The rise and fall of a postwar Red Light District and its women
By age 47, Paulette Déry had been bailed out of jail 85 times. It was her work in Anna Labelle’s (alias Madame Emile Beauchamp) brothels which kept landing her in prison, but never for long. Contrary to the docile gender role of women during the postwar period in Montreal, Madame Beauchamp was self-made, affluent and significant. She, and other women like her, made a business out of prostitution houses and prospered in the city for a time as a result.
Déry began working at Madame Beauchamp’s first bordello in 1933. Be it her “ephemeral beauty,” or having gained the trust of her bosses early on, Déry quickly became a “housekeeper,” according to a 1950s article in Le Devoir. One of the key aspects of a “housekeeper’s” job was to be present at the time of a house raid and to later plead guilty in court to being the owner of the bordello. Later, Beauchamp would ritually arrive to bail out her employee at a cheap price.
It was mainly women who ran the bordellos and “they were women who certainly weren’t afraid of police officers,” says Danielle Lacasse, author of La prostitution féminine à Montréal, 1945-1970. “They were women who were very different from the commonplace morals of the time,” Lacasse says. Madames would often create a symbiotic relationship with the authorities. Police officers could benefit financially, getting a cut of the money. In return it was heard that police would visit amicably each week to discuss upcoming raids.
The bordellos that Beauchamp owned tended towards the more luxurious. She would arrange to have doctors visit her girls regularly, to check for venereal diseases. Bouncers were hired to keep matters in hand and the “housekeepers” kept the house clean and orderly. These actions kept Beauchamp’s reputation well-protected and effectively had some positive spillover effects on the prostitutes.
Still, prostitution in postwar Montreal was far from a desirable profession. By the beginning of the 20th century prostitution had already become notorious in response to rampant poverty. Montreal historian Robert N. Wilkins says the middle class was only beginning to develop in the early 1900’s, so the impoverished “improvised ways to make money and obviously prostitution was one of them.”
During this time, the Catholic Church was a prominent force in the province and efforts by its members were made to eliminate prostitution altogether. Others, like Francois-Xavier Dupuis, who was a judge, otherwise known at the time as a recorder, believed in the containment of brothels. “[Dupuis] didn’t believe in shutting them down because he believed it would just go elsewhere,” Wilkins says.
By the 1940s, the institutional character of the bordellos lent some protection against the violence and health risks that threatened prostitutes. But a law enforcement crackdown led by the famous Pacifique Plante eventually changed all this in the 1950s with a motion brought to court under the Fraud and Corruption in Municipal Affairs Act. What followed was the Caron Commission, which would hear 373 witnesses in 335 sessions over a span of four years.
The commission closed down most of Montreal’s brothels and put the brothels’ true owners in prison, including Mme Beauchamp. But the Commission didn’t bring an end to prostitution. Instead, prostitutes found themselves finding business on the streets, in restaurants and cabarets. The Commission ended in October 1954, and in November of the same year an article in The Montreal Herald from the Al Palmer fonds in Concordia’s Special Collections denotes that some women had found new bases. The article indicates that, “although nightclub operators claim there was little open soliciting in bars … prostitutes in many cases had arrangements with members of nitery staffs to steer femme-hunting males their way.”
Lacasse says that a result of this change, was a shift in power from women to men. Pimps appeared on the scene and “they weren’t necessarily men who had numerous prostitutes that worked for them. It was often that they would prostitute their own girlfriends.” In the end, prostitution continued as a practice and still does today despite the efforts of many to see it abolished. “You’re not going to effectively eliminate [prostitution],” Wilkins says. “You cannot eliminate it. It’s existed since god knows when.”