Chambermaid blues

Railway & Main

Joan Chase

Chambermaids were essential to the operation of a small-town Saskatchewan hotel back in the early 1900s. The hotel chambermaid worked from morning ‘til night, cleaning guest rooms, doing laundry and washing dishes, for which they were paid $30 per month, plus room and board.

Some aspects of a chambermaid’s work were less than appealing. In the days before hotels had running water, chambermaids’ duties included retrieving chamber pots from under beds and emptying the contents into a receptacle behind the hotel building. And, in the “occupational hazard” department, chambermaids were usually the ones who discovered dead bodies in hotel rooms.

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The most appalling story I have come across about a chambermaid in a small-town Saskatchewan hotel is the drugging and rape of Pauline Gerring in 1920. At age 19, Pauline applied for a position as a chambermaid at the hotel at Chaplin, located half way between Moose Jaw and Swift Current. When she arrived, she was shown to her room by the hotel manager, a woman of some disrepute named Virginia Paul.

At the end of her first day on the job, Gerring was invited to a drinking party at the hotel proprietor’s house where she met a member of the Saskatchewan Provincial Police (SPP), Constable Harold Dewhirst. Prohibition was in full swing in the province, and it was the job of the SPP to enforce the Temperance Act. Dewhirst had other ideas. On the night of Nov. 10, 1920, Gerring’s second night of work, the policeman and Virginia Paul gave the young girl two drinks of whiskey in the hotel. When the chambermaid refused a third drink of whiskey, Paul held a glass of water to the girl’s lips while she drank. The next thing Gerring remembered was waking up in the morning, partially dressed, with Constable Dewhirst in her bed.

As a result of Pauline Gerring’s complaint, Virginia Paul was charged with unlawfully administering drugs, and, along with Constable Dewhirst, with violating the Temperance Act. Dewhirst was also charged with a breach of the Provincial Police Act, fined, and dismissed from the force. He was later charged with bribing Pauline Gerring to disappear so that she would not testify against him on the rape charge. Gerring ran to Calgary. When she was brought back to Regina to testify, she was so frightened that she ran away a second time. On Feb. 28, 1921, after two trial adjournments, the rape charge against Dewhirst was dropped because Pauline Gerring refused to tell her story.

Dewhirst told his side of the sordid affair in a letter to the Regina Leader-Post on Feb. 4, 1922. “The whole thing simmers down to a jazz party, such as are carried on every day,” the unemployed former policeman wrote. He went on to blame Pauline Gerring, who “was not used to drinking liquor. She admits herself to two or three drinks. How much liquor will a person take if not used to it?” As for his violation of the Temperance Act, “how many persons holding important positions even of a more exacting nature that a policeman’s have also violated the [Act]?”

This crime against the young chambermaid at the Chaplin Hotel is an example of the negative effects of Prohibition. The growth of the illegal liquor trade in Saskatchewan fostered excessive drinking and made criminals out of many, including policemen.

After the decimating effects of Prohibition (1915-1924) on Saskatchewan’s hotels, and the subsequent onset of the Great Depression, there was no money to hire chambermaids or other hotel staff. All members of the hotel owner’s family had to share in the work of running the hotel. For example, Harry Swanson, owner of the Snowden Hotel, married his wife Aster in 1936. “I brought my new bride home to the new venture,” Swanson wrote in Snowden’s local history book. “She became cook, waitress, chambermaid, and did the washing by hand; what a job for my bride!”

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