Queer History Halloween!

{A spooky treat—a guest article from Jarett Henderson, a former Calgarian and historian of Canada, gender and sexuality, and the British Empire – K.}

Today, many queer folks celebrate Halloween as a topsy-turvy Gay Christmas of sorts: an opportunity to live loudly and proudly as one’s authentic self. For sixteen-year-old Walter McHugh in 1901, his Halloween night could not have been more different. That night Walter confessed to his rancher father that he had been having sex (for some time) with the Calgary lawyer J. B. Smith. 

Walter’s Halloween night assertion set into motion a three-month-long ordeal that culminated in February 1902. After a series of appearances before the Supreme Court of North West Territories that paradoxically archived unspeakable sexual encounters, Smith was proclaimed “not guilty” of gross indecency: the federal crime that regulated sex between men in Canada and its territories since 1892. Walter was removed to Ontario, where he was enrolled in Ottawa College before returning to Calgary, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life. Walter and his headstone remain at rest atop the Calgary skyline in the Catholic Cemetery. 

Walter McHugh’s grave in Calgary’s St. Mary’s Pioneer Cemetery

While much remains unknown about the nature of the relationship between Walter and Smith, in what follows, I offer some observations about how efforts to regulate sex between men can shed light on how queer carnal acts were perceived as threats to male settlers, their bodies, and the state’s efforts to reproduce heterosexual settler colonialism in early-Calgary.

Original citation for full text: Jarett Henderson, “Rex v. J. B. Smith (Calgary, 1902): Queer Carnal Acts and Heterosexual Settler Colonialism in Canada’s Prairie Empire,” Prairie History: The Journal of the West, 5 (Summer 2021): Click here for full article. 

The McHugh Family at the start of the twentieth century. Walter is standing directly behind his father who reported him to authorities: University of Calgary, Glenbow Digital Photo Collection, NA-217-6


2 responses to “Queer History Halloween!

  1. “In reporting James and his son, Felix demonstrated a colonial common sense that recognized his son’s sexual transgression as a
    queer threat to his masculine settler identity and family.” Quite the take. I’m an openly gay man with a 17 year old son and I can tell you if he told me he’d had sex several times with his 40 year-old employer I’d go to the cops to get them to charge that employer with whatever they could charge him with.

    • Thanks Alex for your comment. You have to be thoughtful when prescribing contemporary values on the past. Back in 1901 there was no age of consent for same-sex sexual acts. But the age of consent for heterosexuals was 14 (just moved up from 12 in 1890). In all of my research, I’ve learned that people organized their sexual lives quite differently then—there was no gay identity, for example. However, your perspective has resonance—in 2008, the age of consent was raised to 16 in Canada due to a somewhat analogous case.

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