This past Summer, I hosted a couple of long-time friends, Jack and Mary, who drove up from Secaucus, NJ. They were planning on being in Montreal for three nights, before driving to Quebec City for three more.
Now, as this was to be their fifth such visit in a little over year, I was running out of novel ideas to entertain them. We’d seen all the landmarks, such as Olympic Stadium, Place Ville-Marie, Mount Royal, St-Joseph’s Oratory, Old Montreal. We’d eaten at a few of the prestigious restaurants, and some local, legendary eateries, like Schwartz’s and Moishes. We’d shopped on St-Catherine street and St-Laurent boulevard. Heck, we’d even been to one of the most famous stripper joints in the world, Chez Parée. Yes, Mary tagged along.
So here I was, the day before their arrival, pacing in my den, searching for new ideas, when my eyes landed on a book nestled between two thick James Ellroy novels in my bookcase : Montreal’s Mafia – The True Story of the Infamous West End Gang.
Just like that, I had it all figured out.
See, Jack is a HUGE true-crime buff. He also has a sweet spot for the mafia. Jack knows most of the lines to all three Godfather movies, owns a suit jacket worn by Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, and has read pretty much every book ever written about the five New York families.
I began planning a true-crime circuit in Montreal. Lucky for me, Montreal’s criminal history is very rich! There would be plenty of material to fill their days.
When I announced my plans to Jack and Mary at dinner the next evening, they were overjoyed. Jack’s eyes lit up like a kid at Christmas!3
We began the next morning by walking from my condo to the corner of St. Jacques and St. Francois-Xavier streets, in Old Montreal. We stood looking at a gray granite building with Art Deco touches, which now housed various companies.
In its previous life, this building had been a swank hotel known as St. Lawrence Hall.
This is where, in October 1864, Confederate intelligence officers recruited one John Wilkes Booth, a young theater actor. The southerners stated their mission to young Booth: to kill President Abraham Lincoln.
“Booth would accomplish his mission in 1865,” I reminded them. “After the assassination, Booth had planned to escape to Canada (and to Montreal, perhaps), but he was located and killed before he could make it.”
This building was only one of many Confederate haunts, as Montreal had become a safe haven for them. From here, they planned raids and ambushes of St. Alban’s, Vermont, and upstate New York.
“Folks in Montreal were very sympathetic to the Southern cause.”
I stopped and looked at the wide smile on Jack’s face. He was hooked.
Next, we walked south, toward the majestic St. Lawrence river. I led them to another old-time building, which currently housed a law firm.
“ In July 1967, this would have been a bar called the Neptune Tavern. Dock workers and shipmates gathered here to drink and party all night.”
I went on to explain that, after escaping from a Missouri jail in April of 1967, James Earl Ray found his way to Montreal. In July 1967, Ray was at the Neptune Tavern when he met a fellow named Raoul, who offered to provide Ray with a fake American passport. Under the condition that he use this passport to smuggle contraband back into the US.
Of course, Ray made history, but not for smuggling.
James Earl Ray would assassinate Martin Luther King, in April, 1968.
On the way back to my condo to get my car, we passed many historical sites and I offered a few tidbits of information on them. But I could see that Jack wasn’t really paying attention; his mind was stuck in 1864 or 1967!
We stopped again at the corner of St. Catherine and Peel streets. As hurried pedestrians swerved around us, I told Jack and Mary that this was one of the city’s busiest streetcorners.
Today, young adults were handing out pamphlets for nightclubs and hip restaurants. In 1963, they were handing out pamphlets for the Fair Play for Cuba Committee.
Among them was one Lee Harvey Oswald, a pro-Castro communist trying to drum up support for the dictator.
“When Oswald was arrested in Dallas, the revolver he was carrying had been purchased in Montreal.”
I could feel Jack’s anger rising (JFK had always been a tough subject for my Irish friend), so I decided we’d better move on.
After grabbing lunch, we hopped into my car and drove to the island’s north end. We rode westward on Gouin boulevard.
When I pulled into the entrance for the Bordeaux Jail, I felt Mary’s worried eyes on me. I reassured her that we weren’t going inside.
“Does the name Joseph Bonanno ring a bell, Jack?”
Jack gave me a of course look, so I laughed and went on.
“In 1964, Montreal’s biggest drug lord, Lucien Rivard, was arrested and charged with drug smuggling. Jos Bonanno was also arrested and held in here.”
Both men were to be extradited to the US so they could stand trial, but the Canadian government denied Robert F. Kennedy’s request.
We had been parked in front of the gates long enough to start drawing the attention of the guard manning the gates, so I decided it was time to get back on the road.
Our next stop was on Antoine-Berthelet street, in a neighborhood called Cartierville, just a few miles west of the jail.
A quiet street filled with houses all valued over a million dollars. An area both picturesque and safe.
Well, except for one evening in November of 2010, that is.
That would be the day that former mafia don Nicolo Rizzuto was gunned down by a sniper in his living room.
“Nic’s son Vito spent time in a New York jail for the murder of 3 Bonanno captains. Donnie Brasco, remember?”
Jack nodded enthusiastically, his eyes riveted to the mansion.
Sadly, that was all I had planned.
“You’d better find more,” Jack said. “We’ll be back.”
No problem. The crooked city of Montreal holds plenty of secrets.