William Lyon Mackenzie King, Elizabeth Harvie, and Edna: A Prostitute Rescuing Initiative in Late Victorian Toronto

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ABSTRACT: This paper analyzes a prostitute rescuing initiative in Toronto, 1894-1896. The key players were Edna, a young prostitute, and the two people who attempted to "rescue" her, Elizabeth Harvie, a socially prominent member of a local charity, and William Lyon Mackenzie King, then an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto and subsequently Prime Minister of Canada. The paper explains the interaction of the protagonists in the context of their personal characteristics and of various social factors present in Canada at that time. The former included King's psychological, sexual, and social motivations to become a prostitute rescuer, Edna's participation in being rescued, and Harvie's ability to facilitate the process. The latter included the prevailing social constructions of Protestant evangelicalism, gender, sexuality and prostitution. An analysis of the interplay of these factors invites comparison with contemporary approaches to prostitution.

The public response to prostitution in Canada remains highly contested. Some advocate keeping prostitution at manageable levels, others would radically reduce or eliminate sex commerce, and still others fall somewhere between these positions (Hobson, 1993). The assumptions that inform contemporary debates over the nature and limits of prostitution are historically derived. As several generations of scholars have argued, sexuality's social construction varies significantly over time, and can be understood using historical research methods (Annan, 1995; D'Cruze, 1996; Foucault, 1977, 1989; Thorp, 1992). Adding to a small literature on the history of sexuality in Canada (cf. Dubinsky, 1993; Strange, 1995), the present study is the first to reconstruct a prostitute rescuing initiative occurring between October 1894 and April 1896 in Toronto, Canada, involving William Lyon Mackenzie King, future prime minister of Canada. It provides insight into the time-bound nature of views of human sexuality in general, and of prostitution in particular, and in so doing offers a necessary corrective to any perspective that assumes that our present assumptions about either represent timeless truth (Graham, 1996).

Given the relative paucity of historical research on the topic, what are some of the major signposts that help one to appreciate the historical evolution of approaches to prostitution in Canada? While there is considerable historical literature on how the state has regulated prostitution (Connelly, 1980; Corbin, 1994; Gilfoyle, 1992; Rosen, 1982; Walkowitz, 1980), there has been less micro-level analysis of prostitute rescuing. This paper demonstrates how the interaction of Protestant evangelicalism, gender, sexuality, and prostitution in Canada provided the motivation for prostitute rescuing, and hence a basis for understanding this activity. The paper seeks to explain a particular prostitute rescuing initiative through the prism of such "socially determined" forces while also demonstrating the significant impact of "personal" factors that affected the individuals engaged in this prostitute rescue. In order to understand late nineteenth-century prostitute rescuing in Canada, one must take into account the complex interplay of social and personal factors, which are in turn mediated by the immediate circumstances of the interaction itself. The perspective adopted in this analysis might well be applied by future historical researchers who, given the benefit of time and distance, seek to analyze the unconventional sexual conduct of our current political leaders.

The main characters in the following account are: William Lyon Mackenzie King (1874-1950), a University of Toronto undergraduate student; Elizabeth Harvie (1840-1929), the president of The Haven, a local Toronto charity providing shelter to women in distress; and the subject of their rescue work, a young prostitute named Edna (187?-?). The paper is divided into three parts. The first introduces the three people and the social context which informed their interaction. …