Vancouver’s Seedy Underbelly : The Unspoken Dark History

Vancouver Art Gallery

Starting at the Vancouver Art Gallery in the pouring rain, many stood, waiting for the Murders, Mysteries & Mayhem Tour of Vancouver, BC, to begin. It was a great way to start the Halloween weekend by learning about Vancouver’s seedy underbelly from  the lady, Jess, who wrote the hour-and-a-half tour herself. The dark, rainy weather was the perfect setting for such a tour.

Living in Vancouver our whole lives, we figured this would be a good opportunity to learn about the un-spoken stories, or the dark side of beautiful Vancouver.

For those of you who live in BC, you have probably been looking at the work of Francis Mawson Rattenbury all your life. He was responsible for many of the province’s most famous landmarks including: the British Columbia Parliament Buildings (1893-1898) in Victoria, the Empress Hotel (1904-1908) in Victoria, the Vancouver Courthouse (1906) and Crystal Gardens, Victoria (1923). He was an architect, found much success in his life and was eventually a victim of a famous crime. The Vancouver Courthouse (1906) is now home to the Vancouver Art Gallery.

In 1898 he married Florence Nunn of Victoria, but had the marriage fall apart by 1923. The remained living in the same house, but no longer spoke and Rattenbury started having an affair in that house, within ear-shot of his wife. Ratz, as he was called by his friends, moved his new love Alma into his house, and lived with her on the second floor while his wife lived upstairs. That union eventually crumbled and Alma fell in love with a 17 year old boy, George Stoner, who was a chauffeur for the family. Thinking he was losing Alma, George took a mallet from his grandmother’s home and smashed in Rattenbury’s head in what was described as an incredibly gruesome scene. Ratz died in hospital soon after.

Neon Lights – Vogue Theatre In The Distance

The Vogue Theatre is an icon of Vancouver’s entertainment district that lies within Granville street that is lit up with bright, neon signs at night. Many different acts would come through Vancouver, one being an acrobatic show where one of the men fell to his death, landed half on the stage and half over the stage. This gruesome sight lead to a stampede of people trying to get away from the dead man and it is said that to this day he still haunts the Vogue.

Vancouver favors neon signs since it rains 200+ days a year. The neon signs keep Vancouver looking stunning even in horrible weather. The neon signs help maintain its beauty and if you have seen Vancouver on a beautiful day and on a day filled with horrible weather, you’ll understand how well the signs do work to beautify the entertainment hot-spots.

White Spot’s milkshakes are a definite refresher during a hot summer day and were the favorite of Esther Castellini, the wife of Rene Castellani a radio promotional manager and the Milkshake Murderer. In the summer of 1965, it was those milkshakes Castellani used to slowly poison his wife after falling for a mistress and deciding poisoning her with a vanilla milkshake a la arsenic was the best way to get rid of her. Playing the role of a devoted husband, he brought her daily treats of the spiked milkshakes and even continued bringing the milkshakes after she was hospitalized from health failure.

At 1154 West Broadway Street, you will find the Toys ‘R’ Us neon sign, sandwiching the old neon Bowmac sign, which used to be an old car dealership. The original sign is historic and cannot be removed so Toys ‘R’ Us decided this was the solution.

During a publicity stunt, Castellani climbed up to the platform atop the sign and vowed to stay and broadcast from there until every car on the lot was sold; it took three weeks. A curious intern asked for an autopsy on Esther and extreme levels of arsenic were found through testing her hair. Police searched Castellani’s home while he was on vacation with his mistress and found the container of poison. The death penalty was removed in Vancouver while he was waiting to find out his fate, so Castellani only received life in prison. His wife Esther succumbed in August of 1965.

Cathedral Of The Holy Rosary

Captain Alfred M. Hubbard is widely credited for being the first person to emphasize LSD’s potential as a visionary or transcendental drug.

He was known as the “Johnny Appleseed of LSD“. He had such strong faith in the LSD revelation that he made it his life’s mission to turn on as many men and women as possible to LSD. Hubbard was so influential that he even received permission from Rome to administer LSD within the context of the Catholic faith. Hubbard’s converts included the Reverend J. E. Brown, a Catholic priest at the Cathedral of the Holy Rosary in Vancouver.

Reverend J. E. Brown recommended that the members of the parish try LSD to help them have a closer, spiritual relationship. In a letter to the faithful dated December 8, 1957, he wrote, “We humbly ask Our Heavenly Mother the Virgin Mary, help of all who call upon Her to aid us to know and understand the true qualities of these psychedelics, the full capacities of man’s noblest faculties and according to God’s laws to use them for the benefit of mankind here and in eternity.”

As a party arrives at the Gotham Steakhouse and Cocktail Bar downtown, gunmen cross the street near the  Hudson’s Bay department store and open fire. Two men are killed. Among the patrons in Gotham at the time was Actor Keanu Reeves who was in town to film a remake of the 1950s movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Gastown – Even Beautiful In The Rain

Walking through gorgeous Gastown, we were told of the famous “Gassy Jack”, an entrepreneurial proprietor who opened a saloon in a rough-and-tumble area that was not yet known as Gastown. This lead to more saloons and brothels moving in the area. In Victorian times the term ‘to gas’ referred to talking a lot, which Captain Deighton had become famous for.

The saloon was a makeshift structure: a 12′ by 24′ board-and-batten shack. In 1867 he told the workers in the harbor that they could have all the whiskey a man could drink if they helped him build a saloon.  Within 24 hours “The Globe” was up and running.

“Gassy Jack”

A large maple tree grew close by and eventually the spot became known as Maple Tree Square. Today it’s the intersection of Water and Carrall. The maple tree is now gone, but a statue of Gassy Jack remains.

Vancouver’s history is filled with much whisky, brawling, gambling and colorful characters. Gassy Jack was a businessman and scoundrel extraordinaire. Years after his death, Vancouver remained a hard drinking, morally corrupt city.

The Ramada Hotel was once the Niagra Falls Hotel and Bar. Gilbert Paul Jordan, known as the “Boozing Barber”, was linked to the deaths of 10 women during this time and this hotel was one of his spots for picking up women. He would also take some back to his Barber Shop. “The alcohol murders”, as they were known, occurred in Vancouver between 1965 and 1988.

Jordan stalked Native prostitutes in Vancouver, paying them to drink heavily with him and he had an he insatiable quest for drunken sex. Once a victim would pass out, Jordan continued to pour liquor down their throats, which would eventually kill them. This caused the deaths to be reported as alcohol poisoning and the police did not look deeper into it because each victim had a history of prostitution and alcoholism. Jordan was also the first Canadian to use alcohol as a murder weapon.

A Liberal with 22 years in office, William Lyon Mackenzie King was longest-serving Prime Minister in Canadian history. While he was was Minister Of Labor, King was appointed to investigate the causes of and claims for compensation resulting from the 1907 Asiatic Exclusion League riots in Vancouver’s Chinatown and Japantown. It was during this investigation of damages claims from Chinese opium manufacturers that led King to discover that narcotics were used by white women, not just Chinese men. He then initiated the process that led to the first legislation outlawing narcotics in Canada.

The unusual thing about Prime Minister King is that he preferred to consult the spirit world for advice. King had a crystal ball and a Ouija board, and made use of both to communicate with ghosts. Canadian sources mentioned only that King and his friends enjoyed the fad of spiritualism and did not mention that he based his government and choose policies due to the answers the Ouija board was telling him. It wasn’t until after he died that his diaries revealed that all of the political actions of his government had been based on the imagined advice of his dead mother.

The 1907 Chinatown Race Riots were advertised in news reports, and by the time the parade arrived at city hall, a huge crowd had gathered. Crowd estimates vary between four thousand and eight thousand people. As rioters attacked Chinatown, the angry mob eventually turned toward Japantown, around the Powell Street grounds in what is now Oppenheimer Park. Vancouver has always had a dark side of racism, poverty and scapegoating.

Pro-marijuana activists spread the word that a giant “smoke-in” was going to be held at Maple Tree Square in Gastown. The Grasstown Police Riot of 1971, or the “The Battle of Maple Tree Square” drew more than 1,000 people to Gastown as a protest against the illegality of marijuana. The Vancouver police showed up on horseback to monitor the proceedings, which included an impromptu chant against hippie-hating Vancouver mayor Tom Campbell and a speech against the police’s anti-drug campaign Operation Dustpan. The police did not find this funny and the cops beat peaceful protestors from horseback and smashed reporters’ cameras, causing mass panic.

The Woodwards “W” and Riot Re-Enactment

Beneath the original Woodwards “W”, a large photo showing a re-enactment of the horrific scene can be seen as a reminder of past corruption and how far Vancouver has come.

We were hoping to get a glimpse of the Blood Alley SQ sign, but the sign had been stolen and not yet replaced. Blood Alley was given its name only as something to entertain locals and tourists alike; there is no good reason known for the name.

The tour was great overall. Our guide Jess was fabulous. The tour group was quite large though, making it hard to hear what was being said while taking photos for this post since it was a little fast paced. Would definitely recommend trying one of their tours if you’re in Vancouver.


Keep in mind that this post does not include even close to all the information provided on the tour. Experience the rest of Vancouver’s shady history by joining one — you didn’t expect us to give it all away, did you?

Every city has its stories of wrong-doing and corruption. Have you ever heard any other stories about Vancouver’s dark side that turned out to be true? What about stories from where you live?