by Tom Long
Nellie Webb was a prostitute who lived in Edmonton in the 1880s “ a time when prostitution was simultaneously widespread but unspoken. Her story gives us a fleeting glimpse into a red-lit world.
We know little of the “bachelor’s wives” in Edmonton during this time. They led transient lives and practiced a profession that booster newspapers and travel-writers would rather not dwell upon. When they are mentioned in the historical record, it is usually because of an outrageous “ and often titillating “ incident associated with them. To confuse the records further, these fallen women often used false names, like Nellie’s contemporaries Mrs. Grasshopper and Big Mary Ann. A January 1885 edition of the Edmonton Bulletin records a vicious, “pugilistic encounter” between the two ladies in A. McDonald & Co. Store, which may have begun due to a dispute over customers.
“At an early stage in the proceedings, Mrs. G went for the butcher’s knife she usually carries, but was unable to get a hold of it. She then attached herself to Mary Ann’s elfin locks with such tenacity and vigor as to almost reduce that lady to a bald-headed condition before she could be induced to slip her grip. The pangs of jealousy were supposed to have been the cause of trouble.”
– Edmonton Bulletin January 26, 1884
Nellie Webb outdid her compatriots in scandal, however. In October 1888 she shot at three drunken Police Constables: Rogers, Cairney, and Cudlip, from Fort Saskatchewan and, by all accounts -including the jury’s- she was right to do it.
The three officers, who overindulged in the devil drink, had broken into three private homes in search of Webb’s house of ill-fame in order to procure her services. The remarkable Ms. Webb, however, would not let them in, and when they broke down the door, she opened fire with a .38 revolver and wounded Cairney in the leg!
She was arrested for malicious shooting and taken off to jail. Two more Mounties were stationed at her house to protect her possessions, which they promptly ransacked for booze and, becoming drunk, fell asleep. A stranger entered thereafter and stole their guns. The event did not go over well with the townsfolk, most of whom were already disposed against the North West Mounted Police.
In November Webb was tried on a charge of prostitution, found guilty, and fined $20.00 and costs. The trial for the charge of shooting of a police officer was held over until May for superior court (which took place in Edmonton only seasonally). Webb was released on an astounding $2000.00 bail. When the trial finally did occur, she was acquitted by reason of self-defence.
The drunken Mounties in question were justly punished by the red-faced force, with several being dismissed from the service. Coincidentally or not: about the same time, Edmonton once again petitioned the force to headquarter their men in town rather than at Fort Saskatchewan and once again were refused. While many other factors were involved, the force did not want to put more of their young Constables nearer a population centre like Edmonton with its lure of alcohol and prostitutes.
By 1894 Webb had left Edmonton and little more is known about her. Edmonton had perhaps cost her too dearly. It has been suggested that she simply moved down to Calgary and re-established there. She may have been missed by more than the gentlemen, as some reports say that she was a much sought-after midwife!
While shocking, titillating and outrageous, these stories can also be instructive. Did you think of Ms. Webb as a tough entrepreneur? Or a woman easily made victim by those in power? These are the same reactions one often sees to modern sex-workers and for most of us our lack of personal experience leads us to fall back on an easy narrative. But Ms. Webb was a real person, not just a character in a story “ just like her successors in Edmonton today.
Next time you’re at the park, ask the NWMP Constable on 1885 Street about the force’s moments of pride and their moments of shame. Ask after Annie Jackson on 1905 Street, Edmonton’s first female police officer and inquire as to what it means to be charged with looking after the morals of young girls.
- Beahan, William and Horral, Stan Red Coats on the Prairies:
The North-West Mounted Police 1886-1900, Centax Books: 1998.
- Fort Edmonton Park files
- The Edmonton Bulletin