By Gregory Clark, February 23, 1924.
Ask any senior police official of Toronto what he considers the one greatest performance of the police in the history of the city and he will surely reply – the elimination of the gang in Toronto.
The biggest crime problem of the American city to this day is the gang. There is not a city on the continent of the size of Toronto that does not support one or more gangs of highly organized and specialized crooks, who, employing the gun and the automobile, terrorize their communities but are immune from complete obliteration by the police because of their organization which includes political and well-paid legal protection.
Toronto has no gangs.
The first reason is the foresight of the police officials of the past thirty years. They beheld, in the most casual gang of street corner loafers, the potentialities of the criminal gang.
The second reason is the ruthless and implacable methods used by the Toronto police in pursuing the smallest crime committed by a gang, playing a lone hand against the offenders, giving no quarter, using no stool pigeons, allowing no Immunity for information received, but bending every effort to break up, scatter and subdue every gang that broke the law in the smallest degree.
For Toronto had its gangs. Plenty of them. Bome of them rose to some celebrity as house breakers and robbers. At one period, about twenty years ago, no fewer than five strong gangs, each numbering from a dozen to a score of members, were doing their utmost to survive the relentless attacks of the police. The Stanley Park gang, the Gay Cats of York street, the Gas House gang, the Ward gang, the Park Rovers of the Don and the St. Lawrence Market gang are names that will be familiar to older citizens of Toronto.
“Those gangs” said Inspector of Detectives George Guthrie, “were not gangsters as we know gangsters to-day. They were gangs of roughs whose commonest crimes were such clumsy stupid offences as robbing drunks, waylaying people on dark streets and robbing them, only occasionally breaking in and robbing stores or houses. They rarely employed guns, for the police were death on guns. To have a gun was fatal. And they had not the automobile.
“But they were the forebears of the modern gang. The gangsters of other cities at that period were no different. We destroyed the gangs. We broke up their memberships with convictions. We scattered their boozing dens and haunts. We drove them with continual pressure on little charges, if we could not secure big ones, from the slum districts where they sought to foregather.
No Political Protection Here
“The American cities failed to break up their old gangs. The modern gangs are simply the sons of those tough gangs of yesterday. The tradition of the old tough gangsters has been refined by the automobile and by the general refinement of everything, into the modern gang with its cars, its political connections, its lawyers and its funds.”
Inspector of Detectives William Wallace adds this:
“One of the biggest factors in the elimination of the gang from Toronto has been the total absence of politics in control of the police force. There has never been, in my time, collusion between the police and the gangsters. The curse of the American system is that the aldermen and government officials control the police force. Gangs control votes. And there you have the impossible situation of the police being interfered with by petty politics.
“Toronto’s police always having been under the control of a board of police commissioners beyond the reach of politics, and politics, whether it desired it or not, could not preserve the gang – a voting power -in the face of the determined assaults of the police.”
Those who may have felt in the past that Col. George T. Denison wielded a somewhat autocratic power over the policing of Toronto can now credit him with a large share in the elimination of the crime factor that is setting the rest of the American continent by the ears.
“Those old gangs – the Stanley Park, the Market gang, the Park Rovers – operated in a very haphazard manner,” said Inspector Wallace. “They had their rendezvous in certain disorderly houses and dives, where they congregated daily and nightly. Whenever any member of the gang turned a trick such as rolling a drunk or holding up a pedestrian on a dark street, the gang boozed and celebrated until the proceeds were used up. There was no pride of craft in them. If times were bad, the gangsters would even stoop to begging money on the streets after dark – a form of terrorization, because their tough appearance was enough to intimidate anybody. Being drunkards and wastrels as a class, their efforts at housebreaking and serious crime were clumsy and lacking in intelligence. Their crimes were largely the cowardly, sneaking crimes of drunken bullies.
Yet these gangs gave strong resistance to the police, who offered them no respite. If the “cops” were not busy digging out some crime, they were raiding their dens, busting up gambling meetings, even dispersing gangs on street corners, which were the most inglorious and offensive tactics of all.
The methods used by the police in those days seem primitive today. There were no end of personal combats between policemen and gangsters. They had not the police equipment they have nowadays, telephones, autos, and rapid communication. When the “cop” set out for his beat in the heart of the ward or the Stanley Park district or Cabbagetown, he never knew what was in store for him. “Cops” had to have some mettle in those days. For in the dark streets and lanes of the Stanley Park region, the gang would be lying in wait for that “cop” who was particularly active in doing his duty, and they would pounce on him and he would have to fight for his good looks if not for his life. There were instances of policemen being beaten unconscious and left lying in lanes. As it was in the dark, the constable could not always identify his enemies, and they would prove alibis and all would go unpunished. But there are also instances of constables performing tremendous feats, beating the life half out of their assailants and securing identifications that resulted in the stiffest penalties the court would impose.
One of these stories is the tale of Constable Tom Sullivan, now a detective, going down into one of the streets below King near Stanley Park and, expecting trouble, met and defeated a whole gang after a battle royal, and when the ambulance for which he sent – not the patrol wagon – arrived on the scene, they found Sullivan sitting happily if somewhat exhausted out in the middle of the street upon the inanimate bodies of four of the toughest gangsters of the district.
Those fights between police and gangs were before the days of Hydro lighted streets. And there was no way of avoiding them. The ability to fight was one of the requirements of a good constable.
Behind Burns’ ice house, in a little crooked street that was only a lane off Water street, was a corner known throughout the district by the name of “Cop Killer’s Corner.” The policeman who ventured to investigate that corner of his beat at night did so at the risk of being beaten up. Any number of the bloodiest fights have occurred at that historic corner. No concession was made by the police in the matter of sending two policemen together into the tough districts. That would have been American methods. Instead, the constable went alone and took what came and gave what he could. The Cabbagetown gang, known as the “Cop Killer’s Corner” gang, were finally disposed of by the most unrelenting attention. Whenever a constable was assaulted he made every effort to mark his enemies with some tremendous whack. Then the district was immediately combed by other police and the injured men, hidden away, were dug out and arrested, to prove where they got the marks. Those were simple remedies, but it took men to stand up to them, and gangsters are not, as a rule, men.
It is a wonder murder was not done in those old gangster days, but there is not one instance of murder in the whole history of the period.
The Stanley park gang fell before a final clean-up campaign on houses, dives and personnel. The Market gang was so broken up by arrests that it never got together again. The Park Rovers in the Don district did their best to graduate into the modern gangster type, but their first efforts at serious crime were detected, and a number of them went to Kingston on long sentences of differing lengths that broke them up.
The Ward gang and the Gay Cats of York street persisted longest. These drunk-rollers and footpads, most of whom are dead now, though they would be only in their forties’ if they had lived less brutally, fled in the face of the cleanup regime of Deputy-Chief Robert Geddes when he was Inspector of the Ward district. One of the leaders of the Gay Cats is still living and hanging around his old haunts, but he is a broken and pathetic character of no danger to anybody, his pals dead and gone, a figure to be pointed out to new constables as a sample of an order that has changed.
When Deputy-Chief Geddes went into the Ward, a giant of a man as active on his feet as a cat, he had with him a squad of giants that struck terror into the hearts of the gangsters. Some pretty strenuous methods were used in the clean-up of the Ward, for even in its present harmless condition one can imagine what a rabbit warren of dives and holes in the wall it was for the gangster. They “vagged” them – which is the charge of vagrancy which can be laid against anybody of a suspicious character – they pinched them as inmates of disorderly houses, they took them in as drunks on every opportunity, they pressed every serious charge to the bitter end, they forced dive keepers to move away, they made the district so utterly unpleasant for the gangsters in every respect, big and small, that the last stronghold of the gangs, the Ward, was rid of its toughs.
Better Lighted Streets
The relics of those five great gangs, the Gay Cats, the Stanley Park, Gas House, Ward and Park Rovers, can be counted to-day on the ten fingers of a senior officer’s hand. They are men prematurely old, broken, harmless, occasionally picked up drunk, occasionally run in at their own request to be kept for the winter in jail.
They have not flourished and passed the tradition down to the young cake-eater, motoring, dancing, gunning tough of other American cities. There is no organization, no politics, no money funds for lawyers and bail. They were nipped in the bud.
Occasionally Toronto is visited by sections of American gangs, and more rarely still some little group of the tough element in the city tries to herd together in crime. But they have no underground organization to run to for hiding or advice or money. They play a lone hand and are soon bang up against the hard wall of the law.
In the leniency of the parole system, in the leniency of some judges and the willingness of the crown, on occasions, to abate a sentence, the police see a danger of losing the ground gained in twenty-five years of ruthless opposition to the gang idea. The law making one year the absolute minimum sentence for theft of a motor car is not being strictly observed by judges and the crown. Yet that law is the best deterrent upon gangsters there is – that if, In the very beginning of their mischief, to wit, the “borrowing” of a car, in which to do their job, they are facing if caught, a sure sentence of one year, without hope of less.
The parole system, admirable as it is from a humanitarian standpoint, is regarded by most of Toronto’s senior police officers with doubt and misgivings for this reason: the young gangsters discuss the merits of a job; they weigh the costs of being caught, and the costs of being caught are discounted by the knowledge that if they are caught there is always the parole system to be remembered – the parole system which, by good conduct, after the crime, can be relied upon to get them out of prison in a few months.
The lone criminal does not always weigh and measure the chances. The gangster does. The psychology of the gang, is to be very optimistic over the parole system.
Chief Constable Samuel Dickson, referring to the passing of the gangs in Toronto, concurs in what his Inspectors of detectives said, with this thought added:
“Street lighting, daylight saving and the transformation of countless corner lots of the city into playgrounds and recreation grounds has aided us in the elimination of the gangster more than is imagined. Where the gangs used to foregather there are ball grounds for the young fellows to play in to-day. Where there were long dark evenings in which to do nothing there are long, bright evenings in which to do much that is healthy and absorbing and clean.”
In conclusion, Inspector Wallace said:
“Toronto does not realize how free it is of crime. The police news which gets into the Toronto papers from day to day would not win two lines in any American dally in cities of the same size.
There are no gangs in Toronto.”
Editor’s Notes: This story was published during the period when the public was fascinated and concerned with the rise of organized crime in the United States, mainly due to Prohibition. The premise is also unlikely, perhaps written as reassurance for the public, as there were definitely gangs in Ontario dealing in illegal liquor as well.
George Taylor Denison was a Toronto police magistrate for 43 years, from 1877 to 1920. He was still alive when this article was written, having died in 1925 at the age of 85.