The Toronto Circus Riot – July 1855
In more innocent times the arrival of the circus in town was a cause of excitement. There was excitement of a different kind when S B Howes’ Star Troupe, Menagerie and Circus arrived in Toronto, which at the time was more of a rough, frontier type town than the more elegant, civilised city that it is now, better known for its bordellos and houses of ill-repute. One such was the house of Mary Ann Armstrong on King Street which is where a group of clowns, led by a man called Meyers, chose to spend the evening of the 12th July.
Unfortunately, Madame Armstrong’s gaff was also where members of the Hook and Ladder Firefighting Company had chosen to spend the evening. Firefighting, for that was their forte, was at the time more social than professional and attracted some of the rougher sorts in town. The Hook and Ladder boys had already got previous having two weeks earlier clashed with a rival firefighting crew who had turned up to the same fire – we now know where the fighting comes from – and both groups turned on and gave a good hiding to the cops who attempted to stop the melee.
Quite what happened to kick-off events on 12th July are hazy – naturally enough when drink is involved – but the general consensus is that one of the firemen, named Fraser, knocked off Meyer’s hat, either deliberately or accidentally. He refused to pick the hat up when requested at which point the clowns set upon the firemen and Fraser was seriously beaten.
The next day a crowd of angry men and boys gathered at the fairground where the circus had pitched up, throwing stones and hurling insults, demanding that Meyers, who had sensibly decamped elsewhere, be handed over. Circus wagons were set on fire and thrown into the lake. The presence of sic policemen did nothing to restore order nor did the subsequent arrival of the mayor and the chief of police. At some point an iron bar was thrown into the attacking mob, injuring a man called Bird.
More wagons were overturned and burned and someone rang a bell to summon the fire brigade. Our friends from the Hook and Ladder company turned up but instead of attending to the fire, tore the circus tent down with their hooks. Order was only restored with the arrival of the militia.
In the aftermath it became apparent that the police, who were part of the Orange order as were, indeed, the braves from the Hook and Ladder Firefighting Company, were involved in a monumental cover up and were unable or unwilling to identify the ringleaders. This was par for the course and fuelled concern about the governance of the forces of law and order who seemed to be in the pay of their political masters rather than their nominal superiors. Chief of Police, Sherwood, testified at the time, “as soon as I am out of sight, the men do as they please”.
Over the next couple of years attempts were made to reform the police but it was not until 1858 that a provincially approved board was able to formulate a new design for the police department. In February 1859 all of the police were fired, although around half of the pre-Circus riot cops were reinstated, and the form of governance that pertains in Toronto until this day was instituted.
An amazing reform instituted by a bunch of clowns – I refrain from drawing the analogy with politicians. What happened to Meyers, the catalyst of it all, is uncertain.