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Montréal's - Saloon Santa Claus

Truth be told, Montréal's probably not the only city in the world with a larger-than-life "Santa Claus" figure in its local lore. But one whose actual business was described as "a den of perdition" and "a place of ill fame"-maybe that's more unusual!

What's more, the fellow with legendary status in Montréal sported an equally colourful name-Joe Beef. Not his birth name, of course-that was Charles McKiernan-but a sobriquet earned during his time as a quartermaster in the British Army during the Crimean War (1854-56). It's said that whenever his regiment was running low on food, McKiernanhad an almost spooky knack of somehow finding meat and provisions. Hence the name "Joe Beef".

The man, who would become famous in Montréal as gruff philanthropist, came to the city around 1864 with his artillery regiment and he was put in charge of the main military canteen on Sainte-Hélène's Island in Montréal harbour. Discharged in 1868, he opened "Joe Beef's Canteen", an inn and tavern soon known throughout North America.

Why? From the beginning, Joe Beef's place was different. His business plan was not to get rich but to make a decent living while helping out the down-and-out. "I never refuse a meal to a poor man", he once told a journalist, "no matter who he is, whether English, French, Irish, Negro, Indian, or what religion he belongs to". Not surprisingly, every day atnoontime, hundreds of longshoremen, beggars odd-job men and outcasts from Montréal society showed up at his door.

But Joe Beef was no wimpy do-gooder, no pushover. He ran his tavern with no-nonsense rules-and rare was the customer who broke them. Partly, no doubt, because Joe Beef was once described as "bull-necked and bullet-headed with bare thick arms" looming up over his bar.

Still, you wonder how he managed to make any money, since he himself claimed that his customers were the biggest eaters on the continent. 200 pounds of meat and 300 pounds of bread a day were needed for this crowd! Well, for one thing, his army service exempted him from certain majorexpenses-like an innkeeper's license! Secondly, he operated a farm where he raised his own livestock. Third, every day he bought all the bread not sold by Montréal bakers, and anything too stale for human consumption, he fed to his animals (some of which, like Santa Claus' reindeer, were not future menu items-in his basement, he kept an ever-changing menagerie of bears, foxes, wild cats that he bought from sailors and trappers).

Needless to say, Joe Beef was a hero to Montréal's working class. And for specific, political reasons, too. At Christmas, 1877, the labourers on the Lachine Canal went on strike over wage cutbacks. Over ten days, Joe Beef provided them with 3,000 loaves of bread and 500 gallons of stew. He paid the travel expenses of their delegation to the governmentin Ottawa. As they set off, he addressed a crowd of 2,000 in front of his tavern with a rousing speech "delivered in rhymed endings which was heartily applauded".

This comic-poetic, Irish strain was another of Joe Beef's claims to fame. He would print up handbills and cards as a kind of advertising to distribute all over the city. "Joe Beef of Montréal, the Son of the People" one typically began. "He cares not for Pope, Priest, Parson or King William of the Boyne; all Joe wants is the Coin. He trusts in God in the summertime to keep him from all harm; when he sees the first frost and snow poor old Joe trusts to the Almighty Dollar and good old maple wood to keep his belly warm, for Churches, Chapels, Ranters, Preachers and such stuff Montréal has already got enough".

"The incorrigible Joe" was the source of endless amusement to his customers. When his first wife, Margaret, died in 1871, he harnessed the oddest animals in his menagerie to lead the procession to the cemetery. On the way there, the military band played a proper Handel funeral march. On the way back, at Joe's request, it launched into the old pop ditty "The Girl I left behind Me" (and a few months later, Joe married Margaret's sister, Mary McRae!).

You have to wonder, by the way, how important his wives and family-he had six sons!-were to Joe Beef's business.

Because not only was his place a tavern and food hall, but it was also an inn-sort of a Dickensian bed-and-breakfast, by the sound of it! At Joe Beef's, you could get a bed for the night, in the ten second-floor rooms which held about 100 bunks. For ten cents, you got a blanket. If you were shaggy, one of Joe's waiters would give you a shave, and if you were, um, dirty, you were required to take a bath and be sprinkled with an insecticide powder that Joe kept in a huge pepper pot. Finally, you had to sleep naked, since Joe said "it is better to burn more coal than to pay for washing the blankets".

Joe Beef had his rules, alright. And one last regulation involved an employee of the inn-or sometimes Joe himself-patrolling neighbourhood streets after dark looking for anyone in distress. Especially in winter, when someone who had been partying to hard at the tavern might lie down in a snowbank to sleep it off. Of course, they would have died of exposure if they weren't picked up and taken back to Joe's dormitory. "I would be the most unhappy of men", Joe said, "if the public learned one day that some poor wretch died of cold or hunger at my door" (not to mention that such an event might not be too good for business!).

In the morning, boarders would be up at seven for their breakfast of "Labrador Chicken"-a herring on a large chuck of brown bread-and the floors were swept, covered with sawdust and sprinkled with lime chloride, while the windows were thrown open so that the river breezes could clear the air. Joe Beef, in short, did not stint on sanitary measures.

In fact, he was truly solicitous of the health of his customers-and of the city of Montréal as a whole. On the ground floor of the inn and in the tavern itself, a metal alms-box was prominently displayed. Its signs invited-in Joe's characteristic style-contributions, along with his own, in support of the Hôpital Notre-Dame and the Montréal General Hospital. The old hospital records show frequent entries of "Proceeds of iron box, bar room, Joe Beef's".

He also encouraged the work of the Salvation Army by inviting members of that organization to sing and play hymns at his tavern door every Sunday morning-and he himself paid them for it (after Joe Beef's death, the Salvation Army actually took over his establishment for a time).

Sadly, that death happened suddenly. On January 15, 1889, Joe Beef was felled by a heart attack at the age of 54.

One Montréal paper took a good-riddance attitude, saying "Fortwenty-five years he has enjoyed in his own way the reputation of being for Montréal the wickedest man. His saloon was the resort of the most degraded men. It was the bottom of the pit, a sort of cul-de-sac where thieves could be corralled".

Another, however, recognized his popularity, calling his funeral the most impressive in Montréal since that of the assassinated politician, Thomas D'Arcy McGee twenty years earlier. On January 18, every office in the business district closed for the afternoon and fifty labour organizations walked off the job while Joe Beef's casket was drawn through the city by an ornate four-horse hearse in a procession severalblocks long.

The newspaper "La Minerve" reported that "The crowd consisted of Knights of Labour, workers and manual labourers of all classes. All the luckless outcasts to whom the innkeeper-philanthropist had so often extended a helping hand had come forward, eager to pay a last tribute to his memory".

Joe Beef's Tavern continued in operation-and in notoriety-until 1982. The building itself still stands at the corner of Rue de la Commune and Rue de Callière in Old Montréal, although its façade has been somewhat changed. There is, alas, no indication-not even a plaque-that the spot played such an important part in the lives of so many Montréalers.

There is, however, a park named after Joe Beef in Montréal's historic Irish working-class district of Pointe Saint-Charles. And the legend of Joe Beef has been chronicled by Montréal writer, David Fennario, in his play, "Joe Beef: A History of Point St. Charles", produced in 1991, and lauded by the Montréal Gazette as "An evening of political theatre with both guts and skill…".

Sources:

Edgar Andrew Collard, Montréal Yesterdays, Toronto, 1963, pp. 269-281.

Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. XI, Toronto, 1982, pp. 563-565.

www2.ville.montreal.qc.ca/chm/chm.htm