From the archives: Charles McKiernan, aka Joe Beef, was the hero of outcasts

From the archives: Charles McKiernan, aka Joe Beef, was the hero of outcasts
From the archives: Charles McKiernan, aka Joe Beef, was the hero of outcasts

Portrait engraving of the benevolent Charles McKiernan (a.k.a. Joe Beef), about 1875. John Henry Walker / McCord Museum

This story was first published on April 20, 2008, in the Montreal Gazette.


“The first witness called was Charles McKiernan, saloon keeper.”

Gazette, Wednesday, April 21, 1880


He was one of the best known men in Montreal, though not as Charles McKiernan. Throughout the city, indeed elsewhere in Canada and into the United States, he was hailed as Joe Beef, and there was ample reason for his fame.

Joe Beef’s waterfront saloon was as remarkable a Montreal landmark as, in its own way, Notre Dame Basilica or the palatial, brand new Windsor Hotel. Booze was served, of course, but so was food, and if a man couldn’t pay for what he ate, that was all right with Joe.

Those with money might enjoy great lashings of beef, bread and tea; but those without could still count on a bowl of soup. Each day at noon, hundreds of down-and-outers might line up for a handout.

There were rooms upstairs where the poor could stay for next to nothing. In winter, Joe would send one of his men through the nearby streets to pick up any drunks trying to sleep it off in the snow.

Ink on newsprint engraving of Joe Beef’s Canteen Nos. 4, 5 & 6 (about 1885), on Common St. (de la Commune St.), where no one was turned away. John Henry Walker / McCord Museum

He was widely loved, though not by everyone, and among his greatest foes was John Dougall. Dougall was a strict man, strict in his Calvinism and in his abhorrence of drink, and it showed in the columns of the Daily Witness, the paper he founded in 1846.

Dougall and Joe Beef were alike in a way. Both worked hard for the poor; Dougall often could be seen in the streets near the harbour, counselling the destitute. The difference between them, of course, lay in what each felt would make a difference.

For years, the Witness railed against Joe Beef’s saloon. It was “a den of perdition” and “a place of ill fame.” When Joe’s first wife died in 1871, the Witness refused to publish a funeral notice.

Joe endured it amiably enough. Then, in October 1879, the Witness claimed he had “pitched a person out of a low rum hole,” breaking his arm in the process.

For a man who prided himself on never refusing a meal to a poor man, this was too much. Joe Beef sued Dougall and his Witness co-owners for libel.

At the trial, a parade of witnesses, many of them Joe’s hard-luck cases, testified to his benevolence. Others said they had been in the saloon that day and that the contentious incident had never occurred.

The Witness’s reporter admitted he had based his story on a police sergeant’s say-so, which seems to have followed something the sergeant had heard from a casual visitor to the saloon. The reporter looked wobbly when he admitted he hadn’t double-checked.

For its part, the defence duly found witnesses to testify to the iniquities of Joe’s saloon. John Ritchie, manager of the Sailors’ Institute, said ships’ captains habitually complained of the place. Sub-Chief Charles Lancy of the Montreal police said it was “the resort of rowdies and thieves.”

The defence impressed Chief Justice Antoine-Aimé Dorion. In his charge to the jury, he said 99 out of 100 people would have characterized Joe Beef’s as the Witness had done, and urged the jury to find Dougall not guilty. Imagine his astonishment, then, when the jury returned after an hour and said they could not agree.

“It was the first time in his experience,” The Gazette reported, “that after the Judge had clearly intimated that the defendant was to be acquitted the jury did not understand its duty. He would lock them up when, perhaps, they would agree by morning.”

A night under guard duly concentrated their minds, and next day the case of libel was dismissed.

For the rest of Joe Beef’s life, it remained clear sailing for the Witness. Even when he died, on Jan. 15, 1889, the Witness could write, “For twenty-five years he has enjoyed in his own way the reputation of being … the wickedest man. His saloon … was the resort of the most degraded men. It was the bottom of the pit.”

Yet his funeral three days later, some said, was the most impressive Montreal had seen since the martyred Thomas D’Arcy McGee’s in 1868. Offices throughout the business district were closed as a cortège several blocks long made its way toward Mount Royal Cemetery. Ordinary people lined the route, and not just labourers lucky enough to have a job. “All the luckless outcasts to whom the innkeeper-philanthropist had so often extended a helping hand,” La Minerve reported, “had come forward, eager to pay a last tribute to his memory.”

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