Peter Chow: The Infamous Toronto Brothel Clown Brawl and the Origins of the Toronto Police Department


The story of Toronto’s modern police department has comically bad origins.

In 1855, Toronto was growing very, very quickly.

40,000 people lived in the city  –  and new immigrants were flooding in all the time.

With the very first railways starting up, the population would double over the next 20 years.

But in a lot of ways, it was still a rough, pioneer town.

It would be a long while before the city would get its reputation for being Toronto The Good (for its strict Victorian moral code and Temperance movement in the late 1800s).

If anything, Toronto in 1855 was the opposite.

There were 68 taverns along Yonge Street  –  an average of one every 1200 meters between Toronto and Barrie.

In the city itself, there were 152 of them.

Plus 203 beers shops on top of that.

And then, there were the brothels – a lot of brothels.

Brothels flourished in the cold streets of 19th century Toronto.

Thousands of sex workers lived in the city and walked the streets each night.

They flaunted their smooth curves and alluring soft skin to potential clients.

Local authorities didn’t crack down because, of course, they were also loyal customers.

July 12, 1885, was supposed to be an evening of relaxation and hedonism.

It would be anything but.

Where Sin, Conflict, And Egos Collide

The evening was well underway at the House of Mary Ann Armstrong, a hybrid brothel and bar, near the corner of Jarvis and King St., where men could meet women of the night and trade various forms of currency for favours of the flesh.

As you entered this establishment, you’d often see beautiful women lounging, waiting for a suitor.

Typically, several would approach you in quick order to measure your intent and budget.

This brothel happened to be the hangout for the men in a local volunteer fire brigade: The Hook & Ladder Firefighting Company.

And these weren’t the kind of firemen you wanted to mess with either.

In those days, there was no central, public, government-run fire department.

When a fire broke out, all the companies who were nearby rushed to the scene with their horse-drawn engines to get there first and call dibs.

Fire departments were paid per fire they extinguished which created highly toxic money disputes.

It’s insane to imagine being stuck in a burning house, with two fire departments outside arguing over who gets to put it out –  but this is the insidious nature of corruption and dysfunction in government.

Just a couple of weeks earlier, the Hook & Ladders had arrived at a fire on Church Street at the same time as another brigade.

A fight broke out.

As the building burned, the firemen rioted in the street.

When the police showed up, they got pulled into the brawl too.

In the end, the firemen were charged with assault.

And the battle became known as the Firemen’s Riot.

The Hook & Ladders were no strangers to violence.

Three men from the Toronto Hook and Ladder Firefighting Company decided to blow off some steam and stopped by the brothel that night.

The men all settled into their respective spots, indulging drinks and flirting with the women.

Send In The Clowns

The door kicked open and a colourful group of men walked in.

These men were clowns.

And these weren’t the kind of clowns you want to mess with.

They were, by all accounts, a very rough crew.

They were in town for just a couple of days that summer in 1855 –  part of a touring show from the U.S. called S.B. Howes’ Star Troupe Menagerie & Circus.

Along with the clowns, the circus troupe had acrobats and equestrian trick riders and a bunch of exotic animals: big cats, elephants, even a giraffe.

The circus had already performed a few sold out shows that day –  it was a rare big draw in a city that was just starting to come into its own.

However, when not wearing makeup, these clowns were far from being joyful wholesome entertainers who do balloon animals at children’s birthday parties.

Most were vagabonds and criminals, who came from rough upbringings.

Fight One Of Two Begins.

A lead clown, known only as Meyers, was flirting with a woman when a drunken fireman named Fraser walked by and bumped into Meyers, knocking his hat off.

Meyers thought it was intentional and asked him to pick up the hat as a show of respect.

The belligerent fireman refused.


The presence of attractive women and alcohol only heightened their toxic pride.

It also didn’t help that the clowns were Catholic and the firemen were Protestant and all were of Irish descent and inter-faith tensions were extremely high.

This disagreement escalated to a shoving match that led to a full-blown fistfight.

Meyer’s fellow clowns jumped into the fight and the clowns then proceeded to beat the ever-loving daylights out of the burly firemen

At least two of the firemen were seriously injured, dragged out of the brothel to be admitted to the hospital as the Hook & Ladder crew retreated.

For the rest of the night, the clowns could drink and have sex in peace.

This should have been the end of the incident but the firemen’s pride was wounded.

Getting their asses kicked by a bunch of clowns was a tough pill to swallow.

They were members of the Orange Order, a fraternity-like organization that included the police department  –  which would lead to a major scandal.

It wasn’t over yet.

Those firemen had a lot of friends.

In those days, Toronto was still pretty much entirely run by a small group of Protestant, Tory elites.

They were all members of the Orange Order, hung out together at the Orange Lodge, and made sure that other Orangemen got all the important jobs in the city.

The Orange And The Green

The national flag of The Republic Of Ireland is a vertical tricolour of orange, white and green – orange symbolizing Protestants, green for Roman Catholics and white for the hoped-for peace between the two.

The Orange Order, is an international conservative Protestant fraternal order based in Northern Ireland and primarily associated with Ulster Protestants.

The Orange Order in Canada, has played a large part in the history of Canada, with many prominent members including four Prime Ministers, among them Sir John A. Macdonald and John Diefenbaker.

The Orange Order was the chief social institution in Upper Canada (Ontario), organizing many community and benevolent activities, and helping Protestant immigrants to settle.

In late nineteenth-century Toronto, municipal politics were so dominated by the Irish Protestants of the Orange Order that the city was known as the “Belfast of Canada.”

Between 1845 and 1900, all but three of the city’s mayors was an Orangeman and the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne every July 12 was a civic holiday.


The Orange Order remained a predominant political force in southern Ontario well into the twentieth century.

The Twelfth is an Ulster Protestant celebration held on 12 July.

It began in the late 18th century in Ulster to celebrate the Glorious Revolution and victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne, which ensured a Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland.

The battle of the Boyne was fought on 1 July 1690, between forces of the deposed and exiled Catholic king, James VII of Scotland and II of England, and the Dutch Protestant new king, William II of Scotland and III of England (William of Orange) on the banks of the River Boyne in modern day Republic of Ireland, approximately 30 miles north of Dublin.

The battle is today commemorated by many Ulster Protestants on 12 July (also referred to as ‘the Twelfth’, ‘the Glorious Twelfth’ or ‘Orangemen’s Day’).

Due to the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, the calendar moved forward 11 days, and so the new anniversary of the battle of the Boyne was 12 July.

The summer of 1847 saw an immigration deluge of 38,000 Irish Catholics, driven across the Atlantic by a potato blight that was starving the country.

By 1851, a quarter of Toronto’s population was Irish Catholic.

The virulent anti-Catholicism of many Protestant Torontonians compounded the difficulty of accommodating so many newcomers.

Long a feature of British nationalism, hostility toward Roman Catholics was accentuated in the 1850s and 1860s by Irish republicanism and Fenian (Irish Catholic Nationalist) unrest in the British Isles and North America.

During the 1800s, members of the Orange Order were known to wreak havoc on Toronto’s streets by engaging in sectarian violence with the local Irish Catholic population.

Orangemen and Irish Catholics did battle 22 times between 1867 and 1892, often on July 12 or St. Patrick’s Day.

The Orange Order had a stranglehold over politics, with mayors, councilmen, aldermen, local police, and firefighters belonging to the organization.

The police were pretty much all Orangemen.

And the firefighters were too.

Some things never change.

Usually, the Orangemen focused on beating up Catholics.

But they were willing to make an occasional exception.

Fight Number Two

The day after the fight at the brothel – a Friday the 13th, poetically –  a crowd began to gather around S.B. Howes’ Star Troupe Menagerie & Circus.

An angry, Orange crowd.

The circus had pitched their tents at the Fair Green, a big grassy space on the waterfront, just a few blocks east of the St. Lawrence Market. (Now, it’s the south-east corner of Front & Berkeley, near the Toronto Sun building.)

The farmers and merchants who had set up stalls nearby were told to clear out.

There was trouble brewing.

Word reached the police before violence broke out.

But of course the Chief of Police, Samuel Sherwood, was an Orangeman.

That’s how he got to be Chief of Police.

In fact, years earlier he’d helped to organize a conservative Tory attack on a liberal Reform Party parade.

One of the Reformers had been shot and killed.

So when Chief Sherwood heard about the trouble down at the Fair Green, he dragged his feet for as long as he could.

And then, eventually, he sent a few men to check it out.


By the time they got there, it had started.

People were throwing stones.

The mob demanded the clowns be turned over.

Knowing the extreme danger to its employees, the circus refused.

While the circus performers and the carnies were apparently able to hold the mob off for a while, it couldn’t last.

Eventually, the crowd overwhelmed them.

Circus wagons were burned and the fire bell was rung.

And when Hook and Ladder Firefighting Company arrived, they joined the riot and all hell broke loose.

They stormed the circus with pikes and axes and clubs, overturned wagons, pulled down the tents and the Big Top and set fire to them.

They beat the clowns to a pulp.

Circus folk ran for their lives.

Some dove into the lake for safety.

It was mayhem.

It took the Mayor to settle things down.

The Mayor came to the Fair Green in person, grabbed an axe from a fireman who was about to commit coulrocide (yes, that’s the academic term for “clown murder”) and called in the militia to take control of the situation.

Once things had calmed down, the circus performers came back for their belongings and then ran like hell.

The police had done pretty much nothing.

They just watched, smoking cigars.

Even Chief Sherwood himself had eventually shown up, but could only claim to have stopped the rioters from setting fire to the cages of the animals.

Sherwood actually attempted to personally arrest a rioter and got beat up for his efforts.

Of the 17 people who were charged in the riot, only one was ever convicted.

All of the police who were at the scene claimed they couldn’t remember any of the Orangemen who had been there.

Just like they had a few weeks earlier, after the Fireman’s Riot on Church St.

The Reckoning

That, as everyone knew, was a cover up.

And they would keep on covering up.

A few months later, there was another Protestant vs. Catholic riot –  and Chief Sherwood’s memory was again suspiciously fuzzy as far as Orangemen were concerned.

A few months after that, he was under fire again after freeing a suspect who had been accused of robbing a bank.

But by then, there had been another mayoral election in 1856.

And for the first time in more than 20 years –  since William Lyon Mackenzie’s rebellion –  a liberal Reform Party candidate had won.

William Lyon Mackenzie had led the Reformer rebels in the Upper Canada Rebellion in 1837.

After its defeat, he rallied American support for an unsuccessful invasion of Upper Canada as part of the Patriot War.

Mackenzie then fled to the United States until Canada granted him amnesty in 1849 and he returned to Canada.

John Beverley Robinson became the new mayor in 1856.

Although Robinson was a member of the Orange Order (in fact, this tradition would continue until Nathan Phillips – Toronto’s first Jewish mayor – was elected in 1955), city council was quick to act, creating a separate committee to attend to police corruption.

Within three years of the 1855 riot, police officers and the chief of police were fired, and efforts began to create a non-political police force.

The new Reform-led City council called for deep reforms to the way Toronto’s police force was run.

The government of Canada West (what they called Ontario back then) agreed.

An inquest was launched, and in the end, the whole old system was overthrown.

The broader problem was the lax selection process for Toronto’s law enforcement officers.

The amount of training they received makes our modern police force look like Rhodes’ Scholars.

In short, city councilman appointed officers.

If you knew a councilman and they chose you, you could be wearing a badge and carrying a baton within a day or two.

Some things really never do change.

Because of the broken system, the police were often no different than the criminals they arrested.

The brawl with the clowns became the tipping point that led to a new police commission.

Because no police officer would identify who was involved in the raid on the circus, in 1859, the commission took the draconian step of firing all police officers and starting from scratch.

Every single police officer in the city was fired and a new force was created from scratch.

Half of the old constables would end up being re-hired.

It took nearly 100 years before the Orange stranglehold on power in Toronto was finally broken.

It was from this starting point that the Toronto Police Department developed new standards and training that evolved into what they use today.

The takeaway you can remember today: a clown brawl that started because the clowns picked the wrong brothel got Toronto’s entire police force fired in 1885.

Be very careful when picking a fight with a clown.