The recent death of Glenn Ford serves as reminder that for many Canadians, the grass has been greener on the other side. Just ask British Columbians Yvonne De Carlo, Raymond Burr and Michael J Fox.
To this list may now be added gay entrepreneurs MacIver Wells and John Chadwick. Their story is told by University of Seattle associate professor Gary L Atkins in his book, Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging, which is paraphrased in this and next month’s installments of In Hindsight.
MacIver is from Quebec, Chadwick from Alberta. MacIver was a prison guard, Chadwick worked for Woodward Stores. They met for the first time in a Vancouver beer parlour in the early 1950s, and after a second, chance meeting on a bus, began a 44-year relationship.
Like many couples, they dreamed of running their own business, specifically a gay bar. Their first attempt consisted of managing a steam bath-straight by day, more or less gay by night-but the behaviour of their clients, in particular a priest who used the money from the Sunday collection plate to pay for his escapades, led them to quit.
In 1957, they moved to Seattle and bought the Madison Tavern at 3rd Ave and Madison St. Initially running it as a straight establishment, they found themselves operating a lesbian bar when word of mouth got around that they were friendly to women.
“From then on, it was a gold mine,” recalls MacIver. Word of mouth also reached the ears of the Seattle police who demanded a monthly payment of $30 for ‘protection.’
The payoff system in Seattle began in the late 1890s and was still thriving 60 years later. Although gay establishments were not singled out, they-along with businesses catering to Blacks and Asians-bore the brunt of police extortion.
Court records show that the First Precinct, covering Pioneer Square where most homosexual establishments were located, received $10,000 a month in payoffs, equivalent to the annual salaries of 12 officers.
The system worked like this: a policeman would repeatedly enter a bar looking for infractions, until the owner realized that it was either pay him or close. A beat cop collected the cash, split the payoff with his shift sergeant who then divided it with his captain.
Some owners would have to pay off all three daily police shifts. According to Atkins, the system “worked for gay protection a well as extortion,” with officers steering heterosexuals away from gay and lesbian establishments.
Though reluctant at first, MacIver and Chadwick agreed to pay the $30. But in 1958, the payoff system fell into confusion as a result of a new mayor’s investigation of all city departments two years earlier. At one end of Pioneer Square, MacIver and Chadwick were informed by a captain that the police wouldn’t be taking any payoffs as long as the “bastard’s in there,” while only a few blocks away, Jim Watson of the Blue Note, another gay tavern, was being pressured by police to begin making payoffs.
In the fall of 1958, both the Madison and the Blue Note became the targets of repeated police raids, the Madison for reasons that were never entirely clear to MacIver and Chadwick since they were still willing to pay, the Blue Note to bring Watson into line. The raids, with patrons being threatened with public exposure, had a disastrous effect on business, so the bar owners joined forces: “[Jim Watson] said ‘I’m not going to lay down and take this, MacIver. Are you willing to go in on this with me and fight this?’ I said yes.”
On Oct 9, 1958 MacIver and Watson’s lawyer filed suit against the city, possibly the first action of its kind on behalf of Seattle’s homosexuals. The authorities, caught off guard by the temerity of the move and likely fearing that the payoff system would come to light during the trial, quickly folded and struck a deal with the bar owners: the police would stay out of the taverns unless they had a legitimate reason to enter, and they would end wholesale identification checks. In return, MacIver and Watson would drop their request to be reimbursed for lost profits.
Thanks to this arrangement, Seattle gays and lesbians were spared the police harassment common elsewhere in the United States, the kind of harassment which eventually led to the Stonewall riots. But for MacIver and Chadwick, things were going to get more interesting.