sharing these stories with you!


If you missed out on the crowd-funding campaign, but would still like to contribute, you can send a donation via PayPal here. And I'll be very happy to send you the same perks: a personalized video message for everyone who contributes; a copy of one of the new dreams for those who pledge $25; three for $50; and if you donate $100 or more I'll send you a copy of every single one of the new dreams you've helped me create.
  

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Brexit, Eton & The History of Toronto

The most famous boarding school in the world just got a little bit more famous. Thanks to the shocking result of the Brexit referendum, Eton College has been popping up in the news quite a lot in recent years. The posh boarding school is where two of the architects of the mess spent their teenage years. Both former Prime Minster David Cameron and former Mayor of London Boris Johnson graduated from Eton in the early 1980s. And now — three years after the referendum — Boris will become the new Prime Minister, elected as Tory leader on a promise to ram through Brexit no matter what toll it takes on the country.

So if you want to understand the breathtaking, aristocratic entitlement that has led the United Kingdom into self-inflicted disaster, it helps to understand Eton. And in understanding Eton, you can also better understand the history of Toronto — because it's not just where Boris and Dave went, it's where the man who founded our city went, too.

Eton sits on the banks of the River Thames, not far outside London, just across the river from Windsor Castle. It was founded all the way back in the 1400s; King Henry VI started the school as a charity meant to provide free education to the poor.

But oh how things have changed since then. In recent centuries, Eton has made its reputation by catering to the children of the rich and powerful, helping to perpetuate the strict British class system. Yearly tuition can cost as much as the equivalent of $60,000 in Canadian currency. For a long time, the school's official uniform was literally a top hat and tails. (They finally ditched the top hat in the 1960s, but they've kept the tails.) The school is synonymous with the idea of British entitlement: that the children of the country's ruling class should naturally become its next generation of rulers.

Nineteen British Prime Ministers have been students at Eton. Both Prince Harry and Prince William went there, too. So did George Orwell and Aldous Huxley and Percy Shelley and John Maynard Keynes. And if you're counting fictional characters, then so did James Bond and Captain Hook and Lord Grantham from Downton Abbey

Eton College
And so, it's not surprising to find that two of today's most powerful Conservative politicians both went to Eton, too. The old Prime Minster, David Cameron (inept champion of Remain), and the new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson (Leave-supporting buffoon), both graduated from Eton in the early 1980s. They say you can trace the roots of their rivalry all the way back there — and with it, some of the very beginnings of the Brexit disaster.

As a student, Boris was older, more popular and more successful than Cameron — things that mattered even more than usual at such an aristocratic school. And since Johnson did better at Eton — and then again when both young men attended Oxford University — they say it drove him nuts that Cameron had risen to greater heights since then. Boris might have been the former Mayor of London, a Member of Parliament, and a newspaper columnist who got paid more than £250,000 last year (or "chicken feed" as he calls it) for writing one article every week — but that, apparently, wasn't enough.

"Yes," Sonia Purnell writes in The Independent, "the fact that Cameron was two years below him at Eton – a terrifically hierarchical school – rankles deeply. As does the fact that it was Boris who shone there, not Cameron. Masters recall Johnson as a remarkable teenager. They do not recall Cameron at all."

According to countless media reports, Boris made it his mission to topple his old friend Dave and take his place as Prime Minster. If that meant joining the Leave campaign... well, that's what he was willing to do — whether or not he actually believed that leaving the European Union was a good idea for Britain.

Meanwhile, some suggest that Cameron's lifelong sense of entitlement — reinforced by his time at Eton — gave him a false sense of his own superiority. Slate describes him as "an establishment man through and through... the sort of person who gets away with too many things and comes to mistake his privilege for innate luck." When given the chance to gamble the future of his country in return for his own personal political gain, he did so. After all, he's been getting his way his entire life. Why would this time be any different? In order to appease the lunatic far-right fringe of his party, Cameron agreed to hold the Brexit referendum, confident that a Leave vote would never actually happen.

Boris and Dave
But when Boris — who is thought to have personally reassured Cameron that he would never support the Leave campaign — betrayed his old friend, things suddenly became much more complicated. Johnson's support gave legitimacy to the Leave faction, even while it descended into absurd lies and bigoted violence. The racists behind Brexit never would have won, according to The Daily Beast, "without the fig leaf of Boris's charm."

The result: a stunning victory for the Leave campaign, an economy in disarray, bigotry and xenophobia on the rise, the murder of an MP, the end of Cameron's career, and scenes of Boris Johnson being booed the moment he poked his head outside his front door. The Old Etonians had suddenly become two of the most hated men in the country they were raised to rule.

At first, it looked like Johnson's plan hadn't even worked: betrayed, in turn, by one of his own supporters (die-hard-Brexiter Michael Gove), Johnson was been forced out of the race to replace Cameron as PM. Theresa May won instead.

But now, Johnson's spectacular self-serving maneuverings have finally paid off: Boris has won the Tory leadership contest to replace May and will take over as the new Prime Minister.

The power of Eton College hasn't just been limited to British politics, either. Thanks to the Empire, the school's reach has historically extended far beyond England's own borders. In Toronto, you can trace Eton's influence all the way back to the founding of our modern city. More than two hundred years before Boris and Dave, there was John Graves Simcoe.

Simcoe went to Eton in the 1760s. And he too bought into its aristocratic vision for Britain. Years later, when he became the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, he was determined to make that aristocratic heritage an important part of his new province.

Before he sailed for Canada, Simcoe got in touch with another Eton graduate: the famous scientist Sir Joseph Banks. In his letter, Simcoe asked for any advice Banks might be able to offer, and laid out his vision for his new Upper Canadian capital: the city that would eventually become Toronto.

A strict class system, he insisted, would play a vital role. Simcoe didn't trust the general public; they couldn't be allowed to have real power. As a solider, he'd seen the bloody results of the American Revolution with his own eyes — and more recently, he'd heard the terrifying reports coming out of Paris during the French Revolution. In fact, the Reign of Terror began the very same summer Simcoe founded Toronto. In his experience, when the people gained power, they had a nasty habit of beheading the elites. And so Simcoe was determined that his new city would be free from what he called "tyrannical democracy."

"There are inherent defects in the congressional form of Government," he wrote in his letter to Banks, "the absolute prohibition of any order of nobility is a glaring one. I hope to have a hereditary council with some mark of nobility."

John Graves Simcoe
He would never quite get his wish: Toronto never developed an officially aristocratic system like the one they had back home in England. But Simcoe did make sure that power rested in the hands of a few loyal Tory families. For the first few decades of our city's history, families like the slave-owning Jarvis clan kept all of the best government jobs and appointments for themselves and their friends. The habit would eventually earn Toronto's ruling class a derisive nickname: The Family Compact.

With the backing of their British overlords, the Family Compact dominated the Legislative Assembly, blocked all democratic reform, and cracked down on dissent. Anyone who disagreed with the Tory elite or demanded change quickly found themselves subject to threats and intimidation — sometimes even violence or imprisonment.

The Family Compact had no doubt they were meant to be the natural rulers of the province — a sense of entitlement that would look familiar to anyone who has been following Boris and Dave during the Brexit fiasco.

To help ensure that the power of the Family Compact would continue long into the future, they even founded a Torontonian version of Eton. It's still around today: Upper Canada College. The school's own website describes it as being "modeled after the great public schools of Britain [what we call private schools in Canada], most notably Eton College." UCC's job would much be the same as Eton's job on the other side of the Atlantic: training the sons of the rich and powerful to become the new generation of elites.

And it worked. As Wikipedia points out, "The school has produced six lieutenant governors, four premiers, seven chief justices, and four Mayors of Toronto." There have been plenty of other rich and powerful graduates, too, like Michael Ignatieff, Ted Rogers, Galen Weston and Ken Thomson. In Toronto, the Old Boys of Upper Canada College have played something of a similar role to that of the Old Etonians in England.

But not everyone in Toronto was happy with the Family Compact. There was plenty of resentment against the ruling class in those early years. The opposition gained momentum over the city's first few decades, building into a reform movement led by the radical newspaper publisher and first Mayor of Toronto, William Lyon Mackenzie. He was becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of democracy in Upper Canada. He made appeal after appeal to the British government, but his complaints fell on deaf ears — which was maybe not entirely surprising: nearly all of the British Prime Ministers during that period were Old Etonians themselves.

William Lyon Mackenzie
In the end, Mackenzie finally gave up on trying to find a peaceful solution; after a disappointing trip to London, he became convinced that revolution was the only way to break the Family Compact's grip on power. In 1837, he gathered an army north of Toronto and marched down toward the city with the aim of overthrowing the government.

Even the street the rebels marched down was a reminder of Eton's influence. Simcoe named the biggest road in Toronto after another one of his Old Etonian friends: Sir George Yonge.

In the end, of course, Mackenzie's rebellion failed. Democratic reform came peacefully a decade later under the name of Responsible Government. The leading champion of the cause was the moderate Robert Baldwin, who had been educated by the leader of the Family Compact. And Baldwin was able to convince the British of its value thanks in part to the support of Lord Durham, yet another Eton graduate. Change didn't come to Canada until the people advocating for it were members of the old boys club themselves.

More than a hundred and fifty years later, you can still see some echoes of that seminal divide in the Toronto politics of today. We saw it on stunning display in recent years, when Rob Ford was able to frame his mayoral campaign as a campaign against the "elites" by positioning himself as an outsider and purposefully distancing himself from the traditional, Upper Canada College-style Tories. Those who felt ignored by the establishment voted for Ford in droves. Casting a ballot for an apparent outsider seemed like a rare opportunity to give voice to their anger. Now his brother Doug has done the same, becoming Premier of Ontario.

In 2016, we saw similar emotions lead to similar results in the United Kingdom. The Leave side denounced the experts and vilified the establishment even though the leaders of the Leave campaign were establishment figures themselves. Boris Johnson has made a career out of playing the blond buffoon, a carefully crafted image, trying to seem like a man of the people instead of a millionaire raised in privilege. The Brexiters, much like Ford, managed to convince vast numbers of people that the real cause of their problems was a dastardly combination of expert opinion and immigration. Not, say, the damaging policies those very same Conservative politicians have been hawking for decades: like tax cuts for the rich paid for by service cuts for everyone else. 

Both campaigns were illusions. Rob Ford was a millionaire born into a political family. His policies were the same old Conservative policies that have been hurting the working class for years. His successor, the aptly-named John Tory, is one of the most establishment-friendly politician you could possibly imagine — and in general his policies are usually in line with those Ford was pushing. Even a vote against the establishment led to establishment-friendly policies; they were just served with a side of crack cocaine.
 
Six thousand kilometers and an entire ocean away, angry Britons voted in protest against their own elites, unleashing a wave of bigotry and decimating their nation's economy in the process. They have managed to drive one establishment-friendly leader out of power: Cameron, forced to resign in disgrace, will be remembered as one of the worst Prime Ministers in modern British history. But they replaced him with another contender to that title: Theresa May. And now they've replaced her with Cameron's old schoolmate Johnson, yet another establishment-friendly Tory leader moving into 10 Downing Street, ready to pick up right where the last one left off.  

The Old Etonian is dead. Long live the Old Etonian.

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Via Viv Lynch on Flickr





This post was originally published in 2016 — in the week after the Brexit referendum — and has been updated on July 23, 2019 to reflect Boris Johnson's victory in the Tory leadership contest to replace Theresa May.


You can learn more about the connection between the histories of Toronto and England with A Torontonian Historical Map of London here. Read more about Simcoe's vision for Toronto here. And more about Mackenzie's failed mission to London here.

There's a whole dramatized documentary about Johnson and Cameron's early years, "When Boris Met Dave," which you can watch on Vimeo here.

The main image of "Toffs and Toughs" via Rare Historical Photos here.  Photo of Boris and Dave via The Sun. Photo of Eton College by me as part of The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour, which explored the connections between the history of Toronto and the United Kingdom.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

How A Canadian Prime Minister Saved The Richest Family In America

Wall Street. Home to the New York Stock Exchange. The heart of the American economy. Every day, countless tourists flock to this spot — and to a statue just down the block: the Wall Street Bull is a symbol recognized around the world. But as dozens of tourists wait for their chance to take a photo with the bronze beast, no one pays any attention to the obscure piece of Canadian history standing right next to it. It was from this spot, at 26 Broadway, that a Canadian prime minister once saved the richest family in the United States. 

William Lyon Mackenzie King was born and raised in Toronto, but his family had roots in New York long before he arrived in the city. His grandfather was the very similarly named William Lyon Mackenzie — the notorious rebel mayor of Toronto, who once led an armed rebellion against the government of Upper Canada. When his revolution failed, the rebel mayor fled across the border into the United States. He and his wife Isabel spent a few years living in exile in New York City. That's where their daughter Isabella was born. And she, in turn, would have a son named after his rebellious ancestor. 

Mackenzie King followed in his grandfather's political footsteps. As a young member of parliament he served in the Liberal government of Wilfrid Laurier, appointed as Canada’s first ever Labour Minister. But when the Liberals lost the next election, King accepted a new job. He would head south to work for one of the world's most famously rich families.

John D. Rockefeller had made his fortune in oil. He was the first billionaire in U.S. history, founder of the company that has since morphed into ExxonMobile. But by the 1914, the Rockefellers were in trouble. The coal miners who worked for them in Colorado were on strike: thousands of miners demanded things like an 8-hour workday and the enforcement of safety regulations. 

The company refused. The miners and their families were evicted from their company-owned housing, forced to set up tent cities. And then the National Guard was sent in, along with strikebreakers and private detectives. Things turned brutally violent. There were gunfights. Bullets fired into random tents. A tent city burned to the ground in what become known as the Ludlow Massacre. No one is quite sure how many people died during the Colorado Coalfield War, but it was somewhere between 69 and 199 — even babies were killed. Historians have called it the “deadliest strike in the history of the United States” and “perhaps the most violent struggle between corporate power and laboring men in American history”.

The Rockefellers had put a lot of effort into establishing a positive public image. John D. Rockefeller Jr. had used his dad's money to set up the Rockefeller Foundation, one of the biggest charities the U.S. had ever seen. But now his reputation was taking a beating; many people blamed him for the massacre. So now he used the Rockefeller Foundation to hire Canada’s former labour minister to give him advice. King would delve into a deep study of labour relations… and help save Rockefeller’s reputation in the process.

King spent the next few years travelling back and forth between his home in Ottawa and the Rockefeller Foundation offices at 26 Broadway Avenue — right next to where the Wall Street Bull now stands — studying and learning, working on what would eventually become a book on the subject. He even travelled to Colorado himself, touring the mine and meeting with miners. 

His instincts seemed to lean toward the workers' cause. “One could not help feeling as one looked at the huge seams of coal," King admitted, "that this wealth of nature was never intended to be privately owned, but was intended in reality for society as a whole.” But he was also deeply fond of Rockefeller Jr. King admitted he knew “of no man living who I more admire.” And Rockefeller returned his admiration: “Seldom have I ever been so impressed with a man at first appearance.” His biographer claims King was “the closest friend he ever had. 

During his time in New York, King essentially organized a public relations campaign on Rockefeller’s behalf. He had him meet with labour leaders and personally orchestrated his tour of the coalfields. When Rockefeller was called to testify before Congress, King was there, passing him notes during his testimony. “I was merely King’s mouthpiece,” Rockefeller remembered, “I needed education. No other man did so much for me.” And it worked. Even the radical labour organizer Mother Jones gave them a glowing quote for the papers.

Mackenzie’s advice helped to bring an end to the strike as the union ran out of money — his “Colorado Plan” became a model followed by companies across the United States. In fact, things went so well that Rockefeller seems to have wanted King to stay on in New York, joining the oil company as an executive. But King was absolutely appalled by the idea. He had no interest in big business. He had even bigger plans.

With the Rockefeller crisis solved, King returned to Ottawa to finish his book — and to run for office once again. Soon, he was elected Prime Minister of Canada for his very first term. By the time he retired, the man who had once saved the richest family in the United States had been in office for more than 21 years — the longest-serving prime minister in Canadian history.

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This post also appears on the Canadiana blog. It's the documentary web series I host, on the hunt for the most incredible stories in Canadian history. You should subscribe on YouTube — it's 100% free and you'll get an email letting you know when every new episode comes out.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

When Belfast Battles Were Fought On Toronto Streets

St. Patrick’s Day, 1858: a bloody day in the history of Toronto. Thomas D'Arcy McGee has come to town. He was once was an Irish revolutionary, but now he's one of Canada's leading politicians. He will go on to become a Father of Confederation and Sir John A. Macdonald's right-hand man. And thanks to his transformation from Irish freedom fighter to a loyal British subject, he's also a deeply controversial figure: on the fault line between Protestants and Irish-Catholics.

McGee has come to Toronto to attend a banquet and give a speech. On the surface, it doesn't seem like a particularly divisive itinerary. But this is a deeply Irish city. More than a third of its residents were born in Ireland — a higher percentage than any other North American city, even Boston or New York. McGee's mere presence is enough to help plunge the city into violence — the riot that is about to rock King Street is just one example of the sectarian battles that will earn Toronto the nickname, "The Belfast of North America".

Many of Toronto's Irish residents are relative newcomers, having arrived just a decade before McGee's fateful speech. During the summer of 1847, nearly 40,000 Irish refugees flooded into Toronto — twice the population of the entire city. They were driven out of Ireland by the Great Famine along with forced evictions by landlords who seized the opportunity to run them off their land.

The vast majority of the new arrivals were Catholic… and they didn’t exactly find themselves welcomed into the city with open arms. Seventy-five percent of Toronto residents were Protestants; many of them were members of the Orange Order, a deeply anti-Catholic organization founded in Northern Ireland during the late 1700s. Orangemen are still a major presence in Belfast to this day; even in the 21st century, their annual parades frequently descend into riots.

The Orange Order basically ran Toronto, keeping a stranglehold on municipal politics for a century. From the 1860s to the 1950s, nearly every Mayor of Toronto was a member of the Order. City councillors, too. And police. And firefighters. Just about all city employees. At the time that all those famine refugees were pouring into the city, there wasn’t a single Catholic who held municipal office in Toronto. For many decades to come, well into the 1900s, Catholics had trouble getting hired for any public job in the city.

Discrimination against Irish-Catholics became a defining feature of life in Toronto. “Irish beggars are to be met everywhere,” the Globe newspaper wrote, “and they are as ignorant and vicious as they are poor. They are lazy, improvident, and unthankful; they fill our poorhouses and our prisons and are as brutish in their superstition as Hindoos." By 1864, the city’s Catholic bishop was actively discouraging Irish-Catholics from moving to Toronto, warning them off because of the Protestant domination of the city and the terrible discrimination Catholics faced there.

And it wasn’t just Toronto. Orange Lodges spread across Canada from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island. At one point, there were more Orange Lodges in Canada than there were in Northern Ireland itself. At the time of Confederation, a third of all Protestant men in Canada were current or former members of the Orange Order — including Sir John A. Macdonald. Three future prime ministers would be, too; one of them, Sir Mackenzie Bowell, had been the Grandmaster of the Canadian lodge. It was said that any time they were in power, the federal Conservatives always reserved three seats in Cabinet for Orange MPs.

But no city in Canada was more Orange than Toronto. And some of the local Orangemen were willing to kill and be killed in order to maintain their grip on power.

In Toronto, just like in Belfast, the riots frequently started with a parade. Every year on the 12th of July, the Orange Order would hold a big march to commemorate the victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over Catholics in Ireland in the 1600s. “The Twelfth” was practically an official holiday in Toronto: municipal employees even got the day off so they could attend — with pay. At its height, thousands of Torontonians marched in the annual parade while tens of thousands cheered them on.

Catholics would generally stay indoors that day, and keep their children close. But not all of them. The parades would occasionally erupt into violence between Orangemen and Irish-Catholics, the battles of Belfast being fought in Canadian streets. And it wasn’t just on the Twelfth. Protestant-Catholic riots became an almost annual occurrence: after political meetings and elections, on Guy Fawkes Day, when the Prince of Wales visited... religious processions attacked, St. Michael’s Cathedral under siege, the bishop pelted with stones... Once, the Orange Order even once attacked a circus: the clowns cut in front of some Orange Order firefighters waiting in line outside a brothel.

When an Irish revolutionary came to town to deliver a lecture, Orangemen rioted for two days, smashed the windows of St. Patrick's Hall, destroyed a tavern, and trashed stores on Queen Street.

When Catholics celebrated the Papal Jubilee, stones rained down from above. Shots were fired. Thousands battled in the streets. By the time it was over, a Catholic stable hand lay dead.

That was from the only time a life was lost to the violence between Toronto's Protestants and Irish Catholics. And one of those lives would be lost on St. Patrick's Day, 1858: the day Thomas D'Arcy McGee gave his speech in Toronto. With the controversial politician in town, tensions were high. It was no surprise when the annual St. Patrick's Day parade descended into violence. An Orangemen drove a horse and cart into the procession, trying to disrupt it. Catholics fought back, chasing him into a nearby alley where a violence struggle ended with an Irish-Catholic man murdered: stabbed to death.

The incident would lead Toronto's Irish-Catholics to create a new organization that would eventually evolve into the Fenian Brotherhood: a revolutionary group dedicated to the cause of Irish independence from Britain. A decade later, American Fenians would march across the border to launch an invasion of Canada in the hope that it would help put pressure on the British to leave Ireland. The attack was doomed to fail, but dozens died and even more were wounded. Toronto's very first war memorial was dedicated to the memory of the students from the University of Toronto who died fighting against those Fenian invaders.

By then, even Thomas D'Arcy McGee himself was dead. The Father of Confederation was gunned down in the streets of Ottawa in 1868, assassinated as he returned home from a late night session of parliament. A man suspected of being a Fenian agent, Patrick Whelan, was hanged for the murder (though even today, it's unclear whether he was the real murderer).

Before long, the situation had gotten so out of hand that Toronto decided to take drastic action: beginning in the 1870s, the city's St. Patrick's Day Parade was banned. And it would remain that way for more than 100 years. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the Orange stranglehold on Toronto was broken. After the Second World War, Toronto was becoming more and more multicultural. For the first time in 118 years the city elected a mayor who wasn’t Protestant: the Jewish Nathan Phillips. And the tensions between Protestants and Catholics began to fade away.

And so in the 1980s, Toronto decided it was finally safe enough for another St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The sectarian violence that had once rocked the city on a regular basis was now nothing more than a distant memory of a long-ago time. Today, St. Patrick's Day is a cherished tradition in Toronto, just as it in so many other cities across Canada and the rest of the world. As the streets fill with people wearing their shamrock hats and bars sell gallons of green beer, it feels as if the whole city celebrates the holiday — without a hint of the violence that once spilled blood in its streets.

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Want to know more about the assassination of Thomas D'Arcy McGee and the mystery of who shot him? We reopen the country's most notorious cold case in a recent episode of Canadiana — the Canadian history web series I host: 




I wrote more about the summer the Irish Famine refugees arrived in Toronto and the power of the Orange Order in The Toronto Book of the Dead, which you can find at the favourite local Toronto bookstore or order from Amazon or Indigo.

Image: The Jubillee Riots of 1876 via Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Announcing: The Toronto Book of Love

In my first book, The Toronto Book of the Dead, we explored the history of the city through some of its most gruesome and grisly deaths. Now, I'm very excited to announce that my second book is officially underway — and that it will be something of a less morbid companion to my first...

The Toronto Book of Love will be published by Dundurn Press in early 2021.

Toronto’s past is filled with passion and heartache. The Toronto Book of Love will bring the history of the city to life with fascinating true tales of romance, marriage and lust: from the scandalous love affairs of the city’s early settlers to the prime minister’s wife partying with rock stars on her anniversary, from ancient First Nations wedding ceremonies to a pastor wearing a bulletproof vest to perform Canada’s first same sex marriage. 

Home to adulterous movie stars, faithful rebels and heartbroken spies, Toronto has been shaped by crushes, jealousies and flirtations. The Toronto Book of Love will explore the evolution of the city from a remote colonial outpost to a booming modern metropolis through the stories of those who have fallen in love among its ravines, church spires and skyscrapers. 

Make sure to follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram where I'll be sharing plenty of updates as the book comes together: researching, writing and visiting the places where the city's most passionate romances took place.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Con Artist Harry Decker — Toronto's First Star Baseball Catcher

Toronto was celebrating. The 1887 baseball season was over, and the city had just won its first championship. The team was packed with beloved stars, like the ace of the pitching staff, Ned "Cannonball" Crane, who led Toronto to victory in 16 straight games to finish the year. The names of the players who'd pulled off the feat would be revered in the city for decades to come. But one of them wasn't quite what he seemed.

In the midst of all those beloved heroes was one notorious villain. The man who crouched behind the plate all season was more than just a baseball player. He was a con artist — and his life was about to take a terrible turn. His name would soon appear in the papers under much more dismal circumstances: as the subject of manhunts and of courtroom dramas, locked away in prison cells and in lunatic asylums, earning a reputation as "one of the most dangerous men in the country."

Toronto's star catcher was a criminal.

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Harry Decker grew up in Chicago. As a teenager he was already among the most promising young prospects in the city. A catcher with "a good, strong, accurate arm... solid batting and capable defensive work," he signed his first professional contract before he turned 20 and quickly broke into the Major Leagues with the Indianapolis Hoosiers. His future seemed incredibly bright.

But it didn't take long for the first signs of trouble to appear. Decker seemed determined to squander all that promise.

He didn't even finish his first season with Indianapolis. He quit halfway through a game, when a couple of players from a new, rival league showed up. "Oh Deck!" they called out to him, "Over here" — quite literally waving a wad of dollar bills in the air.

They say it only took three or four innings for Decker to make his move. In the sixth, he let the ball hit him in the finger so he could claim he was injured and pull himself from the game, never to return. He raced off to Kansas City to play for a new team in the new league — leaving a pile of debts and unpaid bills behind him.

It was a costly decision. The new league quickly failed and Decker was blacklisted from the Majors for a season. The season after that, he was back in trouble again: suspected of throwing a game for gamblers. The crime was never proven, but he committed three errors and let himself get thrown out at the plate during the supposedly fixed contest — enough to make people very suspicious.

And so, as the 1887 season approached, Decker found himself looking for a job.

He got three offers: the teams in Washington, Rochester and Toronto all wanted him. So he said yes to all three. And then tried to cash all three of their cheques.

His scam didn't work — thanks to a mistake that was either breathtakingly dumb or breathtakingly brazen. He tried to cash two of the cheques at the same time, with the same banker. The banker caught on quickly: he'd been on the Board of Directors for the Washington team.

Still, Decker wasn't ready to give up yet. Next, he tried to cash three more cheques from three other teams by pretending to be three different catchers. This time, his fraud was uncovered because he gave a fake address for one of his alter-egos. When the team showed up at that address, they found nothing there but a vacant lot... and Harry Decker pacing up and down the street, waiting for his cheque to arrive in the mail.

Even then, he didn't admit his wrong-doing. His first line of defence was simple: no one, he claimed, could possibly be that stupid. When that failed, he concocted a new fraud, claiming that there were two Harry Deckers who were both catchers in the Major Leagues. That one didn't work either.

Suddenly, teams were getting cold feet. His offers were quickly drying up.

And so that's how he ended up in Toronto.

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1887. Toronto was booming. New railroads were bringing new Canadians into the city every day. The population was skyrocketing. New businesses and entertainment ventures were being opened constantly. And now, for the first time ever, they included a professional baseball team.

The Toronto Baseball Club had played their very first season the year before, in the city's first baseball stadium, which stood overlooking the Don Valley at the corner of Queen & Broadview — right across the street from the spot where the Broadview Hotel now stands.

It was originally known as the Toronto Baseball Grounds, but it would soon be nicknamed Sunlight Park in honour of the nearby Sunlight Soap Works factory. Spectators could walk in off Queen Street or ride up in their carriages and park their horses on the grounds. Admission was a quarter — plus an extra dime or two to sit in the best seats in the house. The sheltered grandstand had enough room for more than two thousand people, and there was standing room for another ten thousand beyond that. A sellout at Sunlight Park meant that about 10% of the entire population of Toronto was at the ballgame that day.

Baseball was still brand new back then. So new, in fact, that some of the rules were still being developed. That year, a pitcher needed four strikes to get a batter out. He could throw five balls before giving up a walk, and he was allowed to hit the batter too. Umpires could ask players and fans for advice. Sacrifice flies didn't exist. And for the very first time, every home plate would be made of rubber instead of marble.

The Toronto team played in one of the minor leagues: the International League. But they were still stacked with star players and memorable characters. 

There was outfielder Mike Slattery, fast as anything. He stole 112 bases that year, setting the International League record, which still stands to this day. And as if that wasn't impressive enough, he and another one of his teammates — August Alberts — both had a batting average over .350.

The backup catcher was George Stallings. He would go down in history as a Major League manager — "The Miracle Man" who led the hapless 1914 Boston Braves from last place to a stunning World Series sweep — and is credited with being the first manager to successfully use a platoon.

The star of the team was Cannonball Crane, the ace of the Toronto pitching staff; one of the game's first big power pitchers. His fastball was the fastest in the game. And he combined that blistering speed with a "deceptive drop ball" that baffled opposing hitters. It was a deadly combination.

With Decker behind the plate catching him, Cannonball carved up opposing hitters. He would win 33 games for Toronto that year — more than any other pitcher has ever won on any Toronto team — with a 2.49 ERA. And he was one of the best hitters in the league that year, too, finishing with a .428 batting average — still considered to be the best batting average by a pitcher in professional baseball history.

Together, they battled for first place all through the summer, neck and neck with the teams from Newark and Jersey City. The decisive day came on a Saturday afternoon in September: a double-header against their rivals from Newark. Cannonball pitched both games and hit the walkoff home run to win the second, propelling Toronto into first place. They would never relinquish that lead: they won every single game for the rest of the year. 16 in a row.

Harry Decker had helped to bring our city its first baseball championship.

---

He would play even better the following season, hitting .313 as the Toronto Baseball Club finished in second place. But even after he'd established himself as a star in Toronto, it was his life off the field that made Harry Decker truly remarkable.

For one thing, he was an inventor. He came out of his time in Toronto having produced a design for a new kind of padded catcher's mitt — the same basic idea that is still being used today. He enlisted a business partner and together they applied for a patent, working in the offseason to prepare for production. It would prove to be an incredibly lucrative idea, but Decker was never a patient man. He nearly lost the patent entirely when he didn't bother to pay the necessary fees. And in the end, he sold off his interest in the new glove for $50. The rights were bought by Al Spalding's company: the sporting goods king who founded the National League would go on to manufacture the glove for years to come.

And that may not have been Decker's only sucessful invention. That same winter, he might have invented a new kind of turnstile, which quickly became the standard in ballparks, fairgrounds and racetracks across the country. But the details aren't clear. The New York Sporting Times accused Decker of ripping off the design: they claimed he stole a turnstile from the Philadelphia Phillies' ballpark, filed off the name of the original inventor, replaced it with his own, and then tried to sell the turnstile back to the Phillies as a completely new design.

And whether or not that story was true, it certainly wasn't out of character. Harry Decker was a con artist with an impressively long rap sheet.

Over the years, he faced criminal charges over and over again. He was arrested for stealing from teammates. And from his roommate. He was arrested for stealing a suit of clothes, and for stealing a bicycle, and for stealing a horse. He forged a cheque to pay his tailor, another to pay his grocer, a third to pay for a fancy hat for his mistress, and many more beyond that. He forged the signatures of Al Spalding and of the owners of the Phillies. He got caught counterfeiting money — and then forged the signature of the U.S. Marshal who arrested him for it.

As one Pinkerton detective put it, "I know it is customary in some circles to always describe a criminal as 'one of the most dangerous men in the country.' But this trite phrase well applies to him." The Chicago Tribune complained, "Decker's hallucination is that he owns the City of Chicago. He was in the habit of entering saloons and ordering wine for everybody present and then walking out with the belief that the place belonged to him and he could give away his own wares if he saw fit."

He used so many fake names that eventually the police admitted they didn't even know what his real name was anymore. All they knew for sure was that he grew up in a respected, wealthy family... in Pittsburgh. Which wasn't true at all.

Decker gave many explanations for his litany of crimes. He blamed some of them on getting hit in the head by a baseball. Others on getting kicked in the head by a horse. Some, he blamed on the stress of having a wife and a young child. Some, on insanity — the courts institutionalized him twice, but both times the doctors at the asylum found nothing wrong with him and released him back onto the streets again.

Once, Decker convinced a judge to send him to a particular prison of his own choosing by claiming he was dying of tuberculosis — which he miraculously recovered from as soon as the decision was handed down. On another occasion, when arrested for forging yet another cheque, he evaded jail time entirely by pointing out that when he signed the person's name, he'd spelled it wrong — so he couldn't possibly be guilty; he hadn't actually signed their name at all. At one point, he even seems to have had an operation to remove a cyst from his forehead — so it would be harder for witnesses to identify him.

On the occasions when he wasn't able to talk his way out of trouble, his rich parents were usually there to bail him out or to hire the best lawyers to defend him.

But his personal life, as you might imagine, did suffer.

Decker was married young, during the year he was blacklisted from the Major Leagues: to Annie Burns, a fifteen year-old girl he'd gotten pregnant. He had never been faithful to her: as his baseball teams toured from city to city, he quickly gained a reputation as a serial womanizer. The Philadelphia Inquirer called him "The Don Juan of the Diamond." And their marriage suffered another crushing blow when their two year-old daughter — who by all accounts, Decker was truly devoted to — died at the end of his last season in Toronto. Things seem to have gotten even worse after that. 

In 1891, Decker tried to marry a second woman under a fake name. But his fraud was quickly uncovered and he was charged with bigamy. It wasn't the last time he'd be caught trying to do something similar. And on another occasion, he was charged with statutory rape, having seduced an underage girl.

"I think I am a most unfortunate man," he once complained. "It seems to me that if I merely look at a girl she fancies me so much that a breach of promise suit is the result."

Annie divorced him in 1896. 

His baseball career was even shorter than his marriage. He played only two and a half seasons after leaving Toronto. His talent was undeniable and he got another shot at the Majors, but his actual results were usually mediocre and his teams' patience with his criminal behaviour quickly ran out. He was released by the New Haven Nutmegs halfway through the 1891 season — after he was arrested for the second time in just a few months. "If Decker had pursued a different course," an old manager once lamented, "he would now be in demand by the best clubs in the country." Instead, he would never play professional baseball again.

He did turn up on a diamond at least once more, though. In 1915, Sporting Life magazine stumbled across an interesting photo. It had been sent to the manager of the Los Angeles Angels as a thank you: the Angels had sent free uniforms to the team of prisoners who played baseball at San Quentin Prison. The autographed photo showed the full roster of inmates, and there among them was the star of the team: a catcher who looked awfully familiar. He was older now, and calling himself Earl Henry Davenport, but the face was unmistakable: it was Harry Decker. His life of crime had caught up with him yet again. He's thought to have spent a total of twelve years in prison.

But after that, he disappears from history. After being released from prison in October of that year, Harry Decker essentially vanished. Historians from the Society for American Baseball Research have spent decades trying to track him down, searching for any mention of him in the years after his stay at San Quentin. But it's not an easy job: Decker is thought to have used anywhere between fifteen to twenty aliases during his life; it was once said he "changes his name each time he boards a train." 

And so, no one knows how Harry Decker spent his final days, when he died, or where he is buried. It seems as if the ultimate fate of the one most notorious ballplayers in the history of Toronto will forever remain a mystery.

-----

Peter Morris' book, "Catcher: The Evolution of an American Folk Hero" has an absolutely fantastic chapter about Harry Decker. You can find it on Google Books here. I first learned about him in a passing mention in the awesome book "Baseball's Back In Town: From the Don to the Blue Jays A History of Baseball in Toronto" by Louis Cauz. You can buy it here or borrow it from the Toronto Public Library here.

I wrote more about Cannonball Crane here — and he gets a chapter in my Toronto Book of the Dead, too, which you can buy at your favourite Toronto bookseller (or from Amazon here). I also wrote about the 1887 championship team here.

"Bob Lemke's Blog" shares Decker's story here. He's also mentioned in "Big Sam Thompson: Baseball's Greatest Clutch Hitter" by Roy Kerr on Google Books here. And Sportsnet lists him as one of "The Greatest Mysteries in the History of Sport" here. Baseball History Daily has more about him here. And Goodwin & Co does here. His Baseball Reference stats page is here (though sadly, they don't have the numbers for that 1887 team). The Vintage Baseball Glove Forum has images of the glove he invented here.

 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

My Favourite Memory of Roy Halladay

My favourite memory of Roy Halladay came on a night he lost an unimportant game in the middle of an unimportant season.

The Jays were playing the Red Sox, who would win the World Series that year, and Doc was coming off his worst start in years... but we weren’t worried. This was Roy Halladay. He never had two bad starts in a row. And to top it off: as we waited in line at the box office, a couple in Red Sox gear came up to us and randomly offered us their extra tickets. Two seats just a couple of rows behind the Jays dugout. The best I’ve ever had. For free. To see Doc.

This. Was. Exciting. We were going to get to watch the best pitcher of his generation ply his craft from just a few meters away.

But this was not Doc’s night.

He gave up a run in the first and then struggled even more mightily in the third, giving up six more runs — including a three-run homer to Mike Lowell. The unthinkable was happening. Two bad starts in a row. Something was very wrong.

But Doc kept battling, got out of the inning, and managed to make it through five before his night was over.

The next day, he was rushed to hospital… and straight into surgery. Turns out Roy Halladay’s appendix was ready to burst. He’d pitched five innings of major league baseball with an organ inside his body on the verge of exploding. And of course when the doctors told him he’d miss 4–6 weeks, he had his own ideas. He was back on the mound just three weeks later.

Put his name on the Level of Excellence, retire his number, and stick a statue outside the Dome. My god, he’ll be missed.