Rogues of Vancouver

By Madison Heslop

At the western edge of the North American continent, before mountains stretch out into the archipelago of what is now Southeast Alaska, the Fraser River empties into the Salish Sea. At the junction of these major regional waterways are the traditional, ancestral, and unceded homelands of the Musqueam, Sḵwxwú7mesh, and Tsleil-waututh First Nations. Since the 1880s, this place has also played host to residents of Vancouver, Canada’s foremost western city today and one of the two largest urban areas in the transborder Pacific Northwest region.

In Vancouver, residents’ mobility and the city’s rapid expansion preoccupied police, who nevertheless found ways to turn the same characteristics to their own ends. The first decade of the Vancouver “Rogues Galleries,” the municipal police’s record of locally detained prisoners and police court charges, captures the peculiar nature of a Pacfic Northwest port city at the turn of the twentieth century and some of the problems local constables encountered trying to police it.

Between 1898 and 1908 the city’s residents composed part of a remarkably mobile regional population negotiating a series of social and economic transformations. Growing extractive industries drew laboring men in large numbers who easily traversed the Pacific Northwest’s marine borders, traveling via new global steamship routes and transcontinental railways. This was one of the last parts of North America to experience colonization, where “modernity,” manifested via techniques of policing, arrived with rapidity.

For residents of Vancouver, a city situated within the Salish Sea’s many waterways, the border was quite literally fluid and movement across it was little policed. This state of affairs continued long after Britain and the United States negotiated the international boundary in the mid-nineteenth century. Entire fleets of steamships, canoes, and small sailing vessels ferried people and goods around the sea, and regular steamship routes into and across the Pacific had become well established by the close of the century.[1]

Easy traversal of the border and high mobility presented problems for Vancouver police, a fluctuating population not least among them. Tellingly, the first Rogues Gallery volume in the City of Vancouver Archives opens as the Klondike Gold Rush (1896-1899) began to wane. The gold rush in the Yukon interior had convinced approximately 100 thousand people around the world to participate in one of the largest single mass migrations in history, with a large proportion passing through the Pacific Northwest’s coastal cities on their way to the gold fields. Vancouver’s population consequently doubled in the 1890s, with the bulk arriving near the decade’s end.[2]

This 1898 bird’s eye view map of Vancouver pointedly featured a busy Burrard Inlet. Vancouver World Printing and Publishing Co., 1976 reproduction, Map 547, City of Vancouver Archives technical and cartographic drawing collection, City of Vancouver Archives.

As a region, the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the century relied on these mobile economies and coastal labor circuits. By 1898 Vancouver, and port cities around the world, were well into a major transition from the so-called Age of Sail to a world of steamships. Steam power meant that shipping and maritime travel were no longer so beholden to the tides or seasons. The Canadian Pacific Railway had established steamship routes from its new Vancouver terminus a decade prior, initiating regular service between that city, Hong Kong, and Yokohama.[3] Routes incorporating Britain’s other Pacific colonies in Australia and New Zealand, as well as American ports, soon followed. The multitude of resources—mining, timber, commercial fishing and canneries—from the city’s regional hinterlands transferred from railways to steamships at Vancouver’s docks and from there travelled around the globe, handled by seasonal workers who might stop over in the city for a time between jobs.

Floating logs near Evans, Coleman and Evans dock, c. 1904. AM54-S4: SGN 326, Major Matthews Collection, City of Vancouver Archives.

As in other cities of the North American West, xenophobia and racism marked rhetoric around police frustration with the region’s mobile, multinational, and multiethnic population—and with it a failure to reckon with structural inequalities that might contribute to distrust of state-backed officials.[4] “It is obvious that in a city like Vancouver the police have a very difficult duty to perform,” a local 1912 op-ed would later proffer. It continued, “The crowds that frequent certain corners of the streets of Vancouver are not easy to manage…. They have more often than not no respect for any law except the law of force. They are usually foreigners who have not been long enough in the country to know that a constable is not their natural enemy.”[5]

The Vancouver police department’s system of criminal identification, a combination of fingerprint classifications and anthropometric Bertillonage records, would become further standardized in the following decade. Fishermen Fred Klein and Julian Frietag, arrested 1897, 1901, and 1905. Prisoner’s Record Book 1900-1905, Box 774-D-03, Vancouver Police Department Fonds, City of Vancouver Archives.

Penalties for vagrancy, one of the most common arrest charges in Vancouver during this period, indicate one way that the city’s penal system took advantage of residents’ unusual mobility and turned it to its own ends. After drunkenness, vagrancy was the second most common cause for arrest in Vancouver most years in this period and the charge was ubiquitous in the Rogues Gallery ledgers. At the turn of the twentieth century, vagrancy was a capacious category of “criminal” behavior that encompassed loitering, begging, gambling, sleeping or bathing out-of-doors, engaging in sex work, and a wealth of other activities up to the discretion of the arresting officer.[6] Under Canada’s 1892 Criminal Code, “vagrants” could be punished with a fine up to $50 or “imprisonment, with or without hard labor, for any term not exceeding six months, or to both.”[7] In execution, however, the most common ruling for individuals accused of vagrancy consisted of a quick conviction and suspended sentence, often on condition they leave town within the day.

Policing vagrancy provided Vancouver constables with a tool for managing the city’s largely anonymous mobile laborers—no longer anonymous once identified in a prisoner ledger—by discouraging them from remaining in town.

Fred Johnson, an American steamboat man in his early twenties, presented a typical example. Arrested October 12, 1904 on a vagrancy charge, he was convicted “and let go on suspended sentence on condition he leave the city at once and never return.”[8]

“No. 651 Fred Johnson,” Prisoners’ Record Book 1900-1905, Box 774-D-03, Vancouver Police Department Fonds, City of Vancouver Archives.

This practice was different from other North American cities where the preferred punishment for “vagrants” was to put them to work.[9] The high level of mobility afforded to people in Vancouver as residents of a city on the Salish Sea, linked to all major urban sites in the Pacific Northwest and beyond by ship or rail, afforded local police the opportunity to pass these misdemeanour offenders along rather than go through the trouble of incarcerating or deporting them. Once gone from the city, vagrants were no longer Vancouver’s problem.

Or so they believed.

Though Vancouver police and the courts attempted to use vagrancy charges and other modern police technologies to assert control of the city, their work remained perpetually incomplete. Arrestees deployed a range of strategies to skirt local authorities. They adopted aliases, skipped town and returned later, or, if they had cash at hand, posted bail and disappeared before their court date. Vancouver police jailed an American miner named “Thomas Daley,” or possibly “Bill Miner,” three months in a row for vagrancy in 1908.[10] Police imprisoned one “John Doe” for trial on the same day as Daley’s second vagrancy arrest. This man turned out to have three aliases, including “John Kelly,” a name Vancouver constables linked to a two-year grand larceny sentence in Walla Walla, Washington.[11] Kelly had clearly leveraged the ready availability of transit across the border and semi-anonymous status of white laboring men in the Pacific Northwest at the time to evade prosecution in the United States. Records of such aliases, of course, belong only to those who were caught.

Only a large and well-equipped police force could keep Vancouver’s population in check, as the city’s chief constable saw it. “The Police Force of the City has not been kept at a standard of efficiency commensurate with the City’s growth,” lamented Chief Constable R.G. Chamberlain in his annual report to the Board of Police Commissioners for 1908. He would need twenty more constables in 1909.[12]

Ah Wah and James “Goldie” Gordon, arrested 1900. Prisoner’s Record Book 1898-1900, Box 774-H-01, Vancouver Police Department Fonds, City of Vancouver Archives.


Fred W. Moll and James Kelly, arrested 1901. Prisoners’ Record Book 1898-1900, Box 774-H-01, Vancouver Police Department Fonds, City of Vancouver Archives.

Featured image (at top): Vancouver waterfront by C. Stenersen courtesy of flickr.

MH-photoMadison Heslop is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Washington. Her work concerns urban waterfronts and the entangled histories of Seattle, Washington, and Vancouver, British Columbia, in the early twentieth century.

[1] Lissa Wadewitz, The Nature of Borders: Salmon, Boundaries, and Bandits on the Salish Sea (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012); Kornel S. Chang, Pacific Connections: The Making of the U.S.-Canadian Borderlands (Berkely: University of California Press, 2012).

[2] Norbert MacDonald, “Seattle, Vancouver, and the Klondike,” Canadian Historical Review, vol. 49, no. 3 (September 1968): 234-246.

[3] “Railway Management,” New York Times, 13 May 1887.

[4] Kelly Lytle Hernandez, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017); Genevieve Carpio, Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019).

[5] W.C. Nichol, “Police Arrests,” The Daily Province (Vancouver), 20 April 1912.

[6] The Criminal Code of Canada and the Canada Evidence Act as Amended to Date, 3rd ed. (Toronto: Carswell, 1910), 250-251; “By-law no. 2: a by-law to restrain and punish vagrants and other disorderly persons” (25 May 1886), City by-laws, City of Vancouver fonds, City of Vancouver Archives, COV-S36, Box 029-A-01 fld 02.

[7] Criminal Code, 256.

[8] “No. 651 Fred Johnson,” Prisoners’ Record Book 1900-1905, Box 774-D-03, Vancouver Police Department Fonds, City of Vancouver Archives.

[9] David Bright, “Loafers Are Not Going to Subsist upon Public Credulence: Vagrancy and the Law in Calgary, 1900–1914.” Labour/Le Travail 36 (1995), 52–58; Kelly Lytle Hernández, “Hobos in Heaven: Race, Incarceration, and the Rise of Los Angeles, 1880-1910,” Pacific Historical Review, vol 83, no 3 (2014), 413-415; Jim Phillips, “Poverty, Unemployment, and the Administration of the Criminal Law: Vagrancy Laws in Halifax, 1864-1890,” Essays in the History of Canadian Law, Philip Girard and Jim Phillips (eds.) (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012): 131, 144-153; James Pistula, “The Treatment of Tramps in Late Nineteenth Century Toronto,” Historical Papers 15:1 (1980), 124-132.

[10] “No. 832 Thomas Daley,” Prisoners’ Record Book, 1905-1907, Box 076-C-02, Vancouver Police Department Fonds, City of Vancouver Archives.

[11] “No. 834 John Doe,” Prisoners’ Record Book, 1905-1907, Box 076-C-02, Vancouver Police Department Fonds, City of Vancouver Archives.

[12] R.G. Chamberlin, Annual Report of the Chief Constable of the City of Vancouver for the Year 1908 (Vancouver: A.H. Timms, 1909), 4-5.

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