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.