Banner photo is of the Police Station on Court St in 1952. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.
I think it’s best to come clean and admit that I was a detective-novel addict growing up. From the gentleman sleuths to the hard-boiled gumshoes to the sweet, little old ladies who turned up bodies at garden parties, I read them all. Once, out of desperation for new material, I even read one of that series where a cat solves murders. (It was at that point that I realized I had to draw the line somewhere.) But of them all, I loved the hard-boiled breed best and, let me tell you, no one wrote them better than Dashiell Hammett. Is it any wonder? Not only did he give the world the tough-talking, wise-cracking, rumpled detective with the bottle in his desk drawer – an archetype that so many others have since attempted to make their own – but he’d actually been a real-life detective himself. From 1915 to 1922, Hammett had been a Pinkerton man, and it was his experience in the field that helped him mould the worlds of Sam Spade, the Continental Op and Nick Charles.
Discovering and falling in love with his work as a pretty impressionable teenager, I’d say he enriched (corrupted?) my vocabulary more than any other writer. He also really made me want to grow up so I could try drinking Manhattans in club chairs. (See? Corrupted.) I think part of me really believed – or rather hoped – that the adult world awaiting me would be like his. Of course, I wasn’t crazy enough to wish for his thieves, thugs and murderers, but I’m truly sorry his fast-talking, wise guys never quite materialized. Anyhow, recalling this recently, I got to wondering who the flesh and blood detectives of early Toronto were and set about digging them up…
Our first P.I. was a man named Charles Bluett and boy, was he a doozy. When he first arrived on the Toronto scene in 1873, he was listed as a night watchman. I can’t say what, or for whom, he was ‘watching’, but there was something in the work that must’ve stirred the inner sleuth in him because the next year he listed himself as a “Private Detective.” It was a novel line of work at the time and probably didn’t drum up a lot of business initially and so he apparently moonlighted at it while maintaining his night watch work. But it wasn’t too long before he started to make a name for himself – though not always for a job well done:
It probably didn’t help that he apparently had a weakness for that old detective prop, the bottle:
Add to this a serious dust-up with one of his own guys and you start to get the picture of a troubled man.
But ol’ Charlie pulled through and by the early 1880s he was getting some good press for being a detective who could collar a guy on the lam:
But by the late 1880s, Bluett was no longer the only gumshoe for hire in Hogtown. A handful of detective agencies had opened up and suddenly a body had choices if a snoop was needed:
Of these, two were former police detectives – John Reid and J. W. Murray. They both did a great deal of business as P.I.s, but J. W. Murray’s investigations were so splashy and well-covered in the press that in 1904 his “Memoirs of a Great Detective, incidents in the life of John Wilson Murray” was published. Thanks to this remarkable book we get a clear, unsentimental description of the man himself:
We also learn that he was well-known by another name:
In any case, J. W. Murray’ sleuthing skills were so exceptional that they are still celebrated on TV today, albeit under a different name – the Murdoch Mysteries.
By the 1890s and early 1900s, the bulk of Toronto’s private detectives were former cops. Continuing the trend was John Hodgins whose Canadian Detective Agency and Inquiry Exchange operated out of the beautiful (and long-gone) Toronto Arcade.
The man himself might disagree with me, but I’d say that one of Hodgins’ biggest cases was the Toronto hunt for the Pitezel girls, abducted by Chicago serial killer H. H. Holmes in 1894. (If you’ve never heard of Holmes, I don’t recommend reading up on him. I did and felt ill for days afterwards.) John Hodgins put in a lot of legwork searching for them, though it was eventually American detective Frank Geyer and Toronto cop Alfred Cuddy who located the remains. …yeah, it’s that kind of story.
Another of our cops-turned-detective was a man named Hugh McKinnon. Born in Vaughan, ON in 1843, he eventually moved to neighbouring Hamilton and joined the police. While there he became big stuff for his role in the arrest of the Black Donnellys, though he himself ended up being charged and tried for his methods, which amounted to kidnapping and assault. Specifically, the claim is that he hung Will Donnelly and his associate William Atkinson by their thumbs to get them to talk. Frankly, that’s the kind of detail that gives me a headache because I can never understand how you’d orchestrate such a thing. Anyhow …
Hugh McKinnon was also quite a celebrated athlete and had won numerous medals in Caledonian games (mostly tossing heavy stuff) throughout North America. Add to this his reputation for fearlessness in apprehending bad guys and you can see how he became quite the golden boy in Hamilton and was eventually given the job of Chief of Police. Life was pretty grand for him alright – at least until January 8th, 1895…
Unfortunately for ol’ McKinnon, reporters at the Hamilton Spectator noticed that the Chief hadn’t been around for a bit. Five days, in fact. Toronto newspapers took up the story and found that he’d been holed up at the Grand Union Hotel with a Mrs. Gould and her sister. The three had registered under assumed names, with McKinnon listed as a Mr. H. B. Collins from New Haven, Connecticut.
Needless to say, Hamilton citizens were not impressed with their Chief – certainly his wife wasn’t – and he was forced to resign. But as they say, it’s hard to keep a good man down and within the year McKinnon popped up as a private detective with offices in both Toronto and Hamilton. This would appear to have been one of his bigger jobs:
Despite this, he might’ve found it hard to recover from the hotel-room scandal because in 1901, McKinnon moved all the way to Dawson City. There he became an officer in charge of preventing illegal alcohol distilleries and distribution – what was known at the time as a “whiskey detective.” Unfortunately for McKinnon, this return to public service didn’t last long as he died suddenly from a massive heart attack in 1904.
By this time, back in Toronto, small-time private detectives were fading out. In their place, big operations were moving in. The Pinkertons were here, as were agencies with grand names like the Dominion Secret Service Bureau and Detective Agency. Not to be outdone by the Dominion, there was also the Empire Secret Service Bureau. I imagine that these offices handled much the same kind of work as the small fries, but their size and corps of operatives allowed them to take on much bigger jobs. One agency in particular was none too shy about spelling out what kind of work they were happiest to do:
Noble’s Detective Agency certainly had takers for this particular service. Most notable was Canada Foundry which hired Noble’s to monitor the International Moulders Union during their strike in 1903. They were asking for a 9 hour day, if you can believe it – the kind of thing that really burned the bosses’ britches. And so Canada Foundry had imported scab moulders from the States. Noble’s job was to protect them and also plant a detective in the Union’s ranks. They even arranged a neat little trick where they got a couple of the strikebreakers to approach the union with the claim that they were quitting and needed some help getting out of town. When the strikers offered them assistance, Canada Foundry swooped in and charged them with contempt, claiming they were “inducing the breach of the injunction.” Or meddling. Happily for the union, the judge didn’t buy it:
Of course, this was just a tiny victory and didn’t deter Noble’s (or other large agencies) from building their reputations as go-tos for Union strikebreaking. In fact, it was this very aspect of the Pinkerton’s that caused Dashiell Hammett himself to leave the agency.
And so Toronto’s detective agencies continued. Outside of expanding with branches and operatives across the country, probably the only real changes came with advances in snooping technology. They even had one of those hilarious – I mean, interesting – industry periodicals where they advertised the newest gear and techniques:
I suspect that most of Toronto’s early detective agencies folded at some point or, like Pinkertons, have since been absorbed by larger international security companies – as they’re called now. As for the original sites of their offices, you might have noticed I don’t have any current photos to show you. Not only is Charlie Bluett’s building gone, but the whole street has disappeared too. Hodgins’ Toronto Arcade was torn down in the 50’s and the others’ suffered similarly. In a way, I guess you can say that the city has been pretty good at covering their tracks.