We’re excited to have our 2018 Speaker Series in full swing again! This year’s theme, Vancouver Noir, delves into the city’s salacious history of crime and corruption from the late 1920s to the early 1970s. To kick things off, our first speaker, Vancouver author, historian and Sins of the City tour expert, Jesse Donaldson, took us back in time to the late 20s during Vancouver’s heyday of crime and nefarious activities.
With a wealth of experience researching, writing and talking about this topic, Donaldson shared his insights on two of the city’s most captivating characters from the past, former Mayor, L.D. Taylor, and East Side kingpin, Joe Celona.
He began his presentation by highlighting the different backgrounds of the two men. Here are some tidbits the audience got to hear about:
L.D., short for Louis Denison, was born in Ann Arbour, Michigan, and emigrated to Canada in 1896 after a failed bank partnership resulted in accusations of embezzlement by the Chicago authorities. A fugitive on the run, he came to Vancouver to start anew.
Joe Celona, born as Giuseppe Florenzo immigrated to Canada in 1913 and moved to Vancouver in 1919.
Forty years apart, the two had many differences. For instance, Taylor was widely considered to be racist, while Celona was more or less colour blind in the running of his businesses, which included running brothels where interracial relationships were allowed.
No one really knows for sure how Taylor and Celona’s relationship started, but with Denison’s cigar penchant, and Celona’s cigar store sitting just across the street from city hall, the origins aren’t hard to imagine.
But, as the audience found out, this open town policy wouldn’t last forever. In 1928, both Taylor and Celona were on trial at the Lennie hearings that included 100 witnesses, 18 lawyers and many police officers. Some officers went on record saying they were forbidden from interfering in Celona’s operations, while others testified that the VPD was just a collection agency for vice operations; they would fine the underground establishments, but that’s all.
After the Lennie hearings, Taylor lost the 1928 election but bounced back to win the 1930 election. He then went on to serve two consecutive terms. But, by the end of his final term, the cracks in his corrupt city were starting to grow, and a determined prosecutor from the Lennie hearings, Gerald McGeer, ran a successful campaign against him and Celona in the 1934 election. McGeer pegged Celona as the vice kingpin and as a slaver to female morality, and labelled Taylor as corrupt beyond recognition.
McGeer won by a landslide and eventually, Celona was sentenced to 22 years in prison, while Taylor’s political aspirations came to a humiliating end.
This is where one of the most interesting aspects of the presentation surfaced. It was revealed that, despite both men suffering losses after the 1934 election, one of them would end up relatively wealthy in his final years, while the other would die in near poverty.
Though Celona was sentenced to 22 years, he was out in five. He continued to get arrested for running illegal houses of vice, but would somehow manage to soldier on until the early 1950s. Despite all his legal troubles, he died in 1958 a wealthy man with nearly $100,000 dollars to his name—roughly the equivalent of a million dollars in our modern day.
Taylor, on the other hand, was much older than Celona by the time the chips fell and could not recover from his electoral defeat. He tried to run for mayor again, but finished last, citing that his election bid was just as much for a paycheque as it was for serving the city. By 1937 he was almost broke and in his eighties. But, as Donaldson revealed, Taylor did have important well-wishers.