Historical Giggles: Teddy Roosevelt

Funny things I’ve found relating to the Vikings, because history is always funny.



Mayors of Toronto: “Scoundrels, Rogues, Socialists”…and Crack Addicts

In honour of what is happening right now with Toronto’s Mayor Rob Ford, here is an article written by Mark Maloney who is writing The History of Mayors in Toronto. Evidently, Rob Ford isn’t the only memorable mayor to wear the chain of office! Enjoy!

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“Toronto’s mayors: Scoundrels, rogues, and socialists”, Mark Maloney, Jan 2012, The Star

One Toronto mayor committed murder, another carried out a home invasion. One of our mayors was involved in torture. Another had 18 kids and cried poor, yet died on a luxury European vacation. One mayor suffered a horrible death from the ravages of syphilis while two mayors, under the threat of capture and certain death, had to escape Toronto and live for years in exile. One mayor attempted to kill a predecessor, but his pistol jammed. Another beat up colleagues he didn’t like.

These are just some of the 63 interesting characters who have led our city over its 175-year history. As one 1850’s Toronto paper put it, they comprise “as precious a set of scoundrels as ever were collected together.” They remain an unbroken link to our city’s founding.

At first, mayors were selected by council through shadowy, behind-the-scenes vote trading. Then after 1859 voters got to choose. For the first 40 years there was no secret ballot. You attended a large public meeting to openly declare your vote. Religious discrimination, intimidation, roving gangs, and bribery with money or liquor, were all common.

Some interesting facts:

From 1834 to 1956 each mayoral term was just one year. After a three-week campaign in December voting was on or close to New Year’s Day.

Of our 63 mayors, 57 have been Protestant, white, English-speaking Anglo-Saxon males. In 17 decades just a single visible minority has been elected city-wide. No one born Catholic, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, or Eastern Orthodox has ever been elected mayor.

Mayor John Powell (1838) committed a murder just a month before taking office. He shot rebel Captain John Anderson in cold blood with a single well- aimed bullet to the head, making him even more popular, and while also trying to kill a prior mayor, Powell’s gun jammed allowing his target to escape.

With a drunk and unruly mob, Henry Sherwood (1842–44) led a home invasion in 1826, invading the newspaper offices and home of William Lyon Mackenzie(mayor in 1834), destroying his printing press, stealing the type and hurling it into Toronto harbour.

George Gurnett (1837 and 1848–50) was involved in brutal torture in the violent tarring and feathering of a reform opposition candidate in 1828. Done to inflict pain and fear, a political target would be stripped and molten pine tar poured over his body, causing searing burns. He was then beaten and rolled in chicken feathers. The tar could last a week and when he tried to peel off the feathers he would, in excruciating pain, end up peeling off his own skin.

Sherwood was mayor again (1842–44). With 18 children, he cried poor and was unable to pay 1841 election recount expenses. Yet he died in Bavaria in 1855 while on a luxury vacation traveling across Europe (minus the kids).

Interestingly, more Toronto mayors, 33 in fact, have travelled to and from City Hall by horse, than have used motor vehicles (30 mayors). And though hard to believe, 25 mayors never used toilet paper. It wasn’t until the term of Mayor Edward Clarke(1888–91) that Scott Paper first sold manufactured rolls of toilet tissue, a revolutionary idea for Victorian Toronto. Before then, mayors and constituents used rags, leaves, wood shavings, hay, or corn cobs. Pages torn from Eaton’s catalogue were a big favourite. Thankfully, all 38 Toronto mayors since then have used toilet paper (we hope).

The quixotic Ernest Macdonald (1900) had already lost a real estate fortune approaching $200 million (in today’s dollars) and run for 17 different offices before winning. His defeat after one year led to a breakdown and, in 1903, bedridden for months, he suffered a long, slow agonizingly painful death from an acute third stage of syphilis.

Two mayors, William Lyon Mackenzie (1834) and Dr. Thomas Morrison(1836), were forced to escape Toronto with just the clothes on their backs and live years in exile as refugees. Morrison had been thrown in prison for three months and put on trial for high treason. Mackenzie, who had tried to stage a coup d’etat, set himself up on an island in the Niagara River and declared himself head of a new “Republic of Canada.”

The hard driving, florid-faced Sam McBride (1928–29 and 1936) was a swaggering, two-fisted, red-blooded mayor who would beat up councillors he didn’t like. McBride would knock aldermen around the council chamber, or pin them up against walls, even swat them with sheaves of documents. He first lost in 1926 when a major daily photographed him getting into his own chauffeur-driven limousine (worth $52,000 today), with the accompanying story that Sam had paid just $199 in income tax the year before.

Reforming social crusader and Board of Trade President William Howland (1886–87) was an anti-vice, anti-gambling, anti-liquor, Bible-thumping mayor who coined “Toronto the Good.” With evangelical zeal he set up a new Police squad to root out corruption, close dens of gambling, drugs and prostitution, and stop the “desecration” of the Sabbath.

Yet for bon vivant Mayor Allan Lamport (1952–54) “good” meant the good life. During two years he spent $370,000 (in today’s dollars) on champagne, steaks, wine, cocktails, liqueurs, cigars, and room service in Suite 1735 of the Royal York Hotel, all paid for by taxpayers without any council authorization or knowledge. It was later the subject of a judicial inquiry. To this day, however, “Lampy” still rivals David Crombie (1972–78) as our most beloved mayor.

Wealthy realtor Thomas Foster (1925–27) was so cheap he made his chauffeur pay for the matches he carried in his limousine and, rather than spending on hiring more police officers, suggested it would actually be cheaper to just reimburse robbery victims for their losses. He sponsored a contest to find the woman who could have the most children in 10 years, and Foster’s will included bequests for Toronto birds, office cleaning ladies and newsboys.

It may not seem so, but just five of our 63 mayors have been “socialist,” with strong left-wing support and political muscle from unions and the NDP (or predecessor CCF): Mayors Jimmy Simpson (1935), Bill Dennison (1966–72), John Sewell (1978–80), Barbara Hall (1994–97), and David Miller (2003–10).

Toronto in the 1890s was a bit like sin city. Mayor Robert Fleming (1892–93 and 1896–97) also crusaded against liquor interests, demon rum, and hundreds of illegal taverns. During his term a colourful, eye-opening book, Of Toronto the Good: A Social Study, was published, featuring vivid chapters such as “Street Walkers, Detectives, Pawnbrokers, Social Evil, Street Boys, Gambling Houses, Drunkenness, Imposters, Pickpockets, Crooks, Thieves, The Bar, Quack Doctors, and Swindlers.” (There’s no mention of why lawyers were included.)

Toronto’s new mayor elected in October will be our 64th, guiding the city further into the 21st century and inheriting a rich history of hopes and dreams, ambitions and efforts, successes and failures that all began with our first mayor in 1834.

Nazi era film, a history lesson for teen star

I read this article in the Globe and Mail yesterday morning and really appreciated it, not only for the film’s commitment to historical accuracy, but also for the acknowledgement that film can be a powerful tool for education.


“Nazi-era film a history lesson for teen star.” By Johanna Schneller, The Globe and Mail.

If you’ve ever wondered whether films can be considered historical documents, this story may interest you: When the Quebec actress Sophie Nélisse, now 13, landed the title role in the new drama The Book Thief, which is set in small-town Germany in 1939, she didn’t know much about the Holocaust.

“Sadly, we hadn’t learned anything about it in my school,” she said during a joint interview in Toronto last week with Brian Percival, The Book Thief’s director, and Geoffrey Rush, the Oscar-winning actor (Shine), who plays her character’s foster father. Nélisse had read Hana’s Suitcase, the true story of Hana Brady, who died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, in Grade 6, she continues, “but that’s all I knew before I got the part.”

So Nélisse, a striking girl with full lips, who won a Genie Award last year for her role in Monsieur Lazhar, did some research: “I watchedSchindler’s List, The Reader, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Pianist,” she says. To learn what she needed for her Nazi-era movie, she watched other Nazi-era movies.

Percival – whose directing credits include several episodes of another historical drama, the British series Downton Abbey – didn’t object to Nélisse’s line of research. He’s the one who suggested she watch the films. “When I was a kid,” he says, “if I had to learn something, when somebody gave me a great pile of books it was daunting. Given the amount of information out there, it’s easier if it’s been distilled. It was important that Sophie had historical context, and it’s easier to whet someone’s appetite with a two-hour movie than a 500-page book. And since those films tell the story from different viewpoints, they gave her a sense of perspective.”

Decry it if you will, but a lot of people learn history while eating popcorn in a movie seat. Last year, many Canadians objected to Argo, Ben Affleck’s take on the Iranian hostage crisis, but that didn’t stop it from winning the best-picture Oscar last February – trumping, among others, Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s film based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s massive historical tome. This fall people are discovering Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir via the film 12 Years a Slave, learning how the U.S. Navy thwarted Somali pirates by watching Captain Phillips, and adding to their knowledge of the AIDS pandemic via Dallas Buyers Club. The words “based on a true story” matter little if the images are powerful enough.

Luckily for audiences (and history teachers), the best directors work to ensure their stories are as true as possible. One of the ships in Captain Phillips, for example, was part of the actual mission that rescued Phillips, and members of the navy who were there served as consultants. Though The Book Thief is fiction, its production designer, art directors and set decorator did extensive research, and filled every frame with historically accurate crockery, linens, wallpaper and light fixtures.

“The costume designer, Anna Sheppard, had already done Schindler’s List, which was about the Nazi camps, and Inglourious Basterds, which was a sort of hyperrealist take on the war,” Rush says. “But she found the street-level domesticity in The Book Thief really intriguing.”

The film, based on Markus Zusak’s source novel, tells the story of Liesel (Nélisse), who falls in love with reading after being sent to live with foster parents Hans (Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) in the fictional town of Molching, near Munich, around the beginning of the Second World War. Hans and Rosa are ordinary Germans swept up in extraordinary events: They’re not members of the Nazi party, and they harbour a Jewish refugee in their cellar, but they’re not above hanging the Nazi flag from their window to appease their neighbours, or attending a book burning in the village square.

Nélisse carries the film on her impossibly narrow shoulders. Before casting her, Percival auditioned 1,000 girls on four continents. But after seeing Monsieur Lazhar, and watching a tape Nélisse sent in, he thought, “‘There’s something special about this kid,’” he recalls. “She had spirit, she was feisty, yet she could play vulnerable as well.”

Though Nélisse claims she was “stressed at the beginning,” worrying that she wouldn’t hold her own with her famous co-stars, after two days, “I didn’t feel any pressure at all,” she says. “It’s as if they were my parents.” During our interview, she showed no sign of stress. When she was answering questions, she was strikingly composed; during the men’s answers, she texted away on a sparkly pink phone.

The film’s commitment to accuracy resulted in some unexpected chills for the cast and crew. On location in a town near the Polish border, more and more buildings sported swastika banners as filming progressed. “One day a photo of Hitler appears in the cake-shop window, and you think, ‘That’s how it worked,’” Rush says. For a scene in which angelic-looking students at Liesel’s school sing a Nazi propaganda song, researchers had to dig to find the lyrics, because the song, Rush says, has been banned.

The hardest night, all agree, was the book-burning scene. It was freezing cold. As the well-known German actor Rainer Bock (The White Ribbon) barked the order for the books to be ignited, a crowd of extras began singing Deutschland Uber Alles (again, the movie people had

to teach them the original lyrics). “It was particularly difficult for the Germans,” Rush says. “Hearing that music, seeing such a faithful recreation of a horrific period in their country’s history. Florian Ballhaus [the director of photography, who also shot, among other films, The Devil Wears Prada], who’s lived a long time in the States, was in tears.”

Scenes like that were what prompted Percival to do the film. “The script had such a strong message about humanity and spirit,” he says. “It looked at normal people and how they deal with history as it rolls over them. I grew up in a small community in Liverpool, in England. Working-class, my father worked on the docks. It was very like Himmel Strasse [where Hans and Rosa live]. Two up/two down terraced house with an outside toilet. So it was that sense of community that I recognized right away when I read the script. It doesn’t set out to be a Holocaust story, but I love the fact that it may bring an awareness for younger generations about what went on. The more people learn about the mistakes that were made, the better the lesson for the future.”

It seems to be working. Nélisse’s reaction to watching her research films was, “‘This is impossible, how could people do this?’” she recalls. “I felt so bad. It gave me the feeling that I had to do this movie. Because then all my friends will see it, and they will know a bit more about it.”



Remember, remember the 5th of November: Guy Fawkes’ Day

For all of you who aren’t familiar with English history/culture, today is Guy Fawkes’ Day!  Guy Fawkes’ day is a celebration held in England for hundreds of years to commemorate the failed Gun Powder Plot of 1605.  A group of Catholics devised a plot to blow up the Parliament, killing King James, in order to put a Catholic  on the throne.  However their plot was foiled just mere hours before completion. Guy Fawkes’, a member of the plot, was discovered on November 4th hiding in along with 36 barrels of gun powder in the Palace of Westminster (where Parliament and the King were meeting the following morning.)  Fawkes was captured and tortured for two days before signing two confessions. The first confession (seen below) has frequently been questioned by historians due to the nature it was given.  You can see from the that Fawkes’ signature is both faint and extremely shakey.  You can get a close up view at the National Archives’ website.

Guy Fawkes' 1st Confession

Despite neither being the ring leader or mastermind behind the plot, Guy Fawkes’ name has become synonymous with the Gun Powder Plot and thus, every November 5th, people across England burn effigies of Guy Fawkes. Most memorably, the small town of Ottery St. Mary holds a special celebration of Guy Fawkes’ day.  Every November 5th they have a race/competition in which people run through the streets of the town carrying flaming barrels of tar.  I was fortunate enough to go to one of these celebrations a few years ago.  Below I’ve attached some photos from the event.  Oh, did I mention the race takes place in a crowd of hundreds of people? Only in England!

Ottery St. Mary Tar Barrels Ottery St. Mary Tar Barrels Ottery St. Mary Tar Barrels Ottery St. Mary Tar Barrels


Note: “Remember, remember the fifth of November, the Gun Powder Treason and Plot” is a popular song/rhyme commemorating Guy Fawkes. According to Ronald Hutton (author of The stations of the sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain2001), the earliset recording of any song about Guy Fawkes is 1742 (page 514.)

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