by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)
Reginald Robinson gained the wrath of Canadian editors, who wrote that his highly-exaggerated — if not outright fictional — dispatches to U.S. newspapers brought disrepute to the nation’s “legitimate” correspondents and newspapers.
According to an editorial in the Vancouver World on September 18, 1908, if the man known as the “Winnipeg Liar” would only label his output as fiction, he would be in the company of then highly-popular sci-fi authors Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.
“He doesn’t lie for lying’s sake. He gets into the newspapers at space rates (it was common at the time for correspondents to be paid per column inch), which shows that he lies as much for money as to maintain his reputation.”
The newspaper alleged his two major topics were the weather and wheat. The World claimed that the “Winnipeg Liar” killed off prairie wheat crops two or three times during a growing season with stories about devastating frosts covering wide swaths of the plains.
In a letter to the editor of the Manitoba Free Press, published on November 5, 1903, Canadian immigration agent R.H. Odell wrote that the “Winnipeg Liar” had sent a story picked up by numerous American newspapers that three feet of snow fell throughout Western Canada, which killed thousands of head of cattle and ruined half the year’s grain crop.
The reality, wrote Odell, was that only a couple of centimetres of snow had fallen and it quickly melted. Odell commented that the damage done by the snow was “trifling.”
“But all of the denials of this lie and all the truth-telling which can be done in a year, will not undo the injury done to Western Canada by that regarding the snow storm,” he added.
In another instance, reported in the Ottawa Free Press and carried by the Edmonton Capital on March 23, 1910, under the headline, The Winnipeg Liar, it was reported that Archibald Blue, the chief of the Canadian Census Bureau, had to deal with “the irresponsible newspaper correspondent” in the bureau’s publication for creating a sensation by sending “out lying dispatches all over the world.”
Blue wrote that after a hail storm the previous year, the “Winnipeg Liar” sent out a dispatch claiming 700,000 acres had been wiped out by the storm. The next day the extent of damage was increased to one million acres.
“Mr. Blue points out that not since the ice age could there have been such a storm as that portrayed by the Winnipeg prevaricator ... As a fact, the whole area hailed out last season was less than 20,000 acres.”
Canadian immigration agents, the Winnipeg Board of Trade (chamber of commerce, today), and other business organizations were not amused by the “Winnipeg Liar’s” dispatches to the outside world. They thought his wild exaggerations gave a false impression of the city, Manitoba and Western Canada to potential investors and settlers.
Western Canadian immigration commissioner, J. (John) Obed Smith, threatened Robinson with prosecution if he continued to submit his yarns to American newspapers.
In retaliation, the “Winnipeg Liar” gave an invented story to a Minneapolis newspaper “about a Ukrainian in Winnipeg named Obed Smithsky, who had gone crazy and cut off his wife’s head with an axe” (Winnipeg Free Press, November 30, 1972).
Even those lacking Robinson’s over-heated imagination could see that the improvised Slavic name mentioned in the story involved the addition of “sky” to the end of “Smith” and that Obed was one of the immigration agent’s given names.
“The story was played up on the front page (of the Minneapolis newspaper) and created a lot of amusement in Winnipeg. Smith threatened to sue the paper for libel but finally decided that if he was wise, he would forget the matter.”
On dull news days, Robinson approached Albert Robert Snook, otherwise known as “Ginger Snook” (Robinson used the last name Snooks, a name that was also given to him, and articles over years have used the two last names interchangeably, although Snook was his real last name) for his comments on items of importance at the time, such as women’s suffrage and the goings on at city hall (he had a front row seat at council meetings). Ginger Snook, described as having a “picturesque personality,” had a legendary reputation for his folksy wit and humour.
When not running for city alderman (today’s councillor; a position he failed to achieve despite being a perennial candidate) or the city’s board of control (no longer in existence, but those the four-member elected body dealt with city financial and administrative matters), Ginger Snook was awarded the contract as city scavenger — garbage collector. He became relatively wealthy by investing in trucking and real estate, although by the time of his death in 1926, Snook’s money had disappeared.
Snook’s commentaries at public meetings were spiked with colourful language while engaged in verbal attacks on city councillors and their failings in public office. To emphasize the musings of Ginger, Robinson inserted a brogue (Snook was born in England, but was of Irish descent) into his copy of the musings that he attributed to the garbage collector.
On April 23, 1894, an article appeared in the Tribune in which Snook alleged he had nabbed Charley Peace, a supposedly “celebrated bogglar,” and not a man named Robinson (a coincidence?) as earlier reported, and threatened to write the city’s newspapers telling them as such.
Actually, Snook had once been a police officer in London, England, and had a hand in the capture of Charley Peace, who was known in Britain as the “King of the Burglars.”
A portion of the conversation as recorded by a “Tribune reporter,” with slang attributed to Snook to invoke humour, went:
“‘But you don’t mean to say, Mr. Snooks, that any one was so foolish to publish his story do you?
“‘Don’t I just? That theer new paper had the whole thing in last Wednesday and was a making a big spread about it; they said as he were a recent arrival and he’s been knockin’ around for a ‘ear,’ said Mr. Snooks with a smile which, however, soon disappeared to be followed by the original troubled aspect of countenance; ‘and it’s all — lies,’ he added.
“‘How do you know it is, Mr. Snooks?
“‘How do I know? Pshaw, see here,’ said Mr. Snooks, turning away in disgust at the reporter’s ignorance; ‘didn’t I live there — wasn’t it a man like me what captured Peace — yes, sir, my himmage! — Me and (two other names the reporter forgot) — ‘had more to do with capturing Charley Peace, nor that fellow Robinson’”
Whether a teller of tall tales or a humourist prone to stretch the truth for the sake of a “good” story, Reginald Robinson was famous in the city for a relatively short period of time. What happened to him is hard to determine, as no accounts of his life in local newspapers mention Robinson beyond his time as the “Winnipeg Liar,” and none has a photo of Robinson.
But many Winnipeggers forgave Robinson for his flights of fancy and regarded him affectionately — with the exception of the board of trade — as the man who “put the city on the map” (Winnipeg Where the New West Begins: An Illustrated History, by Eric Wells).