History Lessons from the Toronto Mob Targeting a 19th-Century Gay Icon
Toronto statue of Alexander Wood (1772-1844), created in 2005 by sculptor Del Newbigging.

History Lessons from the Toronto Mob Targeting a 19th-Century Gay Icon

Allan Stratton
Allan Stratton
15 min read

In 1793, Alexander Wood emigrated from Scotland to Upper Canada at the age of 21. Within seven years, he had become one of the most successful merchants in York (which eventually would grow into Toronto), a lieutenant in its militia, and a magistrate. He would eventually serve as an acting director of the Bank of Upper Canada, and do good deeds whose effect were felt well beyond the city—such as assisting Ojibwe Chief Shingwaukonse, who’d snowshoed the 700 kilometres from Sault Ste. Marie to get funding for what would become St. John’s Mission to the Ojibway.

But Wood’s legacy would be defined by a scandal that took place in 1810. The 38-year old bachelor, in his capacity as magistrate, separately told several young soldiers that one Miss Bailey had reported being raped. She couldn’t identify her assailant beyond his military uniform, but remembered that she had scratched his genitals during the attack. To clear their names, the men dropped their pants for Wood’s inspection. All were deemed innocent by this test, and the attacker was never found.

Word spread about Wood’s investigation. Despite the fact he’d never before been accused of any impropriety, the man was a “lifelong bachelor,” and a rumour circulated that he’d invented “Miss Bailey” as an excuse to molest the soldiers. Even when pressed, he refused to divulge her real name, on the basis that he sought to protect her honour. If it is hard for a rape victim to come forward today, one can imagine how difficult it was in 1810.

His soon-to-be-former friend, Judge William Dummer Powell, demanded an explanation. By way of reply, Wood wrote: “I have laid myself open to ridicule & malevolence, which I know not how to meet; that the thing will be made the subject of mirth and a handle to my enemies for a sneer I have every reason to expect.” This could be read either as an admission of guilt, or of poor judgement for having chosen to conduct an investigation in the first place.

William Dummer Powell (1755-1834)

(It should be said that recent sexual-assault cases also have given reasonable cause for the examination of male genitals—notably, Paula Jones’s suit against Bill Clinton. In that case, Clinton’s lawyer got sworn statements from three doctors that the presidential member had no “abnormalities in terms of size, shape, direction,” the latter point confirmed under oath by Monica Lewinsky. Recently, a police detective in Virginia got two controversial search warrants to obtain photos of the erect penis of a 17-year-old to match them to the photos the teen had allegedly sexted his 15-year-old girlfriend.)

Wood’s business dried up. He was publicly mocked as “the Inspector General of private Accounts” and was called Molly Wood, “Molly” being a 19th-century equivalent to “faggot.” He also faced an investigation into abuse of power, which could have sent him to jail. Judge Powell, who’d turned on him with a vengeance, made Wood’s problem go away on the condition that he go away with it. An investigation would have embarrassed Powell, due to his long association with the supposed molly.

Wood returned to Scotland, his life’s second act having ended in disgrace, but came back two years later to fight in the War of 1812 (the first war the United States lost, contrary to what is often said about Vietnam). Judge Powell took the occasion to publish a pamphlet resurrecting the scandal. Wood sued for libel and won damages—an extraordinary result given that Powell was one of the most powerful men in Upper Canada. By this reversal of fortune, Wood’s court victory implicitly cleared him of the “Miss Bailey” accusations, whereas Powell’s extraordinary exertions against him raised questions about the judge’s reliability. Happily ever after, Wood was welcomed into Toronto’s most respected homes and back onto its charity boards.

So ends what might appear to be a three-act tale—until the curtain opened again more than a century later, amid the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s and 90s, which forced gays out of the closet and into the streets. The knowledge that many of their own siblings and children were gay gave the public at large a stake in fighting the legal and social persecution of homosexuals (as they were then commonly described). By the turn of the century, most of the Western world had enshrined civil and human rights for its sexual minorities; even marriage and adoption rights were on the table.

Such a historic triumph required commemoration. And what better way to do so than with a statue in the public square. And who better, in Toronto, to commemorate than Alexander Wood? To stick the landing, Wood’s old property, nicknamed Molly Wood’s Bush, happened to lie in the middle of the city’s Gay Village, centered at Church Street and Wellesley Avenue.

“Alexander Wood was philanthropic, he fought in the war of 1812, was the treasurer for all the charitable societies of the day, plus a staunch member of the church. These are big things that connect him to us. As a gay hero, we have found our man,” according to Dennis O’Connor, chair of the local business association that launched the drive to celebrate Wood with a statue (and which split the statue’s $200,000 cost with the city of Toronto): “We’re creating a footprint on the street to make sure some of our history is kept alive. This history isn’t taught at schools. Our gay youth need to see our heroes and our past.”

The statue of Wood, created by renowned Canadian sculptor Del Newbigging and unveiled in 2005, was unique. While there’d been statues memorializing gays murdered in Nazi concentration camps, as well as plenty of historical figures whose LGBT status was incidental to their legacy (such as Leonardo da Vinci, Eleanor Roosevelt, Alexander the Great, and Florence Nightingale), this was believed to be the first dedicated specifically to an individual now known primarily for his apparent sexual identity (albeit one he had no choice but to deny). It was international news.

Moreover, the statue was every bit as grand as those honouring the many straight, dead muckety-mucks, which already graced our parks and legislative buildings. A monumental eight-foot solid bronze foundry piece mounted on a five-foot granite plinth, it made a real statement. The message to, and from, the LGBT community, was clear: We’ve arrived, and we aren’t going away.

Given Wood’s legal victory, Newbigging might have portrayed him as an innocent gay man victimized by rumours based on his sexuality. He also could have found a way to present him as a champion of women’s rights, who’d believed a woman’s allegations of rape, and who’d stood by her at great personal cost. Instead, his design leaned into the scandal. He made Wood (whose actual appearance isn’t definitively known) into a flamboyant hunk with a serious bulge, and he added a playful cartoon plaque to the base in which a leering Wood is about to squeeze butt in what is made out to be a lascivious joke.

The community was delighted. But not Carl Benn, chief curator of the City of Toronto Museum and Heritage Services. He thought that commemorating the scandal was “something of a dodgy affair,” and feared a civic backlash since Wood could be considered “an older, well-connected male in a position of authority who used his power to victimize a number of younger, disenfranchised, and vulnerable males,” a special problem “given the traumas associated with [Indigenous] residential school[s]” (whose tragic legacy was already a matter of public record). Benn suggested dropping all reference to the scandal and Wood’s sexuality.

Everyone was outraged. Wood’s sexuality was the entire point. And surely it was obscene to compare his alleged groping of a few adult soldiers with the abhorrent predation of pedophiles on generations of trapped Indigenous children at residential schools. Who cared if Wood’s behaviour offended straight Torontonians, when gay men were beaten and murdered for less? Newbigging told the city it should “not fall into the trap…of cleaning up or eliminating” gay history to avoid offending straight sensibilities. O’Connor was equally impassioned: The statue was meant for the community, whose members had a right to self-determination, especially after centuries of straight attacks on our sexuality. In the face of unified LGBT+ support, the city backed off, perhaps fearing accusations of homophobia if it didn’t.

So up went the statue. At the unveiling, O’Connor spoke of its universal significance: “This statue—this giant, bronze gay man—is important not only to the lesbian and gay community. It’s a symbol for any minority community that has struggled and fought to be accepted for their place and home in our city.”

Kristyn Wong-Tam, an immigrant lesbian (now a long-serving city councillor), and another member of the three-person committee that had overseen the statue’s installation, summed up the celebratory mood: “Canada’s only monument to a gay pioneer will forever stand proudly over the Church and Wellesley Village.” Thus ended the feel-good fourth—and surely final—act of the story of Alexander Wood.

Alas, history was not done with the man, whose story, defined by triumph, disgrace, vindication, and celebration would now enter a fifth act that can only be described as ironic farce.

Flash forward 16 years to 2021. Instead of being united in the common fight against bigotry, the LGBT community is now divided by success. Assimilationists like myself believe that having achieved marriage and civil-rights protections, we should shift our focus to helping LGBT communities in countries where the situation remains tenuous or dire. But radical activists informed by gender theory insist we’re in a permanent fight to “queer” this or that space as a means to overturn “cis-heteronormative” forms of “oppression.” Meanwhile, ever multiplying subgroups within the LGBT+ acronym (including a few that were never within it) demand their own letter in the acronym and even their own Pride flag.

As a result, the idea that any individual could ever represent the community, much less a “cis” (i.e., non-transgender) white, gay man, is now anathema. Indeed, white, gay men are viewed as out-and-out oppressors within intersectional Alphabet circles, notwithstanding the centuries of deadly abuse and institutionalized malice we’ve sustained throughout history.

Wood’s status as a “pioneer,” once a selling point, is another a mark of Cain, as it connotes his status as a literal Settler: Molly Wood’s Bush is just another patch of occupied Indigenous land. Indeed, claiming any connection to the historical development of Toronto is cast, in some circles, as “homonationalism.” Then there is the #MeToo movement, which has reconfigured the way avant-garde activists view Wood’s alleged abuse of power. Carl Benn’s charge, which had been considered homophobic just a few years ago, is now imagined to be undeniable. In this way, yesterday’s homophobically marginalized victim is reimagined as a gay sexual predator—the same toxic, conservative stereotype some of us have spent our entire lives trying to dispel.

Activists have also charged that the statue’s style represents a colonial, imperialist aesthetic. Never mind that Newbigging’s details surely may be described as literally “queering” classical statuary in a manner that pays homage to Tom of Finland: Canadian arts communities now inhabit an ideologically radicalized space in which even the brilliant and irreverent Kent Monkman—a world-renowned, gender-fluid, gay, Cree artist—is deemed problematic by Canadian activists who accuse him of desecrating the canvas with traditional European art forms.

But the charge that is likeliest to see Wood’s statue removed is his alleged involvement in creating Canada’s residential school system, the national horror that led to the deaths of thousands of Indigenous children, and which our prime minister has called “a cultural genocide.” Though Canadians have known about this disgrace for decades, the recent announcements that unmarked graves had been found near former residential schools has made the atrocity more concrete in the Canadian imagination and devastated any shared understanding of our national myths.

And why is Alexander Wood accused of collaborating in this apocalyptic history? Remember the aforementioned St. John’s Mission, the project that Wood had helped fund in 1832 at the personal request of an Ojibwe chief? Although it had nothing to do with the residential school system (which wouldn’t start enrolling Indigenous children on a mandatory basis until more than 60 years later), it has swept up Wood’s memory in a spirit of historical purgation, as with Cinna the Poet on his way to Julius Caesar’s funeral.

Indeed, the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, a cross-cultural research and education project of Algoma University, conducted in partnership with the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association, made up of survivors of the Shingwauk Residential School, has published an excellent history that clearly distinguishes St. John’s Mission from the completely separate Shingwauk Residential school with which it might be confused by those who prefer to render judgment before hearing the evidence. According to the cited archival sources, there is no association between St. John’s Mission and the residential-school system whatsoever.

Chief Shingwauk, photographed in 1850.

Unlike the residential schools, St. John’s Mission to the Ojibway was inspired by Indigenous leadership. Augustine Shingwauk, the Chief’s son, published Little Pine Journal, in 1871, which detailed the development of his father’s school from the personal perspective of his family and Band. The first head of mission, Rev. William McMurray, was respected by the Band, spoke its language, and became “one of the Nation” when he married Ogenebugokwa (“Woman of the Wild Rose”), also known as Charlotte Johnson, who was the daughter of Chief Johnson.

A new wooden school bearing Chief Shingwauk’s name was created in 1871. It burned to the ground and was rebuilt two years later. That’s the school that would be absorbed, under new management, into the residential school system. By then, Alexander Wood had been moulding in his grave for nearly 40 years.

As activist and journalist Adam Zivo has pointed out, the new iteration of the Church-Wellesley Village business association, in its rush to be perceived as on the right side of history, is creating a narrative that denies Indigenous agency and ignores the history endorsed by the Shingwaukonse Residential School survivors’ association. Herein lies the tragicomic irony of Wood’s statue: Created to commemorate a possibly false allegation two centuries ago, it now may be toppled because of a certainly false allegation in our own time.

Remember city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, the revered progressive weathervane who sat on the three-person committee that fought for the statue in 2005? A self-identified intersectional feminist, Wong-Tam was well aware of Wood’s complicated history and Carl Benn’s concerns. But such is the power of Woke Twitter that the same day she received the business association’s letter, she threw her old self, Newbigging, O’Connor, and every LGBT elder under the bus. Suddenly, she’s completely behind removing the statue, citing “new information” that isn’t new and isn’t information. In his own time, Wood at least got a fair trial. Two centuries later, his LGBT counterparts, enjoying rights that he could never have conceived of, can’t be troubled to extend the same courtesy.

We spend a lot of time arguing about statues. But it should be conceded that they aren’t truly germane to our appreciation of history. Canadian parks and government properties are littered with statues of people whose names few ordinary people know or care about. By contrast, Islamic societies scrupulously avoid any representation of the Prophet Mohammed, yet he remains the second most revered figure in human history. To the extent they have historical meaning, in fact, statues are interesting only in regard to what they say about the people who put them up and take them down. (Our understanding of Roman-era dynastic struggles and territorial expansion, for instance, is informed in large part by surviving coins, statues, and other artifacts bearing the likeness of this or that emperor.)

Each community has its own narrative, shaped to its needs; and those needs change. Today, those of us under the leaky LGBT+ umbrella are generally treated as visible and respected members of society in every sphere; and our stories, past and present, are told through film, television, literature, and the churn of daily news. We no longer need Wood as a role model. In a world where we have full civil rights, and homophobia is (rightly) held to be a heavily stigmatized form of bigotry, the story of Wood’s triumph over persecution is useful primarily as a reminder of how things once were. And in this regard, sadly, his story is by no means the most poignant, shocking, or tragic. If his statue disappears, it will not make Toronto’s Gay Village a less vibrant community for me or anyone else.

What we should care about is not the bronze and granite, but rather the ruthlessly abbreviated and arbitrary process that serves to dispatch people, or even whole classes of people, by keyboard guillotine; and a community leadership without the spine to stand up for the falsely accused. At the risk of sounding dramatic: Where, I ask, is the Zola of Toronto’s LGBT community? Moreover, why do so many activists see the celebration of heroes as a zero-sum affair? Wood was (likely) a gay man and, yes, gay men don’t represent the entire rainbow. No one does, especially when we add in intersections of race, sex, gender, (dis)ability, religion, ethnicity, documented status, and many other factors besides. But you don’t have to tear down one hero to celebrate others.

A second truth is that narratives not only change over time, but also vary greatly depending on one’s point of view. We can expect to one day see Winston Churchill’s statues relegated to museums as wartime memories fade and the Commonwealth becomes increasingly diverse, just as some of the statues honoring founding Canadian and Australian prime ministers Sir John MacDonald and Sir Edmund Barton are being destroyed or put into storage as a means of facilitating reconciliation with Indigenous populations. Theirs are old narratives focused on the creation of new countries. As the human cost of those acts of creation can no longer be ignored, the associated origin myths are unsustainable. These new countries aren’t about to go away, but they do need new national narratives that are more focused on the future than the past.

American myths are likewise under siege, despite a culture that has long propagandized the central myth of national exceptionalism. Getting rid of Confederate statues is the easy part. But, as a thought experiment, how about the Great Emancipator, whose legend has long been under scrutiny? Abraham Lincoln would have kept slavery if that had been enough to save the Union. He thought that blacks were inferior and that they should be sent to Liberia. His emancipation of the slaves was a partial measure, and enacted as a military tactic rather than a moral imperative. Yet the Lincoln Memorial positions him as the ultimate White Saviour: A white Sunday School God sitting on His marble throne in a white-columned Heaven. Lincoln’s myth is so central to American identity that it’s impossible to imagine a world without it. But we once thought the same about Churchill, and history never ends. Who knows what version of America will exist in 500 years? Or even 50?

The complaint that we now live in the moment, with no regard for tradition, isn’t new. In ancient times, rulers made statues of themselves as a matter of course, and ordered the destruction of statues honouring the men they’d displaced. It is only more recently, and in more democratic times, that statues were thought to have a larger, more edifying purpose. Since the great age of immortalization in 19th-century Europe and the Americas, we’ve put figures on pedestals to tell the tale of how we got to where we are. And we’ve endowed these representatives with heroic properties, in part to satisfy the conceit that nations and individuals alike can control their destinies, and that the world is shaped through great feats.

But today’s age is an existential one. We see history not as the story of individuals, but rather of forces beyond anyone’s control. Our leaders are seen riding waves of social and technological change that would have existed with or without them. Group histories and social movements are what matter now. The Homomonument in Amsterdam is an infinitely more powerful expression of my community’s past than a statue of Alexander Wood or a bust of Harvey Milk. Something analogous can be said of the Toronto Inukshuk, created by Inuit artist Kelly Qimirpik, and the Chinese Railroad Workers Memorial by Eldon Garnet and Francis LeBouthillier.

Chinese Railroad Workers’ Memorial by Eldon Garnett and Francis LeBouthillier.

Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, two of the best monuments of the last half of the 20th century, also draw their power from group experience. Notably, both are interactive. Rather than passively staring at a figure cast in bronze, marble or concrete, viewers are physically drawn into the works themselves.

Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Even commemorative gestures regarding individuals now reflect this new aesthetic. Dr. Lillian McGregor Park, which opened this summer in downtown Toronto, pays tribute to the late Indigenous nurse, community organizer and advocate from the Whitefish River First Nations. In the past, one would have expected a statue of Dr. McGregor herself. Instead, Métis artist Kenneth Lavallee has created a tiled, mosaic Indigenous water wheel under a feathered canopy, with a sculpture of a crane at each cardinal point to honour the McGregor family’s clan sign.

Our understanding of history is never stable. And so the conservative urge to set history in stone is as misguided as the progressive demand that it be erased and rewritten with every sunrise—for all public memorials are merely physical representations of a past that exists in a state of constant re-creation.

Editor’s note: The original version of this article referenced a historically contested claim pertaining to Winston Churchill’s role in regard to the Bengal Famine of 1943.

Art and CultureCancel CultureCanadaHistory

Allan Stratton

Allan Stratton is the internationally award-winning author of Chanda’s Secrets and The Dogs.