Genealogy is usually of little interest to children probably because their parents already seem from the Dark Ages and their grandparents from the times when Tyrannosaurus Rex tramped the planet.
It was the same thing for me way back in the 1960’s – except for the one day when I was about twelve years old. My mother came home all excited with some important news passed on to her by a cousin who had researched the Crepeau family tree.
My mom’s father, Jules Crepeau of Montreal, was descended from one Abraham Martin dit L’Ecossais, a pioneering (boat) pilot and land-owner in New France. My French Canadian mom found this fact highly entertaining. “I am descended from a Scotsman,” she told me, laughing. “What a joke.”
I remember this episode only because of another part of the story. Apparently, this Abraham Martin fellow owned the Plains of Abraham. THOSE Plains of Abraham. Now that I could sink my tweenage incisors into.
You see, I was learning about Canadian history in school. Our text was Canada Then and Now, a bright green text with a very iconographic cover pic.
From this textbook, I was learning for the first time how the French and British were always at war with each other, way back then, in Europe and in North America. In North America, the fought over control of the lucrative fur trade and, apparently, it all came to a head one morning on the 1th of September, 1759 when a British general named Samuel Wolfe, after being rebuffed a few times by the superior French forces, led a cagey attack on the French General named Louis Joseph Marquis de Montcalm on the cliffs of Quebec City, cutting off his supplies and defeating his superior forces. This was all part of something called The Seven Years War.
All night long kept quietly landing the men on Wolfe’s cove. By morning, 5000 British soldiers were drawn up ready on the Plains of Abraham. The French had avoided battle, believing they were safe because they had more men than the British and plenty of supplies. They knew the British wold have to withdraw before freeze up. But now tht the British had landed above the town and cut off supplies from Quebec. The time had come for battle.
The textbook instructed us Canadian children, in subtle terms, to take no especial pride in this seminal event:
Wolfe and Montcalm were great generals and gallant men. Today, on the Plains outside of Quebec, a monument stands to honor them both. Wolfe’s name is on one side, Montcalm’s on the other. There is a Latin inscription that says, “Valour gave them a common death. History a common fame and posterity a common memorial.”
Today, I am much older and predictably I am into genealogy. I have written many many family stories from both sides of my tree.
My mother’s French Canadian side was easy-peasy to patch together thanks to all those fabulous Catholic church records on Drouin available. And yes, if the Mons Origins website information is correct, my mom was indeed descended from this Abraham Martin.
Should I write about this pioneer ancestor? I have long wondered.
Truth be told, I would very much like to puzzle out the story of my earlier French Canadian ancestors, as Tracey Arial and Claire Lindle have done so brilliantly on this blog. I’d like to discover exciting new tidbits of information about my ancestors to add to the historical record (perhaps using some of the stellar resources catalogued on Genealogy Ensemble by Jacques Gagne) but it all seems so difficult, so labour intensive and so hard on the eyes.
In the past, I have explored the lives of Les Filles de Roi – because I am particularly interested in the lives of women ancestors – only to find there doesn’t exist much detailed information about these pioneering females from Normandy and Ile de Paris. It seems no one bothered to document the day-to-day lives or unique personal stories of these ‘mothers of millions’ back then– either in Europe or New France.
When it comes to this Abraham Martin dit L’Ecossais character, it would be a real waste of time to try to find a new angle or to write something fresh about him. There are already reams and reams (or pixels and pixels) of information written about him. It appears that Abraham Martin dit L’Ecossais is one of the most famous French Canadian pioneers and a father to millions of North Americans, including Madonna and Justin Bieber – and, ah, little ole me.
Long story short: He married Marguerite Langlois. Had 14 children. I am descended through Vitaline Forget-Despatie, my mother’s father’s mother.
The kicker to this non-story of mine: Abraham wasn’t necessarily Scottish. He could have invented the epithet to avoid criminal prosecution or he was a war deserter. His name might have generated from the fact that he had visited Scotland many times in his youth.*1
Now, lately I have dug out one very interesting fact about my mom’s French Canadian ancestors on her dad’s side, one she didn’t know about. My mother always told me that the name Crepeau meant “curly haired one.” She had very very curly hair herself, as did her father. I have no idea how long she had known this fact or who originally informed her.
If that same cousin, back in 1967, had provided her with a paper genealogy, my mother would have noticed that the original Crepeaus, going back six to eight generations, were Crespeaus, from Poitou Charent. I have recently learned that the name Crespeau almost certainly came from Crespo, a very Spanish name – and not only that a Sephardic Jewish name.
I found this tidbit on sephardim.com:
“The name Crespo has been identified by the Holy Office of the Church of Spain as a Sephardic Jewish surname.”
So, it seems, even genealogically-timid I can dig out an interesting fact or two about a distant French Canadian ancestor. Maybe I should keep trying.
1. Even if Abraham Martin wasn’t born to the Tartan, he likely had English, Scottish and even Viking dna. Normandy, Normans, North men, Norsemen. Ancestry gives most of my many many French Canadian cousins a little bit of Norwegian ethnicity. I have a very vague 0-8 percent.
Wouldn’t it be funny if my mom were related to Eric the Red, chronicled in the second chapter of Canadian Then and Now, after the first chapter on “Indians” and “Eskimos.”
If you believe mytrueancestry.com, my husband, whose Mom comes from Isle of Lewis Scots, apparently is connected genetically to Eric’s clan. How very romantic! If I didn’t love him before, I’d have to love him now!
2. I checked the Y dna lists online at Family Tree and someone is trying to see if French Canadians have Semitic genes. There are very few members. On a regular French from France Y dna site I can see that some French Canadians have J M172, an Anatolian line, often thought of as the Greek Diaspora. Cote and Leger are the names that crop up. There are no Crespos, Crespeau’s or Crepeaus.
The Coderre Police Corruption Inquiry/Laurier Palace Fire Scandal
If you are a Quebecker of a certain age, it is possible that as a child you never went to the movies. Everyone under sixteen years of age in this Canadian province was banned from attending the motion pictures even in the company of an adult from 1927 until 1962 *1
This is because of the tragic Laurier Palace movie house fire in January 1927 where seventy eight children perished in a crush at the downstairs doors, doors that only opened inwardly.
These 78 children were among a larger group of working class kids crowded into the upper balcony of the ramshackle Laurier Palace watching a Western on a Sunday afternoon.
A slew of high-profile inquests and hearings followed the tragedy. My grandfather, Jules Crepeau, Director of City Services, was the first to testify at both the initial coroner’s inquest and subsequent hearings. It is unclear what exactly happened in the balcony as only children came forward to testify. All seven or so adults seated there seemed to disappear into the ether. There was talk of two men purposely closing the doors on the desperate kids. At least one older boy had time to go up and down the stairs a few times before the smoke got dangerous. The origin of the fire was never discovered. *2
Most parents, afraid of legal reprisals, testified that they thought their children were at church that afternoon. But parents of the era could hardly be blamed for allowing their children to attend the movies by themselves– against the by-laws. Many of their male children were already out in the workforce earning their own discretionary income and many of their young daughters were already ‘little mothers’ in charge of even younger siblings. With the traffic chaos on the streets in 1927, the movie house probably seemed like a relatively safe place for their children.*3
On January 10, 1927, the day after the Laurier Palace Fire, the front page of Le Devoir newspaper ran two related stories side-by-side. One was a dry report where my grandfather Jules Crepeau, Director of City Services, admitted that the Laurier Palace Theatre had been operating without a license.
“This will all be explained at the Coroner’s Inquest,” he said.
The second story was a shocking side-bar rehashing testimony from a two year old inquiry into police corruption, testimony that also mentioned my grandfather.
“Our readers will no doubt be interested in re-reading these extracts from testimony at the 1924 Coderre Inquiry into Police Malfeasance and Corruption, 4 that bear on motion picture theatre attendance.”
The side-bar included bits and pieces of testimony given in December, 1924 at this hearing by a certain Constable C.T. in the ‘special services’ division of the Montreal Police Department. The cop railed against City Hall. He was angry because members of the Executive Committee, he said, as well as my grandfather, repeatedly forced the police to cancel citations against motion picture houses that allowed children into the shows, unattended.
Constable CT gave specifics, naming each of the movies houses (the Ouimetoscope!) and the dates when citations were cancelled. He said, “One of these moments there’s going to be a catastrophe that will wake up the authorities.” LeDevoir put that quote in all caps.*5
Despite this sensational after-the-fact finger-pointing at a sensitive time by an otherwise respectable publication, no one took the bait. My grandfather Jules was once again called to testify at the Coroner’s Inquest as well as the other inquiries into the fatal fire but was never asked about Constable CT’s earlier accusations.
Indeed, a while later, when the Taschereau Government was deliberating whether to ban all Sunday showings in Quebec, my grandfather testified once again. He even brought in Ernest Cousins, Vice President of United Amusements, Montreal’s largest movie chain, to talk about the importance of Sunday showings to the movie distribution industry.*6
Isadore Crepeau, my grandfather’s brother, who just happened to be another Vice-President of United Amusements, was not called in to testify at this time, nor was my grandfather’s family connection to United Amusements ever mentioned.*7
So, why wasn’t my grandfather pilloried back in 1927, when passions over the tragedy were at a high boil, for these two year old allegations of interference with the policemen who patrolled motion picture houses (and who, btw, regularly accepted free tickets for their kids.)
Well, the truth is, Constable CT’s testimony was hardly gold-standard. Under cross-examination a day later, the cop admitted rather glibly to having lent the Chief of Police large sums of money at different times, for reasons he refused to elaborate on. He also admitted to depositing more than five thousand dollars into his five bank accounts over a short period of time. “Rents and winnings on horses” he said.
Constable CT was just another corrupt cop, put on the stand specifically to threaten my grandfather by bringing up, out-of-the-blue, the fairly benign subject of children and the motion pictures, when the Coderre Inquiry was mounted to deal with much more dire and dark issues: police involvement in prostitution of women and girls, drug rings and organized crime and illegal booze smuggling in the era of American prohibition.
Taken in that light, Constable CT’s statement “One day there’s going to be a catastrophe” uttered in December 1924, a full two years before the Laurier Palace fire, could be construed as a threat.
My grandfather, at the time, certainly felt threatened. He had Constable CT fired the very next day.
“Who is this Jules Crepeau who can tell the Chief of Police what to do?” asked Juge Coderre in his summary report in March 1925. As if he didn’t know.8
Three years later, in September, 1930, as explained in Part Two of this series, Mayor Camillien Houde was speechifying at the City Hall meeting where the aldermen debated whether or not to accept my grandfather’s coerced letter of resignation.
“The people want revenge,” Houde said. “They want revenge for the Montreal Water and Power Purchase (the purported reason for wanting my grandfather out) and for the Laurier Palace Fire.”
This was a sneak attack of some sort because never before had the Laurier Palace Fire been brought up as a reason to oust my grandfather from his lofty post at City Hall, at least not in any news clipping I have read.
With all the Houdist’s voting against him, my grandfather was, indeed, forced to resign his post of Director of City Services in September, 1930.
At the time, Grandpapa Jules negotiated a huge life pension that would make him the second highest paid employee at City Hall, without working. Seven years later, during the Great Depression, his huge pension would be rescinded by the City.
Two weeks after that, Jules was hit by a car near his home in Notre Dame de Grace, a car driven by an off-duty police officer. I guess my grandpapa threatened someone with a long reach.
He would die a year later of complications.
As it happens, Le Devoir was the only Montreal newspaper to give Jules a lengthy front page obituary. They even called out the other Montreal papers on this point.
“The other day a noted public servant was put in the ground. The newspapers only published laconic biographical notes about him that don’t give a just idea of the role he played in municipal politics.”
The obituary didn’t mention the suspicious nature of my grandfather’s death, but it did allude, rather kindly, to the many scandals in his career:
“He was too passionate not to occasionally take sides between two rivals, often creating his own enemies. Indeed, he received some knocks, some devastating knocks, but we must say upon his memory, that none of these accusations stuck.”
I have added this on February, 14, 2022. The Montreal Star came online and I was able to read their point of view. They liked him, that’s for sure. Upon his forced retirement they wrote:
“His rise to the position he just vacated was accomplished by merit. A thorough knowledge of the whole involved process of civic administration, of civic problems and the various services, combined with a ready tact, a suave manner, and a keen intellect, which enabled him to penetrate to the root of any problem without delay and which made it very difficult for anyone to mislead him.”
Also, I reread the testimony of Constable CT during the Coderre hearing. Of course, different newspapers covered these political stories differently. I was surprised to see that in his testimony Constable CT claimed that Jules cancelled citations against movie houses owned by United Amusements. It was stated at the hearing that ‘no civic employee had any connection to the company.” LOL. My grandfather’s brother was VP.
The city by-laws forbade children to attend movies unless in the company of an adult, not because of a fear of fire-traps but for a fear of the morality of pre-code Hollywood. Indeed, exceptions could be made for films vetted by the Censor. A year later, a similar fire happened in a motion picture house in Scotland – also caused by a crush at doors that opened inwards. The only change that came of that was a law forbidding such doors in motion picture houses. But, in Quebec, everything becomes political. A parade of Montreal citizenry testified in the sad affair: the theatre owners (who were eventually exonerated) and employees and the firemen and the victims’ parents; then followed moguls in the theatre business, small independent theatre owners, union activists, more parents and more firemen, also educators and church officials and representatives of various community groups – anyone with a stake and an opinion – showed up to testify . Fire safety became a mere side issue: it was all about the morality of the motion pictures. The government ended up banning children from all showings, in return for allowing the controversial Sundays showings for adults. (Children could not vote, but their parents could.) I personally think the new “Talkies” coming in right then in 1927 had something to do with the decision. They were English talkies after all. Despite all this, Quebec children over the decades often evaded the rules by dressing up and acting like adults. There were also special children’s showings at various theatres over the years.
2. “It must have been a cigarette.” Most movie house fires of the time started in the projection booth. This wasn’t the case here, so they took a wild guess. A fire station was across the street, but firefighters could do nothing upon arrival to save the children.
3. 1927 was a pivotal year in traffic safety in North America. The horse and wagon era was literally colliding with the era of the automobile – and their were no road rules yet. The same edition of the Montreal Gazette that covers the Laurier Palace Fire has a story of a toddler being run over in front of her house. This was a daily occurrence in North American cities at the time.
4. The Coderre Inquiry into Police Corruption and Malfeasance was launched after a record-breaking Brinks robbery in the Hochelaga district where it discovered that policemen were involved, but it had long roots back to WWI and prostitution around the Montreal Barracks. A Committee of Sixteen mostly Protestant groups organized an all-court press on Montreal City Hall in 1921, to protect the sad girls working in prostitution in the city after a prominent doctor gave a speech to the elite members of Canadian Club. They focused on the Baghdad Cafe, a sleazy dive serving US tourists located across the street from the ritzy Mount Royal Hotel, Tony Frank, Montreal’s leading mobster and top drug dealer was also implicated in the Brinks robbery. He thought he had the perfect alibi, but he and his henchmen were quickly hanged on circumstantial evidence. Judge Coderre, a religious conservative, used the Inquiry as his bully-pulpit. “Vice spreads its tentacles into every aspect of Montreal life, ” he wrote in his final report. He made many recommendations, all of which were ignored.
5. The Montreal Gazette’s quote at the time was “One day there’s going to be a catastrophe and if a fire breaks out one of these days no one will be able to get out.” These may or may not be the same quote. Unfortunately, the newspapers used creative license when transcribing the testimony and no full 10,000 page transcript of the Coderre Inquiry still exists, although Montreal City Hall has some original documents. https://www.archivesquebec.com/montrealp045.html . I visited there a few years ago and was shown a transcript on pdf that had been prepared for JAAA Brodeur and the Executive Committee. It was edited down and did not include Constable CT’s ‘prescient’ quote. From what I read, it appears that Constable CT brought up the incriminating evidence against my grandfather without even being asked. He changed the subject himself in mid interview. This transcript did contain a vivid account of a visit to a house of prostitution made by an undercover American. All he had to do was to ask the cabby and he was guided to this brothel (that was said to be under the protection of the police) where a dozen of drug-addled girls wearing ‘handkerchiefs’ were displayed before him.
6. The UA chain did not have children as customers, said Cousins, but Sunday was the company’s biggest day at the box office for adults. If Sunday showings were cancelled, United Amusements would have to close down their entire operation…. United Amusements was a movie distribution chain founded by Greek immigrant George Ganetakos during the WWI years.. He started out small, showing ‘flickers’ on the wall o f his uncle’s ice cream shop, then took on Ernest Cousins (an ice cream man) and my great uncle Isadore Crepeau when he expanded. Eventually his company became part of Famous Players. United Amusements built many of the gorgeous Montreal movie palaces of the day. Greeks were big in the movie biz as they were entrepreneurial by nature and this new movie revolution presented a big opportunity for them. In his testimony, as reported in the Montreal Gazette, Constable CT accused Greeks of corralling children into the movies. The Laurier Palace was owned by Canadians of Syrian origin, a group often back then conflated with Greeks. On the morning after the fire, as reported in Le Devoir, George Ganetakos, using the name George Nicholas, set up an emergency fund for the victims.
7. My Mom’s Uncle Isadore was a glass manufacturer/insurance agent whose elegant stained-glass window graced the Rialto Theatre on Park Avenue for many years. It’s still there – in what is now an entertainment venue. In 1933, Isadore ‘fell’ out of his office window, seven floors up, and met his death. The police deemed it an accident relating a ridiculous story and citing unnamed witnesses. Isadore was very likely hired by Ganetakos because of his connection to my grandfather. A survey of movie industry magazines, like Box Office, reveals that my grandfather’s name came up much more often than Isadore’s.
8. Juge Coderre and his wife often attended City Hall events like the soiree for the Royal Princes held in August 1927.
In November 2022 I found a bit in an online archive from 1940. A man described the Director of City Services as the Manager of the City. Period. BUT he said when the post was created they didn’t allow for enough autonomy for the Director who was subject to blackmail and political interference. By 1940 only two men, my grandfather and Honore Parent had held the post.
Flying Dentures and the Terrible Typhus: The Montreal Water and Power Scandal of 1927
On September 29, 1930, in a memorable public meeting of the Montreal City Council filled with oratorical fireworks, twenty-nine aldermen debated whether my grandfather, Jules Crepeau, should be allowed to ‘resign’ from his lofty post of Director of City Services at City Hall. It was an especially loud and rowdy session of Council, with observers in the gallery booing Mayor Houde, but, apparently, ‘a religious hush’ came over the hall when Etienne Gauthier, Chief City Clerk, read out my grandpapa’s coerced letter of resignation.
This was the most important debate ever held at City Hall, cried out the left wing Liberal newspaper Le Canada the next day. The City Hall reporter from the Montreal Gazette had unusual fun with the story: “It was a hot session. A dozen usually placid aldermen lost their tempers and their ruddy complexions paled in anger. The mayor lost the main span of this false teeth in the middle of a sentence, caught them on the fly and pocketed them nonchalantly. But nobody lost his voice. His Worship and Ald. Schubert of St. Louis ward put on the main bout, and the alderman asked Ald. Bruno Charbonneau, the pro-mayor in the chair, to have the mayor expelled from the Council Chamber for bad behavior.”1
Jules Crepeau’s third and fourth scandals overlap in the late 1920’s, so I am starting with the least unsettling of the two: The Montreal Water and Power controversy where the City purchased a much-needed privately-owned water utility based in a separate city, Westmount, for 14 million dollars.
This purchase in 1927 was fairly benign business-as-usual except in the eyes of those Anglo businessmen who despised monopolies. Indeed, with the support of Hugh Graham (Lord Althostan) Camillien Houde used this non-scandal in 1928 to propel himself right onto the Montreal Mayor’s throne where he would remain, on and off, for decades – famously opposing the draft in WWII and even going to jail for it.
In 1930, Mayor Houde invoked this same Water and Power ‘scandal’ to force my grandfather Jules Crepeau, a 42 year veteran of City Hall, to resign his all-seeing post of Director of City Services, just two years after Council had praised him to the hilt on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of his tenure at City Hall.
Like my grandfather’s other scandals that I am writing about in this series, The Montreal Water and Power Purchase is a bit difficult to unpack, but let me try.
The Purchase was all about contagion, especially typhoid epidemics in 1904, 1909 and 1927 respectively. A key ethical question loomed over the purchase: whether municipal utilities existed to promote big business and speculation or to serve the better interests of the citizens of urban areas, rich and poor, or both.
In 1904, the typhus bug had likely originated in the pipes of Westmount’s deceptively named Montreal Water and Power Company, tainting the unfiltered water in this tony suburb and killing 30. But s**t famously flows downstream and three times the number of citizens were killed in the working class town of St. Henri.
Assess to potable water had long been a problem in St Henri, a low-lying ‘burb that flooded every spring. That town also housed a number of abattoirs and tanneries mucking up the natural water supply. In 1910, the infant mortality rate in St. Henri was world class.
The beleaguered citizens of St Henri had to pay two water taxes, one to the Company and one to the municipality. Most people couldn’t afford it.
Thus St Henri was forced to pay the water tax for many of its poorer citizens. At the turn of the 20th century, this burden proved too much and, in 1906, St Henri was absorbed into the City of Montreal.*2.
From then on it was understood that the City of Montreal would have to purchase the waterworks from its private owners– it was just a matter of time. Between 1917 and 1926, a succession of bills were passed in the Quebec Legislature making way for the City to purchase Montreal Water and Power. Meanwhile, Montreal Water and Power continued to be ‘a thorn in the side of the city.’ 9
And when the purchase was finally approved by Council on February 14, 1927, the timing was most suspicious – or auspicious, depending on the point of view.
It seems the City Council signed off on the purchase shortly after Senator Norman Webster purchased the company stock in parcels between the spring and autumn of 1926 from the Hanson Brothers, through a family trust located in New York State. Webster paid only nine million, five hundred thousand dollars for the company. The city taxpayers were out four and a half million.
Apparently, the Montreal Star and Standard (owned by Hugh Graham until 1925) were the only English newspapers that condemned the purchase outright. The Council either acted too hastily, they said, or there were corrupt motives involved.
Surprisingly, no one mentioned the typhoid epidemic, taking hold right then in February, 1927, as a very good reason for Council to rush to purchase Montreal Water and Power, considering the events of 1904. I guess no one wanted to frighten away those monied American tourists who were flocking to Montreal for a boozy good time. 4
Alderman Mercure soon mounted a libel suit against the Montreal Standard on behalf of Council, so all people in question had to publicly testify.
On the stand Norman Webster was positively cocky. Yes, he owned most of the shares in the family trust. Maybe he had been at the Quebec legislature in early 1926 when the bill was passed giving Montreal the go-ahead to purchase Montreal Water and Power, but he knew nothing about it. He was there on other business, Presbyterian Church Union. No, he hadn’t ever intended to quickly flip the company to the City, at least not until the City Council approached him.
The Court ruled that the controversial purchase was legal and above-board: that’s what businessmen do, speculate. Montreal Water and Power was created for no other reason than to be purchased for a profit, in the future, said the Court. It was the responsibility of the City’s Executive Committee of aldermen, led by “Montreal’s Napoleon” JAAA Brodeur to have stopped the Webster purchase were it, indeed, such a bad deal for citizens. Brodeur (who died but a few months later) had testified that he knew about Webster’s prior purchase but he still thought the deal a good one.
How does my poor grandpapa fit into all this? Well, Houde claimed that as Director of City Services it was his job to warn all the aldermen against the deal.
My grandfather defended himself in the papers by saying that he did not even attend the council meeting at City Hall where the aldermen voted to seal the purchase, so how could he have warned anyone? He only learned about the purchase the next day, he claimed.
It is a bit weird that he did not attend that Council meeting, since that was one of his many, many tasks. Was it a shady session? Maybe. Did my grandfather know about it? Probably.8
During the 1928 election campaign, Camillien Houde called out as corrupt the late Mr. Brodeur and a certain name-left-unspoken “everybody knows who he is” Minister at Quebec.
Houde won the April 2 election handily, winning over voters in English wards specifically on the W and P issue, or so said the Montreal Gazette, and the very next day a report was commissioned on all aspects of the Montreal Water and Power purchase. A board of arbitration put the price at fourteen million and Mayor Houde would go on to ratify the purchase. All in all, the Montreal Water and Power purchase was a very good thing for the city.
Still, Houde used the Water and Power purchase to bounce my grandfather two years later, saying the electorate had given him the mandate to do so back in 1928.
My grandfather wrote up a short letter of resignation on September 22, 1930 but he said in the newspapers that it was up to Council whether or not to accept it. Thus came about that rowdy debate at City Hall on September 29th, recounted almost word-for-word in most of the Montreal newspapers, except in the Montreal Star, where the news report was kept short and simple.1
Le Canada suggested that my grandfather had become ‘an embarrassment’ to Houde because he knew too much about the new administration. This was highly probable. Before acquiescing to Houde’s demand, my grandfather negotiated an enormous severance payout and life pension which one might guess was in return for his future silence. And the circumstances surrounding my grandfather’s untimely death in 1938 suggests the same thing.*7
In the end, on that cool autumn evening in late September, twenty-two aldermen – all Houdists – voted to accept my grandfather’s resignation and seven voted not to. My grandfather would retire and still be the second highest paid person at City Hall.
During that fateful council session Alderman Trepanier, my grandfather’s long-time ally, argued passionately on his behalf – claiming that Mayor Houde had his aldermen ‘by the throat.’ He was forced to retract that statement, replacing it with something less aggressive, “The aldermen are pirouetting to Houde’s every demand,” he said.
Houde was undeterred. “The people want revenge for the Montreal Water and Power Scandal and they want revenge for the Laurier Palace Fire,” he boomed, spitting out his lower plate.
And so we get to my grandfather’s fourth, most meandering – and most murky – career scandal at Montreal City Hall in the 1920’s, the Laurier Palace Fire/Coderre Police Corruption Scandal. This is where my grandfather’s story starts to look like the convoluted plot for a season of Line of Fire. To be continued in Part 3.
Le Canada, published in league with the Liberal Party of Canada, called the debate at the council session, the most important ever held at City Hall. They also said ‘there was a religious silence in the room” as my grandfather’s resignation letter was read out..
The Montreal Star story, of which I have a paper clipping, was much more restrained, featuring classic reporting that summarized the situation and said ‘lot’s more happened.’ It mentioned the flying teeth, though.
2.Lord, Kathleen. “Days and Nights: Class, gender and on Notre Dame Street in St. Henri, 1875-1905. McGill Thesis 2000.
4.The epidemic was taking hold probably right around then. By March the numbers were making the newspapers. There would eventually be 5,000 cases and 533 deaths. Americans sent up their health experts to locate the cause – eventually found to be milk not water. With no prohibition in Montreal in 1927, the city was a tourist haven for Americans looking for a good time. That’s probably why Council didn’t bring up the epidemic in their defence. (My opinion only.) Brodeur later denied there was any typhoid epidemic at all. “Just a few cases.”
5. In 1927, L’Autorite Magazine, among other revues, called my grandfather an innocent pawn of Chairman Brodeur, during the inquiry into the Laurier Palace Fire in 1927. In this particular case, I suspect they got it wrong. See my next post. They also claimed Houde kept Jules on at first because he needed his knowledge.
6. Le Canada was a very modern-looking newspaper with lots of ads and a ladies and sports page. (See BANQ for more info.) It was a newspaper published in league with the Liberal Party of Canada, and contained many scathing articles and editorials about the ‘firing’. They refused to call it a resignation. Basically, they said the new Houde administration was corrupt, already breaking laws at all levels of government, putting hardworking fathers out of their city jobs and replacing them with their own. (The Depression was starting and unemployment was rampant in Montreal. Le Canada contested Houde’s claim that the people wanted Jules out over the Montreal Water and Power deal, since these same people, they said, had re-elected most of the alderman who voted for the deal in 1928. (I’m not sure if this is true.) They said my grandfather was gotten rid of cause ‘he knew too much and maybe he had become….embarrassing.’ Probably true. When City Hall contested the Pension in 1930 /1931, there were snippets in newspapers here and there that my grandfather might run for municipal office, even as Mayor. Did he really want to run for Mayor? Not quite his style. The average Joe on the street didn’t know his name, *unless they read the tabloids in 1914. I think these postings were little threats. “Make sure I get the pension, or…” Le Devoir did not think it right that my grandfather was turfed out, “ He will be a hard man to replace: no one knows like he does how to keep the wheels of municipal government running smoothly,” but they laughed at the idea that the Houde administration was more corrupt than the previous administration ‘which was well known to be run by liberals.’ They also claimed at the time that my grandfather managed to keep the scandal over the Water and Power sale at arm’s length – at the time, anyway. They suggested that all his scandals, including the one in 1914 over the bribery, only served to enhance his reputation at City Hall.
To get his pension the city charter had to be amended at Quebec..
7. My grandfather finally won the court case and got his pension (and retroactive payments) in 1931. In 1937, under financial pressure during the Great Depression, the city rescinded my grandfather’s pension. (Thank you Christian Gravenor for digging out that info.) .Just two weeks later, Jules would be hit by a car near his home in NDG, a car driven by an off-duty policemen, get a broken leg among other serious injuries, spend two months in the hospital, and die a year later of bone cancer (from the x-rays, my mother always said.). All very suspicious, wouldn’t you say? My mother who was only 16 at the time of the incident thought it was an accident, but my cousins were told he was murdered.
8. My grandfather’s job, as defined clearly by the City Charter, was to be the liaison between top employees, like the city engineer (a Mr. Terrault) and the powerful Executive Committee of aldermen, although this worked only in theory. 8 As the unelected top civil servant he was expected to be neutral on all issues but the very nature of this position made that next to impossible. No doubt my grandpapa Jules was a pawn of the powerful JAAA Brodeur, among others even higher up in the political pecking order. I suspect he was ordered to stay out of it – or he chose not to participate out of reservations of his own. During testimony into the Laurier Palace Fire taking place simultaneously an alderman said as much.
9. At the court hearing it was described as such by another alderman.
In November 2022 I found a description of the position of Assistant City Clerk. It said the position called for delicacy as the Assistant City Clerk was in charge of all municipal receptions, an arduous task requiring a knowledge of people and social tact. The Royal Princes came to Montreal when my grandfather was in office. That must have been fun!
If a British novel penned in the first part of the 20th century contains a Canadian character (for exampleBrideshead Revisited, or Bridge on the River Kwai) that character is inevitably English and from Montreal. Most UK readers of the era would have been unfamiliar with any other Canadian city, including Toronto.
Founded in 1642 as a fur-trading fort, Montreal’s port is strategically located on the St. Lawrence River. By 1900 the city was the financial and industrial capital of Canada– and only increasing in wealth and influence as the rest of the country became more and more industrialized.
The city (majority English in the early going) expanded greatly around that time, gobbling up the mostly French suburbs and flipping the balance of power at City Hall. This expansion also put a strain on city services, especially the housing, water works and transportation systems. Businessmen of all stripes scrummed for the right to improve these services – and make a bundle in the process. The question of the day: were water and power and transportation monopolies good or bad for the average citizen.
The city saw unprecedented immigration in the 1910 era, the numbers peaking in 1912. This influx of mostly poorer people from both Northern and Southern Europe further strained the already inadequate city infrastructure, generating some scary, well-publicized urban problems (including typhoid and ‘the social evil’ of prostitution) and giving rise to a prominent social reform movement. This reform movement was led by McGill professors, clergymen and the elite wives of successful businessmen whose good intentions, often handicapped by an intransigent value system5, inevitably got entangled with the dirty politics and deep dark prejudices of the day.1
The Beck Detectaphone Affair: Tawdry Tabloids and Tasty Tortieres
Jules Crepeau’s first scandal of record at Montreal City Hall was small potatoes. In 1900, as Secretary in charge of Bonsecours Market (the main farmer’s market in the city) he was called to testify on behalf of one Germain Tessier, Clerk-in-Chief, who apparently forced vendors to pay ‘bonuses’ to him for the rental of stalls. It was all on the up and up, said my grandfather. Mr. Tessier was honest and these costs arise naturally and are not, as some butchers were claiming, ‘a surcharge to pay for the next municipal elections.’
My grandfather’s second scandal was much more substantial, a meaty pulp fiction style fiasco involving all levels of government that almost put an early end to his brilliant City Hall career.
Indeed, as the Toronto World tabloid loudly reported in a March, 1914 headline: “Most highly-seasoned stew that has ever been uncovered in Canada. Beats all other scandals put together.”
Jules, along with a handful of members of the provincial legislature, allegedly got caught accepting bribes in a sting set up by journalist Edward Beck, former Editor-in-Chief of the Montreal Herald who had recently started his own tabloid Beck’s Weekly with the help of former Herald publisher Lorne McGibbon,2 just so he could write about it.
McGibbon was livid over a proposed 40 year tramways deal that would greatly benefit his arch-rival, Montreal Star publisher, Hugh Graham. McGibbon and Beck hired Burns detectives from the US armed with ‘detectaphones’ in the hope of proving that the tramways people were bribing members of the legislative assembly.
That didn’t work out. Instead, the American detectives posed as members of the Montreal Fair Association, a group hoping to get a private bill passed at Quebec so that they could start up a horse-racing and liquor business. They allegedly got my grandfather to accept 3,500 dollars a year in return for insider help, effectively doubling his salary as second assistant city clerk – were the charges true.
This all came down a month before the 1914 municipal election where it looked like the municipal Reform party, that had been elected in 1910 with help from Montreal suffragists, would be thrown out paving the way for the much despised tramways deal.
Now, it helps to have a background in the complicated Montreal/Quebec politics of that era -and thanks to a 1972 Masters thesis, my own decade-long research as well as BANQ fonds, I do.3
But let this excerpt from the Toronto World summarize the bribery situation (and its myriad mysteries) for you.
Yes, my grandfather got caught up in something much bigger than himself:a series of feuds between the municipal reformers, mostly ‘benign’ English businessmen who wanted to clean up what they saw as a corrupt political system and the ‘machine,’ an informal alliance of aldermen arranged in a hierarchy, who made sure their poorer wards got all the infrastructure improvements while they allegedly pocketed pork, as well as much bitterness between two English publishing titans, Hugh Graham and Lorne McGibbon, who had once been partners in a scheme to control Montreal’s newspapers.4
My small potatoes second assistant city clerk of a grandfather was held up to the voting public5 by Beck as an example of a corrupt (see “impure”)4 French City Hall when the real flash point was a transportation mega deal that would pour millions into the coffers of various Square Mile multi-millionaires, most of them Anglos.5
My grandfather’s name was dragged through the mud in many English and French tabloids, all of whom quoted Beck’s Weekly.
By the look of Beck’s purple prose, he really had it in for my grandfather. It seems personal.
“The City Hall is a sweet-scented sink hole of pollution if men like Crepeau speak the truth. Their greedy official hands take toll of contracts, levy tribute on ordinances, and prey upon the poor city labourers. Graft, graft, graft is written over the doorways, the lintels and on the doorposts.” 6
According to the newspaper Le Devoir, my grandfather’s mustachioed face filled up the entire front page of Beck’s first edition. Ouch! La Patrie tabloid put a smaller pic cropped from grandpapa’s official City Hall picture in their newspaper the next day. (It’s probably the same pic.)
The Beck’s Weekly account also made my grandfather look very stupid. “The endurance of the operators (of the detectaphone) were sorely tried by the gabbiness of the Handy Man of City Hall.”
Now, Jules Crepeau was anything but stupid. He was an energetic man – with complete recall – who hustled and muscled his way up the municipal ladder over a 32 year period. “Affable, intelligent, ambitious and active, with pride of purpose,” were words used to describe him*7, as were “a model of courteousness and a living encyclopedia of municipal affairs.” Upon his forced retirement in 1930 the Montreal Star said he had ‘ready tact, a suave manner and a keen intellect” that allowed him ‘to get to the root of the problem, saving time and money at City Hall. ” Apparently, he didn’t join the civil service for “security and repose.”8 He also had powerful people in the Liberal Party of Canada on his side.10
In 1888, Jules was a message boy in short pants in the Health Department (my mother like to say he started out ‘sweeping the floors’) and by 1921 he was Director of Services in a dark power suit, his office overseeing basically everything that came down in the city.
Back in 1914, my ‘handyman’ grandfather had clearly earned a reputation for being useful, but I think he was merely a willing (?) pawn of ‘the machine’ and of some very powerful politicians and industrialists – on both sides of the English and French divide and at all levels of government.
If he were greedy, as Beck so salaciously writes, he didn’t seem to prosper above his salary grade. *9. Even at the height of his career in the 1920’s, my grandmother Maria Roy was no ermine-draped socialite. She herself swept the floors in their three storey grey stone at 72 Sherbrooke West (right beside the Liberal Reform Club of Canada, a watering hole for political bigwigs); she herself rolled out the dough on her fabulously fatty tourtieres; and she gave away to Catholic charities most items from the roomful of ‘gifts’ Jules received at Christmas – keeping only the cigars and certain beautiful pieces of Chinoiserie.
In April 1914, my grandfather sued Beck and McGibbon (and Tarte of La Patrie) for libel and won. He was awarded 100 dollars in reparations and two thousand in legal costs by the Court. He donated the 100 dollars to a children’s hospital, as reported in the Liberal l’Autorite newspaper. (See bottom)
It is no coincidence that Jules was defended by R.L Perron11, distinguished Montreal lawyer, Quebec Liberal MLA, lawyer for the Tramways people and President of the Reform Club (Liberal) of Canada. Thanks to Perron, the detectives’ evidence was deemed inadmissable in court. Of course, it had already been printed word-for-word in numerous newspapers.
Beck’s Weekly ceased publication in 1915 during WWI. It is said that Hugh Graham made sure Beck couldn’t get the newsprint.
In 1916 Beck went West to work for a Winnipeg newspaper12 (where he was sentenced to prison for contempt of court – but won an appeal) and then he left journalism and moved into public relations, working for the pulp and paper industry headquartered in Ste Anne de Bellevue, Quebec. He stayed there until his death in 1930, occasionally planting stories in the Toronto Press about corrupt Montreal politics.
My grandfather kept his job as second assistant city clerk, soon rising to first assistant city clerk, occasionally earning some strategically-placed praise in the left-liberal newspapers l’Autorite and Le Canada until in 1921 he was unanimously appointed Director of City Services. This was a new post created with a new city charter – and after broad public consultations. This lofty post was specifically created to ensure that the city services were distributed evenly between the wards. Ha ha.
But this politically sticky post (being at the centre of all municipal activity; the designated liaison between top elected officials and the seven city department heads, including the Chief of Police) put my dear grandpapa in the way of other ugly scandals.
I will write about those in parts 2, 3 of this series: My Grandfather’s Brilliant City Hall Career in Four Scandals.
For more information: Montreal, City of Tomorrow (in French) by Honorable Nantel, 1910. Internet Archive. I found this book entering my grandfather’s name. The author is describing the city in 1910 and how its recent vast expansion has created opportunities and problems. He wants to pattern Montreal after Paris. He thanks my grandfather, among others, for providing him with information.
2. Lorne McGibbon was a prominent Conservative Party organizer who had brought the bribery scheme idea to a certain Thomas Chase Casgrain, Postmaster General in Borden’s Conservative party, who claimed it was ‘criminal’ – so he went it alone. During WW1 McGibbon spoke at Win the War rallies in support of Premier Borden and conscription. Indeed, he claimed in a speech, that any man who didn’t serve in the war shouldn’t be given work at home.
3.. The Municipal Reform Movement in Montreal: 1886-1914, University of Ottawa Master’s Thesis by Michel Gauvin. 1972.
4. The terms ‘benign’ and ‘machine’ from the Gauvin Thesis. ‘Machine’ refers to an earlier administration, but I think it still applies here. “Benign” is used in the sense that these businessmen believed their motives to be pure and beneficial to both their pocketbooks and the citizenry.
5. Montreal had universal male suffrage with exceptions. It could be said that many (most?) male British citizens could vote in municipal elections: they had to live in a house above a certain rental price, pay off their water tax. There were other stipulations. Widows and unmarried women with property could also vote.
In 1910, inspired by a 1909 visit from Britain’s Ethel Snowden, a moderate ‘maternal’ suffragist, the Montreal Council of Women mounted an effort to get the female vote out and ‘purify’ City hall. Their words. Widows and unmarried women of property could vote in the municipal elections. Council of Women volunteers went door-to-door and sure enough, their Reform candidates and Mayor, John James Guerin, was elected. The women were elated, assuming they had won the battle for their key interests, child welfare, temperance, etc. Guerin gave up the post within two years, claiming that as Mayor he was powerless do to anything.
In 1914, populist Mayor, Mederic Martin, a cigar manufacturer, won the election. He would remain Mayor for many years.
It was these women reformers who liked to refer to City Hall as ‘impure.’ Martin, irked by a letter they sent to him about the Tramways Affair, dared call them out in the press as women of leisure, “idlers” but he had to publicly retract his statement. These women were anything but lazy. He got them back: at the public consultations into the Tramways Affair the Council of Women was asked only silly questions: “Why can’t women get the ticket from their purses before getting on the tram instead of holding up the line.” Why can’t women shoppers shop outside of rush hour?” OUCH.
When the Montreal Council of Women helped get the Reform ticket elected in the 1910 municipal elections, Carrie Derick, President of the Council and Montreal’s No. 1 suffragist, wrote an ecstatic piece in The White Ribbon (the magazine of Christian Temperance Union) about how they had cleansed City Hall of impurities. Purity was a loaded concept in 1910, an era of tainted water and milk and of heavy immigration from Southern Europe. Here’s a bit from her article:
“Self-seeking and dishonour, which would have been scorned in private life, long characterized the Municipal Government of Montreal.
The Citizens appeared to be indifferent or helpless, allowing corrupt officials to display open disregard of all right principles. Associations and leagues to purify the administration of Municipal affairs sprang into being and died.
The result of our united efforts and public-spiritedness paid off (in the election of 1912). An unusually heavy vote was registered. Practically the whole of the reform candidates were elected.
Men united with women in urging women electors to do their duty by voting in order that civic reform might be secured, reform which alone would diminish the unceasing supply of sick, poor, the weak and depraved...”
Derick’s ideas were inspired by the eugenics theory. She was a gold-medal McGill geneticist, educated in Europe, and she gave many lectures, some of them mixing her areas of expertise, social reform, suffrage and social engineering. Her stature lent these ideas weight. The movement would accelerate after WWI and culminate in 1924 in the Coderre Inquiry into Police Malfeasance which would again ensnare my grandfather Jules, by this time the Director of City Services. I will write about that in Part 3 of this series.
5.The group included McConnell and Sir Rodolphe Forget who supported Mayor Martin in in 1914. (My grandfather was kin to the Forget’s, supposedly, but he was a Conservative Senator and my grandfather was aligned with the Liberals, so…)
6. Beck’s Weekly was quickly founded when Sir Hugh Graham bought the Herald from under McGibbon after Beck, as Editor in Chief, complained about the Tramways Deal in the Herald in March 1913, with a full page rant in huge 20 point enboldened type. “The Tramways Company’s Brazen Demands: It is well-known that the Tramways Company has City Hall under its thumb and works its sweet will with the people working there. It is known to have an alliance with a sector of the newspaper industry, stifling public opinion. The President of the Tramway and his henchmen occupy seats in the legislature and vote away people’s rights.”
Beck also invited the Montreal Suffrage Association to create a multi-page insert in return for their support of his point of view. That group passed a resolution against the deal (not in their usual purview) soon thereafter. The suffrage insert was published, with a front page letter from Christobel Pankhurst hiding out in Paris. The Montreal Suffrage Association and Beck then had an argument over the profits.
7. From his obituary in Le Devoir, 1938. It was here where it is said that grandpapa had complete and utter knowledge of every detail, however minuscule, of municipal government “like a bank vault.” (This sentiment was widely held.) He was the go-to-guy even at the Quebec legislature, the most influential man when it came to private bills, said the obit.
Another newspaper article said, “Jules Crepeau went grey teaching aldermen their jobs.” In those days, the federal Liberals were aligned with the provincial Liberals who were aligned (claimed the Editor of Le Devoir in 1930 upon the force ‘resignation’ of my grandfather) with Mederic Martin’s regime. Of course, my grandfather, as a civil servant, was supposed to be neutral in his allegiances, but the very nature of his job as defined by the City Charter made this next to impossible.
8. From an article in L’Autorite newspaper upon his installation as Director of City Services in 1921.
9. I met someone online whose grandfather, a corrupt cop-on-the-beat of the era, had managed to buy four homes, at a time when few working class men in Montreal owned their own homes. It is possible that my father needed money to buy his way up the ladder, but it also seems unnecessary, considering his connections and his boundless energy and sharp mind.
My grandfather’s home at 72 Sherbrooke West was right beside the Liberal Reform Club of Canada, where Canada’s Liberal Party power brokers socialized over the decades. No coincidence, I suspect.
I can see that Mme Guerin-Lajoie also lived a few doors down. She’s the famous Quebec suffragist. I wonder if my grandmaman knew her. I assume my grandpapa did.
10. https://numerique.banq.qc.ca/patrimoine/details/52327/3584769?docsearchtext=Jules%20Crepeau%20BeckL’Autorite newspaper’s explanation of the Beck affair, March 1914. It’s all bait and switch tramways business, apparently. The story is put on a back page with the headline being “A tissue of lies,” my grandfather’s quote. This liberal anti-clerical newspaper was started in 1913 by one Tancrede Marcil, who was a disciple of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. BANQ’s blurb claims Laurier was the real ‘chef’ of this newspaper. Marcil also worked on the start up of Le Devoir newspaper.
The elite newspaper praised and promoted and acted as cheerleader for my grandfather throughout his late City Hall career. I’m not surprised that the Liberal Party of Canada was on my grandfather’s side. I just wish I knew more. It looks as if my grandfather was part of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s plan to rebuild the Liberal Party of Canada and get re-elected. The party had been turfed out in 1911. That was working for Laurier at the beginning, but then WWI happened and the infamous Conscription Crisis killed his chances. He died, anyway, in 1919. WWI broke out a few months after the Beck business, in August.
The article at bottom appeared in l’Autorite in1915, when it seemed that the Chief City Clerk, Patrician lawyer/journalist/scholar L 0 David, my grandfather’s boss, might win a seat in Parliament. (He didn’t). (I got it off BANQ). They are rehabilitating Jules’ reputation after the Beck scandal. LO David, a Senator, made some unsuccessful attempts at winning political seats federally and provincially. It is said that this cultured, learned man preferred writing his histories over the day-to-day minutia of his important day job as Chief City Clerk. That allowed my grandfather, a self-made, humbly-educated ‘detail’ man, son of a mere house painter, to punch above his weight at work.
In a front page editorial in March 1914, Publisher Marsil derided those people who said his newspaper was started up by Pro-Tramways people, much as Beck’s Weekly was started up by anti-tramways people. Nonsense, his newspaper was independent, Marcil said.
Louis Dupire Editor of Le Devoir wrote in 1930, upon Jules’ forced resignation from his position at City Hall that attacks such as Beck’s only served to increase his prestige.
11. RL Perron would benefit, it seems, in 1927 from the Montreal Water and Power Deal, my grandfather’s next scandal.
12. This was during the Galt Inquiry into some Conservative Government impropriety involving legislative building contracts. Beck refused to testify claiming the inquiry was illegal. He died in 1930, after an appendicitis operation, but he lived to see my grandfather turfed out of City Hall by Camillien Houde, so he likely died happy. He got a short obit in the New York Times, where where the bribery scandal was mentioned as his crowning achievement.
Below: Young Grandpapa and Edward Beck. Archive.org. Bitter adversaries or politics as usual? I suspect Beck hated my grandpapa because they were equal in social standing, pretty much earning the same salary.
Maria Roy Crepeau and three daughters and a granddaughter in front of 72 Sherbrooke West in 1926 or so.
In the Edwardian Age, an ambitious young man, however resourceful, usually needed a solid financial foundation to kick-start his career. If he didn’t have family money, he had to marry well. Take my grandfather, Jules Crépeau, (1873-1938). The son of a mere house painter, he rose up in 30 years from Messenger Boy in the Health Department to Director of City Services, the top civil servant at Montreal City Hall.
Jules didn’t have the advantage of a superior education; indeed, he completed his regular studies at night. He did have a workaholic nature, an affable disposition, a memory like a steel trap,*1 as well as a connection to the powerful French Canadian industrialists, the Forgets.
New information I found on the Internet reveals that the make-or-break-point for young Jules was in 1901, the year of his marriage. Back then, Jules was making only $600 a year, not a terrible salary for a single man, but certainly not enough to get married on.*2 So, Jules, like so many others, had to choose his wife very carefully.
My grandmother, Maria Roy, the daughter of a master butcher, brought a huge $40,000 dowry to their 1901 marriage, so I’m told. The next year, Jules had a house built for them on Amherst, near Ontario Street, and by a noted architect, at that.*3 Maria’s money!
Lovell’s Directory shows that in 1905 the Crépeau family moved to a tony stretch of St. Hubert Street. Jules is listed as Head Clerk. City Hall. In 1918, they moved to St. Denis Street, just a few doors down from J. A. Brodeur, “Montreal’s Napoleon,” and Head of the Executive Committee. My grandfather was, by then, Second Assistant City Clerk, with a salary of $2,500 -$3,500.
Crépeaus around 1918. My mother wasn’t born yet. Doesn’t Jules, center, look stressed?
In 1921, Jules was promoted to the newly-minted post of Director of City Services*4, almost tripling his salary to $8,000, and soon thereafter, to $10,000. In 1922, his family moved to a three storey greystone at 72 Sherbrooke West.
It’s during this period, the Roarin’ Twenties, that my grandmother, Maria, finally started earning dividends on her dowry, taking shopping trips to New York City to stock up on bourgeois bric-a-brac like marble urns, porcelain statuary, and art nouveau lamps; a complement to the whole roomful of ‘gifts’ the family received from various community groups, especially at Christmas. Jules and Maria needed a good supply of breakables. Family legend has it that the crockery flew over the stairs throughout their tumultuous 37 year marriage.
Aunt Flo posing in front of some Crépeau bric-a-brac on Harvard in the late 1940’s. The marble bust of three children actually ended up in my mother’s possession, gracing our upper duplex apartment in the 1960’s, but rather out of place among the melamine furnishings and artwork from Woolworth’s. Today, I own the orange art nouveau-deco Le Verre Francais “Amourettes” vase at top right.
In 1931, Jules Crépeau was forced to resign by the new populist Mayor Camillien Houde, but not before negotiating a huge life pension of $8,000 a year. But, soon, my grandfather, who had no hands-on business experience, lost all of his savings with bad investments.*5 In 1937, Jules also lost his pension when Montreal City Hall passed an emergency bill to abolish it as a cost-saving measure. *6
Just two weeks later, Grandpapa was hit by a car driven by a plain clothes city policeman. He died the next year from complications. Jules probably threatened someone with a long reach.
Living out her life in the final family home on Harvard in Notre Dame de Grace, Jules’ wife, Maria Roy Crépeau (1879-1951) never complained about her situation as an impoverished widow, and this despite the fact her fat dowry financed the first years of the choppy Crépeau-Roy merger. Still, I suspect her story wasn’t at all unique, especially in the Depression Era.
Rue Jules Crépeau, Ahunsic, Montreal. Designated in the 1980’s. Funny story. In the late 80’s, when my husband and I were buying our first computer, the ONLY place in Montreal we knew that sold them was in Ahunsic, where we seldom ventured. We got lost and stumbled upon this road and park. I had to find a phone booth to phone my mother to tell her that a street had been named after her father. Serendipity or what? Jules’ nemesis, Camillien Houde, has the huge road winding through the mountain named after him.
Le Devoir was the only Montreal newspaper to publish a long obit of my grandfather, in 1938, saying that Jules was the go-to guy for any information about how City Hall ran. Affable is their term.
The 1911 census shows that a $600 a year salary was average/above average for a family. Many era workers were ‘day workers’ with unsteady employment, but, even that $600 salary was not enough for the big families of the era to live on. Terry Copp, the sociologist who wrote An Anatomy of Poverty,claims that $1500. was the minimum salary for a family to live in dignity in Montreal in 1910. In the Edwardian Era, in England and elsewhere, a working class couple might start out in good shape, with a decent salary for a small family, but as more and more kids came, the family fell into poverty. Such might have been Jules’ fate, save for this huge dowry.
Louis Zephirin Gauthier specialized in churches. His partner was a Monsieur Roy, so maybe he was a relation. Back then few Montrealers owned their own home, in the 20 percent range. Since 1899, male renters could vote in the municipal elections; women had to be single and own their home to vote. Montreal has long been known as a city of renters, but, just lately, this appears to be changing.
The post of Director of City Services was created in 1921 after much deliberation and input from citizens to ensure an equitable distribution of money among the city districts. The post was a liaison between the seven city departments and the Executive Committee. Newspaper accounts of the time reveal that my Grandfather’s office did everything from organizing events for the visiting Royal Princes to being on the City Clean-Up Committee, to testifying in Quebec with respect to Private Bills. When someone had a beef at City Hall, they wrote to his office. My grandfather was the first to testify at the inquiry in to the fatal Laurier Palace Fire, in January 1927, which was ironic, as I suspect the fire may have been started by organized crime to get at him. (Just my theory, though.)
Jules’ brother, Isadore, Insurance broker and VP Of United Theatre Amusements, the company that erected many of the famous 1920 era movie houses in Montreal, ‘fell’ out of his 7th floor office while waving for his chauffeur in 1933.