The Toronto Circus Riot

“A clown and a fireman walk into a whorehouse…”

It sounds like the opening of an off-color joke. But in 1855, it was the beginning of an incident that changed the political structure of Toronto, Canada.


King Street in Toronto                                       photo from WikiCommons

On the morning of July 12, 1855, the circus came to Toronto. With a population that had tripled to over 40,000 in just the past few decades to become one of the largest cities in Canada, Toronto was, in many ways, still a rough-and-tumble frontier town, filled with saloons, brothels, and lots of drunken rowdy men.

And the clowns and carnies of the “S.B. Howes’ Star Troupe Menagerie & Circus”, though Americans instead of Canadians, fit right in. SB Howe had been one of the first organized circuses to appear in the United States, the first to exhibit live animals like lions and tigers and elephants, and one of the first to begin regular tours from city to city. After a few days performing in one town, the traveling troupe would all pitch in to dismantle the entire show, pack it all on wagons, and move on to the next city where they would set up all over again.

When their performance at the Big Top ended on the night of July 12, a group of clowns from the troupe decided to go out for a night on the town, and eventually ended up at Mary Ann Armstrong’s “Social Club” on the corner of King and Jarvis, one of the hundred or so brothels that peppered the streets of Toronto. By all accounts, the clowns had already visited a fair number of taverns and saloons, and were feeling pretty “comfortable”.

As it happened, Mary Ann Armstrong’s was also playing host to another group of young men that night, from the Hook and Ladder Firefighting Company. At this time, public city-operated fire departments did not exist: instead, there were several different fire companies in town, all of them privately-run and for-profit. Whenever a fire broke out, each company would rush to the scene, where the first to arrive would cut a deal with the building’s owner to put out the fire–for a price. When two rival fire companies would arrive at the same time, it was not at all unusual for fisticuffs to break out as each tried to drive the other away. Indeed, just two weeks previously, the Hook and Ladder brigade had gotten into a melee with another company that got so out of hand that the cops were called in to break it up. Now, after another rough day of fighting both fires and other firemen, the Hook and Ladder Company visited a few taverns, got a bit unsteady on their feet, and also ended up at Miss Mary Ann’s. And so, on the night of July 12, two gangs of half-drunk testosterone-driven young men were packed together into a small building full of attractive and available young women. What could possibly go wrong?

Stories vary as to exactly what happened. In some versions, one of the clowns and one of the firemen came to blows over the services of a particular young lady. In others, one of the firemen knocked the hat off one of the clowns; in still others, one of the clowns cut in line ahead of one of the firemen. Whatever set it off, the result was swift: a gigantic brawl broke out between clowns and firemen. By the time the cops arrived, the clowns had thoroughly beaten the snot out of the firemen, sending two of them to the hospital. The cops cleared the entire place out.

But it didn’t end there: now, local politics entered the picture. Much of Toronto’s population was made up of immigrants from Ireland, and they brought their Irish political and religious conflicts along with them. While the majority of the city’s Irish community were Catholics, the Toronto city government was dominated by Irish Protestants–members of the Orange Order, whose avowed aim was to keep the Catholics (a large number of whom were immigrating to Canada to escape the Irish Famine) in place as second-class citizens. This they did using roving gangs of toughs who routinely beat up Irish Catholics in the streets, and because the Orange Order controlled the police department, they were able to do this with utter impunity.

And so after getting their asses whooped by the out-of-town clowns, the firemen of the Hook and Ladder Company were bent on revenge, and counted on getting it. The next night, a gang of firemen accompanied by a mob of local Orange Order supporters, gathered at the circus and set fire to some of the tents. Once again, a huge brawl broke out, with axe handles and clubs swinging freely. This time, it was the circus gang who took the drubbing: when the police finally showed up, the officers stood by and watched, allowing their fellow Orangemen to have their fun. The mayhem didn’t end until the local militia, called out by the Mayor, arrived and deployed bayonets.

Of the hundreds of people who showed up for the riot, only 17 were arrested. At their trial a few weeks later, the police all suffered from a sudden attack of amnesia; on the stand, none of them could recall seeing any of their accused fellow Orangemen at the scene. All were acquitted.

But now, the population of Toronto had enough. At the next election, despite intimidation from the Orange bullyboys, for the first time in 20 years a Reform Party mayor won office, and a committee was appointed to clean up the corrupt city government and the police department. Within three years, every single Toronto police officer was fired, the chief of police was replaced, and the whole force was reorganized into a professional nonpolitical force under the strict control of a new city government.



11 thoughts on “The Toronto Circus Riot”

  1. My brother is a lawyer by trade; he always says that contrary to popular perception, the main purpose of law is not to protect us from criminals, but to protect us from the police. What Toronto managed in 1855, many other places have yet to manage to this day.

    But I couldn’t help grinning a bit, because I kind of visualized the brawls, and in my mind’s eye, the clowns are dressed like modern clowns. Ditto for the firemen and police. As always: you can’t make this stuff up. 🙂

      1. I don’t think so. Or I don’t recall. In fairness to the cops, by no means are all of them corrupt. The corrupt ones are more likely to target tourists, because for a tourist, with stacks of dollars or Euro, it is less hassle to simply pay a bribe than to go pay a fine or go to court.

        Rather curiously, my brother and his family went on an extended tour of southern Africa some ten year or so ago, and were not once asked for a bribe.

        Me, I have had very few run-ins with traffic cops anyway, and have never been asked for a bribe. If I ever am, I will most assuredly not pay it. The cop is most welcome to write up the stiffest fine he can fit onto his little pad, and I’ll see him in court. 🙂

        1. We got pulled over for some infraction or another. When the cop saw that we were Americans, he must have had “cash registers” flash into his head, because he went into a lecture about how this was wrong and that was wrong and we don’t have an international drivers license and all that. (All of this was baloney.) But ya know, if we paid the “fine” right here, we wouldn’t have to bother going to the police station. So we paid him his bribe and went on our way.

          Yeh, we were just enabling more bribery in the future, but we didn’t want to waste our time in South Africa arguing with the cops.

          1. Lenny: Yup. That’s the problem: you can go kick up a stink about it, but then your expensive holiday gets ruined. You know it, he knows it, and he knows that you know.

            Under Zuma, a culture of impunity had taken hold anyway, that Ramaphosa is now doing what he can do undo. Many heads have already rolled, and many more will, but only time can tell whether the decline can be reversed.

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