Chief Inspector Charles E. Romain shut down illegal booze business

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

When I first began my serious exploration of local history in the early 1980s, I quickly realized that alcohol loomed very large in the society of the 19th century.

Grain, the major raw ingredient of alcohol, provided farmers with cash income at a time when they were building up their farm investments. The manufacture of booze provided employment and economic activity.

Dozens of men and women worked as hotel keepers and bar tenders. The regulation of alcohol ranked high as a hot political issue for decades, and the temperance movement dominated social thinking well into the 20th century.

Of the countless people involved with alcohol in one way or another, none has so intrigued me as Charles Romain.

Shortly after Confederation in 1867 he was appointed the local inspector of the new Department of Inland Revenue. His chief responsibility was the collection of the tax on manufactured alcohol.

At the time of his appointment there were eight or 10 legal distilleries in Wellington. Only one of them, Allan’s Distillery in Guelph, paid its tax regularly without complaint. More challenging for Romain were the uncounted illegal distilleries scattered across the county, but concentrated in Luther, Arthur and Maryborough Townships. With few exceptions these were carefully secluded at the backs of farms. Wags named their vile products swamp whiskey and Maryborough Forty Rod. The latter, reputedly, could kill an unsuspecting imbiber at that distance.

But this is getting ahead of the story. Charles Romain had a fascinating career before he received his appointment, which came when he was 49 years old, an age when most law enforcement officials can see retirement on the horizon.

Charles Romain was born in 1820 at Point Levis, near Quebec City. His father, Pierre Romain, was Italian, one of the few in Canada at that time. Italians did not migrate to North America in major numbers until the 1880s. The elder Romain had considerable sums of money, which appears to have been of murky origin. Pierre Romain seems to have been a refugee from the Napoleonic Wars, fleeing Europe with full pockets.

In any case, the Romains moved to Kingston and then Toronto when Charles was a boy. Pierre Romain found ready acceptance among the social elite of Toronto.

Young Charles enrolled in Upper Canada College, picking up the high Tory political beliefs and attitudes that he retained all his life. His closest school chum was John Beverley Robinson, Jr., son of the chief justice and himself Lieutenant Governor of Ontario in the 1880s.

Romain and Robinson both participated in the rout of William Lyon Mackenzie at Montgomery’s Tavern during the 1837 Rebellion.

On graduating from school, Charles Romain moved to Philadelphia, where he worked in the publishing industry for a couple of years. Returning to Canada in 1841, he married and moved to Cooksville, where he invested some of the family fortune in a saw mill. It did a profitable business while it lasted. The sawmill burned down in the late 1840s. Rather than rebuild, Charles went into the importing business with his brother Frank. The partnership lasted about five years.

By now it was the early 1850s, and the beginning of the land speculation boom that characterized Upper Canada in that decade. Getting in at the beginning, Charles Romain was one of the few to make money on the financial bubble. He worked in partnership with Samuel Zimmerman in many of these real estate deals. Together, Romain and Zimmerman became known as the Kings of the Speculators.

Samuel Zimmerman had made his fortune as a railway contractor. Later, he owned a steamship line on Lake Ontario and founded the Zimmerman Bank. The latter was one of Canada’s free banks, an unsuccessful scheme to improve banking facilities in Canada, particularly in smaller centres. They were modelled somewhat on the state-chartered banks of the United States.

By the late 1850s, Romain had sold most of his property, but his involvement with the Zimmerman Bank, which had lent to other speculators, threatened his fortune.

Disaster struck in 1857, when Zimmerman perished in the famous 1857 Desjardins Canal bridge collapse, near Hamilton. Zimmerman’s death brought down the Zimmerman Bank, and with it the balance of Charles Romain’s fortune. 

Sharpshooter – Chief Inspector Charles E. Romain singlehandedly shut down the illegal booze making industry in Wellington County in the 1870s. His effete appearance fooled more than one moonshiner. He could outrun and capture in a swamp men half his age. He was also an expert marksman with a pistol, a skill he required more than once in his career.
Wellington County Museum & Archives ph. 11360

But he did not face destitution for long. Upper Canada College’s old boy network came to the rescue.

Gooderham and Worts is remembered today as a distilling firm, but in the 1850s they were also the largest flour millers in Ontario. The Gooderham family also controlled the Bank of Toronto. Romain had gone to school with members of the Gooderham family, and had mixed socially with them for 20 years.

They hired him to come to Guelph to supervise the construction of a grain elevator adjoining the newly completed Grand Trunk Railway station. Romain stayed on in Guelph, setting up a grain buying office.

Gooderham and Worts had an insatiable demand for grain. Romain undercut rival grain buyers, and tried to minimize day-to-day price movements so that farmers had a reasonable idea of what they would get when they took a wagon load of grain to town. Romain’s presence and policy had a stabilizing effect on the grain markets in Wellington County and beyond.

Charles Romain had been active in social and political circles in Toronto, serving several terms on Toronto city council.

In Guelph he quickly moved to the centre of the young city’s social circle. With his pleasant mixture of British and European manners, he made friends quickly. His name can be found associated with dozens of social, fraternal and business activities in the Royal City during the 1860s. He left Gooderham and Worts after a few years, and set up a grocery business in Guelph.

The circumstances under which Romain became an inspector, and later chief inspector, for the Department of Inland Revenue are not clear. His financial prospects may have taken yet another dive, leaving him desperate for work. On the other hand, with his background and connections, he should have been able to secure a more lucrative appointment. It is entirely possible that he found the grocery business dull as dishwater, and wanted some excitement in his life.

There had been no full time revenue inspector before Romain’s appointment. He faced many challenges. Distillers in Elora and Fergus evaded tax payments whenever possible. Like their distant cousins in the Appalachians, moonshiners in the north of Wellington disapproved of alcohol taxes in principle, and were quite prepared to defend their operations at gunpoint.

Sometimes working with part-time assistants, but often acting alone, Charles Romain succeeded in shutting down the illicit distilling business in Wellington by the mid 1870s.

When testifying against the moonshiners in court, he could not resist punctuating his evidence with sarcastic comments and asides, greatly enlivening the court proceedings.

Romain was so successful in fulfilling his duties that the federal government abolished his position in 1880, and gave him a pension.

After 21 years in Guelph, Romain and his wife returned to Toronto, where his life finally became quiet and uneventful. He passed away quietly at his home in 1904, four months past his 83rd birthday. Thus ended the life of the most remarkable law enforcement official in Wellington’s history.

Four of his six children survived him, along with several grandchildren. The family brought the body back to Guelph, where Charles Romain now rests in perpetuity in Woodlawn Cemetery.

(Next week: An episode from the continuing adventures of Chief Inspector C.E. Romain.)

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on July 26, 1999. 

Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015