Joe Beef is Montreal’s own brand of Robin Hood: he revolted the rich and got the poor good and liquored. While he is generally revered by those who still remember his name, he was reviled by many back in his day.
“Joe Beef is one of those despicable characters who, while they sell the vilest rum and keep places that disgrace a city, gain reputations for great charity and some goodness by giving to the poor some of their ill-gotten gains.” wrote a journalist with the New York Times, Aug 20th 1881.
What’s the real story? A little scratching at the surface and I have become captivated, pulled down into the dock-side underworld of Montreal circa 1870…
Charles McKiernan, aka Joe Beef, was born in Ireland in 1835 but found his way to Montreal as a soldier in the British army. In 1868, he bought his way out of the army and opened the Crown and Sceptre Tavern on St. Claude Street behind Marché Bonsecours.
The tavern was so popular that, when St-Claude street was widened in 1870, he sought larger quarters, settling a three-storey building located at 4, 5, and 6 Common Street (now 201-207 de la Commune). This institution commonly became known as Joe Beef’s Canteen, or as he purportedly called it, the “Great house of Vulgar People.”
The canteen was patronized by the working-class waterfront community: canal builders, longshoremen, sailors, unemployed men, and a number of other transient port-to-port types. It was also exactly the kind of grungy, colourful institution that tends to attract journalists, and Joe Beef’s exploits were often reported on in both the French and English newspapers. Although the tavern tends to be described in the media with disgust or alarm, this apparently did not deter journalists from from far and wide from visiting and reporting on the place and consequently many rich details have been preserved for posterity.
From the outside, the tavern was only marked by a dim light and a thick, animal odour. But inside the atmosphere was cahotic and jovial and Joe Beef’s was famous across North America for providing customers with a free meal – a pot of stew at lunchtime or bread, cheese and beef piled at one end of the bar in the evening.
“There was not a good coat, nor a hat in even moderate repair, in the entire company. Their garb was of the poorest, but it made no difference to their spirits — all hands were happy and contented. Upon a corner of the room, a stack of loaves of bread, piled, if not mountain-high, at least ceiling-high, attracted attention. Around this improvised pantry, the men stood or sat and ate heartily.” (Montreal by Gaslight, 1889)
Each day, the barman required 200 pounds of meat and 300 pounds of bread to feed the crowd, which he supplied from his farm in Longue-Pointe (now Hochelaga-Maisonneuve) and by buying up all the day-old bread in the city. Of course all of this food was washed down with beer – about 7,200 glasses served each week – sold at 5 cents apiece. The canteen’s sales figure was doubled by the sale of hard liquor (source: Globe, April 14 1876)
Joe Beef would hire musicians (although it was illegal under his hotel liquor licence), allow regulars to plunk away on the piano, or even entertain guests with his own poems in which he railed against the enemies of the working class – the Recorder (a legal authority), the landlord, the local employers and ministers – all in rhyming couplets.
Two human skeletons hung from the wall behind the bar and were used to punctuate the barman’s stories, sometimes pointed to as the remains of his first wife, another relative, or a patron who’d made the mistake of coming out in support of prohibition. Among the bottles of liquor behind the bar, there was a display of curios which were “too disgusting to look at, too indecent to describe.” These included a dead snake coiled a jar and a bit of preserved beef upon which a customer had purportedly choked to death. Between ’76 and ’84, three people choked to death while chowing down at the tavern.
However, the best-known creatures to populate Joe Beef’s Canteen were his wild menagerie which included ten monkeys, three wild cats, a porcupine, by one account an alligator and, most famously, a number of alcoholic black bears. One bear who went by the name of Tom is said to have consumed twenty pints of beer each night while sitting on his hind-quarters at the table like a patron on a chain.
Not to glorify this menagerie, the mangy animals were mostly kept in the cellar and viewed through a trap door. Two parrots also occupied a cage above the bar and were “almost as devoid of feathers as a broiled chicken.”
For patrons’ entertainment, the bears were beaten into a frenzy and then made to fight with Joe Beef’s dogs. One of the canteen’s bears was nicknamed Jenny Dougall after John Dougall, the editor of the Montreal Witness, a newspaper with a Christian bias. It is said that Joe Beef enjoyed beating this poor animal as a stand-in for the newspaperman who was on a crusade to damage the barman’s reputation.
At least one creature did get revenge for this ill treatment: on one occasion Joe Beef had a buffalo “on exhibit” which clashed with the barman and sent him to the hospital.
It wasn’t only the animals that were subjected to the occasional show of cruelty. Rowdy patrons would be forcefully thrown out of the place and both a musician and a servant employed by Joe Beef were beaten for drunkenness on the job.
Although Joe Beef was no saint, he did provide a sort of social safety net at a time when nothing of the kind was provided to those in need.
After the Canteen shut its doors at 11pm, the upper floors were opened to those men who were in need of a place to spend the night. Ten cents could get you one of the 200 beds in the dorms and even this small fee was waived for those who didn’t have a dime. Men were shaved, bathed, and sprinkled with insecticide before being permitted to lay down between the sheets and were made to sleep in the nude for reasons of cleanliness. At some point, three quarters of the beds were occupied by boys between the ages of 12 and 14 who earned a meagre living selling newspapers on the streets.
Since I began looking into the life and times of this legend, I have become serioulsy, perhaps even weirdly, enthralled with the character. It seems a single post on the matter will not suffice, so next Sunday I’ll be back with “Joe Beef as the champion of the waterfront workers…”
Where not otherwise indicated, the content of this post was from the following soruces: Joe Beef of Montreal: Working-Class Culture and the Tavern, 1869-1889, by Peter DeLottinville, 1981, in Labour/Le Travailleur (www.lltjournal.ca/index.php/llt/article/download/2632/3035); Montréal qui Disparait, by Clayton Gray, 1952, Librairie J.-A. Pony Ltée; and the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online (link).