3 min

Ye olde cocksucker

The legend of Alexander Wood rises again

Credit: Xtra files

Considered by some to be the gay founder of Toronto, Alexander Wood is remembered more for his notoriety than for his contributions to early civic life. That is, if he’s remembered at all.

Now the Church-Wellesley Village Business Improvement Area (BIA) is looking to make Alexander Wood a homo-household name.

“By next year at this time everyone will know who this cocksucker is,” says BIA chair Dennis O’Connor.

In search of a symbol for the Church St gaybourhood, the BIA chose Wood as the subject of a sculpture to be installed on the northwest corner of Church and Wellesley. An eight-foot bronze statue has been commissioned from the internationally-known Ontario sculptor Del Newbigging, and will be accompanied by plaques commemorating memorable scenes from Wood’s life.

“We’re trying to create a sense of place, a sense of history of why we’re here,” says O’Connor. “We’re pretty lucky to have a link back to the 1800s. How many gay communities can say that?”

The statue, a miniature version of which is now on display at the O’Connor Gallery, is set to be unveiled in May 2005. The project is expected to cost more than $200,000 which will be split 50-50 by the BIA and the City Of Toronto.

Although Wood was a well-respected magistrate and successful merchant in the 19th century, it is his nickname “Molly Wood” that is most often remembered; “Molly” was a slur for men who had sex with men.

In 1826, Wood purchased 50 acres of land on the northeast corner of Carlton and Yonge, an area that now forms much of the Church-Wellesley village. He sold half of it within a few years, but the remaining land was mockingly nicknamed “Molly Wood’s Bush.” Alexander St, Wood St and Alexander Place were all named after him.

O’Connor calls Wood one of the founders of the Church-Wellesley village. Wood was chosen to represent the Church-Wellesley village not only because he was openly gay – or at least as open as one could be in a time when sodomy was punishable by death – but also because he was known for his charitable work.

“When he died, a newspaper said he was one of the most respected residents,” says O’Connor. “Despite the fact that he was a dirty ol’ cocksucker.”

Wood moved to the colony of Upper Canada in 1793 from Scotland, settling in York (now Toronto) in 1797. By the age of 25 he was a successful merchant selling household items like tea, tobacco, plows and hair powder – popular fashion of the day dictated that men powder their hair white. He made friends among the elite, and was appointed a city magistrate in 1800.

In 1810 Wood caused a scandal while investigating a rape case involving a young woman by the name of Miss Bailey. According to Wood, Bailey claimed she had scratched the assailant’s genitals during the attack. When Wood interviewed several young men as suspects, he conducted an intimate physical inspection of each suspect’s genitals.

York being a small town of 700, word of Wood’s inspections got around and the history is confused with rumour. Numerous versions exist – Wood seduced the young men, he had fabricated the rape claim, the young men took offence to Wood’s methods. The result was that Wood was openly ridiculed and picked up the nickname “Inspector General Of Private Accounts.” Many townsfolk began to avoid his shop.

According to the Dictionary Of Canadian Biography, Wood admitted the truth of the inspections to close friend Judge William Dummer Powell, who was horrified and declared that Wood had misused his position of magistrate. To prevent the possibility of Wood being fined or imprisoned, Powell helped smother the incident on the condition that Wood leave Upper Canada. In October of 1810 Wood returned to Scotland.

But in 1812 he was back in York, where he resumed all of his prior appointments, including his post as magistrate. For more than a decade things went smoothly and Wood once again became an active member in York society. He fought in the War Of 1812, and was the director or executive member for organizations including the Bank Of Upper Canada and the Toronto Library. He moved through the city in his trademark long blue felt jacket, worn year round, with a flower in the lapel. (According to O’Connor, Wood’s statue will be sporting a rose as a nod to Pierre Trudeau.)

But the scandal of 1810 came back to haunt Wood in 1823 when friend Rev John Strachan recommended him for the commission to investigate war claims. Now Chief Justice Powell refused to swear in Wood on moral grounds, and a series of letters were exchanged barring Wood from the position. Wood promptly sued Powell, but the damage was done. Wood won for damages, but Powell refused to pay and printed a defamatory pamphlet about his former friend.

Despite these reoccurring embarrassments, Wood lived in Toronto until 1842 before returning to Scotland, where he died in 1844. In 1850, when Molly Wood’s Bush was being redeveloped, Wood earned street-name fame.

Now touted as the man who began gay history in Toronto, Wood has had several shots at immortality. In August 1984, Xtra titled its neighbourhood listings section “Molly Wood’s Bush.” It included a map of the area, a brief bio of Wood and his silhouette, the only known remaining image of him.

Wood’s notoriety was saluted again in ’94-’95 when John Wimbs’ and Christopher Richards’ musical play Molly Wood was performed at the Bathurst St Theatre.

And now Wood’s statue will grace Church St. Be sure to drop your drawers for him as you walk by.