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Manitoba
History

No. 87


War
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in Manitoba


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of Manitoba

Manitoba History: Manitoba’s Own Kentucky Colonel

by Michael Dupuis
Victoria, BC

Number 60, February 2009

On 3 December 1913, “Bloody Jack” Krafchenko shot and killed a bank manager during a successful holdup at the Bank of Montreal in Plum Coulee, a small community outside of Winnipeg. Immediately, “Colonel” G. C. Porter, the city editor of the Winnipeg Telegram, wrote a sensational front-page account of the crime in which he called the thirty-two year old Krafchenko “a crook.” [1] But the story did not end there.

A few days after the Colonel’s story appeared, the wanted Krafchenko turned up at the Telegram building on Albert Street. Brandishing his murder-gun, he confronted the Colonel alone in his office. “I’m a boiler maker not a crook,” shouted Krafchenko and waived his union card to prove it. The Colonel, an avid admirer of guns, pointed to the Luger and drawled in his suave Kentucky accent: “Very nice weapon you have theah, sir.” “Yes, isn’t it?” agreed the killer, taking his eyes momentarily off the Colonel to admire his weapon. Instantly the Colonel whipped his own six-shooter out of his drawer and had Jack covered. “Now, drop that gun and get out!” ordered the Colonel in his best feud-day voice. [2] Krafchenko quickly fled the building onto Albert Street. Meanwhile, the Colonel had a great scoop and was up one good pistol until the police arrived.

Garnet Clay Porter, known popularly in contemporary Canadian newspaper circles as the “Colonel”, was undoubtedly one of the West’s most colourful press personalities. Born 27 May 1866 in Russellville, Kentucky, Porter came to Canada at the age of thirty-four, leaving behind an adventure-filled past, which included episodes as a legal counsel, Kentucky outlaw and feudist, soldier of fortune, and Yukon prospector. A scar on his forehead was a lifelong reminder of a sniper’s bullet he received while shooting and riding in a company of Teddy Roosevelt’s famous Rough Riders. Was Porter a genuine colonel? Yes and no. In 1899, he was in the Blue Grass State editing a small, though influential, newspaper. He backed the right Democratic candidate for governor and his reward was a place on the gentleman’s staff as aide and a Kentucky colonelcy, a title he kept for life.

Settling in Toronto in 1900, supposedly because American lawmen were after him for an old feud shooting in the South, he entered newspaper work and developed into an ace reporter for Billy “Bug Eyes” MacLean, the publisher of the Toronto World. However, in 1904 the owner of the Calgary Herald persuaded Porter to become his editor-in-chief. At the time Calgary was a town of only 4,000 people but the Colonel felt at home with the cowboys, ranchers, Mounties and remittance men. He soon met and became friends with “Bob” Edwards the controversial publisher of the Calgary Eye-Opener.

Many tales developed from their friendship but one of the best involved the Colonel’s wife Nancy. She was entertaining some lady friends from the East and wanted to share the colour of life in Alberta, so she showed them the Eye-Opener. On the paper’s front page, Edwards had run a picture of her husband announcing him as a candidate for the Legislature in the constituency of Hootch. The story went on to predict that the Colonel would sweep the election “because every bartender, poker player, cattle thief and prostitute in the riding is whooping for the Colonel as his supporters.” [3] Predictably, Mrs. Porter failed to see the humour in the story.

In 1906, the newly appointed editor of the Winnipeg Telegram, Mark E. Nichols, convinced the Colonel that the place to end his wanderlust was the Manitoba capital. At the time, the Telegram, nicknamed the “Big Blue Bugle” by the city’s business community, but the “Yellowgram” by organized labour, was competing with the Sifton-owned Liberal Manitoba Free Press and the Richardson-owned Independent Tribune for circulation supremacy in Winnipeg. The fact that the “Tely” was the unapologetic party organ for the provincial Conservative party suited the Colonel perfectly, for he was a staunch Tory and always eager to be of service “to the cause.” New staff soon learned the hard way about the Colonel’s politics. After one of the paper’s young reporters, Vernon Knowles, headlined a story “Laurier Cheered by His Followers,” Porter thundered at Knowles: “Don’t you know that no Grit is ever cheered in the Telegram?” [4]

At the Telegram, Porter cemented his reputation as a hard drinking, cigar smoking, and poker-playing prairie newspaperman. In his autobiography, “For the Life of Me,” James H. Richardson, a cub reporter on the Telegram and later city editor of the Los Angeles Examiner, described the Colonel as “short, stout and red faced with hard little blue eyes that bored right into you. He wore a neatly parted toupee, which didn’t match his graying red hair and sat like a daub of paint on his round head. On hot summer days or in the frenzy of a deadline fever the colonel would remove the hairpiece and toss it on his cluttered desk beside the bottle of milk and the bag of gingersnaps that were his principal on-duty nourishment.” [5]

Richardson also recalled standing knee deep in crumpled paper and cookie crumbs for his first interview with the man who gave him his start in the newspaper business. “Look kid,” the Colonel said removing a frayed cigar from his mouth, “this is not a business for a nice young boy. It’s a tough, hard business and it’s dirty too. You work hard and you work long and you never make any money. You never get to live as other people do. You get to know things that are better unknown. I say you work hard and you work long and you never get to make any money and you grow old and tired and sad and wake up wondering what the hell happened to you.” [6]

For the next ten years, Porter remained at the Telegram and was appointed successively news editor, managing editor and editor-in-chief. There is little doubt that the Colonel was a hard-boiled and demanding editor but he defended his attitude by declaring it was the only way to handle a staff of dynamite-laden reporters, a claim substantiated by Knowles who admitted the staff often produced an extra on a special news story without the Colonel’s knowledge or permission.

Did Porter really keep a loaded pistol in his office desk? Depends who you believe. In A History of Journalism in Canada, W. H. Kesterton insisted that the Colonel “kept a loaded revolver in his desk.” [7] However, veteran Canadian journalist Arthur Ford, who learned the journalist’s art and craft under Porter, offered a different version for the Colonel’s “gun.” Describing how Porter revelled in a sensational or mysterious story, Ford stated that the Colonel “kept in his drawer the cut [illustration] of a smoking revolver to use in the opening paragraph of a good shooting yarn.” [8]

In 1916, the Colonel left the Telegram and became a “stringer” or freelance journalist for several Canadian newspapers, including the country’s two largest dailies, the Montreal Star and the Toronto Evening Telegram. A year later he started his own news service: a one-man version of Canadian Press (CP) called Porter’s International Press News Bureau, which he operated out of the prestigious Royal Alexandra Hotel. Since salaries in postwar Canada were very low for newspaper reporters and journalists, freelance work was used to supplement incomes. Another benefit for stringers was that they were often allowed their own by-line (signature, initials, or full name) on a story in a major daily newspaper or magazine. As a freelancer the Colonel became famous for writing about two sensational events, both occurring in 1919: the Winnipeg general strike and the Ambrose Small murder mystery case.

Between 15 May and 26 June 1919, Winnipeg experienced a dramatic general sympathetic strike involving over 30,000 union and non-union workers. Covering the strike for both Western and Eastern dailies, Porter contributed over fifty stories on the historic industrial dispute. However, there was no need to pitch his work to big city editors because they were eager for fresh news and views on the national news-making event. Over half of his dispatches were sent to the Vancouver Daily Province while the remainder were published in the Vancouver Daily Sun, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Bulletin, Toronto Evening Telegram, and Montreal Star.

While he tried to be objective in his reporting of the walkout, the Colonel could not conceal his anti-union feelings, dislike of several of the strike’s leaders, and belief that the walkout was really a Bolshevik conspiracy fomented by revolutionists, agitators, reds and anarchists. One of his early accounts in the Vancouver Daily Province that reported a “soviet government” had been instituted in Winnipeg forced that paper’s editor to print a clarification of Porter’s claim (which turned out to be an exaggeration). Several other later dispatches in the Calgary Herald also caused the daily’s editor-in-chief to defend against complaints that the Colonel was not fairly reporting both sides in the dispute.

Since Winnipeg’s two hundred commercial and private telegraphers joined the work stoppage early in the dispute, Porter’s stories originated and were datelined from different locations. Like other reporters, he took the 5:00 pm “Winnipeg Express” to file stories from across the border and returned on the early morning train to Winnipeg the next day. In a dispatch to the Vancouver Province, Porter explained how he and other reporters covering the Winnipeg strike were providing news to outside papers:

Inconceivable hardships have been endured by the newspapermen in their efforts to keep the outside world informed of what was going on here. Scores of outside correspondents were rushed into the city in the early hours of the strike and then the wires closed [17 May]. They skirmished all the way from Regina to Thief River Falls, Minnesota, and Fort William [Thunder Bay] and after many all-night trips in autos and freight cars were finally refused transmission in Canada … Then the extraordinary spectacle was witnessed of the news being carried by trains as far as Thief River Falls and being transmitted back to Canadian papers, the wires to Calgary and Vancouver by which the stories were sent actually passing through Winnipeg. [9]

As stringers were paid on a space rate basis (number of words) for their stories, Porter eagerly reported thousands of words on the strike. By-lined “By G. C. Porter” he included lengthy descriptions of the challenges to newspapermen covering the event. On one occasion, he had a little fun in the telling. The Colonel sent a strike story to the Montreal Star in which he observed: “In the first days of the strike when food hoarding simply emptied the stores the correspondents who had to get out of town over night to file their stories, always returned with a grip full of eggs, butter, hams and some times even more useful things belonging to careless people they had absent-mindedly picked up, so the trips were not wholly profitless.” [10] Then with tongue-in-cheek he added: “One reporter showed up at the train with so many pound cartons of butter in his possession that the other correspondents were going to have him arrested for robbing a rural creamery, but a compromise was affected and the felony was compounded.” [11]

The second big story for Porter in 1919 involved his specialty: a murder mystery. On the chilly night of 2 December 1919, Toronto Grand Opera House owner Ambrose Joseph Small mysteriously disappeared on his way home. The body of the 56-year-old, millionaire theatre magnate was never found. In late December John “Black Jack” Robinson, the powerful editor of the Toronto Evening Telegram, remembering the Colonel’s skilful handling of other stories for the paper, gave Porter carte blanche on the sensational story. Though he had his own theories, the Colonel failed to solve the famous Toronto murder case. Nevertheless, the assignment was a dream-cometrue for Winnipeg’s dean of crime reporters because he wrote hundreds of thousands of words on the story for the Evening Telegram and dozens of other newspapers and magazines.

When the Winnipeg Telegram merged with its rival the Tribune in October 1920, the paper’s new editor-inchief immediately hired Porter. The Colonel ended his newspaper career writing a regular column “The Old-Timer Talks” for the Saturday Tribune supplement. He also continued freelance work specializing in crime stories especially written for American detective magazines. A charter member of the Winnipeg Press Club, and a past president, he was granted the first life membership on his 75th birthday in 1942. By this time, however, his eyesight was deteriorating and his drinking had caught up with him. Yet even these events resulted in tales.

Too proud to admit that he was going blind, he would walk across Portage Avenue to the street car stop near his home on Douglas Street, waving a handkerchief in front of him, and using his cane in a manner similar to that of the blind. Eventually a wild night on the town precipitated the end of the Colonel’s drinking. “He was never a heavy drinker,” fellow newspaperman Arthur Ford insisted, “but got on an occasional binge. The last time I saw him he was on the water wagon. He told me that some time before he got on a bender and when he came to, found he had been parading up and down Portage Avenue in a “plus four” golf outfit. He was a short, stout man, had never played golf, and had no recollection of having even bought the strange outfit. He was so shocked at what happened he decided to become a teetotaler. I do not think he ever took another drink.” [12]

On 5 March 1945, the Colonel was working at his Tribune desk on copy for his next “Old-Timer Talks” column. He died in his sleep that night and the following morning Tribune staff turned off the light on his desk and shrouded the typewriter with his old working jacket. The next day his funeral services brought forward a who’s who of Winnipeg’s newspaper community. The pallbearers were all former and current Telegram, Tribune and Free Press staff newspapermen including Bill McCurdy, Edward Macklin, Mark Nichols, Victor Sifton, Vernon Knowles, C. V. Coombe, A. E. H. Coo, and George Haston. Finally, on 19 September 1945, Nichols, then the publisher of the Vancouver Daily Province, unveiled at the head of a double grave (Mrs. Nancy Porter had died in 1937) a memorial stone in Winnipeg’s Elmwood Cemetery to perpetuate Porter’s memory. At the bottom of the headstone was inscribed “30” meaning in newspaper circles, The End.

Notes

1. Winnipeg Tribune, 6 June 1945.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. C. Frank Steele. Prairie Editor: The Life and Times of Buchanan of Lethbridge, Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1961, p. 17.

5. Marjorie Earl. Torch on the Prairies: A Portrait of Journalism in Manitoba 1859-1988, Winnipeg: The Nor’Westers, 1988, p. 48.

6. Ibid.

7. W. H. Kesterton. A History of Journalism in Canada, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967, p. 99.

8. Arthur Ford. As The World Wags On, Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1950, p. 12.

9. Vancouver Daily Province, 23 May 1919.

10. Montreal Star, 28 May 1919.

11. Ibid. It is likely that the reporter Porter was writing about in his story was fellow stringer John J. Conklin, a feature writer with the Manitoba Free Press.

12. Winnipeg Tribune, 12 June 1958.

There is some debate as to the origin of the word stringer. The possible derivations include (a) correspondents paid on the basis of “posted up string shaped strips” of their clippings placed on news boards, (b) one who “strings words together,” (c) a writer paid by the number of words and therefore” stringing out a story “for maximum payment, (d) exclusive attachment, “as if by a string” by a freelance reporter to an individual paper’, and (e) paid per inch of printed text generated with the length of the text measured against a “string.”

Page revised: 21 November 2015

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