Television

A look at the 1920s laws you may be breaking every day

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CBC's newest historical drama, Frankie Drake Mysteries, uncovers an important milestone in Canadian history: The role women played in Toronto's police force. In the first season we get to know morality officer, Mary Shaw, a powerful character filling the first and only position available to women in the 1920s. 

What is a morality officer?

Toronto's Morality Department was established in 1886 to "root out vice," ensure the "cleanliness of the city," and the protection of women and children.

"Their job was to enforce the morality of women," says Rebecca Liddiard, who plays Mary Shaw.

"They would measure skirts and hems, and hand out tickets to women who were walking unaccompanied at night."

In 1913, the Morality Department added the city's first two female officers. They patrolled parks, theatres, and dance halls – usually places young, single working-class women frequented. 

Women officers were valued for their "soft" approach to information gathering, monitoring the leisure activities of young women, and dealing with children and youth. 

By the late 1920s, the branch maintained a total of five female officers, while there were 1,000 male officers in the Toronto police force. In comparison, Vancouver Police's Morality Squad, formed in 1916, employed mostly women. 

You might hear from a morality officer if you're...

Dancing with a man who paid for your drink
A woman could be suspected of "assisted prostitution" by simply being out alone at night. If she danced with a man who paid for her drink, she would get a fine and a ticket. 

Flirting with the same sex

You could be charged with "gross indecency" or "buggery" for any acts that fall under a broad spectrum of male homosexual behaviour. This offence was repealed in 1988 and no longer exists today.

"Every male person is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to five years' imprisonment and to be whipped who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any acts of gross indecency with another male person."The Constable's Manual, 1916  

Working or participating in entertainment, commerce on a Sunday

In 1926 alone, almost 1,000 people were arrested in Toronto for violating these laws, according to the Toronto Public Library archives. In 1912, tobogganing in High Park on Sundays was prohibited and even streetcars were not allowed to run.     

Giving an immoral theatrical performance

This would see you charged with one year in prison, or a fine of $500, or both. Any literary, visual, or theatrical artist could be in trouble due to the vague definition of "obscenity" in the Canadian Criminal Code at the time. 

   

Other 1920s illegal acts                         

  • Drinking or being drunk in public
  • Being in an interracial relationship
  • Betting on table games: In 1922, it was made illegal to bet on shell games, punch cards, coin tables, and wheels of fortune.

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