Banner photo is the morgue at Frederick and Esplanade in 1952. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.
About a month ago, I was taking a rare trip on the subway (I prefer streetcars) during rush hour and was lucky enough to get a seat. As the car swelled with passengers getting on at St. George, I found myself presented with a fixed view of a man’s satchel. As bags go, it was ok – black, utililitarian, nothing special. But what caught my eye was that smack in the centre of it was the seal of the Office of the Chief Coroner. Now, this surprised me for a couple of reasons: first and foremost, that the coroner’s office has swag; secondly, that the coroner is an actual individual, and one that uses the subway, no less. I realize that saying “actual individual” makes me sound quite dim but in my own defense, as someone who admittedly loves detective novels, it’s an occupation that we encounter more often in fiction than in real life. If we’re lucky, that is. In any case, here was the man himself (unless of course the swag gets spread around) looking quite dapper and dignified – certainly not at all with the air, or pallor, of a funeral director. …Yes, I realize one is not like the other, but I can’t help but to associate them given the company they keep.
Anyhow, I probably wouldn’t be sharing this with you at all if I hadn’t, very soon after, stumbled upon another coroner here:
Thanks to a hot tip on a soon-to-be-condos building (yes, in my little world this constitutes ‘hot’) I found myself digging into its history and unearthed Toronto’s first Chief Coroner. But before I get to him, I’d like to say a word about the building itself.
Built in the mid-1850s for a gentleman named George Bostwick (I’m not being quaint, he listed himself as a “Gentleman”) 850 Yonge was originally part of Yorkville – then a village separate from the city of Toronto. At the time of its construction, the village was sparsely populated. In fact it had more dead residents than living, thanks to Potter’s Field which sat at the NW corner of Yonge and Bloor. Yes, that’s right – where the posh now love to shop was once the resting place of the city’s less desirable citizens: the non-Christians, the poor, the mentally ill, the ones that had an unsavory idea of a good time …
You might then wonder why a gentleman like Bostwick wanted to build near such a place. Well, it so happens that around the time Bostwick started to build, the residents of Yorkville petitioned to have the at-capacity cemetery moved and the government approved it. As you can imagine, this would open up a bunch of development opportunities. But, unfortunately for the eager developers, some of the bones weren’t as mobile as they’d once been. Those that went unclaimed by family stalled the works as the city gave the forgotten graves a grace period of 20 years. All bodies not collected by 1875 were trundled off and split between mass graves at Mount Pleasant Cemetery and the Necropolis. The estimated number of souls relocated to Mount Pleasant alone was 3,000.
As it turned out, Bostwick sold 850 Yonge just as the last of the bodies were leaving Potter’s Field. The new owner of the building was York’s newly minted coroner, a man named Arthur Jukes Johnson. … I feel I should confess right now that the word “juke” is one of my favourites, for reasons even I only half understand, so it’s difficult for me to not refer to the man by Jukes alone. I will try not to slip.
Jukes was actually born in the village of Yorkville in 1848 but was schooled at Trinity College in Weston (founded by his father, William Arthur Johnson) and then the University of Toronto. After graduating he set his sights on becoming a doctor. With a grandfather and two uncles having practiced medicine, it probably felt like a natural next step. So off he went off to England where he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. He also joined the Pathological Society of London, as well as the Obstetrical Society and Royal Microscopical Society. Quite the society man, was he. He returned to Toronto in the early 1870s and in 1875 became a coroner for the county of York, the same year he bought the building at Yonge and Yorkville.
Given his keen interest in pathology and microscopy, he sounds like the ideal coroner, doesn’t he? I mean, if I were looking to appoint one, those are the skills that would make me clasp his hand and say “Ol’ Jukesy, you’ve got the job!” And no doubt, everyone was pretty pleased with his expertise. But here’s the thing: none of it, and I mean NONE of it was required for the job. As explained in “A practical treatise on the office and duties of coroners in Upper Canada” 1863:
“No qualifications are required beyond being a man of the full age of twenty-one years, of sound mind, and a subject of her Majesty, and possessing the amount of education and mental ability necessary for the proper discharge of the duties. The qualifications are no more than what all public officers by the common law are supposed, and ought, to possess.”
Jeez… With such middling requirements, it’s not too surprising that with his broad expertise he was eventually elevated to Chief Coroner in 1903.
As you can imagine, given his prominent position, he got press whenever there was a gruesome accident or murder. (This is the point where I assail you with old newspaper clippings of terrible things. Go ahead and skip if you like – I’ll understand.)
The morgue mentioned in the above clipping, and doubtless a place Jukes Johnson spent a good deal of time, is the one I’ve featured in the lead photo. Here it is again, to save you some furious upward scrolling:
As for the building at Yonge and Yorkville where he launched his career, Jukes Johnson sold it to a man with the delightful name of Frogley in 1884. Extra delightful, Frogley was a baker (somehow that feels like the start to a children’s song).
A bakery and ice cream and confectionery? My, my … One imagines this was a welcome change for the neighbourhood. I know I’d gladly swap a coroner (even one named Jukes) for a palace of treats. And it was some palace alright. Within two years, Charles Frogley had done well enough to have a mansard roof added, with his name emblazoned at the peak, as well as a whole new wing to the west. A decade later he’d purchased the adjoining three storey building to the south – which, happily, is also still standing today.
Today, the original tenants are largely forgotten. Oddly enough, the only associated name that’s recognizable today belongs not to one of the three, but to an apprentice baker taken on by Frogley. His name was George Weston and he’d go on to open Canada’s largest bread factory, the Model Bread Co., as well as Weston’s English Quality Biscuits. From there the Weston family would continue to add (or buy up) practically everything under the sun including Loblaws, President’s Choice, Joe Fresh, Wonder, Weight Watchers and much more. If you can believe it, George’s great-grandson Galen Weston now even owns Selfridges in London.
I can’t decide if the moral of this part of the story is “never under estimate where a bit of flour and yeast can take you” or “be grateful for the sweat of your forefathers.” I’m leaning towards the latter. Regardless, it’s certainly a future Charles Frogley couldn’t have imagined when he took the 12 year old George Weston on as apprentice.
As I mentioned earlier, this building is slated for condos. Now, if you know me, that’s the kind of news that gets the pulse thumping in my neck and makes me rather tiresome to listen to for awhile (as opposed to now?, you ask.). But the good news is that it’s not being torn down – it’s not even going to suffer façadomy, as it’s charmingly called. Instead, the whole block is to be incorporated into the complex. And that, I hope we can all agree, is a good thing.