The Wild West: Early Shooting Galleries

CVA Sp P74 – The interior of a shooting gallery on Cordova Street ca 1901.

A shooting gallery in late 19th and early 20th century Vancouver was a quite different place than is conjured by that term 100 years later. A shooting gallery in early Vancouver had nothing to do with illicit drugs. It was a commercial establishment where men could fire guns at targets.

Shooting galleries were sometimes incorporated into penny arcades. Penny arcades typically had penny- or nickel-operated machines for viewing “moving pictures” (which were called mutoscopes), strength testers, and automated musical instruments like player pianos or automatic banjos. If a shooting gallery wasn’t, strictly speaking, a penny arcade, many of them also had at least a player piano to create a bit of background music to the din of gunfire.

I did a rough survey of where most shooting galleries were located over the years between 1890 and 1930 and found that they were principally in the 100 blocks of East Hastings and East Cordova and the unit blocks of West Cordova and Water Streets. To help put this in context, allow me to cite some of the other businesses in a couple of these blocks in 1912.

On the 100 block of East Hastings there were three theatres (Rose, Crystal, and Pantages), at least three good hotels (including the Irving), the public library, several restaurants, a shoemaker and a couple of billiards halls. And on the unit block of West Cordova there was a theatre (the Grand), two booksellers (Cordova and Peoples), several shoe and clothing shops, and various restaurants. I share this to make it clearer that these were not down-at-the-heels blocks (as is true today, to a degree); this was a neighbourhood in which people of the time would regularly stroll without giving a second thought to their safety. [1]

Shooting galleries were lumped into the same category as bowling alleys, as far as civic licensing authorities were concerned. License fees were $10 annually. These were the fees in 1892, and it’s possible they rose in subsequent years. But even in the context of 1892, they seem to me to be low.

Licenses issued by City of Vancouver. 1892 Williams Illustrated Official BC Directory, p. 573.

It isn’t clear to me what criteria were used by the City in determining how much to charge a business for its license. But it is plain that the criteria did not include threat of injury or possible loss of life. You’d look a long time in local press accounts to find a case of a bowler who was hurt or killed inside an alley ($10) or at a junk dealer’s establishment ($100), to say nothing of a theatre ($100) or a pawnbroker’s shop ($300).

But the risk of loss of life or limb at or nearby a shooting gallery was very real, as I hope to show below.

Danger to Neighbours

Fraser’s Missiles

Percy Fraser, in 1910, had a business that occupied part of the ground floor space that was shared with a shooting gallery on Cordova, not far from Abbott. Fraser filed an injunction against shooting gallery owner, Valentine Straube.

[I]t was stated that a stenographer in [Fraser’s] employ had been nearly shot by bullets coming through the wall and when Mr. Fraser was sitting at his desk on Thursday the plaster from the wall fell upon it as the result of a missile coming through.

World, 15 Jan 1910

The injunction was granted by Mr. Justice Gregory; it restrained Straube from carrying on a shooting gallery at his premises on Cordova Street. (This wasn’t Straube’s first scrape with the law; he’d been convicted on at least three previous occasions for running a gaming house having slot machines).

Lee Sing’s Close Call

In March 1918, Lee Sing, a Chinese resident, was sleeping in his residence at the rear of 113 East Pender. He was woken by a bullet which went past his bed and into the wall. The police were informed of this.

Investigations were made by a representative of the law and the hole made by the bullet was found, but on its probable course being traced, it was found that it had come from a shooting gallery which is operated near the home of the Chinaman. A few words with the proprietor of the gallery resulted in steps being taken to eliminate the possibility of stray bullets in the future, and Lee again retired in safety to his couch.

World, 5 March 1918

The casualness with which this incident was treated by police of the time is remarkable. This may have been partly due to the race of the victim (not that that is any excuse).

Danger to Employees

The Troubling Case of Millicent McGregor

I imagine that 99% of the clientele at shooting galleries was male. Thus, it isn’t surprising that these establishments typically wanted to hire girls as a way of attracting punters.

Province. 21 August 1915.

An ad similar to the one above probably attracted the attention of a young girl who had been raised in Victoria and was looking to make some “good wages” in the big city of Vancouver. Millicent (Milly) McGregor got herself hired at the Wellington Arcade at 106 East Hastings Street. On August 26, 1923, the following episode happened:

A Russian named Andrew Karpensko and several companions were said to have entered the place with the intention of engaging in target practice. In some manner one of the target rifles was discharged, and the bullet lodged in the neck of Miss McGregor, who was the attendant in charge of the place. Karpensko was arrested and was held by the police for several days, but was released later. It was expected at first that Miss McGregor would recover.

Province, 9 April 1924

But Milly didn’t recover. She succumbed to her injury, caused by a .22-calibre bullet, eight months later while at Vancouver General Hospital. She was 19 when she died.

1930s and Later

By the mid-1930s, it seems, shooting galleries in the downtown core were falling out of fashion and falling afoul of civic decision-makers, probably partly due to the McGregor mess.

From the 1930s through the 1970s, shooting galleries seemed to be restricted to midways at exhibitions such as the PNE (the Straube family had a corner on Hastings Park’s shooting galleries for a number of years). Live rounds were still in use, mind you, and it wasn’t unheard of for someone to be hurt in shooting gallery incidents. By the 1980s, with the advent of more sophisticated video technologies, it became less important to have guns that fired real (versus electronic) bullets.

Reflections

During the 19-teens, there were some merchants who were vocally opposed to having shooting galleries in their neighbourhoods. But their rationale had nothing to do with public safety. The reason given by those who were opposed was that the galleries often included player pianos in them and this “hurdy-gurdy” racket was an offence to their ears.

In the late 1920s, presumably partly in response to the McGregor incident, there was some talk of banning women from working in shooting galleries. But, even if this idea had “legs” (and it didn’t), it wouldn’t have been a solution to the real problem. The gender of the attendants wasn’t the issue. The real problem was the fact that live ammo was being fired in a pretty densely populated area — and that the civic authorities didn’t have the guts to do anything about it.

Notes

  1. There was also a shooting gallery (and a bowling alley) included in the basement of the Beatty Street Drill Hall when it was under construction ca1900. There was also a shooting gallery at the Vancouver squad HQ of the B.C. Provincial Police.
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5 Responses to The Wild West: Early Shooting Galleries

  1. Angus McIntyre says:

    When I attended grades 10 and 11 at the Herman Collegiate Institute in Windsor, Ontario in the early 1960s, Cadet Corps training during the year was still compulsory for boys, and optional for girls. We were issued Canadian Army uniforms, and marching drills took place leading up to all high schools combining for a large outdoor dress parade. We were issued .22 rifles to disassemble and clean, and in the basement of the school there was a room set up as a place where we could shoot live ammunition at targets. We got to keep the cardboard targets and take them home. As a kid I remember shooting galleries at various fairs, including ones with moving mechanical targets, such as rabbits. My father ran such galleries as a summer job in the 1930s with the travelling Conklin Shows.

  2. Neil Whaley says:

    This is a wonderful article. The Wild West, indeed. In 1894, English Bay was already the city’s main bathing beach, but it was somewhat isolated from the city. This item appeared in the August 22 1894 Vancouver World newspaper: “A resident of English Bay complains of the gross carelessness of boys who go along the beach shooting into the bushes utterly regardless of whether people may be sitting near by or not. These lads have also been known to shoot along the sidewalk. An interview with the police magistrate might do some of them good. Small boys should not be allowed to have fire arms anyway.”

  3. Stan Copp says:

    I am not sure of the Vancouver shooting galleries, but the BB and CB 22-calibre ammunition commonly used in galleries (and homes!) consisted of a percussion cap and bullet. The lead bullet weighed about 1 oz and, even though no gunpowder was used, the ignition of the percussion cap propelled the bullet at about 700-780 fps. Although much lighter than the 22 short and long rifle ammunition, at short range it would likely be semi-lethal to lethal if it penetrated the neck or head. As such, Ms McGregor may have sustained a semi-lethal injury to an artery or nerves, ultimately succumbing to sepsis, perhaps.

  4. Stan Copp says:

    My apologies — the bullet in a CB or BB 22 caliber weighed about 1 gram, not 1 ounce.

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