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Sunday, 19 September 2021

1920s style vaccination passports

From the "no news is new news" file, this is a Winnipeg Tribune article from January 10, 1920 about proof of vaccination needing to be shown before entering Manitoba.

Thankfully, we were able to stamp out smallpox.

Thursday, 9 September 2021

Farewell to Ellice Buy and Sell

Another long-time West End business, Ellice Buy and Sell at 804 Ellice Avenue, has closed after 30+ years in business. The building has been sold and the store emptied out.

The building is one of three service stations that were built on the site since 1929. The second was the McColl-Frontenac station from Portage and Main that was moved there in 1944!

For a history of the site, see my Winnipeg Places post.

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Polson House faces demolition

Continuing my the theme of buildings have an interesting history but are on the "wrong side of the tracks" to receive much interest, here is Polson House at 94 Cathedral Avenue.

It is facing demolition so that its 75 foot lot can be split in two to create space for two new bungalows.

It has a fascinating history. Home to the Polson family for over 60 years, it has stood in for a church and was the home of what is believed to be Canada's oldest amateur radio club.

You can read about its history here. The hearing for its demolition takes place September 9, 2021 at city hall.

Inside Selkirk's Garry Theatre

© 2021, Christian Cassidy

I've written a lot about Selkirk's Garry Theatre in recent years, (you can read more about that here), but have never been inside the building. I got a tour last week courtesy of the its new owner, the City of Selkirk.

The theatre certainly had not been "mothballed". It was very good shape with all of the equipment, from the projector to fountain drink machine, intact and ready to serve again if called on.

The auditorium portion is what you would expect from a modern cinema with black fabric covering the walls and ventilation system taking up most of the ceiling. The only architectural detail of note, (like here and here), could be found in the lobby area which appears to have been built with poured concrete. (This makes sense as the only flammable items - water heater, concession stand, and projector room - are all located in this front section.)

One thing I noticed when comparing the building with the couple of 1954 fire damage photos that exist is that the lobby section of the building appears to have survived the blaze. Those architectural details, then, are likely original to the building.

The city will soon have public consultations to decide what to do with the theatre.

Tuesday, 24 August 2021

West End blacksmith Jack Watson

© 2021, Christian Cassidy

While delivering a community newsletter in August, I kept my eyes peeled for the dwindling number of beautiful wrought iron fences in the West End. Each year, more and more get replaced by chain link but a few of the old beauties remain.

Fences are normally not the sort of thing you can research, but I came across one on Simcoe Street that still had the badge from the maker: John D. Watson of 711 Maryland Street. It was a great find and I thought I would see what I could find about the man.

At a blacksmith's picnic. July 18, 1921, Winnipeg Tribune.

John D. "Jack" Watson came to Canada from his native Scotland. His obituary and entries in a couple of census documents vastly differ as to what year - it may have been 1908 when he was 23 years of age. His wife, Rosa, and her son, Arnold, came to Canada from Ireland around 1906 when the boy would have been about eight years old. It is unclear what year they married.

Jack first appears in a Winnipeg street directory in 1907 having taken over the blacksmith shop of G. A. Authier at 725 Furby Street near Notre Dame, (now demolished). At the time he was living in a rooming house a couple of blocks over at 669 Langside Street.

April 22, 1911, Winnipeg Tribune

In 1911, Watson moved his business to (presumably) larger premises at 711 Maryland Street.

Today, this land is now home to the Maryland Tot Lot, an extension of Wellington Avenue, and a modern-era apartment block, but up until 1910 was home to the Duncan Fuel and Cartage Company, (fuel at the time meant wood and coal). Because it was such a horse-intensive business they also operated Maryland Stables on the site. In 1910, two men are listed as working there as horseshoers.

The Duncan's businesses went under and its contents were auctioned off in April 1911. The site was then split with the Crescent Creamery Stables to the south, at number 709, and Watson's blacksmith shop at 711.

Along with the new business address came a new home address: a rented house at 484 Sherbrook Street. (This makes me believe he got married around this time as having a wife and growing boy in a rooming house would have been difficult.)

Watson ran a small shop with just one other blacksmith / horseshoer working for him.

The blacksmithing industry saw great change in Watson's time and this could be seen in his ads. He rarely advertised in the teens to late 1920s, then did so regularly from the late 1920s into the early 1940s. His ads reflected the growing importance of things like wrought iron fences and gates to his business.

Normally it would be impossible to date a fence without seeing a receipt or an order book, but this one might be an exception. Watson only used the name "Watson Fence Works", as per the badge on the fence, to describe his business in Free Press classified ads that ran from April to October 1931. This fence could be from that period.

February 10, 1927, Winnipeg Tribune

Watson was a long-time member of the Manitoba Blacksmiths, Horseshoers, and Carriage-makers Association and served in various roles on its executive from the 1920s through the 1940s. The organization entered teams in sports leagues, set prices and wages, and ran an apprenticeship program to try to attract the next generation of workers.

Watson was treasurer in 1946 when 120 members from Manitoba and Saskatchewan came to Winnipeg for an annual meeting held over two days at the McIntyre Block and wrapped up with a banquet at the St. Charles Hotel. At that meeting, they changed the name of the organization to the Blacksmiths, Welders and Repairmens Association to reflect the evolving nature of their industry.

1916 Census of Canada, Library and Archives Canada

Around 1915, the Watsons moved to 1053 Sherburn Street and by 1924 moved into 630 Simcoe Street where they would live for more than two decades.

Watson retired in 1948. Fred Buck, who had been manager of the shop for a couple of years, took over and kept the Watson Iron and Wire Works name.

Around 1950, the Watsons moved to Victoria B.C. where Jack died on June 30, 1963, at the age of 76. His body was returned to Winnipeg for a funeral and burial at Elmwood Cemetery.

As for the shop, Buck left around 1965 and Mr. Pingel took over until at least 1967.

In February 1969, Crystal Builders applied for a zoning change to build a 2.5 storey, 13-suite apartment block on the site. The Marywell Apartments took the address 605 Wellington Avenue.

Some examples of West End wrought iron fences at my Flickr album.

Sunday, 22 August 2021

Farewell to the Beveridge Block

The circa 1907 Beveridge Block at 802 Main Street was one of the buildings damaged in that fire on Main Street last week and will have to be torn down. It is a building that many have driven by thousands of times but never noticed.

I'm glad to have documented some of the building's history in a blog post and a follow-up Free Press story and CBC Radio interview.

Our history is not just in the old brick mansions and office towers, it is also in these working-class buildings in poorer neighbourhoods. I'd argue that in many ways the stories of these buildings are more important as they were the homes of those who literally built the city, as in swung the sledgehammers, laid the rails, worked in the foundries, transported the cargo, etc..

None of them ended up becoming land-rich Winnipeg millionaires or had streets named for them. They had a hard life of barely scraping by before probably an early death.

Sunday, 8 August 2021

Tragic Endings: Roy McGregor and George Smith

© 2021, Christian Cassidy

Roy Ewan McGregor and George Robert Smith were thirteen-year-old boys from Winnipeg who likely never set eyes on each other. Their names are forever linked by a pair of senseless murders that took place seventy-five years ago.

The McEwan family of 149 Clark Street was originally from Morris, Manitoba and moved to Winnipeg in 1942. Allister McGregor was an engine man for the CNR.

Their son, Roy, was grade seven student at Earl Grey School. He was also a paper boy,
air cadet, school patrol, hockey player and often swam at the YMCA. His mother said, "He was into everything .... He enjoyed every minute of living."

On the night of Friday, January 4, 1946, Roy and a friend went to see a movie at a downtown cinema. After the movie, they stopped at for a milkshake at 103 Osborne Street then left the shop on foot and soon parted ways to go to their respective homes.

Mrs. McGregor looks at photo of Roy.
January 8, 1946, Winnipeg Tribune.

When Roy didn't arrive home by 11:00 p.m. his mother called the friend's house. He told her that he did not know where Roy would have gone other than straight home. At 11:45 p.m. the McGregors called the police.

Patrol cars searched the neighbourhood and officers knocked on the doors of nearby homes. One lady on Stradbrook Avenue said she heard a couple of bangs around 11:45 p.m. but couldn't see anything when she looked out the window. That was the only unusual event reported to police that night.

At around 7:00 a.m. the following morning, 66-year-old Roman Kilback showed up for work at Moore's Fuel Yard located across the street from the McGregor home at 158 Clark Street. He turned on the overhead lights to illuminate the bins of coal and wood for sale and discovered the body of a small boy huddled near one of them.

January 7, 1946, Winnipeg Tribune

Police confirmed that the body was that of Roy McGregor and that he had been shot in the stomach and through the head. A pool of blood was found at the end of the yard nearest Stradbrook Avenue where a spur rail line and empty boxcar were located. There were signs that the body was dragged deeper into the yard to hide it amongst the bins. 

Police used a war surplus mine detector to look under the snow and found the spent casing of a 9 mm bullet that they later confirmed was fired from a Canadian-made John Inglis Browning automatic pistol. That was the only substantial piece of evidence discovered at the scene.

The city's entire police force was called in to work the weekend to find the shooter but there was very little to go on. Chief George Smith said it was a "very unusual and ghastly crime" in that it appeared to be a random attack by a single gunman.

Despite the general opinion that earlier decades were more innocent times, violent murders - even those of children - were not unheard of. Some high profile child killings in the previous couple of decades included Rose Eiler in 1939, Julia Johnson in 1928, and Lola Cowan in 1927.

January 8, 1946, Winnipeg Tribune

On the Tuesday after the murder, police went to five Fort Rouge schools where the boys were assembled in the auditorium and told to be wary of a strange man.

It was thought that there may be a link between the murder and instances of a man who had been approaching boys in the Fort Rouge area. He asked them for a certain address, then insisted that they accompany him to that location. Police said he may be a "pervert" or "sex maniac" but didn't elaborate as to why, (or the media chose not to report the details). 

The warning about the murder and the "pervert" was also sent to communities throughout Manitoba and Northwest Ontario as it was thought the man could have fled town to escape the manhunt.

The city grieved along with the McGregor family at Roy's funeral on Thursday, January 10th. He was buried in Elmwood Cemetery.

Despite a $1,000 reward for information, ($500 from the Winnipeg Police Commission and $500 from the Winnipeg Free Press as he was a paperboy for them), no tips of note came in and the story faded from the headlines.

An increased police presence was noticed by some at outdoor skating rinks and other places that boys liked to hang out in the weeks following the murder. The Winnipeg Tribune's James Anderson wrote in his column that: "...parents had the jitters in Winnipeg and youngsters were genuinely nervous."

September 19, 1946, Winnipeg Tribune

The McGregor murder was again thrust into the headlines in September 1946 when 13-year-old George Smith of 585 Home Street was murdered.

George looked young for his age - his mother said people often mistook him for being ten. He played piano and the accordion and was a caring boy who once found a pigeon with an injured wing and brought it home to nurse back to health.

On the night of September 18, 1946, George attended his first boy scout meeting with the 23rd troop just a block away at what was then Home Street United Church, (now Home Street Mennonite Church). At the last minute he decided not to take his bike and set off on foot.

George was last seen by friends walking home from the church around 10:00 p.m. after they parted ways at St. Mattthews Avenue and Home Street. When he did not arrive home by 11:00 p.m. the Smiths called police who sent patrol cars to the area to keep an eye out for him. The family called again at 2:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. but the boy had not been located.

September 19, 1946, Winnipeg Tribune

At around 7:00 that morning, a neighbour of the Smiths was driving down the back lane of Home Street to go to work and found a boy's body near a garage.

Police confirmed that it was George Smith and discovered that he was killed by a single bullet to the back. He had been stripped of his shirt, which was found a short distance away, and it appeared as if someone tried to bind his ankles with the belt from a raincoat. There was evidence that after being shot the boy dragged himself for a few meters down the lane before collapsing.

Police chief George Smith, (no relation to the victim), told the press: "Everything points to this case being the work of the same man who shot Roy McGregor". Later that day the provincial coroner said: "It looks very much like one of those sexual cases like the McGregor case."

The police force dropped everything to catch the now two-time murderer. Taxi cabs were booked for the day so that every available officer and detective could fan out around the West End to knock on doors and set up roadblocks. Newspapers called it the city's largest manhunt since the Gorilla Strangler back in 1927.

A distraught Mrs. Smith told the Tribune, "Why did it have to happen? He was so well liked ... a good student ... and loved by all in the neighbourhood. His stamps and chemistry set would keep him in the house most of the time. Why did it have to happen?"

George Smith's funeral was September 23rd. He was buried at Brookside Cemetery.

September 24, 1946, Winnipeg Tribune

As with the McGregor murder, few clues were found at the crime scene and the door knocking campaign and roadblocks yielded nothing.

Winnipeg police sent information about the murders far and wide. More than 2,000 posters were put up around the Winnipeg area offering a reward of up to $7,000, ($5,000 from the city, $1,000 from the Police Commission and $1,000 from the Tribune), for information that led to an arrest. Police forces across the country were notified and the particulars were published in the February 1947 edition of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. Chief Smith also spoke about the murders at an International Police Chiefs conference in Mexico later that year.

A couple of suspects, sex offenders from Hamilton, Ontario and London, Ontario, were questioned but both had alibis. Then a tip came in from Port Arthur, now Thunder Bay, Ontario.

August 9, 1947, Winnipeg Free Press

Two men held up Palm Dairies in Port Arthur on June 30, 1947, and were arrested at the train station as they waited to return to Winnipeg. One of them, 22-year-old Michael Angelo Vescio, was found to be in possession of a Browning automatic gun and a list of what appeared to be names and addresses of Winnipeg boys.

Port Arthur police chief George Taylor contacted Winnipeg police to see if Vescio might be wanted for anything in the city. At the request of the Winnipeg force, the Port Arthur police fired the gun and sent the casing to the RCMP crime lab in Regina. The spent casing from the Winnipeg murder scene was also forwarded to the lab for comparison. They were a match.

Vescio was returned to Winnipeg where, according to police, he confessed to the murders while being held at the Rupert Street jail. On Saturday, August 19, 1947, he was charged with two counts of murder. (Despite the headline, there were no sex crime charges laid.)

Those who knew Vescio were shocked at the news of his arrest.

Vescio was a motor transport driver with the Royal Canadian Army Services Corps from 1944 until his discharge in April 1947. Former colleagues described him as friendly with a colourful imagination. He would never stay out late drinking with fellow soldiers and told them off for wolf-whistling women.

Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Wright owned the Rose Street rooming house where Vescio lived while he was in the army. Mr. Wright described him as a, "... shy and reserved, a man who seldom drank and never swore. Everyone liked him."

The Wrights said Vescio never went out late, with he exception of catching a movie downtown, and that he preferred to stay home and read when the other soldiers living at the house went for a night on the town. He often ate supper with the elderly couple. They treated him like a son, and he called them Mum and Dad.

October 8, 1947, Winnipeg Free Press

In October 1947, the preliminary hearing into both murders got underway in a packed courtroom at the central police station on Rupert Avenue. By this time, Vescio was already serving a three-year sentence for the dairy robbery.

One item that came to light was the sexual nature of the crimes. It was confirmed that the state of McGregor's clothing indicated that he had been "criminally assaulted" prior to his murder and there was an attempt to criminally assault Smith before he was killed.

Three boys testified at the hearing about being accosted by a man in the Hugo Street and McMillan Avenue area in 1945. They were very brave as, like all witnesses, they were identified by full name, age and address in the press.

The stories were very similar, starting with a man asking them for help them find an address and ending in a back lane. In two of the cases a gun was produced and the boys were pulled into a secluded space where "certain incidents" took place. The man chillingly said to one victim: "you Canadian boys are more appealing than the German boys". The man ran off after each assault.

Only one of the boys, aged 12, enthusiastically identified Vescio in court. The others could only agree that he strongly resembled the man who attacked them.

The testimony of the boys, the ballistics comparison of the bullet casings, and Vescio's statement of guilt made after his arrest, were enough to proceed to a full trial for the murder of George Smith the following month and for Roy McGregor at the next session of court in February 1947.

Vescio entering court in October 1947 (Winnipeg Tribune)

The trail began on Monday, November 17, 1947 in front of E. K. Williams, Chief Justice of the Court of King's Bench.

Vescio's counsel did not dispute that he shot Smith but said his client should be charged with manslaughter, not murder. The defendant did not speak for himself, but comments made to officers after his arrest were read into testimony.

Vescio claimed that he went on a long walk on the night of the murder and bought a bottle of alcohol that he drank in Vimy Memorial Park until he felt sick and dizzy. He was going to stop at a store at Home and Arlington to call for someone to pick him up but the store was packed and he instead continued walking down Home Street.

When Vescio saw Smith, he claimed he asked the boy if he could use the phone at his house. The boy said something to the effect that his father would not allow a drunk in the house. This angered Vescio who grabbed the boy and they struggled. When Vescio slipped on some clay, Smith tried to break free and that is when his shirt got ripped off.

Vescio then claimed that he fell to the ground which caused the gun in his coat to fire and it hit Smith in the back. His fear and cowardice led him to flee rather than call for help. There was no explanation as to why the boy's ankles were partially bound.

November 25, 1947, Winnipeg Tribune

The case was given to the jury on the morning of November 24, 1947, and just 35 minutes later it returned with a guilty verdict. Justice Williams sentenced Vescio to hang. When asked if he had anything to say, Vescio rose and said he didn't.

The Vescio family, a brother and two sisters from Port Arthur, tried every avenue of appeal open to them. The final step came on October 8, 1948, when it was heard by the Supreme Court of Canada. On November 2nd, it dismissed his appeal for a new trial and it was certain that Vescio would hang.

Vescio's death sentence meant that the McGregor family would never get their day in court. The murder charge related to Roy McGregor was eventually dropped from the court's schedule.

At 1:02 a.m. on Friday, November 19, 1948, Michael Angleo Vescio, now 24, was hanged at Headingley Jail. He was pronounced dead 15 minutes later. Media reports said that Vescio was calm on the gallows and had no final words to say.

It was rumoured that in his final days Vescio confessed to both murders and gave details of the deaths. This was confirmed in a 1950 annual report of the provincial jail system.

More from the Tragic Endings series.