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Memorable Manitobans: Joseph Nattaway [Laughing Joe] (c1845-1899)

Street performer.

A famed character to the early residents of Winnipeg, he was partly known by his characteristic crooked arm and limp. As a youth, he lived with his family in East Kildonan and performed chores in the Matheson household where he struck up a friendship with the future Archbishop. [1] This friendship was later renewed when Nattaway served time at the Manitoba penitentiary where the Archbishop Matheson was acting as chaplain. He also discovered a rather unusual talent during his time there. Following his release from prison, he began entertaining people with fits of laughter for five-cent or ten-cent pieces. According to one observer, “Joe laughed in a loud hysterical way and could be heard at a distance of several blocks.” [2] Others compared his laugh to a mule and described it as an “unearthly” sound “which made one’s blood run cold.” [3] Once identified as the “city’s chief tourist attraction,” he was especially popular among easterners who hoped to catch a glimpse of nearby “Indians” on their voyages out west. [4]

He was married to an unknown Aboriginal woman at St. Andrew’s Church in July 1896. [5] On 26 May 1899, he died at St. Boniface Hospital at the age of 54 and was supposedly buried in the neighbourhood. [6] Reporting on his death, the Morning Telegram said, “The small boys of Winnipeg will never again have a chance to hear ‘Laughing Joe.’ The police will never again have to scatter the crowds collected about this well-known street comedian. ‘Laughing Joe’ has passed forever over to the laughless silence of the unknown.” [7]


1. “Even Archbishop learns lesson from Indians on reverence for Sabbath,” Winnipeg Free Press, 26 May 1936, page 4.

2. “When Winnipeg was younger,” plain tales from the eighties by Archie Donaldson as told to A. V. Thomas” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 20 April 1940, page 5.

3. “Unearthly laughter Joe made blood run cold,” Winnipeg Free Press, 1 June 1949. [Manitoba Legislative Library, Biographical Scrapbook B10, page 108]. For a comparison to a mule see Sam Street, “Old-timer’s answer to housing woes,” Winnipeg Free Press, 12 May 1949. [Manitoba Legislative Library, Biographical Scrapbook B10, page 100].

4. “Indian who laughed like mule had city pioneers in stitches,” Winnipeg Tribune, 9 April 1949. [Manitoba Legislative Library, Biographical Scrapbook B10, page 90].

5. Daily Nor’Wester, 17 July 1896, page 4.

6. Death registration, Manitoba Vital Statistics; Matheson, Winnipeg Free Press, 26 May 1936, page 4; Manitoba Free Press, 29 May 1899, page 2.

7. Morning Telegram, 27 May 1899, page 3.

This page was prepared by Sarah Ramsden.

Page revised: 17 August 2010

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