By now you have read and heard thousands of words about the who, what, where, when and why of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, as filtered through academics, journalists, performers, unionists, and historians a hundred years removed from the iconic events.
The Black Rod is offering something different.
We are taking you through Mr. Peabody's Wayback Machine to the very streets of downtown Winnipeg on Bloody Saturday to let you experience the sights and sounds of that historical day through the eyes and ears of a contemporary eyewitness, a professional observer and recorder of the proverbial "first rough draft of history".
We found this in the Montreal Gazette, June 23, 1919 (Page 9):
Winnipeg's Tragic Outbreak Lasted Half Hour Only
by J.F.B. Livesay of the Canadian Press
Winnipeg, June 21----The tragic events of this afternoon covered not more than half an hour. At half past two, perhaps twenty thousand persons were massed on Main street with their focus on the City Hall. For the most part they appeared to be strikers, with among them several thousand returned soldiers, and they were congregated to witness or take part in the "massed silent parade" which, it was announced last night at the meeting in Market Square of returned soldiers, would be put on by returned soldiers alone this afternoon as a last and final effort to break down the barriers which the men claim have been erected against the propaganda of the general strike in Winnipeg. On the whole this great mass was orderly. It contained many women, evidently of the strikers' families, but no children.
Just before half past two, a small riot developed on Market street just east of the City Hall Park, around a man who was drunk. Leaders of the crowd besought the men involved to quit, as they would spoil by their rowdiness the whole effect of the silent demonstration.
At five and twenty minutes past two, a street car passing on Main Street only made its way through the crowd amidst continual booing and with great difficulty, the trolley several times being pulled off the line. Evidently regarding the whole thing as a circus, a great stream of citizens in their automobiles, passed at this critical moment up and down Main Street by no means adding to the good feeling of what was fast developing into an angry mob.
Soldiers Were Stoned
Sharp at half-past two the word (sic) "fall in" passed along the crowd gathered in the wide thoroughfare of Main Street at each side of the car tracks. At that very moment, Portage Avenue car No. 596 approached from the north, about half full of passengers, mostly women and children. As it reached Market Street, it was greeted by a rolling roar of booing; its trolley was pulled off the line and some stones were thrown. Women and children got out of the car and dispersed among the crowd, all unhurt, so far as it is known. The conductor and motorman remained by their car. The trolley cord having been cut it remained a fixture of what immediately was to beome a scene of battle. Almost simultaneously the cry went out from the crowd "Here comes the bloody soldiers" and around the corner of Main Street from the south, opposite the Union Bank, swept a single line of red-coated Royal Northwest Mounted Police.
They covered the wide street from gutter to gutter, dividing as they passed the derelict car. Immediately an angry cry was heard from the mob and an occasional missile was thrown at the passing soldiers. A hundred yards behind the first rank came a second rank of khaki-clad horsemen, said by the crowd to be members of the Strathcona Horse and the Fort Garry Horse, but afterwards stated by Alderman Gray to be Royal Northwest Mounted policemen returned from the front, to whom had not been issued the well-known scarlet tunics.
The mob surged in on the flanks of the horsemen, and a free throwing of bricks, bottles and any other available missiles, began, many of the horses and men being struck. They rode on north several blocks and then, after a short interval, returned with drawn truncheons and, dividing up into columns of four on each side of the street, sought to drive the mob back on to the sidewalks.
Mob Was Inflamed
Except for the efforts of a lieutenant-colonel in uniform and on foot, who mixed with the crowd and sought to deter them from violence, but was lost in the throng, it now became a passionate mob, determined on teaching the military a lesson. From alleyways nearby bricks had been torn up and hurled at the backs of the horsemen. They cantered south again and were lost to sight around the corner at Main street.
Left thus to themselves for a few minutes, the crowd proceeded to take vengeance on the street car. The conductor and motorman had fled, but not before every bit of glass had been broken. The doors were now smashed open and a few minutes later the car was on fire, after unavailing efforts on the part of the crowd to overturn it.
Hardly was the car demolished when the red coats appeared again from the south, this time at the charge. They rode down the crowd, which scattered to the sidewalk, but as they passed they received an even greater volume of missiles. Many of the horses were by this time crazed and the troops seemed out of hand as it gallped north on Main street and disappeared out of sight.
"This is the end of them," remarked a striker. "We will now get on with our silent parade. They thought they could stop us but we will show them who are the masters of the streets of Winnipeg."
But indeed that could not be this day, for in the short space of ten or twelve minutes covered by this narrative the mob was entirely out of hand and bent only on destruction. A brief interval followed when the destruction of the street car was completed. Then back came the soldiers, galloping south of Main street. Their lines were irregular and many of the horses were out of control and some of their riders were ducking low over the saddle to escape the fusillade of brickbats. As they divided to pass the street car, the inevitable happened. One of the horses came down, his rider being thrown, being almost the last man in the file.
A fierce yell arose from the crowd: "We'll get him; we'll get him; we'll teach that traitor returned soldier a lesson." The bulk of the crowd was on the west of City Hall side of the street, and the soldier, on getting to his feet, headed for the east side, where he dove into J.Thompson's (sic, Thomson's) undertaking parlors, 525 Main street, with the crowd yelling at his heels. The doors were slammed to, but in a minute the plate glass front was smashed to atoms, and a part of the crowd surged east on Market street to cut him off it he tried to get through the back way.
Shots Scattered Throng
Then followed the shooting. Almost immediately a party of Royal Northwest Mounted Police dashed to the rescue, the men with their revolvers drawn and in columns of four. As seen from the other side of Main street, they debouched into City Hall park immediately in front of its steps. Shots were heard. "They are firing into the air," said one of the crowd. "They have only blank cartridges," said another.
(debouch--in military usage, to come forth from a narrow or shut-in place into open country...ed, citing Websters New World Dictionary.)
The effect of the shooting was electrical, The dense throng in front of City Hall ran frantically across Main Street and buried themselves in lanes and alleyways, forcing their way into the small hotels that abound thereabouts.
Men who had had war experience threw themselves flat into the gutter. The shooting took place exactly fifteen minutes after the first appearance of the mounted men, at a quarter to three by the City Hall clock. Two or three minutes later, City Hall square and the wide expanse of Main street was deserted.
Across the waste of asphalt were brought the bodies of the casualties by men who had been with them when they fell. They were placed in Thompson's undertaking parlor. Very quickly the word spread that three men had been killed. By three o'clock in the afternoon, several hundred special police with drawn trunchions were marking over the otherwise empty scene of battle, where yet the street car burned.
Passing into the undertaking parlor, the first man seen was the young fellow Jack Barrett, who was being administered first aid by Rev. G.A. Dickson, Crescent Church, who had volunteered for this service. Barrett said that he was looking on when the soldiers swept into William avenue, and he states that one of them deliberately fired a revolver at him point blank.
< snip >
Alien Killed Instantly
At the back of the parlor the dead man was lying, around him his companions who had brought him in. He might be forty years of age and had Slav or Polish characteristics. The bullet wound over the top of the heart showed that he had been killed instantly. Around him were his companions who had seen him fall and had picked him up, carrying him behind a building until the firing ceased. They complained bitterly that that soldiers fired without any kind of warning as they rode around the corner.
At half-past three, commissioned officers attached to military district 10 addressed the crowd at the corner of Portage Avenue and Main Street advising them that the Riot Act had been read and that therefore everyone should go home.
Nevertheless, Main street remained congested and the fire brigade turned on their hose to clear the curious from the tops of the surrounding buildings.
Armoured cars, with machine guns and troops at the stand-to were held in reserve at the principal strategic points of the city.
Without questioning the circumstances and leaving out the wisdom or the unwisdom of the attempt to prevent the parade, the mounted men had the greatest provocation.
After their last charge south of Main street, when opinion seemed to differ as to whether they used their truncheons or not, it is probably a fact that they could not have ridden through the crowd again. With the tempert of the crowd what it was, any man unhorsed was in serious peril. To the impartial onlooker the task assigned to the handful of military men of overaweing and keeping in order a crowd of fifteen to twenty thousand was hopeless.
Livesay was a (World War I) war correspondent for CP. He was the first general manager for the Canadian Press. He was postumously inducted into the Canadian News Hall of Fame in 1974.