Ada McCallum: the life of a famous Halifax madam

Ada McCallum

Operating outside the law, Ada Jane McCallum was once one of Halifax’s most influential women.

She became world-renowned for the brothels she ran in Halifax. There are even reports that her name and services were once posted on a public toilet wall in a little town in Russia and another on a billboard in a stadium in Tokyo, Japan.

McCallum’s early life had been a devastating situation for her. It seems her parents, with six children, in the 1900s, had immigrated from England to a farm in Manitoba. McCallum was born there in 1909; she was their last child.

Poverty-stricken, the family often didn’t have enough money to eat properly and the house they lived in was barely warm enough for them to survive the bitter cold outside. McCallum hated her terrible existence. She was only 14 when after several attempts to run away, she finally managed to escape to Winnipeg where in desperation, she soon ended up as a sex-trade worker.

In the late 1930s, she married a man who died tragically in an accident only two weeks later. Soon after his death, she married again, this time to a man who took her to Halifax, where he joined the navy. In the spring of 1942, he went to sea and when he returned in the fall, he accused her of disappearing from their home.

What he would later learn was that while he was away, Ada had somehow managed, after its madam had died, to take over running a brothel on Hollis Street.

It was the ideal time to take over such an enterprise because, during the Second World War, the city was overflowing with military men from all over Canada.

It was said that, at times, there was a long lineup of them waiting outside her brothel and some of them, were often heard to jokingly declare, “I’m going to die at 51 Hollis Street!”

What is so remarkable about McCallum is that she soon developed important contacts who often commented on her strict personal morals.

To prove that this was the case, they insisted she imposed tight rules at her brothel. Her workers could never go out alone at night or solicit clients on the street. She also would not tolerate what she called unacceptable behaviour.

Above all, she was kind to her “employees.” They always had good food, were paid fairly, and safe from pimps and street life. She also respected clients’ confidentiality, shielding them from harassment and exposure.

Soon after her marriage Ada decided she wanted to adopt a child. It appears she found a little boy at an orphanage and. in February 1945, she and her husband adopted him.

What is truly engrossing about McCallum’s story is to do some research on the many court charges she faced during her days as a madam. High-profile Halifax lawyers often represented her. A number of them became influential members of the Nova Scotia Legislature.

Many of them described her as being a very intelligent woman and a client who also “paid very well!” One of her lawyers defended her in court by arguing her business venture no longer carried the same sigma that it once had, that it generated no violence or other crimes, and there was no hurt to persons or property.

He went on to state categorically, that she was not the motivator of the crime, but rather was answering a demand from within the community.

It was in the spring of 1983 that McCallum’s activities were again in the headlines. She had been charged with evading about $57,000 in income taxes.

The case dragged on for several months, mainly because it was impossible to determine how much money she actually earned. But finally, in June 1983, she was fined $18,000 and it was agreed she could pay quarterly payments spread over the next three years.

There’s little doubt that this probably never took place, as she had informed the court that in February 1981, she had declared bankruptcy. McCallum was 76 when she died at the Dartmouth General Hospital on Nov. 15, 1986. Emphysema was given as the case of her death. She had the reputation of smoking some three packages of cigarettes every.

Only about 20 people attended McCallum’s funeral at Pleasant Hill Cemetery in Lower Sackville. She was buried next to her mother and coincidently, near the grave of a former Halifax police chief.

Author’s Note: For more than a year, I have been working on a book about Ada McCallum and am currently seeking a publisher to share this remarkable story.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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