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.
1. Read the entire Gazette report here: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=Fr8DH2VBP9sC&dat=19300930&printsec=frontpage&hl=en
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.
3.This according to Fong’s book on McConnell and Wikipedia FR on Houde. The Star’s archives aren’t online anywhere. https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camillien_Houde
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!