Walking the quaint streets of Halifax on a pleasant spring afternoon, the last thing you’d expect to see would be mass drunkenness, vandalism, looting and public orgiastic sex. But this is exactly the scene which greeted the eyes of passers-by on May 8, 1945. This was VE-Day, designated to celebrate the victory of the Allies over Nazi Germany in Europe. To say that the celebration got a little out of hand in Nova Scotia’s capital and chief port would be an understatement.
What led up to this not wholly unanticipated event? For starters there were approximately thirty thousand out-of-towners, mostly male military personnel, jammed into this tiny city for a period of several years. Local entertainment resources were stretched to the limit, and after an epidemic of teenage pregnancies the Halifax citizens had taken to keeping their daughters out of sight. The relationship between Haligonians and their reluctant guests became quite strained. On one side military personnel claimed that they were subjected to gouging rents for shoddy accommodation and were being overcharged and taken advantage of. The locals, on the other hand, became leery of the rowdy Pay Day behavior (of sailors especially) and were soon fed up with comments from Upper Canadians and Westerners about how much better things were back home. Disparaging remarks about everything from the local tram service to the weather to the Oland’s Moosehead beer served in canteens did not make for “warm and fuzzy” feelings towards the “come-from-aways”. There were grumblings among the naval ratings that Halifax was going to be made to pay. And pay the city did, to the tune of a then staggering five million dollars.
The rioting began late on May 7, after the surrender of Axis forces in Europe was announced. Firm action may have prevented the disturbance from spreading, but this was not to be. Part of the problem was the “Open Gangway” principle whereby sailors were allowed to stay off ship or base overnight, unlike the other branches of the military which were subject to a curfew. This was aggravated by the navy’s policy of avoiding the use of force in containing misconduct. Stanley Redman in his book Open Gangway tells us that Rear-Admiral Leonard Warren Murray believed the fantasy that if locals saw their brave defenders being subjected to arrest THEY would be the ones to start a riot. It is reported that Admiral Murray slept soundly that first night of rioting, none of his officers seeing fit to notify him that naval personnel were in the process of torching the scorned city trams and looting liquor stores.
The rioting and looting continued through the night and through the next day. Concomitantly, Admiral Murray led an official Thanksgiving Service, and in what became known as “Admiral Murray’s Folly” decided that marching troops downtown past and through the rioters would settle down the pillage and vandalism. What his marchers saw was hundreds of their confreres carrying looted cases of spirits, beer and wine, having a heck of a party. So much alcohol was spilled that the gutters ran with spirits and the entire downtown smelled like a distillery (and shortly after like a urinal). In the parks couples were openly making love and in an empty lot on Hollis Street, twelve sailors and two WREN’s were giving a public display of amorous behavior. One naked WREN feeling a bit modest, wrapped herself in a Union Jack.
It is said that film and movie footage of the riots, including the public orgies remained in naval archives for years. Rumor has it that workers in this office would review the film footage during moments of boredom. Later the photo documentation all disappeared, allegedly seized by armed plainclothes military personnel, with the excuse that the acetate film was a fire hazard and had to be destroyed.
Needless to say “Murray’s Folly” was exactly that. Most of the marchers deserted to join the fun and rioting continued unabated. The Gangway was left open and thousands more joined the party. In total 6,987 cases of beer, 1,225 cases of wine and 5,018 cases of spirit disappeared from stores and warehouses. Entrepreneurial individuals turned the raised tombs of nearby St. Paul’s Cemetery into impromptu bars. Hastily wrapped parcels, gurgling and clinking, appeared in the outgoing mail in large numbers the following day. Most were seized. A patient of mine recalls bottles of liquor being left with her father, and being hidden in heating pipes when the authorities went house to house in search of contraband.
The rioting abated by the evening of May 8, due partly to inclement weather and partly due to the arrival of a thousand troops from the army base in Debert, Nova Scotia. However, delayed action and apparent incompetence had given the city a celebration it would remember for generations.
What causes outbursts of behavior such as the VE-Day Riots? Social scientists call mass actions like these “collective behavior”, occurring simultaneously among large numbers of people, and outside the standards of what society usually considers acceptable. Riots are a form of collective behavior. Although termed a riot, the VE-Day activities in Halifax had more in common with another form of collective behavior, the carnival. The primary motivator was a release of tension or catharsis, but despite an undercurrent of resentment, there was more public manifestation of petty vandalism and amorous displays than of directed violence, in keeping with what one would see in pre-Lenten celebrations such as the carnival in Rio or Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Years of wartime stress and sexual repression were vented by those most likely to express it, young men (and some women) from out of town, who could let loose without apparent concern of being known or castigated for their misbehavior.
In Freudian terms, one could say that the internal parent, the superego, takes a break under these exceptional circumstances and the inner “naughty child”, the id, takes over. Paraphrasing the ancient Greeks, Nietzsche would characterize this as Dionysian behavior triumphing temporarily over the Apollonian. During times such as these our thin veneer of civilization wears through and the darker side of the human psyche manifests.
Several hundred of the rioters were eventually apprehended and punished. Vice-Admiral George C. Jones, Chief of Navy Staff, visited Halifax and had a “little chat” with Admiral Murray, the contents on which we can only speculate. Hearings were held and Halifax publications blamed outsiders and outsiders blamed Halifax for the “snafu”.
Eventually the damage was repaired and the city returned to a semblance of normalcy. Few tears were shed (except perhaps by landlords) when large numbers of troops were demobilized and returned to their homes away from Nova Scotia.
1. Martin, Douglas (Social Psychology (35-365) notes on collective behavior
2. Redman, Stanley R.: Open Gangway: An Account of the Halifax Riots, 1945; Lancelot Press, Hantsport NS; 1981
3. Welford, Megan: “Carnival! A study of the relationship between carnival and society. Cultural Studies from Birmingham
Photos Courtesy Of George Burden
Originally Published In The Medical Post