is Free-thought, Humanism, & Secularism, History Month, so I thought it would be cool to highlight a Canadian atheist from our history. Meet Joe Beef.
Early days and coming to Canada
Charles McKiernan was born in Cavan County, Ireland. Given the time and place, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that he was born into a Catholic family.
Things were tough in Ireland during McKiernan’s youth – the Great Famine, for example, struck between and – so McKiernan joined the British Army young, and was assigned to the 10th Brigade of the Royal Artillery. He served in the Crimean War (–) as a quartermaster. There he earned life-long reputation as a man who – even in the worst circumstances – could always find a way to provide those he felt responsible for with a meal. It was said he had an
almost spooky knack [for] somehow finding meat and provisions whenever his regiment was low on food. That reputation earned him the nickname “Joe Beef”.
As the American Civil War (–) was winding down, concern was rising that a newly reunited United States might continue their “Manifest Destiny” push… up into the Province of Canada. So McKiernan’s regiment was sent to Québec to reinforce the British forces there. (There is some uncertainty about that, though. He may have arrived first in Halifax .) McKiernan ended up in charge of the military canteen first at the Québec barracks, then later on Île Sainte-Hélène.
McKiernan apparently ended up liking Montréal. Sometime he married Margaret McRea, and he purchased his discharge, and with his wife and children, settled in the city. (I believe another motivating factor may have been that the 10th Brigade was being shipped to Malta, though I cannot confirm this.)
Joe Beef’s Canteen
At the time, one of the most popular business opportunities in Montréal was running a tavern – it was a city where 1 in every 150 people had a liquor licence – and that was right up McKiernan’s alley. Due to his military service, he was also exempt from having to purchase a pricey innkeeper’s licence. (His permission, however, apparently did not extend to a liquor licence, so McKiernan was technically breaking the law by serving alcohol. Either no-one noticed, or he was allowed to get away with it for reasons that will become clear.)
McKiernan opened a tavern in an excellent location on Rue Saint-Claude. I am not sure exactly where it was located or even if the building still exists, but I believe it was located at the corner of Rue Saint-Claude and Rue Saint-Paul Est. That would have put it directly across the street from the Marché Bonsecours (which would have been relatively recently opened ), and a stone’s throw from the port, with a number of factories nearby.
The tavern’s official name was the “Crown and Sceptre”. But everyone would come to know it just as “Joe Beef’s Canteen”.
Right from the start, Joe Beef’s tavern was different. If you had the coin, you could enjoy a full meal with
great lashings of beef, bread, and tea –
beef with onions, bread, butter, and tea with sugar, all for ten cents. If money was tight, you could get yourself a meal that was less extravagant, but still filling and healthy. But even if you were completely broke, you could still count on a meal at Joe Beef’s. Nobody went hungry at Joe Beef’s.
The poor, low-class factory and dock workers of the area, beggars, odd-job men, and social outcasts figured that out very quickly. Between noon and 1 o’clock every day, hundreds of them showed up at Joe Beef’s door looking for a meal.
And the food was actually good! And there was a lot of it:
[h]e required 200 pounds of meat and 300 pounds of bread a day to satisfy [the] crowd. McKiernan actually owned a farm that helped supply the meat, and every day he’d send out his people to buy up all the day-old bread they could get their hands on (any bread unfit for human consumption was fed to his pets). And his clientele were hungry – many of them were hard workers with barely two coins to scrape together, and thus perpetually undernourished.
[T]hey threw themselves on the meat like wild animals and, from 1876 to 1884, there were seven recorded cases of asphyxia, three fatal, caused by eating far too quickly.
Joe Beef’s also provided dirt-cheap lodging. The first building housed 40 beds (actually, converted wooden sofas) in a military barracks-like arrangement, and 20¢ would get you a meal and bed for the night. But of course, as always, if you couldn’t even manage 20¢, you could still count on a meal and bed for free. And McKiernan ran the place much like a barracks: boarders were required to submit to a cleanliness inspection, and if they failed it, they would be forced to shave, bathe, and possibly submit to delousing powder that McKiernan kept in a huge pepper pot. Everyone had to sleep naked – because McKiernan said it was cheaper
to burn more coal than to pay for washing the blankets – but you could rent a blanket for 10¢. No talking was allowed after 11 PM, and everyone was roused at 7 AM sharp for a breakfast of herring and brown bread.
Later, when Rue Saint-Claude was being widened , McKiernan took the opportunity to move to a larger location. It was at the corner of Rue de la Commune Ouest and Rue de Callière, less than a kilometre away – so he retained the same patronage, mostly. But it had room for 200 bunks. That building still exists today, slightly remodeled.
Despite McKiernan’s strict rules, many people still preferred his lodging over the church-provided offerings nearby. (Keep in mind, too, that
[t]hree-quarters of the tavern’s boarders were boys between the ages of 12 and 14 who earned their living selling newspapers. McKiernan’s strict hand in running the place probably went a good deal farther keeping them safe from abuse than most alternatives.)
The food was good, and despite the colourful clientele, the place was surprisingly sanitary… by Victorian standards. I’ve already mentioned how McKiernan would enforce hygiene among those who stayed at in his bunks, but every day he aired out the canteen and scattered a mix of sawdust and lime chloride on the floors – after sweeping them clean first.
Joe Beef’s also served as a sort of emergency walk-in clinic in the days before socialized medicine. Injured workers would be brought to the canteen to recover, but unfortunately, the uneducated McKiernan was no doctor, and his “treatments” were mostly Victorian folk remedies involving things like vinegar, pepper, and whiskey. McKiernan was keenly aware of his ignorance, and actually stated an intention to get medical training. He also offered $100 to Montréal General Hospital to provide a doctor to tend to the poor in their homes – the hospital declined, so McKeirnan was forced to act as an emergency clinic regardless, though he raised and donated hundreds of dollars to the hospital anyway.
Joe Beef’s was known for being a loud and rowdy place, with plenty of entertainment. McKiernan hired a musician (in violation of his licence), and let patrons play the piano on occasion. There was billiards to play, and McKiernan’s zoo (more on the zoo later) to entertain patrons, (there were also accusations of prostitution, because McKiernan’s landlord was infamous for being involved in that trade, but the accusations that McKiernan himself was involved could just be part of the general muck-racking against him) but McKiernan himself was one of the more popular sources of entertainment, telling tall tales and bawdy stories in colourful rhyme using the props at the bar.
Working man’s hero
If he were just a charitable and colourful canteen owner, Charles McKiernan wouldn’t have the reputation he does.
McKiernan stood up for the lower-class of Montréal in a way no one else seemed willing or able to. At the time there was a push by Church-led authorities and middle- and upper-class “gentlefolk” to clean up the riffraff of the lower classes, who they felt had not adapted to the “cleaner” modern era of automated factory work. They lower classes were not only looked down on, they were openly characterized in public discourse as almost near-vermin, subhuman animals, in dire need of firm Christian guidance or a policeman’s truncheon to set them straight. This was the era of the industrialist robber baron, were low-class workers existed only to be cheaply exploited, then thrown aside like garbage.
McKiernan’s most famous effort in support of labour rights began with a strike , by over 1,000 Irish and French labourers who had been working to enlarge the Canal de Lachine. Already being screwed by “store payments” (where the company would pay you not in cash but in company scrip that you could only use at the company store, usually with significantly lower value), the workers walked off the job when their salaries were cut. There was violence – strike leader Lucien Pacquette was shot (he survived) – and the Prince of Wales Rifles were called in to keep the peace… but, really, to break the strike by intimidating and suppressing the strikers. Montréalers generally agreed that the working conditions were intolerable, but nonetheless did not support the strikers, because they felt that they should have found a less disruptive way to deal with the problem.
Joe Beef’s naturally came to serve as the headquarters of the strike, if only because most of the strikers ate and slept there (especially while on strike, and thus, broke because they were not getting their wages). But McKiernan himself soon got involved. Not only was he feeding, treating, and sheltering the striking workers – at one point he had 300 people at his inn – he upset the entire balance of power between the workers and company. While the company officers were hoping to starve the strikers out, McKiernan started
carting loaves and making good, rich soup in mammoth boilers, as if he were a commissary-general with the resources of an army at his back. Over the nine days of the strike, he delivered 3,000 loaves of bread and 500 gallons of soup – on one day alone, , he sent two wagon loads of food –
300 loaves of bread, 36 gallons of tea, and a similar quantity of soup – to the workers at the strike.
But that’s not all. Remember, McKiernan was a former soldier himself. He understood the difficult position the Prince of Wales Rifles were forced to be in, so he sent a wagon full of food to the soldiers, too! The soldiers, for their part, found this amusing, and ended up giving most of the bread to the strikers. Thus, the tension in the stand-off was released.
But that’s still not all McKiernan did. He stood up and made a speech to over 2,000 people, promising them that they would find justice, but beseeching them not to be violent, all in his unique style of colourful rhyme and broad humour. It energized the strikers, and drew loud applause.
But even that isn’t all! McKiernan also financed a delegation of workers to Ottawa – the Canal was a federal project – to appeal to directly then Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie. That put a lot of pressure on Mackenzie; the Canal project was an election promise, and another election was coming up (Mackenzie would go on to lose), and public support was swinging toward the workers. On the other hand, like most politicians he was in the pocket of big money, like those in charge of the Canal project.
I wish I could say it all worked out for the workers, but the cold reality is that even with McKiernan’s support, they simply couldn’t afford to stay on strike indefinitely in the dead of winter. They went back to work, having gained nothing, after just over a week.
But it wasn’t over. McKiernan continued to support their efforts, and eventually Mackenzie – while pointedly not “giving in” to the workers’ pressure – started an investigation into the project, and “discovered” the widespread use of store payments. The workers started getting paid real money, and after conditions became publicly decried, things improved a little. It was a small victory, but it really meant a lot. And it sent a signal that the low-class workers of the waterfront could be a dangerous force to be reckoned with, should they organize. And Charles McKiernan was a man who could organize them.
McKiernan repeated his efforts in later labour battles, such as an cotton mill strike. But while these efforts made him a hero of the working class, they deepened the divide with the middle- and upper-classes, who fretted that a strengthened and politically woke proletariat could threaten the social order.
Every good story needs a villain, and this story’s villain was named John Dougall.
John Dougall (–) was a Scottish cloth merchant who immigrated to Canada . His main legacy comes not from his family’s business, but rather from his propensity to found newspapers: the Montreal Witness , and later the New York Daily Witness in and the New York Weekly Witness. Of these, the Montreal Witness was the most successful, running until .
The “witness” in the paper’s name comes not from the notion of being an objective observer of society, but rather from the religious notion of preaching personal testimony. You see, the purpose of the Montreal Witness was explicitly evangelical in nature. From Dougall’s own words in its first edition, explaining its purpose:
The want of a general Religious and Literary Newspaper, devoted to the best interests of the people, temporal as well as spiritual, being extensively felt in Canada : the undersigned [Dougall], with the assistance of literary friends of various Evangelical denominations, has been induced to undertake the publication of such a paper.
Dougall really bought in to the “temperance movement” (which would later inspire Prohibition in the States), which put him very squarely on the side of the religious, “decent”, middle- and upper-class types… and very much the enemy of the free-wheeling lower-class and the bar-on-every-corner culture of Montréal. He was also Protestant, so the paper was also anti-Catholic.
Dougall made an enemy out of McKiernan right from the start, as early as . Victorian journalism was often extreme in its language and characterizations, sometimes to the point of absurd stridency. He called Joe Beef’s a
den of perdition, and McKiernan in particular was a
hunter for the souls of men. He also refused, in all his Christian love, to publish a notice of Margaret McRae’s death .
His beef with Joe might have become personal after an incident . Dougall fired six of his printers for belonging to the International Typographers’ Union… and McKiernan fought in support of the printers.
But even without that trigger, Charles McKiernan was a natural enemy for John Dougall. Dougall was an “upstanding” Christian of the upper class with literary elitist pretensions, and a stern proponent of Calvinist values and temperance doctrine. Charles McKiernan, by contrast, ran a rowdy tavern and inn frequented by the dregs of society, spoke in rhyme that mangled the English language, and openly mocked and disdained religious righteousness.
For years, Dougall ranted and raged about McKiernan in his paper, with a tone so strident and nasty it would shock modern sensibilities for public discourse. He hounded McKiernan every chance he got. , a man named John Kerr took a day off work, and drank himself to death. Kerr had been a regular patron of Joe Beef’s, so McKiernan was interviewed as part of the Coroner’s inquest. In the interview, McKiernan described how problematic drunks were handled at Joe Beef’s:
We never club them; you know you can squeeze a man to make him do what you want, without beating him. He insisted that customers were always treated well and always in good health. However, if a customer got rowdy, McKiernan would not call the cops – this would almost certainly lead to the customer getting beaten, and possibly arrested, and being jailed for even a day could be devastating for day-labourers. Instead, McKiernan put them in a room under the bar to sleep it off. Dougall spun it this way:
What an empire within an empire is this, where law is administered and Her Majesty’s peace kept without expense to Her Majesty. How joyfully should Government renew the licence of this carer of the poor, who can squeeze a man even to the last cent he wants, even to go uncomplainingly to prison, or to working for him all day with the now shovel he provides, and bringing home his earning daily and nightly to hand over the counter for the poison which is his real pay.
His tactic didn’t work; the Coroner’s inquest didn’t see anything wrong with what McKiernan was doing, and did not revoke his licence.
For all the harassment, McKiernan gave a sum total of zero fucks about Dougall’s crusade, and cheerfully mocked him even in print. In one example from :
Bitter beer I will always drink,
and Bitter Beer I will always draw
and for John and his song singing
Ranters never care a straw.
That went on for years, until , the Witness ran a story claiming that McKiernan had
pitched a person out of a low rum hole, breaking his arm.
That was it. That was the limit of what McKiernan could stand: Dougall could write whatever scurrilous ranting he wanted about McKiernan himself… but damned if he would allow Dougall to spread the lie that McKiernan wouldn’t treat one of his patrons – no matter how low-class they may have been – with dignity. He sued Dougall and the Witness for libel.
The court case was a mockery of justice. It turned out that the Witness reporter had only heard the story from a police sergeant, who had in turn only heard the story from a casual visitor. The reporter hadn’t even bothered to check the story. Meanwhile, McKiernan trotted out a parade of low-class workers and transients who all testified that Joe Beef would never do such a thing. The Witness’s case eventually hung on the word of ship’s captains and the police, saying that Joe Beef’s was a scummy place. On the other hand, McKiernan had witnesses who had been present on the night in question, who testified the incident never occurred.
Despite all this, Chief Justice Antoine-Aimé Dorion told the jury that
99 out of 100 people would have characterized Joe Beef’s as the Witness had done, and urged [them] to find Dougall not guilty.
The jury deliberated for an hour, then returned… with a guilty verdict for Dougall.
In response, the judge locked the jury up for the night to
concentrate their minds. The next day, the jury came back with the answer he wanted to hear, and the case was dismissed.
That incident made Dougall even more of a laughing stock on the waterfront. But at the same time, it pretty much gave him carte blanche to continue his campaign against McKiernan.
Thus far I’ve talked about how Charles McKiernan became a hero to the low-class dock and factory workers, transients, and down-and-outs of the Montréal waterfront, and how he became the great Satan to the upper- and middle-class temperance advocates, social reformers, and industry captains. That’s the legend, but who was the man himself?
Charles McKiernan – Joe Beef – was a big, tough man, hardened by years in the military that gave him the discipline and the iron will to keep control of his proverbial hive of scum and villainy. You might think, on reading of his fiery temper, that he was the type to lay a beat-down on rowdy patrons – and given the time and clientele, that would seem like an obvious conclusion; lower-class workers were seen by more “respectable” society and the police as little more than motile punching bags. Surprisingly, that wasn’t true at all; McKiernan not only made a point of not smacking his rough and tumble clientele around, it was a point of fierce pride for him that he didn’t – that he respected his patrons as people, with full dignity. (The same wasn’t necessarily true of his staff. It seems McKiernan was very much willing to lay a beat-down on staff that got drunk on the job, or otherwise failed in their duties.)
He was uneducated, but he seemed to have a genuine love of knowledge; he read voraciously, and was always keen to discuss, debate, and learn more. He had a quick wit, and could entertain his clientele for hours and hours, telling stories, jokes, opinions of current affairs – just about anything. Behind the bar he kept props for his story-telling, including a pair of skeletons, a bottle with a preserved hunk of beef one of his patrons had choked to death on, and more. The skeletons, for example, might become
the last of an unfortunate temperance lecturer who mistakenly strayed into Joe Beef’s Canteen one night.
It seems he was gifted speaker, able to rally thousands of protesters and convince them to keep the peace. He had a talent for speaking in rhymes for hours and hours on end, though to pull that off,
he distorted the accepted English pronunciation beyond recognition … [which] disgusted some middle-class visitors to the Canteen, but regular customers clearly enjoyed these feats of rhetoric.
McKiernan seems to have been remarkably tolerant for the era. He would serve anybody, and if they were too poor to pay, he would feed them for free:
I never refuse a meal to a poor man, no matter who he is, whether English, French, Irish, Negro, Indian, or what religion he belongs to, he’s sure to get a free meal at my place if he can’t afford to pay for it.
The only people he couldn’t stand were people who mistreated or looked down on the poor. He railed publicly against the police for abusing their authority (see, for example, the “Rules for Police Constables by Authority of Joe Beef.” at the bottom of the back side of this flyer), against clergy for preaching down to the poor while providing no real help (see the paragraph on the lower right of this flyer) or actively exploiting them (see the poem just above the previously mentioned paragraph), and against the courts for throwing people in jail on silly charges like drunkenness even though it would mean losing their pay and their families starving. Both this flyer and this flyer include a list of around 600 types of people Joe Beef will serve and the prices they will have to pay – all 5¢, regardless of the type of person – including:
Aristocratic Blackguards disguised as gentlemen
Bigoted, Bloody-minded Lunatics
Clergymen who sing like Angels, pray like Saints, and lie like Devils
Dominion warriors whose uniform hides their want of brains
Policemen who kick Women, knock Children about, smash poor People’s heads, take up Sober People, and wear they were drunk the next day
Respectable Hypocrites who cheat and rob the people six days, and go to church on the seventh
Temperance Preachers who neither drink beer, wine or water, but go for the poor Bricklayer’s daughter
Tract Distributors; and
Ungodly Men like Joe Beef
The list also slips in a few more hidden jabs, like:
Joe Beef pays his Laborers twice as much as the Prince of Wales.
McKiernan would tolerate preachers who seemed to respect the poor as people, and who seemed interested in offering them legitimate help. He would even allow people to preach in his canteen if they respected the patrons. Those who didn’t… well, they had a bad time of it. As an example, when the YMCA opened a reading room for the poor, McKiernan supported them… right up until there was a scuffle of some sorts in the reading room, and the YMCA called the police, who proceeded to arrest eight men for disturbing the peace. McKiernan’s response was:
Joe Beef never called on one policeman to arrest any of those men who frequent his place. If those eight had only been sent to him he would have given them work and food and sent them back better behaved.
Another example is the case of the preacher John Currie. Currie wandered into Joe Beef’s Canteen to preach to the patrons (it’s not certain whether he cleared this with McKiernan first), which was a risky venture on Currie’s part; if he fell afoul of McKiernan, he would likely have a bear or wolves set on him (yes, that actually happened to another preacher), or he might possibly simply be beaten up and tossed out (and possibly robbed) by the rough patrons. And when he started to preach, McKiernan heckled him – and did so quite cleverly by all accounts. But Currie must have demonstrated to McKiernan that he respected the clientele, because at some point, McKiernan stopped Currie abruptly and told his patrons that anyone who went to Currie’s services would get a dinner, a night’s lodging, and breakfast for free. Currie left the tavern with 65 new converts, and would continue to preach regularly at the canteen over the next seven months. He might have continued to do so too, but he left to do a preaching tour in the US, and in California learned of McKiernan’s sudden passing, much to his regret.
McKiernan seemed to have particular regard for the newly-formed Salvation Army at first, because of their military presentation (he also seems to have shared the same alma mater with Salvation Army founder William Booth, the Woolwich gunnery school). He even paid the Salvation Army band to play outside his canteen. But when a Salvation Army officer called the canteen
a notorious rendez-vous of the vicious and depraved, that was the end of that arrangement.
Shortly afterwards the band was arrested for disturbing the peace and McKiernan was suspected of being behind the complaint.
I’ve searched, but have been unable to find a definitive first-hand account of McKiernan’s religious beliefs. Everyone takes it for granted that he was an atheist – and everything McKiernan wrote sure seems to support that conclusion – but I can’t find any instance of him identifying himself as an atheist. That’s hardly surprising, because it wouldn’t have been the term in use at the time. “Humanist” was very recently minted, so it’s not surprising that McKiernan didn’t use it, even if it might have been appropriate. The term of art was “freethinker”, and McKiernan did use it… but I can’t find a definitive example of him saying flat-out in a non-sarcastic context that he actually was a freethinker. He implies he was a freethinker many times, but it’s hard to tell how serious he was, because he was a bit of a prankster. In , he actually convinced the census that he was practising Baptist.
Margaret McRea passed in , and McKiernan arranged a spectacular funeral procession in her honour. Because he still retained his military post at that time, he was able to use a military brass band, and he had a number of peculiar animals from his menagerie (see below) lead the procession. On the march to the cemetery, the band played the funeral march from Handel’s Saul… but on the march back, McKiernan scandalized genteel Montréal society when he had the band play an old military tune called “The Girl I Left Behind Me”. The epitaph that he had engraved on her tombstone, later reprinted in The New York Times, eschews all religious imagery, and only asks that the family be buried together:
Here I lie at rest
With my darling babe upon my breast,
Free from all earthly care
I leave a husband and four orphan babes,
To mourn their mother’s loss
Who will never return;
But let that tree, which you see,
Be the tree of liberty,
And in its stead never let the tree of bigotry
Be planted between them and me,
For when they die,
Here I wish them all to lie;
It’s a mother’s prayer,
For they were once a mother’s care.
McKiernan married Margaret’s sister Mary a few months later, .
So you’ll have to judge for yourself what McKiernan might have actually believed. But he included this parable in the flyer promoting his canteen (I’m not certain if McKiernan wrote this himself, but it certainly does have his colourful rhyming style):
The Evangelist wants the poor hungry man to pray, what the poor hungry man did say.
Sir, says he. In that Church or that Bible you never trusted. With good old roast and port the buttons of your coat are getting bursted. You are fat and strong. Your hair is long. My feet are sore. My pants are tore. My knees are bended with cold and hunger. My days are nearly ended. Last week in the Young Men’s Christian Association Reading Room I prayed early, I prayed late. I wore out my knee caps until my back stuck to the seat, and all I got was tracts for to eat. Here I am a poor Navie that is starving whilst Bishops, Priests, and pudding-headed Parsons their roast beef and turkeys are carving. On the Railroads they call me “Black Bill.” If I had only five cents I could hopd up my head instead of a Soup Kitchen my face getting red. I could go down among God’s own people. I could sit and eat my fill in Joe Beef’s Canteen at the bottom of the hill.
I want to be clear: McKiernan was not a perfect hero. By Victorian standards, he was way ahead of the curve; he was remarkably progressive, standing up not only for the poor, but also for people of marginalized nationalities and races, and even women (which was a bit off-script for Joe Beef’s, because it wasn’t really a place for women). But he was also casually racist in the standard Victorian way. His most problematic element, however, was his treatment of animals.
There were many things that made Joe Beef’s Canteen (in)famous among the many taverns in Montréal at the time, but one of the more (in)famous was his menagerie. McKiernan bought a number of animals from trappers and sailors including:
a buffalo, bears, wolves, foxes, and wild cats;
ten monkeys, three wild cats, a porcupine, by one account an alligator and, most famously, a number of alcoholic black bears; and also
Unfortunately, these animals were not well-treated. The parrots, for example were described as
almost as devoid of feathers as a broiled chicken. The bears were
mangy, dirty, and listless. They were mostly kept in a basement under the bar, where the patrons could view them through a trap door.
And the animals were beaten and coaxed to fight for the entertainment of patrons. On at least one occasion, McKiernan apparently sicced them on a preacher who came to his canteen and pissed him off, and they chased the preacher around the canteen to the amusement of the onlookers.
The bears were particularly famous. One was named “Jenny Dougall” as a parody of John Dougall (pictured above), but the most famous was Tom. Tom was a black bear that McKiernan would bring up and feed beer to. The bear would sit with a mug in its paws and drink up 20 pints a day.
McKiernan never attracted any real criticism for his menagerie or the way he treated them. On the contrary, as I mentioned, they were quite a popular attraction. The Montréal Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals did exist, but they were still newly-formed, and they were far too busy at first focusing on the treatment of farm animals and carriage horses. Had Joe lived another ten or twenty years, things might have changed enough that his menagerie would no longer have been socially acceptable.
The end of Joe Beef
McKiernan died of a heart attack at the age of 54, fittingly at the bar of the canteen that he’d poured his heart into.
The Daily Witness simply couldn’t wait to show its Christian love and charity. (By this time, the editor was no longer John Dougall himself, but rather Dougall’s son John Redpath.) Buried on page 4 – in the crime section, not the obituaries – of the was this:
Joe Beef is Dead,
For twenty-five years he has enjoyed in his own way the reputation for being for Montreal what was in former days known under the pet sobriquet of wickedest man. His saloon, where men consorted with unclean beasts, was probably the most disgustingly dirty in the country. It has been the bottom of the sink of which the Windsor bar and others like it are the receivers. The only step further was to be found murdered on the wharf or dragged out of the gutter, or the river, as might happen. It was the resort of the most degraded of men. It was the bottom of the pit, a sort of cul de sac, in which thieves could be coralled. The police declared it valuable to them as a place where these latter could be run down. It has been actively at work over all that time for the brutalizing of youth, a work which was carried on with the utmost diligence by its, in that sense, talented proprietor. The excuse just mentioned for tolerating it and licensing it annually in the Queen’s name is surely an unspeakable disgrace. Worse than this, under the principles of our present Government, this destructive resort will be held to a have a goodwill, whatever that word may mean with regard to embruting young men, and claims will be made for a continuance of this license from Her Majesty to carry on this trade on condition of sharing the gains with Her Majesty to the extent of two hundred dollars.
But Joe Beef scored one final victory against the Witness.
You see, it turns out that while there was
hardly a kind word written about him in his lifetime, that wasn’t because the journalists themselves hated him. On the contrary, McKiernan was very popular among reporters – both in the English and French press – many of whom were regulars at his canteen. (It was a great place to pick up on news that one would normally never hear of when hanging around more “genteel” folk.) They may have written about him quite scurrilously and sensationally, but that was just to satisfy the demand of middle- and upper-class Victorian readers’ sensibilities. Local business owners were also quite friendly with McKiernan – he was a rather valuable customer of many, what with the needs of his canteen to serve so many every day, and his efforts to better the lot of the poor meant they had more money to spend other places. And of course, the poor themselves loved him.
So when Joe Beef’s funeral procession started , something amazing happened.
People from all walks of life gathered for a last glimpse of McKiernan’s coffin. Business owners, workers of all classes, and
[a]ll the luckless outcasts to whom the innkeeper-philanthropist had so often extended a helping hand lined the streets. Fifty labour unions walked off the job. Local businesses in the area closed. The funeral procession led by a four-horse carriage stretched for several blocks. The French language paper La minerve described it as the most impressive funeral Montréal had seen in decades.
I wish I could say that after his passing, McKiernan’s legacy survived in some worthy form. Alas, almost immediately, without McKiernan around anymore, things just sort of decayed.
Many of the poorest customers who had depended on McKiernan’s generosity turned to crime. Just a few days after McKiernan’s death, a regular patron named Thomas Irwin was arrested for stealing a piece of flannel. In his defence, he stated:
There is no use for me trying to make my living now that poor old Joe is dead and gone. I must get a home somewhere in winter; won’t you admit that? Well, I stole to get a lodging.
The canteen itself survived for a few more years. But , it was bought by the Salvation Army, who reopened under the name “Joe Beef’s Converted”. To their credit, they did continue to provide some of the social services McKiernan had, albeit now with a heaping side of religiosity. But their charity didn’t quite match the level of the legendary Joe Beef:
When Joe Beef kept this place he was a true friend to travelers, but you don’t get much out of these people except you pay for it.
The Salvation Army only ran it until , and then it became the “Star Tavern” until . It was later restored sometime in or , and then – in an even further insult to everything Joe Beef stood for – taken over by a religious Seafarer’s Centre.
Even McKiernan’s menagerie suffered a sad end. , his widow had the bears shot. She wanted to have them stuffed.
The legend lives on
Charles McKiernan – Joe Beef – was a complicated man, and assessing him is a complicated task. In some ways, he was an anachronism; a relic from the taverns of pre-industrial ages, which often served as community centres to the serf class. In other ways, he was leaps and bounds ahead of the society of the day, which was the apex of the era of industrial robber barons exploiting the working class.
It has to be stated that McKiernan was not a progressive in the modern sense. Quite the contrary, he was rather conservative. He targeted his ire at the people who abused and mistreated the poor – or who pretended to care for them, but in reality just exploited them in various ways – but he never really criticized the systems. He accepted that the Victorian class structure – with its stratification dividing “upper-class gentlemen” from the “lower-class labourer” – was normal; he merely demanded that the “gentlemen” walk the godly talk of integrity and charity they espoused, and that lower-class people be treated with the respect and dignity due to them as people. That might be considered progressive by Victorian standards, and its certainly humanistic.
If one can look past his faults – particularly his treatment of animals – Charles McKiernan’s legacy is that of a man who stood up for people that no-one else was willing to stand up for. He was a man who believed in the dignity of people that most of the rest of society saw as disposable resources when they didn’t see them as simply trash. He was a man who could not stand the hypocrisy of politicians and religious leaders who talked the talk of caring for everyone, but who either wouldn’t deliver, or would only help those who would kneel before their altars. He was a man who understood that people in need are not in need of salvation; all they need is a warm, filling meal, a clean bed to sleep in, and someone to treat them with dignity, friendship, and compassion.
I have searched for signs of Joe Beef’s legacy in Montréal. I haven’t visited since starting this article, so there are a number of things I haven’t been able to confirm for myself.
- I have not been able to confirm what the old location of Joe Beef’s canteen is like now, whether it’s currently being used, and if so by whom.
- I have not been able to confirm what some people have said, that there is not even a plaque at the location to commemorate Joe Beef.
- There is a Parc Joe-Beef in the Pointe-Saint-Charles region of Montréal. The Pointe-Saint-Charles region was apparently historically where the Irish working class congregated, which is fitting. The park contains a soccer field, a park, and a fire station on the same plot.
There is also a Joe Beef Restaurant specializing in steak and seafood just 3 km away from the old location of the canteen.
Charles “Joe Beef” McKiernan was a colourful, roguish Irish immigrant to Montréal in the late 19th century, who ran a tavern and in on the waterfront. McKiernan’s tavern catered in particular to the working class and poor at the height of the Technological Revolution (also called the “Second Industrial Revolution”), and the dawn of the labour rights movement. Reviled by polite society, McKiernan stood up for the poor and working class when no-one else would, feeding, housing, and treating them for free, and speaking out against the politicians and clergy who claimed to be helping the needy, but who were either not helping them at all or helping them only if they conformed to their religious rules.
Charles “Joe Beef” McKiernan was not a perfect man, but he was an outspoken freethinker, and proto-humanist, and he deserves recognition in Canadian secularist, humanist, atheist, and freethinker history.