A local singer-songwriter and former journalist is hoping to bring an infamous figure from Halifax’s past back to life.
In his latest novel Madam of the Maritimes, Blain Henshaw uncovers the story of Ada McCallum, who operated one of the country’s most notorious brothels for four decades.
“It was a subject that always interested me,” says the Dartmouth-based author and Seaside FM broadcaster. The now-retired journalist first discovered McCallum while covering several of her court cases back in the 1970s and 1980s.
“She never talked to any of us. You would try to get an interview with her but she would always politely just say no and keep on going,” adds Henshaw, whose talents extend to music as a Nova Scotia Country Hall of Fame inductee. “(But) she was a well-known entity in Halifax (and) everybody knew what Ada did.”
Operating her brothel at 51 Hollis Street (near the intersection of Morris Street), McCallum and her working girls were a popular attraction for thousands of sailors and servicemen who passed through Halifax’s port during the war years. While McCallum may have run an illicit operation, she coveted a healthy amount of respect in certain circles and was known to be one of Halifax’s most skilled businesspersons.
“She was an entrepreneur of sorts,” adds Henshaw, noting McCallum attracted top politicians and the city's elite to her brothel on Hollis Street. “Some of the people that knew her say that she would have succeeded in any business, but prostitution was the one that she had chosen.”
In the book, Henshaw explores the madam’s incredible journey, from failed marriages to taking over noted madam Germaine Pelletier’s famous brothel business at age 33, and her struggles with the law and eventual bankruptcy after being chased down for years by the government for unreported income.
“I want to make one thing clear — the book is not a takedown of Ada McCallum and it’s not an endorsement or condemnation of prostitution or what she did,” notes the author. “It’s a woman’s life story and if she were in any other business, she probably would have been receiving awards and whatnot, but the book is just basically her life story.”
To accomplish his latest project, Henshaw drew from available sources such as publicly-accessible wills and bankruptcy documents as well as first hand accounts with several people who knew McCallum throughout her life. He adds that while her brothel business was often veiled in secrecy and discretion, obtaining her biographical details was rather straightforward.
“Her life was no secret,” notes Henshaw, adding that it was the timing of the book that was the most challenging aspect. “One of the hardest things was that I wrote most of this during the COVID shutdown, so I’m glad I got to the court early and got her bankruptcy documents and the will because during the COVID shutdown, it would have been hard to get to the courthouse and get the information I was looking for.”
Writing what he calls “modern Nova Scotia history,” Henshaw has carved out a successful name for himself with non-fiction narratives that examine such local subjects as the ill-fated final voyage of the Nova Scotia gypsum freighter SS Novadoc in 1947 (All Hands Lost) and the province’s unique history of door-to-door salesmen (The Peddlers).
Although time-consuming and laborious to craft such idiosyncratic historical accounts, Henshaw admits that is just what draws him in retirement to uncover such stories from the province’s past in the first place.
“What I enjoy about writing is the research aspect of it,” admits Henshaw. “It can be difficult but the reward in research is that you turn up little nuggets and stories and you meet some really interesting people and those people kind of always lead you to another story.”
For more information on Madam of the Maritimes, visit the website.