The NHL playoffs are under way. A pretty great start for the Maple Leafs … but we’ll see.
Can’t get to the game? Don’t worry. There’s an app for that!
But before there were apps for your smartphone, streaming services on your laptop or tablet, and even before there was television and radio, there was the telegraph…
And then, something new starting in 1922. Those same telegraph bulletins are now being read out loud on the radio.
By 1931, there was the first live coast-to-coast radio play-by-play broadcasts by Foster Hewitt of the Stanley Cup Final.
And, after the first Hockey Night in Canada television broadcasts in 1952–53 (and a French-only broadcast of a few games during the Stanley Cup Final in 1953), the Stanley Cup Final was on TV in English for the first time in 1954 … joined in progress, but better than nothing!
I may have mentioned once or twice already that I have a new book about the Kenora Thistles coming out in November. It’s called Engraved in History and it’s being done by Brignall Media, a local Kenora publisher. (I also have Hockey Hall of Fame: True Stories coming out with Firefly Publishing this fall.) The Thistles won the Stanley Cup back in 1907, making Kenora the smallest town ever to win hockey’s top prize. It’s a good story…
I’ve never really been able to explain (to myself or to anyone else) why I find the years before and after the turn of the 20th century to be so fascinating. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t really want to live there — “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” — but I do find so many of the stories to be fascinating!
There was no television or radio back in 1907, but fans could follow their favourite teams through many different newspapers. And when big games were played in distant cities, fans would gather (in rinks, or in theaters, in hotel ballrooms; even at the barber shop) to listen to telegraphed bulletins sent from rinkside to newspapers all across the country. The play-by-play in those bulletins could be remarkably similar to a radio or television broadcast today.
The Thistles won the Stanley Cup by defeating the Montreal Wanderers 8–6 on January 21, 1907, to sweep their best-of-three series. In reading reports of the game in newspapers on January 22, 1907, the Manitoba Free Press (which would become the Winnipeg Free Press in 1931) was among the many newspapers to run the copy of those play-by-play bulletins. In reporting on the crowd filling up the Montreal Arena prior to the game, the Free Press noted that “everyone is whistling and singing ‘Why Don’t You Try’ with the band playing it.”
I was, of course, intrigued!
Needless to say, when I was finished writing the book, I did some poking around.
Turns out that “Why Don’t You Try” was a popular song from a 1905 New York theater production called “The Belle of Avenue A” starring Elfie Fay.
Now, unless you’re an even bigger fan of early New York theater history than I am of early Canadian hockey history, you’ve probably never heard of Elfie Fay. But she was big in her day, if only for a little while.
Born on January 11, 1879, Elfie was the daughter of vaudeville star Hugh Fay of Barry and Fay. He was described as an Irish comedian. Elfie was a redhead with a habit of ad-libbing on stage and pulling faces. She sounds like an early incarnation of Lucille Ball or Carol Burnett, although her career never got very far. (She is described in the book American Musical Theater: A Chronicle by Gerald Bordman as “a promising Broadway belter who never fulfilled her promise.”)
If I’m putting this all together correctly, “The Belle of Avenue A” (which she herself was actually known as) was a show created for Elfie and built around a song of the same name that she had already made popular in an earlier Broadway show. In this one, Elfie played Maggie Burns, a poor girl temporarily on the bread line who agrees to pose as the wife of socialite George Fairfax, who must be married in order to collect his inheritance. Wackiness ensues, I would assume! (You can check out the lyrics of “Why Don’t You Try” if you’d like and you can listen to it too.)
Elfie seems to have been quite popular for a while, though apparently as much for her many engagements as anything else! (Including one in 1902 to Sir Thomas Lipton, of British tea and yachting fame, which she herself actually denied). Still, Elfie was once quoted as saying: “A woman can fall in love as often as she encounters a man who is able by superior qualities of heart and mind to inspire such love.”
But it seems that Elfie wasn’t actually very lucky in love. Married twice, the first ended in divorce after only three years. The second ended when her new husband died early in 1921 just three months after their wedding. Samuel Armstrong Benner is said to have been a wealthy steal executive, but Elfie inherited only $500 from his estate.
Later moving out to California with an actor-director brother named Hugh for their father, Elfie Fay appeared in a handful of movies between 1924 and 1927, but died of tuberculosis on September 16, 1927 at the age of only 48. (Not 46, as the clipping below says.) Her father Hugh had died at age 81 in 1925, while brother Hugh also died young in 1926. Elfie was still enough of a name at the time of her death that the Associated Press picked up on the story and reported it in newspapers across the United States.
What does any of this have to do with the Kenora Thistles or hockey?
Nothing at all. (Elfie’s story won’t appear in the book.) It’s just an example of why the stories from the early days can be so much fun to dig into … even if the music can be pretty awful!
Since writing last week about the Gilmour brothers, I’ve been spending some of my lockdown time trying to find the story of how Billy Gilmour and his daughter escaped from Nazi-occupied France. If their account actually appears somewhere in print, perhaps it was told in an Ottawa or Montreal newspaper that isn’t available online. But, I have been able to piece together from other sources quite a bit of what might have happened.
According to stories in Ottawa papers in the 1930s, Billy Gilmour did own a house in Paris. His daughter, Gerna Gilmour, was trained there to play piano by Yves Nat, a French pianist and composer. But Billy and Gerna also spent time in the south of France, in Bayonne and Saint-Jean-de-Luz, on the Bay of Biscay, between Bordeaux and the border with Spain.
In a story about Gerna returning to Canada after the War to live in Montreal that appeared in the Gazette on September 14, 1946, it’s noted that she (and perhaps her father?) had escaped from Bayonne after the Petain armistice. This was the “peace treaty” negotiated with Hitler in June of 1940 by the collaborating Vichy regime in France under World War I hero Marshall Philippe Petain. It was signed on June 22 and went into effect on June 25.
Throughout that month, Britain was actively doing what it could to evacuate troops and civilians, most notably from Dunkirk in the early days of June, but all across the country. Evacuations of British and Polish troops, as well as other foreign civilians, from around Bayonne began on June 19. This was part of Operation Ariel, sometimes called Aerial. (The evacuation of Dunkirk was known as Operation Dynamo. Operation Cycle was the evacuation from Le Havre.)
Many of those fleeing Bayonne went first to Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where the evacuation concluded at 2 pm on June 25, just after the deadline set by the Germans in the terms of the armistice. Two Canadian warships, the HMCS Fraser and the HMCS Restigouche, took part in the rescue, but later that night, the Fraser was accidentally rammed by a British ship, the Calcutta. Neither had lights or radar, but they were moving at closing speed of 34 knots per hour. The Calcutta tried to swing starboard to avoid a collision. The Fraser went to port, reversing its engines but to no avail. The two ships struck. The Fraser was cut in half and began to sink.
There were 115 crew members rescued by the Restigouche and other ships that night, but 45 men were lost.
It’s unclear if there were civilians on the Fraser, but there were probably some. Newspaper accounts from the time mention the losses to the crew, and the names of those rescued, but there likely hadn’t been time to compile any lists of civilians on board. Even so, Georges Vanier, Canada’s minister to France (and later the first French-Canadian to serve as Govenor-General of Canada) was there.
Frank Millan was an able seaman aboard the Fraser and he told his story in the Victoria Times Colonist on May 5, 1985.
“We were somewhere off Bordeaux,” he remembered. “We’d been down to the fishing port of Saint-Jean-de-Luz to pick up Georges Vanier…. The Germans were on their way in when we took off.”
It was shortly after 10 p.m. when the Fraser was rammed by the Calcutta.
George Garman was an ordinary seaman aboard the HMCS St. Laurent who had friends on the Fraser and the Restigouche. He told the story to the Salmon Arm (British Columbia) Observer on November 5, 1997. Garman says the British Admiral of the Fleet ordered the captain of the Restigouche to “disregard survivors and carry on with her duties.” Despite the threat of a court martial, the captain refused. According to Garman, he said “this is a Canadian ship and there are Canadian sailors in the water and I am picking them up.”
A story in the Red Deer (Alberta) Advocate on June 18, 1965, says the Restigouche threw wartime discretion aside and played lights on the water, searching for missing men. “They rescued everyone alive,” said retired Rear-Admiral Wallace B. Creery, the skipper of the Fraser that night.
In the Red Deer account, Georges Vanier is mentioned as being one of 15 diplomats found, along with British Ambassador Sir Ronald Hugh Campbell, “wallowing in a sardine shack in heavy rain off the Bordeaux coast.” He was taken by the Fraser to the British cruiser Galatea. Most of the refugees onboard the Fraser were transported to another ship. It’s noted that Mme. Vanier was also in France and that she was among the refugees who poured into Saint-Jean-de-Luz, but that she got back to England aboard “a slow tramp steamer.”
Was there any chance that Billy and Gerna Gilmour were on the Fraser or the Restigouche? Had they been in Paris when Georges Vanier and his Canadian diplomatic party fled the French capital for the south of France a few days before the Germans occupied the city on June 14?
Even if they were with that Canadian civilian delegation, the chances are greater that the Gilmours left from Saint-Jean-de-Luz in a manner more similar to Mme Vanier than to her husband. Still, it’s possible that they were transported from the Fraser to the Galatea. At this point, I don’t know. But if they were anywhere in the Bay of Biscay that night, as they very well might have been, it would have every bit the “harrowing” experience that the stories I’d found before about Billy Gilmour and his daughter’s escape had told of.
It is truly amazing the things that can be discovered online these days. Some times, maybe, it’s too much. I admit, this story almost feels like an invasion of privacy. Or even exploitive. But, it’s been going around in my head for days so I’ve written it all down.
I remember, years ago, when Barbara sent away for the complete military records of her grandfathers, who both served in World War I. Both survived, and Barbara knew them well when she was young. She adored her mother’s father, but the family had a more difficult relationship with her father’s father. She knew that her mother’s father had been wounded badly enough some time in 1918 that he spent the rest of the War in a hospital in England. He had difficulties because of his injuries until he died in 1964. After seeing his War records, we began to refer to him as “World War I’s most wounded soldier.” It seemed he just kept getting wounded, getting patched up, and getting sent back out there … until it almost killed him. The most notable thing about her father’s father was how often he was treated for venereal disease! I remember both Barbara and her mother saying how appalled he would be that they knew this about him.
But, at least those stories were all in the family. This one certainly isn’t. But here goes…
Recently, I wrote about Babe Dye being perhaps the first Babe Ruth of Hockey. I already knew a lot about his story, and have written about him here before, back in 2015 and 2016. Dye was a multi-sport star who became a top scorer in the NHL with the Toronto St. Pats in the 1920s while also playing high-level minor league baseball, mostly with the Buffalo Bisons and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Like Babe Ruth, Babe Dye was a left hander who pitched and played the outfield. Dye was also a fine football player, but was never a halfback with the Toronto Argonauts, as old hockey biographies used to say. He actually starred with a Toronto team called the Capitals from 1917 to 1920.
As a baseball player, Dye was good enough that the legendary Connie Mack wanted him for his Philadelphia Athletics. Hockey records long claimed that Mack offered $25,000 to Dye in 1921, which is what was reported in the Toronto Star along with an obituary for Dye on January 4, 1962, a day after he died. In truth, the offer came in 1923, and it appears to have been for $30,000. Hockey stories say Dye turned down Mack in order to concentrate on his NHL career, but the Buffalo Enquirer of August 29, 1923, makes it pretty clear that it was the Bisons who were actually offered the money to buy Dye’s rights. It was also the Buffalo team that turned down Mack because the Bisons wanted players in return, not money, if they were going to give up a perennial .300 hitter.
And by the way, what an amazing coincidence that the day after Connie Mack was in Buffalo, the New York Yankees were in town to play an exhibition game against the Bisons … and that Babe Dye and Babe Ruth both hit home runs in the same game! (The Yankees beat the Bisons 13–7.)
So, by now you’re wondering, “what’s so personal about all this?” Well, bear with me a little longer…
While poking around old newspaper stories about Babe Dye last week, I discovered that in May of 1918, he enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force for service in World War I. Dye joined the 69th Battery of Toronto and was sent to Camp Petawawa (near Ottawa) to train as a gunner. (I had no idea of this, but others did. Alan Livingstone MacLeod writes about it in his book From Rinks to Regiments, and tells me that Dye’s name was on a list of hockey playing soldiers produced by the Department of Veterans Affairs.)
With the War ending on November 11, 1918, Dye was never sent overseas before being discharged on December 20. He seems to have spent an awful lot of his army time playing sports; often back home in Toronto. Dye played for the 69th Battery baseball team, and also pitched for his old Toronto baseball team, the Hillcrests, while home on leave a couple of times during the summer. He also played a few football games in Toronto with the Capitals on leave in the fall.
The 69th Battery won the military baseball championship at Camp Petawawa and actually played against the Hillcrests in the Ontario semifinals. The game was originally scheduled for Saturday, October 5, 1918, but wet grounds forced a postponement and the game was played the following weekend, on October 12. Though he had pitched for the Hillcrests during the season, Dye was given permission to pitch against them. Through five innings, he kept things close … until he hurt is ankle sliding into third in the top of the sixth. Dye attempted to continue pitching, but he couldn’t, and the Hillcrests (who were leading 2-1) scored six late runs for an 8-3 victory.
Later in life, Babe Dye would credit his athletic prowess to his mother, who apparently taught him to skate and play hockey and to pitch and play baseball. “My mother knew more about hockey than I ever did,” Dye once recalled, “and she could throw a baseball right out of the park.”
Dye, it was said, never knew his father, who died when he was only one year old. The family was living in Hamilton then, but his mother Esther brought young Cecil (Babe’s given name) and a brother back to Toronto, where she and her late husband were both from.
OK. Here’s where we get to the personal/privacy stuff!
There’s not much military information in Babe Dye’s military records, but there’s some fascinating family information.
In July of 1918, Esther Dye filled out an application for financial assistance, claiming that her son who was now in the military, was her main source of support. But she was not a widow. Her application states that her husband, Sydney Dye, (John Sydney Alexander Dye, I would later discover) had deserted her on January 13, 1898. She had received no support from him since then, and his whereabouts were unknown.
But what about the other son? Babe’s brother of the hockey stories, who Esther had apparently brought to Toronto after her husband died? Couldn’t he support his mother?
Sydney Earle Dye “lives with an aunt,” Esther wrote. “Has never contributed to my support.”
It wasn’t so much that he never had, but that he never could.
“From the physical viewpoint, he is neither an invalid nor is he incapacitated,” wrote Dr. George B. Smith on Esther’s form in August of 1918. “From the mental viewpoint, he is totally neurotic and if not carefully handled his brainstorms would be unbearable…. He is unsuited to meet the public at large. He shuns publicity and society.” How long had he been like this? “From childhood.”
Not in the military records, but available if one searches hard enough on Ancestry, is the rest of the story…
John Sydney Alexander Dye married the former Esther Swinbourne on May 22, 1891 (above, left). Sydney Earle Dye was born on September 6, 1891 (above, right). Do the math. That’s barely four months after the wedding. Esther must have been five months pregnant at the time. And, by coincidence (or maybe not?) Esther also seems to have been about five months pregnant when her husband left her in January of 1898, as baby Cecil would be born on May 13, 1898 (below).
Esther raised Cecil on her own. She had two sisters who never married, but older brother Sydney (who went by Earl) was actually brought up by one of his father’s brothers and his wife. So the Dye family didn’t abandon Esther completely. And it further turns out that Babe Dye was one of three sons, not two. He had a second older brother, William Vernon Dye, who was born on August 20, 1896, but died of meningitis on January 20, 1911. Life was more difficult in those days, but it still must have been a difficult childhood. Sports must have been a comforting refuge.
These were definitely family stories you wouldn’t have read in an old-time biography of Babe Dye. I imagine it was stuff the family rarely spoke of. If ever.
Since moving to Owen Sound in the fall of 2006, I’ve done most of my work from home. And when I haven’t had a ton of actual paying work (freelancing can be pretty boom or bust), I often manage to keep myself busy reading and noodling away on my computer. So, I guess I’ve been better equipped than many to handle what’s become day-to-day life these days.
This story may read like the efforts of someone who’s got too much time on his hands (which I do right now), but, really, it’s not very different from what my “real” life was like before. It’s also a pretty good example of why I always try my best to help anyone who contacts me with a question as quickly as possible … because I often have to rely on similar help myself. And when I do, I like to get my answers NOW!
In my Spanish Flu story last week, I said that I was limiting myself to how the pandemic affected pro hockey players. Still, the story of one amateur player that popped up in my research stuck in my mind. His name was Frank Montgomery.
Montgomery was not someone I’d heard of before, so I started doing a little digging. I began with the web site of the Society for International Hockey Research. No one by the name of Frank Montgomery showed up in the statistical database. However, there were eight players with the last name Montgomery and no first name. Only two of them had stats ranges that made sense, and only one of those two had an entry showing that he’d played in Sarnia in 1917–18. There was no other information. No first name; no date of birth or death; no statistics; no other seasons.
A little more searching through old issues of the Globe online determined that a Montgomery did play in Sarnia in 1917–18, and that he was a defenseman. Better than the nothing that was there for him before, so I sent along what I’d found to my friend and fellow SIHR member Aubrey Ferguson.
The short obituary in the Globe had already told us that Frank Montgomery was from Peterborough, Ontario, so Aubrey passed along the information to a Peterborough SIHR colleague, Peter Pearson:
Hi Peter Thought you would find this interesting, if only to put a Ptbo hockey twist on the Spanish Flu. Also thought you might have something from local sources on him. Cheers, Aubrey
Following the email chain that would soon make its way back to me, Peter contacted Sylvia Best, who found a much more detailed obituary from the Peterborough Evening Examiner on October 28, 1918. There was plenty more information on Frank Montgomery in there, as well as the sad fact that not only had the family suffered his death from the Spanish Flu, but they had also learned at almost the exact same time that another family member had been seriously wounded fighting in World War I:
Frank Montgomery Died This Morning - The Deceased Was Well Known in Local Athletic Circles -
Word was received late this after noon that Mr. Frank Montgomery had succumbed to pneumonia in Oshawa this morning. Mr. Montgomery had been ill with pneumonia for 12 days which succeeded Spanish influenza. Mr. Montgomery played on the Peterboro Junior O.H.A hockey team for Peterboro in the season of 1916-17. Last winter he played for the Sarnia team. He left for Oshawa in the latter part of July where he intended playing hockey this winter. The deceased also played for the Matthews-Blackwell team in the Twilight league.
The body will be brought to the city and the funeral will take place from the residence of his sister, Mrs. Thomas H. Skinner, 354 Stewart Street to Little Lake Cemetery. Rev. Mr. MacKenzie of Knox Presbyterian Church will officiate.
Mrs. Skinner received word on Saturday night that her husband Pte. Thomas Skinner of the 21st Canadians, had been badly wounded.
A big thank you to Peter and to Sylvia (neither of whom I know) and to Aubrey for their efforts … but I was still curious.
For one thing, I went to Trent University in Peterborough from 1982 to 1985. In my last year there, I shared a house with a few friends. It was on Stewart Street in the same part of town! What were the chances that I’d actually lived in that house? (Turns out, I didn’t. We were about two blocks away, at 264 Stewart.)
Really, what I hoped to find was a birth date for Frank Montgomery. The Spanish Flu was notorious for killing men and women in the prime of life, with a huge percentage of deaths occurring in people between the ages of 20 and 40. As a junior hockey player, Montgomery was likely to be under 21. So — though I know they can be notoriously unreliable — I turned to the records of the Canadian census for 1901 and 1911.
In 1901, I found a Montgomery family from Peterborough. (A later search through city directories showed the family lived at 33 Louis Street then … not too far from Stewart Street.) There was a father named John and a mother named Jane, plus four daughters … and then another daughter named Francis J.
Francis J. would actually turn out to be our guy Frank. (The J. stands for John.) The birth date in 1901 is listed as January 7, 1899. By the 1911 Census, father John is no longer there. (I would later discover that he’d driven a team of horses for the fire department, and that he passed away around 1907. NOTE: Daniel Doyon found the death certificate confirming that John Montgomery died of pneumonia on Jan. 19, 1907.) Jane is now the head of the household and youngest daughter Geraldine is still at home. (The much smaller family by then was living at 262 Dalhousie, in the same neighbourhood.) Frank is now a boy, at least, but his birth is listed as July of 1899, not January.
However, in both 1901 and 1911, the family also has boarders in their home. In 1911, two of those boarders are T.H. Skinner and Edith Skinner. I assumed that Edith (there had been an Edith Montgomery in 1901) must be the sister from the obituary who was married to Thomas Skinner, and he must be the T.H. from the Census.
I knew I’d be able to confirm all this if I still had a membership to Ancestry.com but I’d cancelled that a while back. So, friends to the rescue once again! I called on Lynda Chiotti to ask if she could hunt down a birth record for Frank Montgomery, his death certificate, and anything on the marriage of Thomas and Edith when she had some time.
Meanwhile, as I waited to hear back from Lynda, I was also curious as to whether or not Thomas Skinner had survived the war wounds mentioned in Frank’s obituary. I was able to find his complete military record through Library and Archives Canada. Turns out, Thomas Skinner suffered gun shot wounds in his arms and legs on October 24, 1918, but survived and returned safely to Canada in 1919. (Thomas and Edith were still living with Jane Montgomery, and Frank, at 262 Dalhousie Street when Thomas enlisted in 1915, but both Thomas’s war records and the Peterborough city directory show their address as 354 Stewart by 1917.)
Lynda did find the marriage record for me. Skinner, Thomas Henry, was a carpenter who married Edith Maud Montgomery, daughter of John and Jane, on November 9, 1909. She also found a family tree showing that Thomas lived until September 19, 1960 and that Edith died on March 5, 1974, when she would have been nearing 100 years old. (City directories help to confirm this.)
As for Frank Montgomery, the birth records show that he was actually born on January 5, 1899, in Peterborough, to John and Martha Jane Montgomery. The death certificate confirms that he was only 19 years of age when he died in Oshawa on October 28, 1918. The cause of death is listed as “Pneumonia following flu.” The body was turned over to Mrs. Jane Montgomery, 354 Stewart, Peterborough.
All the pieces of this sad story fit. Still, it was satisfying to put them all together.
Well, maybe not all the pieces. The family tree that Lynda found actually shows Frank Montgomery listed as the son of his sister Edith! Edith Montgomery would have been about 22 (and unmarried) when Frank was born, while Jane would have been about 42. So, it’s certainly possible that grandmother Jane raised Frank as her own … but it might just have been an error in the listing. As of now, there’s been no way to know for sure. Family histories can certainly be mysteries.
Thanks to everyone, but especially to Lynn and to my family, who helped me through this past year. Lots to adjust to, but things are good. I know that many of you have experienced losses, or health issues, or other changes, in your own lives this year. I wish you all strength and hope that you (like me) have the love and support you need.
So, Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, or anything else you celebrate at this season. All the best to everyone in the New Year. (It’s going to be 2020! How did that happen?)
Even before the recent change in the stories I’ve posted to this web site, much of what I wrote —even some of the nerdiest of the hockey nerd stuff — was for Barbara. As I’ve said before, a big part of my enjoyment in all this was to see how she’d react. Quirky just hasn’t been as much fun without her.
This story — while not nearly as “romantic” as some of my recent ones — is definitely for Barbara. But, as is often the case, you have to let me work my way around to it…
This past weekend, the British and Polish air forces honored the 75th anniversary of the Great Escape — the actual breakout from Stalag Luft III, the Nazi prisoner-of-war camp in the town of Zagan (sometimes written as Sagan), now in eastern Poland. The events took place in the late night and early morning hours of March 24 and 25, 1944.
The movie came out in 1963. Barbara (on the right in the center photo) is with her
friend Peggy around then. That’s me with my father about the same time!
I won’t go into much of the story, but the Allied air force prisoners at Stalag Luft III had hoped to free some 200 men through a series of tunnels dug under the camp. They knew it was unlikely that any would make their way back to England, but they hoped to do as much as possible to disrupt the German forces who would have to chase them down. Due to a series of unforeseen circumstances, only 76 men got out before the Germans discovered what was going on.
Over the next few weeks, all but three men were recaptured. Hitler was so angry he wanted all 73 men shot. Other German authorities pointed out that an action showing such blatant disregard for the Geneva Conventions might endanger the lives of German prisoners held by the Allies. Even so, Hitler personally ordered that “more than half” should be shot. In the end, 50 men were killed. It’s the deaths of those 50 that was commemorated in Poland this past weekend.
Barbara first learned of this story — as did so many other people — when the Hollywood movie The Great Escape came out in 1963. Even then (and ever since she was a little girl), if Barbara was interested in something, she was INTERESTED! It wasn’t enough just to see the movie — which, of course, she did — over and over. She needed to know more! So, she got herself a copy of the 1950 book The Great Escape by Australian Paul Brickhill, who’d been held at Stalag Luft III during the War.
Barbara told the story of Wally Floody in her book, The Tunnel King. The Desert Hawk
is about Stocky Edwards, one of the leading Canadian aces of World War II.
She worried about glorifying war in books for children, but felt it was important
to put a human face on what happened.
It was through Brickhill’s book that Barbara first learned about Wally Floody, the Canadian who was so integral to the tunnel construction for the Great Escape. (The movie is actually a very accurate description of events – up to a point! – although there were a lot more Canadians, and a lot fewer Americans, who were involved.)
Wally Floody (the Charles Bronson character in the movie is based loosely upon him) lived most of his life in Toronto, not far from where Barbara lived most of her Toronto life. Older accounts of him always claimed that Wally was a mining engineer in Canada, and that’s why he was in charge of the tunnels for the Great Escape. But that was just a bit of British prejudice. The Brits simply couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that someone who’d actually worked in the mines might one day become a fighter pilot. Wally worked in both Timmins and Kirkland Lake as a young man, although his experience with hard-rock mining there was very much different from tunnelling through the sandy soil beneath Stalag Luft III.
Barbara always believed that Wally’s true story was worth telling, and she finally got to write about him in her 2004 book The Tunnel King, which was a big success. Floody had died in 1989, and Barbara regretted that she’d lived in Toronto for 20 years by then and had never tried to meet him. Wally’s wife, Betty, died just around the time that Barbara started working on the book, but she did get a lot of assistance from Wally’s sister, Catherine, and his son Brian. They were both more than happy to share stories – and photographs – of their brother and father.
Wally Floody (left) wears his cap at the proper rakish angle for a
fighter pilot. He married his wife, Betty, very early in his air force career.
Just recently, I received a very nice letter from a man who works at the Museum of Northern History in Kirkland Lake. The city is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and the museum is interested in telling Wally’s story among their centennial celebrations. His letter gave me the occasion to get back in touch with Brian Floody, and it got me thinking about all this again.
One of Barbara’s nerdiest interests was her love of movie soundtracks. Not just songs, but the full score. If a movie she liked happened to be on television and she was in the other room, I used to like to turn it up loud and see how long it took before she’d say, “Is that … To Kill a Mockingbird?” or whatever it was. When it was The Great Escape – no matter where it was in the movie – it only took a few seconds. And there was no question necessary…
Wally Floody (in the centre, with the tie) served as the technical advisor for the movie.
Brian Floody had some amazing pictures in an album from that time. This is my favorite.
Wally with the film’s biggest stars, James Garner and Steve McQueen.
Betty was much more taken with Garner, who signed the photo.
Wally with Charles Bronson, who played Danny “The Tunnel King.”
I haven’t posted anything since June 27. Have you missed me?
I hadn’t meant to take all this time off. I’ve just been very busy. Since May, we’ve been back at work on the NHL Official Guide & Record Book, which is scheduled to head to the printer around the middle of next week. In addition, since about this time last summer, I’ve been working on 11 different book projects for five different publishers. Only one has come out so far. The others have, in some form or another, kept me busy all summer. A couple of them still aren’t done. (One of my brothers is always commenting that “I must be rich.” Sadly, all I am is busy!)
It seems the combination of too much work and too little fun following the Blue Jays has meant not enough time for stories on my web site. Tonight (although in reality two nights ago by the time I post this) has actually been the first time all summer that I’ve had a story pop into my mind that I couldn’t shake. So I wrote it down.
This has been a story I’ve been thinking about since June 20 … 2005! At that point, we were nearing the end of the NHL lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season. It was really becoming possible to search newspaper archives on line, and I had been collecting stories on the early history of the Stanley Cup, which would eventually lead to a 2012 book. While doing that, I came across this story in the Edmonton Bulletin from August 18, 1908:
The story goes on to mention that Charles King carried with him a letter from Thomas Shaughnessy, president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, allowing him to walk across the country along the CPR tracks. He carried another letter from the Royal North West Mounted Police stating that he was “not to be molested.”
Something about this really spoke to me. I thought there might be a book in it too. So, within days of coming across the story, I had written to the Canadian Pacific archives in Montreal asking if they had any information on the Shaughnessy letter. They did not. (It’s been a few years since I last followed up, but archivist Jo-anne Colby promised to keep an eye out for anything for me.) An email to the RCMP Heritage Center in Regina also turned up nothing. I later searched through six months of issues of the Montreal Standard on microfilm, figuring that if the newspaper had a stake in this story they would be hyping it all summer long to try and boost their circulation. I found not one word…
Over the next year, I did come across a handful more stories of Charles King, mostly in newspapers in Western Canada, tracking his progress across the country. Some mentioned that King had developed his theories of nutrition and exercise at the Stymana club in Montreal … but I could never find any record of such an establishment existing.
Japanese print displaying the destruction of a Russian ship at Port Arthur,
Manchuria. This image will make more sense if you keep on reading!
Several newspaper all across North America reported that King reached Vancouver on September 14, 1908 — day 137 of his 150-day trek. According to some, he had only earned $120 of the $150 he needed, but he still had 13 days to earn the additional $30. Over the years, I’ve collected stories of his arrival in Vancouver from 11 different newspapers … but I’ve yet to find a single one that followed up to report on whether or not he ever made the money he needed to win the bet. (Eventually, a story in the Vancouver World from Bellingham, Washington, on October 21, 1908, noted that “Charles King, who has just completed a walking trip from Montreal to Vancouver, B.C., winning a wager of $1000, arrived in the town of Nooksack yesterday and has proceeded on his way to Seattle…” so I guess he did earn those extra $30.)
Based on the stories I’d collected, I assumed Charles King must be from Montreal (I’d later find other stories indicating he was actually from Detroit) and that this was a Canadian saga. But more recently, I’ve learned that King’s was a much bigger story. In April of 2015, I found stories in four different newspapers saying that he had left Seattle in March of 1909 to walk to New York … and that this dual crossing of North America was actually part of a bet that began on May 1, 1905 in Port Arthur, Manchuria, in which King had wagered that he could walk around the world within seven years.
I would later come across stories claiming that Charles Addington King was a former war correspondent who had covered the Spanish-American War (1898), the Boer War (1899-1902) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). Some stories claim that the bet he apparently made with publishing interests in London, England, was for $12,000 in gold.
In stories from the summer of 1909, as King was leaving St. Paul, Minnesota for Chicago en route to New York, he told reporters: “I am now seven months ahead of my schedule, or in other words, I am 5,000 miles to the good.” But I have yet to discover if Charles King made it back to Port Arthur by May 1, 1912. I’ve never even found any stories about him beyond that summer of 1909.
Last week, I caught some of The Prizefighter and the Lady on Turner Classic Movies. It stars Max Baer, who was a top heavyweight contender at the time, in his first movie role as the Prizefighter, and Myrna Loy as the Lady. It was made in 1933 and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing, Original Story. Generally speaking, it still gets good reviews. Admittedly, I didn’t see that much of it, but from what I did see, it seemed much more interesting now as a piece of history than it did as a movie.
I won’t go into the plot, but it builds towards a big fight scene at the end where Baer’s character (Steve Morgan) fights the real heavyweight champion of the time, Primo Carnera. (In real life, Baer would beat Carnera for the title a year later.) In the film, the fight is promoted and also refereed by Jack Dempsey playing himself, and before the bout begins Dempsey is joined in the ring by other legendary heavyweight champions of the past, Jess Willard and James J. “Jim” Jeffries. I recognized Jeffries right away from his strong resemblance to hockey legend Cyclone Taylor!
Movie poster plus the hand and footprints of William Powell and Myrna Loy at the
Chinese Theater in Hollywood. W.S. Van Dyke, who directed The Prizefighter and the Lady, would later direct Powell and Loy in the first of “The Thin Man” movies.
I first learned of Cyclone Taylor’s resemblance to Jim Jeffries in Eric Whitehead’s 1977 biography Cyclone Taylor: A Hockey Legend. (Reading that book, and then Whitehead’s biography of Frank and Lester Patrick, inspired me to write my first book, the historical fiction novel Hockey Night in the Dominion of Canada.) Whitehead writes of hockey fans in New York City taking to Taylor because of his skill and because of his resemblance to the former heavyweight champ. He says they called him “Little Jeff.”
While I couldn’t find any newspaper references to that specifically, Jeffries was actually in New York at the same time as Taylor and the Ottawa Senators were there to face Art Ross and the Montreal Wanderers in a postseason series in March of 1909. Jeffries was very much in the news, with fight promoters offering him huge money for the time – $50,000 and up – to come out of retirement to fight Jack Johnson. (Jeffries would be the first “Great White Hope” to fight the controversial Black heavyweight champion when he lost to him on July 4, 1910.)
The clipping below doesn’t use the nickname “Little Jeff” but does come pretty close to confirming Whitehead’s account by referring to Cyclone as “Jeffries” Taylor…
Article in The New York Daily Tribune on March 18, 1910, when Taylor
returned to New York as a member of the Renfrew Millionaires.
And while you wouldn’t exactly confuse one for the other (especially considering that Jeffries was about 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds in his prime while Taylor was 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds), there definitely is a resemblance…