Academic journal article Manitoba History

The Justice Mill: George William Baker at the Winnipeg Police Court, 1901-1903

Academic journal article Manitoba History

The Justice Mill: George William Baker at the Winnipeg Police Court, 1901-1903

Article excerpt

On 28 April 1903 a large crowd gathered at Winnipeg's James Street police court in anticipation of nearly two dozen cases set to be heard on that morning's docket. Presiding at James Street was the city's chief police magistrate, George William Baker. According to the Manitoba Free Press the spectators were particularly excited to see a "big gang of crapshooters" rounded up on charges of illegal gambling by the city police. To the crowd's disappointment, the dozen men in question failed to appear for the hearing. Baker immediately had warrants issued for their arrest before moving on with the day's business. Since being appointed to the post twenty months previously, Baker had garnered a reputation throughout the city as a no-nonsense lawman who dealt justice with speed and efficiency. Indeed, despite the many cases before the court, the Free Press noted that the morning's docket was "quickly disposed of" by the magistrate. While most were dealt with summarily, a number were held over for further adjudication. At least a half-dozen drunks, including two soldiers and a man "so incapacitated ... as to render his removal to St. Boniface hospital" were fined for their behaviour, as was a man summoned for "cycle coasting on the sidewalk." Before wrapping up for the day, Baker also sentenced two boys brought in on charges of theft to two years in the youth reformatory. In the words of the Free Press reporter one of the boys, Walter Nunnery, appeared to be "a youth of bright appearance, who ... had every advantage" in life, yet in the opinion of the police magistrate had "deliberately chosen a life of crime." (1) On a day that saw the regular tally of bylaw infractions and other run-of-the-mill charges common to a city police court, Baker felt it incumbent upon him to pronounce judgement when presented with an incipient criminal. His reputation rested on it.

The James Street police court was one of the best known buildings in early 20th-century Winnipeg. As the first level of the justice system, all those summoned or arrested on any charge, whether for bylaw infractions or serious criminal offences, could expect to appear before the police court bench. Indeed, for most citizens it was the only level of the justice system that they would likely ever experience. At the core of the institution was the police court magistrate. As the official responsible for deciding whether or not cases brought before the court merited dismissal, summary punishment, or transfer to a higher court, the police court magistrate exercised considerable authority and influence in the local community and within the provincial legal establishment.

Despite the importance of the police court in late 19th- and early 20th-century Canadian society, little has been written on the subject in its Winnipeg context. Legal historians have produced a number of studies charting the establishment and evolution of judicial institutions in Manitoba from the early years of fur-trade society through to the 20th century. Many have focussed on the ad-hoc nature of legal procedure and criminal justice under Hudson's Bay Company rule and, in the period after 1870, on the office-holders, lawyers, and other personalities in the higher echelons of the provincial court system. (2) Though informative about the development of judicial practices and procedure, this literature seldom addresses the day-to-day workings of the criminal justice system. And while the institution has drawn considerable attention from Canadian police and criminal justice historians generally, (3) the police court has thus far been neglected in studies of Winnipeg police and social history. (4)

This essay seeks to address this gap in the historiography by considering the career of one of Winnipeg's most infamous police magistrates, the aforementioned George William Baker. Baker served at the James Street police court from August 1901 to December 1903, a brief tenure relative to the standard of the office. …

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