Nova Scotia

Who was behind city hall's brazen booze heist after the Halifax Explosion?

In the hours and days immediately after the Halifax Explosion, confiscated alcohol went missing from city hall. The newspapers accused city officials and elected representatives of stealing the booze from the temperance act inspector. Here's what happened.

Newspapers pointed fingers at city officials after cases of liquor were stolen hours after disaster

This archival photo shows Halifax's city hall sometime before 1929. (102-1-88b, Halifax Municipal Archives)

Halifax's Evening Mail newspaper called it the "great burglary mystery."

In the hours and days after the Halifax Explosion, confiscated alcohol went missing from city hall. During this period the Nova Scotia Temperance Act was in  place meaning the province was mostly dry.

The newspapers of the day accused city officials and elected representatives of stealing the booze.

Following the Halifax Explosion on Dec. 6, 1917, city hall was the centre of activity.

City officials and elected representatives worked day and night to deal with the devastation and relief workers took over the building to coordinate aid and supplies.

They worked from damaged offices as the force of the blast had blown in windows and doors.

Liquor looters boost booze

Edwin Tracey, the province's Temperance Act inspector, returned to his office the morning after the explosion to find the glass on his door broken and the lock turned. Inside he found a case of booze missing and most of another case plundered.

Tracey assumed it had gone as medical supplies to the relief effort so he didn't report it to the mayor or police.

This sketch showing inside Halifax’s city hall was printed in the Jan. 10, 1918, edition of the Evening Mail. (102-5-1-88b, Halifax Municipal Archives)

But more break-ins followed and more booze disappeared.

The Evening Mail reported the "daring" burglars carried out their heist while police officers on guard at city hall were stationed "within sight and smell" of the liquor inspector's office. "Will the forty detectives and sleuth hounds be able to unravel this great 'mystery'?" the newspaper wondered. 

Aldermen accused

A special committee formed to investigate the accusations made after the theft of the booze questioned Tracey, Halifax's deputy mayor, city officials and elected councillors.

Many of the councillors and officials denied knowledge of the theft including alderman Harrison L Hart.

"I know nothing about it except what I saw in the paper," Hart said. "I think that the alderman and officials have been charged unjustly."

Much ado about something

Shirley Tillotson, a history professor at Dalhousie University, said popular support for prohibition explains why the booze boosting was such a big deal even in the aftermath of the disaster.

Many Nova Scotians believed the grains going into alcoholic beverages should instead be sent to feed the troops.

"People were upset because this [law was] difficult to enforce; prohibition legislation was being challenged," Tillotson told CBC.

"Law and order at the time was very fragile at this point and it didn't help that there was a law on the books that was being massively violated."

The resolution by Alderman H. E. MacNab asking the city to pursue action against the newspapers which questioned if the theft was an inside job. (102-1B-1918-01-10, Halifax Municipal Archives)

Unsolved mystery

Records about the booze heist are posted online on Halifax's website.

Board of Control minutes dated Feb. 21, 1918 indicate it was deemed unnecessary to proceed further with the investigation. A report from the mayor found that the accusations were groundless.

While prohibition is long gone, alcohol is still not permitted at city hall — illicitly or otherwise.