by Bruce Cherney (part1)
In the realm of journalistic exaggeration, few could match the tall tales told by Reginald Robinson, a Winnipeg-based correspondent for a number of U.S. newspapers. It was said of Robinson that he never let the truth get in the way of a good story. In fact, Robinson became famously known — or infamously, depending upon the source — across North America and overseas as the “Winnipeg Liar.”
Arthur R. Ford, a former editor of the Winnipeg Tribune, wrote in the newspaper on August 17, 1940, that Robinson “was rather proud of the title, which was gained by the fantastic stories he sent to American papers in regard to Winnipeg and the West.”
Despite being known far and wide as the “Winnipeg Liar,” Ford actually said of Robinson: “There was never a better reporter. He knew all the underworld,” although editors with the Tribune had to carefully check his copy.
Still, he had “many a scoop scored for the old Tribune,” according to Ford.
In a November 30, 1972, Winnipeg Free Press article, The Winnipeg Liar — A True Story, it was written that the city’s newspapers in their early days “attracted all manner of non-conformist individuals,” and at the top of the list was Robinson, who worked on and off for local newspapers, although his chief source of income was as a freelance writer for U.S. newspapers.
“Then, there was no telegraph news service and U.S. papers depended upon such correspondents. The (American) editors still envisaged the Canadian West as a wild pioneer country with Indians, Mounties and cowboys. Robinson didn’t discourage this impression and when news was short, he simply made stories up.”
And the more outrageous and fantastic the tales, the more likely Robinson’s stories would be picked up and he received a pay cheque.
One such extraordinary tale by Robinson was written during the winter of 1890. Robinson wrote that the snow was so deep that it completely covered all the buildings in Winnipeg and tunnels had to be dug along the streets.
“Beneath the thick blanket of snow thousands of people were travelling about, even driving horses, and the city was snug an secure in its vast igloo (Winnipeg Where the New West Begins: An Illustrated History, by Eric Wells). The story had tremendous reader appeal, and it was picked up by countless newspapers around the world.”
In another winter tale, which was carried by a Long Beach, California newspaper and sent out by the Scripps News Service on January 7, 1907, under the headline, Wolves Roam the Streets of Winnipeg, the “Winnipeg Liar” wrote: “A heavy snow, with cold weather, has driven wolves and coyotes into the towns in such numbers that women and children are terrorized. The animals are in search of food and are so cold that they invade the busiest streets of this city (Winnipeg). A big fellow was chased out of town last night by an improvised hunting party, Saturday evening. Willis Underwood was attacked by three wolves and took refuge in a tree. If the wolves continue to seek the cities, armed guards will be posted on the outskirts.”
Reporting on the “Winnipeg Liar” and his false dispatches to the American press, the Free Press said such tales have done “great damage to Winnipeg and the country and brought disrepute to respectable newspaper men.”
It called the report of wolves and coyotes roaming Winnipeg streets “absurd in the extreme.”
Yet another fabricated tale about flooding in Winnipeg was reported in Montreal and then went out by the news wires and was picked up by other papers as far west as Vancouver and south into the U.S.
The Grand Forks Herald reported the story under the headline, Great Flood at Winnipeg! Red River is Ebbing Down Main Street and Great Damage is Feared. According to the article, the flood waters had risen 19 feet in one day.
In an April 14, 1904, editorial, the Free Press claimed the “weird tale” was “concocted by the Winnipeg Liar,” who was at the time on the staff of the Tribune.
There was a flood that year, but only a few business basements along Main Street were inundated, and just as quickly as the water rose, it subsided. Most threatened were the bridges across the Red and Assiniboine rivers, which did sustain damage from ice floes carried by fast flowing water.
The Free Press editorial promised “to secure from every member of its staff who acts as a correspondent for outside papers a release order permitting the inspection of all matter filed for transmission abroad ...” It urged all the city newspapers to do the same. The editorial specifically singled out the Tribune for criticism for allowing a member of its staff to file such an exaggerated story.
Over the years, some of the “false” reports may have not been filed by Robinson, but other correspondents whose imaginations had been let loose to play havoc with the world’s newspaper wire services. The Free Press admitted as much on October 30, 1903, when it claimed there were “several correspondents in Winnipeg” who were “professional fabricators.” The reason for their fabrications was the need to eke out a living from sensationalistic American publications when they were denied employment by “legitimate” local newspapers.
Commenting on these tellers of tales, the Free Press wrote that: “Trivial occurrences are magnified and distorted beyond conception of anything but a diseased imagination ...”
Yet, the scribes exercising the tools of distortion all fall under the name “Winnipeg Liar,” which was the title conferred on Robinson by his peers, and it can be assumed he was the primary author of many of the tall tales.
One story that can be directly attributed to Robinson involved a miscommunication that led to a mythical sinking of a steamer on Lake Winnipeg and a great loss of life.
“He had sent to his papers a legitimate query regarding the death of four hunters in a northern lake but through a mistake by telegraph operators the query read ‘four hundred’ rather than ‘four hunters’ when it reached the U.S. editors (Free Press, November 30, 1972).
“He got back frantic wires asking for columns of type on this terrific disaster. Undeterred, he worked all night over his typewriter, sinking a steamer in Lake Winnipeg, interviewing the imaginary survivors and giving all the supposed details.”
The imaginative writer claimed the 400 hundred victims were Icelandic school picnickers — a fragment of information designed to add a bit of credence to his fanciful account since it was known outside of Manitoba that some communities along the shores of the lake were settled by Icelandic immigrants. Other stories about the Icelandic immigrants had periodically appeared in newspapers across Canada and the U.S.
The correspondent for the Montreal Star, who was the city editor for the Winnipeg Telegram, received a wire the following morning demanding to know why he hadn’t sent a story on the disaster. The frantic wires from editors in other cities were the first indication to Winnipeg reporters that the preposterous story had been filed by Robinson. How could they submit articles on an event that didn’t happen? — which was exactly what they told the out-of-town editors.
On the Vancouver World’s editorial page, a report from Collier’s Weekly appeared on September 18, 1908, under the heading, The Winnipeg Liar. The story was about an alleged riot on a special excursion train carrying labourers who were hired by grain farmers to help harvest grain crops across Western Canada. The story was exposed as a fabrication, but the “Winnipeg Liar” wasn’t about to deny his story wasn’t true. According to the World, the “Winnipeg Liar” was “no ordinary liar,” and had become a “national institution that we must respect.”
(Next week: part 2)