The end of L.D.
By Daniel Francis-contributing writer
For such a successful politician, Vancouver's longest-serving mayor cut an unremarkable figure in person.
Louis D. Taylor was short and slight, with a grey-flecked mustache and, as he grew older, fewer and fewer strands of hair scraped across the top of a balding head. Photographs show that aside from the red tie he always wore, his usual costume consisted of a pair of round, owlish glasses, a heavy three-piece suit and a pair of stout leather shoes cut above the ankle.
People who met Taylor, who ran in 26 local elections during a political career that spanned four decades, were surprised at how soft-spoken he was, which contrasted dramatically with the combative politician they knew from the election platform.
Born in Ann Arbour, Mich., Taylor, who emigrated to Canada in 1896 when he was 39, had the appearance and manner of a kindly school teacher, or the bank clerk he had been in his younger days. To everyone, friend and foe alike, he was known simply as L.D. (Denison was his mother's maiden name.) But Taylor was no milquetoast, as his political opponents learned at their cost.
He was the outspoken friend of the average voter and the implacable enemy of large corporations and other vested interests. Any campaign in which he took part was guaranteed to be a contentious one. He loved to conjure up dark intrigues by unnamed conspirators who, he charged, opposed him because he stood for the common man.
As mayor, a position he filled on and off eight times between 1910 and 1934, when he was finally defeated, L.D. did not sit on his hands. He wanted to accomplish things, to make a difference to the city. As a result, he was never far from controversy.
Despite his benign appearance, when Taylor arrived in Vancouver on Sunday, Sept. 8, 1896, he was a fugitive from justice. A married accountant with a newborn son, he liked to say he had set off alone from his home in Chicago to fulfill "a boyhood dream" to visit Alaska.
His head may have been filled with dreams of the Klondike, but his trip was not a voluntary one. It was a secret that L.D. never revealed, but back in Chicago, he was wanted by the courts. A bank in which he had been a partner had failed and he stood accused of embezzlement. L.D. claimed it was all an innocent mistake, but he did not hang around to face the music. Like so many other newcomers who were flooding into the city, L.D. came to Vancouver to escape the past and discover a new life for himself.
Disembarking from the train in Vancouver that September afternoon at the small CPR station at the foot of Howe Street, L.D. was not impressed by what he saw. A thick pall of smoke produced by clearing fires around the edge of the settlement hung in the air, irritating his eyes and throat and obscuring the view. The Sunday streets were empty.
In 1896, Vancouver was a frontier town with pretensions. Residents were proud of the imposing stone office blocks going up along Granville Street, the palatial homes of the wealthy in the West End, the new electric street railway, the half-laid sewer system, the Opera House where Sarah Bernhardt had performed. Buildings sprawled across the downtown peninsula and were climbing the southern slopes overlooking False Creek. "The forest vanished and up went the city," observed writer Ethel Wilson, who arrived at about the same time as L.D. The population in 1896 was approaching 30,000, and a banner strung across Granville Street predicted: "In 1910 Vancouver then will have 100,000 men."
Still, it was not Chicago. Chicago had skyscrapers that towered 16 stories into the sky. It was a megacity of more than a million people, the railway capital of the United States, home to giant steel mills and vast stockyards. As L.D. made his way down Hastings Street from the train station to his hotel, he was dispirited by the city, with its board sidewalks, dirt streets, unpainted wood-frame houses, and somnolent air. And, of course, the choking wood smoke. "I felt the need of consolation," he later recalled, "so I decided to go to church." In church, he ran into old friends from Chicago, George Bessell and his wife, who had settled in the city and were full of optimism about its future. They invited him home after the service and, discovering that he was somewhat rootless, convinced him to give Vancouver more of a chance.
Soon after arriving in the city, L.D. got involved in politics as an elected license commissioner. Then, in 1905, he purchased The World newspaper, which he owned for 10 years. At the same time, he served his first terms as the city's mayor. During World War I, he took a break from politics, but during the 1920s he made a comeback, winning re-election in 1925 and serving three consecutive terms as mayor.
By any standard, L.D.'s accomplishments during his middle terms make an impressive list. Yet they were overshadowed by another issue that preoccupied the city during the final months of his tenure. In April 1928, Alderman T.W. Fletcher, a member of the police commission, charged that members of the police force were receiving bribes from underworld figures. Fletcher suggested that criminal influence reached all the way to city hall and asked for a provincial royal commission to investigate. Instead, city council appointed local lawyer R.S. Lennie to look into the charges. Between April 30 and July 6, Lennie heard 180 hours of public testimony from 98 witnesses, including police officers and civic officials, L.D. among them. Day after day, the city was riveted by sensational stories in the press speculating on ties between local mobsters, police, and city hall. Fletcher hired his own lawyer, the fiery former Liberal MLA Gerry McGeer. McGeer quickly made himself the centre of attention at the inquiry, lashing out at Commissioner Lennie, proclaiming that "organized lawlessness has taken charge of the town," and demanding that L.D. be removed from office. McGeer was out for L.D.'s head, and though he failed to get it, he landed enough punches to leave the mayor bloodied and a little dazed.
The Lennie hearings focused public attention on the police force but did not reveal anything that Vancouverites had not suspected for years. It was widely assumed that criminal elements were operating with the knowledge of police, and L.D. made no secret of his own lenient attitude toward certain types of crime. As he said on more than one occasion, he did not believe he was elected to make Vancouver a "Sunday school town." His opponents claimed L.D.'s so-called "open city" approach was an invitation to criminals to set up shop. But L.D. explained to the Lennie inquiry that he was just facing facts. Vancouver was a port city with an understaffed police force. A certain amount of gambling and prostitution was going to occur. He was not as concerned about it as he was about "major crimes"-that is, murder and property offences. His approach was to regulate vice while at the same time committing the city's limited police resources to protecting citizens from violent crimes and tracking down serious criminals. The city's religious leaders and middle-class moral reformers could not accept L.D.'s approach. What they wanted was an all-out war on vice. On the other hand, one person's vice was another's harmless recreation.
Years later, Nora Hendrix, a black woman (grandmother of legendary
rock musician Jimi Hendrix) who lived in the Downtown Eastside, was interviewed for Opening Doors, a book about Vancouver's East Side. Hendrix recalled that "everybody liked Mayor Taylor 'cause he was one of those kind of plain men, he looked like he was for everybody. And he had the town fixed so that the sporting people lived in one part of the town and the other class of people lived in another. He had them all separated. And they had a red-light district, you see? That was what a lot of people liked about Taylor, having this red-light district..." Mrs. Hendrix may have given L.D. too much credit for "fixing" the segregation of "vice" in certain neighbourhoods, but there is no question that he saw no need to impose middle-class morality on all sections of the city. And for this, he paid a heavy political price.
As the Lennie inquiry made clear, white, middle-class Vancouver associated crimes of vice with Chinatown and, not far away, Hogan's Alley. Little had changed in the outside world's attitude toward Chinatown. As before the war, it was still viewed as a centre of gambling and prostitution, a place of immorality where drug use flourished and white women were corrupted. At the same time, Chinese residents were discouraged from living or doing business elsewhere in the city. They were compared to a spreading contagion that had to be confined so as not to infect the entire body.
A few blocks to the south, Hogan's Alley was a dirt lane running between Union and Prior just east of Main Street. It disappeared with the construction of the new Georgia Viaduct but in the 1920s and 1930s, to outsiders at least, Hogan's Alley was synonymous with gambling joints, blind pigs and brothels. It was apparently named for Harry Hogan, an Irishman who lived in the alley and hosted some of its wildest parties.
The area's criminal reputation had been confirmed in 1917 by the murder of police chief Malcolm MacLennan just around the corner on East Georgia Street. A black, heavily armed drug addict named Robert Tait barricaded himself in an apartment with his girlfriend. He wounded two police officers who came to the door, then shot and killed a young boy in the street. MacLennan decided to lead an assault on the apartment and died during the gun battle. The standoff ended when Tait committed suicide. This sensational incident, featuring drugs, prostitution, race and murder, shocked and titillated the city, and Hogan's Alley and its environs were fixed in the public imagination as the centre of Vancouver lowlife. Police went there in their off-hours to gamble and drink, and it was widely believed that bribes were paid so that they would tolerate the illegal nightlife.
In the mid to late 1920s, Vancouver had about 500 female prostitutes employed on the streets or in brothels in hotels and bawdy houses or in rooms above legitimate businesses. Police carried out periodic raids on the "disorderly houses" and tried to confine them within certain areas. On occasion, they leaned on troublesome pimps to leave town. Fines were treated by operators more or less as a business tax, as was the protection money paid to police. A typical operation was one run by Kiyoko Tanaka-Gota out of upstairs rooms in a hotel on West Hastings. In 1927, she leased the hotel and installed a dozen prostitutes in the rooms, keeping 30 per cent of the proceeds. "If a policeman wanted a woman I arranged it for him," she recalled in an interview for Opening Doors. "And of course they didn't pay, I paid the girls, but it's cheaper than getting arrested."
Tanaka-Goto remained in business until she was interned with other Japanese at the start of World War II.
There were many small-time bootleggers, pimps and gamblers known to police but public attention focused on Joe Celona, dubbed the "King of the Bootleggers" and the "King of the Bawdy Houses" in the local press. Celona, who was born in Italy in 1898, arrived in Vancouver shortly after the war and began to establish himself as "the mayor of East Hastings," as one newspaper columnist called him. Testimony at the Lennie inquiry identified Celona as the owner of a brothel on Keefer Street "where several young white girls received Chinamen." According to one police detective, Celona had boasted about his friendship with L.D., to whose campaigns he allegedly contributed, and warned the detective he would be fired if he interfered with Celona's business. This may well have been bluster; certainly it was never proved. L.D. claimed that he bought cigars from Celona's shop, a block from city hall, but did not know about his other businesses, a claim that stretches credulity. If L.D. was ignorant of Celona's reputation, he was the only person in the city who was.
Though hearsay linking L.D. to underworld characters was rife during the Lennie inquiry, it remained just that, hearsay. At no time did Lennie find that L.D. ever accepted a bribe himself, and nowhere was there evidence that the mayor had interfered on behalf of a specific felon. There was no question of him being charged with influence peddling or some other crime, or even resigning. Still, the Lennie inquiry was a disaster for L.D. In his final report, the commissioner identified the mayor's "so-called open policy" as one of the root causes of "demoralization and inefficiency" in the police force. Testimony had made it clear that officers believed there were instructions from the mayor's office not to be overly concerned with vice crimes. As a result, concluded Lennie, the force was confused about its role.
There were other problems as well. Evidence was clear that officers were taking bribes, that the force did not have enough members and that salaries were low compared to other jurisdictions, all factors contributing to low morale. Lennie also found that the Police Commission was doing a poor job of supervising the force. The Lennie report can only be seen as an indictment of L.D.'s lax administration of police affairs. It didn't matter that one RCMP inspector told the inquiry that as far as he was concerned, Vancouver "is one of the cleanest seaports that I have ever been in, so far as crime, serious crime, is concerned." The overall impact of the inquiry was to reveal a police force that appeared to be incompetent and corrupt and a civic administration that was soft on crime.
In the fall of 1928, L.D. was up for re-election. Not surprisingly, his opponent, the grocery tycoon William Malkin, focused his campaign on the Lennie report and the issue of police corruption. The problem, said Malkin, was not with the individual police officer. The problem was L.D., his lax attitude toward vice and his interference with the force.
L.D. had little to say in his defence. The 1928 election was not his finest hour. Sensing he was in trouble, he resorted to personal abuse. He accused Malkin of receiving support from the Ku Klux Klan, which attempted to establish itself in the city during the '20s. It was a hypocritical charge, coming from someone who early in his career had courted the extreme anti-Asiatic vote, and completely untrue. L.D. also claimed he had been offered a bribe by Malkin supporters to withdraw from the election. He said Malkin was an elitist because he drove a Packard, that he was a tool of eastern capitalists, that his grocery business sold produce grown in the United States. In other words, he stayed as far away as he could from the issues.
Age may also have been a factor in the election. At 71, L.D. was 11 years older than Malkin. Voters may have decided he was getting too frail for the job. Furthermore, Malkin was a pillar of the local establishment, a patron of the arts, owner of a successful business. Amalgamation of Vancouver with Point Grey and South Vancouver was set for the beginning of 1929. If voters were looking for someone to run a vastly expanded civic administration, with all the complexities that it would bring, they might naturally have opted for the prosperous merchant rather than the failed publisher.
The most important issue, however, the one that more than any other caused L.D.'s defeat, was police corruption. It was the first plank in Malkin's platform and the constant headline in the daily press. The election, said Malkin, who was supported by an anti-vice group called the Christian Vigilance League, was a fight for "clean government." His first act as mayor would be to "purify" the police force. The mayor's office was under the influence of "a vicious professional vice ring," charged The Sun. L.D.'s administration of the police was "a scandal and a shame," proclaimed The Province. Everyone seemed to agree that hoodlums ruled the streets while venal politicians looked the other way. In the end, the surprise is not that L.D. lost the 1928 election but that he came as close as he did to winning.
Adapted from Daniel Francis's book L.D.: Mayor Louis Taylor and the Rise of Vancouver, to be released in April by Arsenal Pulp Press.
Daniel Francis is scheduled to give a talk at the Vancouver Museum 7 p.m. on April 6, the 118th anniversary of the city's incorporation, which has been proclaimed Mayor Lewis Taylor Day by Mayor Larry Campbell. Events to mark the city's birthday are planned all day at the Vancouver Museum, and admission is free.