The Dales House at 414 Alexander Street circa 1890 CVA Photo SGN 490

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


This Saturday marks the 93rd anniversary of a shooting that took place not far from where I live. On the evening of March 20, 1917,  for over four hours, a large squad of Vancouver City Police officers led by their PEI-born Chief, Malcolm MacLennan traded shots with an American-born Black man named Bob Tait. In the course of the gun battle Chief Malcolm MacLennan, as well as an eight year old boy named George Robb, was killed.

To quote the front page article describing the event in the March 21st Daily World Newspaper, "Some four hours after the opening scenes of the tragedy, Tait who had held the entire force at bay for that time, put the climax to the most terrible 'gun' affray in the annals of crime in Vancouver by blowing his brains out with a shotgun." The lurid headlines of the four city papers, the Vancouver Sun, the Daily News Advertiser, the Vancouver Daily World, and the Vancouver Province verged on the hysterical. (Remember you can enlarge the images by clicking on them).

The tragic event and the subsequent trial of Bob Tait's girlfriend Frankie Russell--who miraculously survived the firefight--were a newspaper seller's dream. The sensationalism and overt racism of the articles may surprize some, but remember this was a Vancouver in the throes of the Great War... a city that only seven years prior had a mob of thousands of its upstanding white citizens rampage through Vancouver's Chinatown and attempt to attack Japantown. Seven years after that riot A Japanese coal carrier, the Komagata Maru, with 376 Indian would-be immigrants aboard was refused permission to dock and after months of tense standoff was later forced to return to Asia with its frustrated human cargo.

The following are articles from the March 21st edition of the Vancouver Daily World.

This event was of course a convergance of many different stories... The newspapers were filled with articles extolling the virtues of Chief Malcolm MacLennan, who from all accounts was a rather remarkable human being...  and stories about the little eight year old boy, Greg Robb, the "innocent victim of blood lust of Negro" as the following article put it. Needless to say this tragedy was a great blow and had terrible repercussions for Vancouver's Black Community. By the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan were active in Vancouver and were headquartered in Glen Brae, the Shaughnessy Mansion which now houses the Canuck Place Children's Hospice. At the time, Vancouver membership in the Klan was rumoured to be in the thousands.

This event caught--one could almost say 'hijacked'--the imagination of Vancouver's white population, those living outside of the East End anyway, and cemented in the minds of white West Side Vancouver the image of the East End as a dark, drug-ridden, dangerous place.

In all the articles in the books I read about this event, the story was always told from this perspective... from the outside... it was black and white... The tragedy was that of the death of the heroic police chief, killed in the line of duty, and the death of an innocent eight year-old boy, killed while crossing the street to buy candy... 

Until recently, no one bothered to examine the story from the other perspective, those of Bob Tait and Frankie Russell, until recently. Here is a link to a fascinating essay by Vancouver historian Lani Russwurm. I hope you will take the time to read it and to delve into his many other postings on his blog

This Saturday is the 93rd Anniversary of the shoot out between Bob Tait and the Vancouver City Police in the 500 block of East Georgia. I realized this two weeks ago when I was doing another of my East End Tours. 

To mark this anniversary, I will be escorting two 2-hour East End History Walking Tours this Saturday: one at 10am and the other at 2pm, both departing from the Heatley Block (696 East Hastings).

Besides my usual binder of archival photos, I will have copies of the newspaper articles shown in this blog and articles from three other newspapers of the day. I will focus on the Vancouver and the East End of 1917.

People interested in coming on the tour are encouraged to e-mail me at to reserve a spot, or just turn up at the Heatley Block at the appointed times. The tour is $15.00 per person. Help from those who have pull in the weather department would be very much appreciated.


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