Halifax strove to create order
CRIME REPORTING in the popular press has a way of inflaming public passions. It’s hardly surprising, then, that, much like today, a gunshot fired in Halifax 90 years ago, on Halloween night 1922, shattered the city’s reputed image as a “city of order.”
The shooting of Spring Garden Road shopkeeper Leslie A. Corkum touched off the usual cycle of responses.
Back then, the Morning Chronicle expressed its shock at the unprovoked shooting, and Mayor John Murphy was forced to issue a statement reassuring unsettled Haligonians.
The police department, headed by Chief Frank Hanrahan, launched a sweeping investigation, but the “bold gunman” eluded arrest until January 1923, further exposing citizens to the city’s vulnerability to crime.
Michael Boudreau’s book City of Order uses the Corkum shooting as the point of entry for a deep and detailed analysis of “crime control” and society in Halifax between the two world wars.
Civic authorities and much of middle-class Halifax society, Boudreau argues, sought to shore up a “city of order” against the storms and waves of “modernity.”
Feeling threatened by crime, disorder and moral chaos, the good citizens of Halifax treated the city’s so-called “criminal class” and the public, more generally, differently according to their class, gender and ethnicity.
Law-abiding middle-class Haligonians welcomed any modernizing measure aimed at clamping down on the “criminal activity” and sustaining “social stability and harmony.”
The book’s author, a historian at St. Thomas University, has produced a weighty academic study, published by UBC Press in its Law and Society Series. This contribution is not for the faint of heart, providing in-depth analysis, impeccable documentation, and some 138 pages of appendices, endnotes and bibliography.
The book is neatly organized into six chapters, each exploring an aspect of crime and criminals.
It begins with an overview of the socio-economic context and crime statistics, and goes on to examine the “machinery of order,” law, police and the courts.
Perceptions of crime and criminals are held up to close scrutiny, giving readers an insight into what Halifax society was like between 1918 and 1935.
A detailed analysis of criminal activity sheds new light on the “criminal class” and the hidden phenomenon of juvenile delinquency. Women and ethnic minorities are identified as two classes of citizens feeling the double edge of the criminal justice system.
Criminal activity, real and imagined, associated with ethnic minorities is highlighted to draw attention to treatment meted out to the “other” in the underside of Halifax society.
City of Order fills a gaping hole in the literature on crime and society, particularly in the oft-forgotten interwar years. It builds effectively upon the groundbreaking work of McMaster University’s John Weaver on crime and society in Hamilton and upon that of Queen’s University’s Karen Dubinsky on the criminalization of prostitutes and large numbers of working-class women.
The book confirms that Halifax in the interwar years was much like other comparable sized cities. City fathers conceived of Halifax as a “conservative city” under constant threat of disorder, crime and chaos wrought by modernizing influences.
The Halifax Police Department became more professional but was far from the cutting edge in policing. With a sizable black population and an influx of new immigrants, racial divisions are the one area where the social schism likely ran deeper than elsewhere.
Boudreau has succeeded in resurrecting the earlier, often forgotten Halifax street riots of 1918 and 1919. Twenty-five years before the infamous Wartime Riot, he shows how an outbreak of “street melees” engulfed Halifax and directly challenged the city’s efforts at postwar reconstruction.
The City of Order had its momentary lapses.
In May 1918, the papers reported that “Mob Rule” gripped downtown Halifax.
For two nights in February 1919, angry ex-servicemen joined with street criminals to go on another rampage, wrecking and looting Chinese restaurants and sending a dozen to the hospital with serious injuries.
All of this adds new fuel to the debate over whether 1919 was really a year of “Labour Revolt” extending far beyond Winnipeg.
For determined popular readers as well as serious scholars, Boudreau’s book is worth plowing through to acquire an in-depth understanding of crime and working-class culture in interwar Halifax. It is even more valuable as a reminder that tough-on-crime policies can actually compound rather than ease social inequalities, racial divisions and economic hardship for the most vulnerable in urban societies.
Paul W. Bennett is founding director of Schoolhouse Consulting in Halifax and adjunct professor of education at Saint Mary’s University.