“Genial George” Ham

by Bruce Cherney (part 5)

Periodically, the tables were turned on George Ham and he became the victim of a practical joke, including an incident that occurred on one Halloween at about 10 p.m.

Ham related in his autobiography, Reminiscences of a Raconteur, that Dr. Patterson rushed into the Manitoba Free Press office and excitedly said: “Great guns, but I am glad to see you have recovered!”

Ham asked the doctor what he had recovered from, to which he replied that he had received a phone call that Ham had fallen during a fit. The doctor’s cure was to drag Ham across the street to William Clougher’s restaurant and bar, located along Portage Avenue and formally known as the English Chop House, for “a little stimulant” to put him right.

While returning to the Free Press building, they were met by at least a dozen other doctors expressing their great relief to see Ham still alive, but were suspicious of him since he appeared to be in remarkably good health.

“The whole medical fraternity boldly charged me with playing a Halloween trick on them, Dr. Patterson being the loudest in his denunciation.”

Again at Clougher’s, Ham pled his innocence, but thay all claimed to have abandoned patients to come to his aid.

“They all looked upon me with suspicion and if another call had be given them for me that night, I would have died of old age before they would have come to my aid.”

When he encountered Alex McLaren months later, the man burst out laughing and said: “That was a good one we put over you last Halloween, wasn’t it?”

As it turned out, “Mac” was in on the prank and had arranged with Dr. Paterson for the telephone exchange to send out the calls to the doctors, who were all in on the joke at Ham’s expense.

“I never received a bill for their services — but they made me spend all my money at Clougher’s that night in rendering continued aid to their injured feelings.”

With the absence of Winnipeg Police Court Magistrate Colonel Adam Peebles, Ham, a city alderman (today’s councillor) for Fort Rouge, was enlisted to serve as the presiding magistrate at the court. Ham wrote that a “worthless drunken pirate” was brought before him and charged with being drunk and disorderly.

“The evidence was clear, and I felt that full justice should be sternly administered. So I put on my black Derby, and ordered the prisoner to stand up.

“‘George,’ I said with dignity and solemnity, ‘you have been found guilty of being a general trouble provider and a universal nuisance. The sentence of this court is that you be taken from the place from whence you came, immediately after breakfast next Friday morning, and be hanged from the neck until you are sure enough dead, and may the good Lord have mercy on your alleged Protestant soul.’”

Of course, George was aghast at the severity of his sentence. The colonel then walked into the courthouse and informed Ham that he couldn’t hang a man for being drunk.

“George,” said Ham, “some warm if misguided friends have intervened in your miserable behalf, and have pleaded with me to be merciful. I shall — instead of sentencing you to the gallows, where you should go — banish you off the face of the earth. Now get!”

George apparently didn’t get very far. He went to Ham’s office in St. Boniface and borrowed $6 to travel to Pembina, “which is across the international boundary and outside the jurisdiction of the Winnipeg courts. I warmly congratulated myself that was the only time I ever ‘committed a nuisance.’”

Besides being an alderman and would-be magistrate, Ham also served as a school trustee.

Another instance of Ham’s humourous side came when he was in the hospital for an emergency appendicitis operation. He told the surgeon as he was going under the ether: “Well, doctor, you can take my appendix, but please leave me my table of contents.”

 Once he made some kind of a “bonehead” play in the handling of a newspaper article, and when taken to task for it he replied: “Well, I may not be broad-minded, but I am certainly thick-headed!” (Early Winnipeg Newspapers: The Last 70 Years of Journalism at Fort Garry and Winnipeg, by John W. Dafoe, MHS Transactions, 1946-47 Season).

Ham came to the attention of William Cornelius Van Horne, the president of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), who, during a visit to Winnipeg in 1891, promptly hired him as the railway’s publicity agent, although, officially, Ham’s title was Travelling Passenger Agent. Eventually, Ham would be dubbed the “Ambassador-in-chief of the CPR.” He had been working in Winnipeg for 16 years when he entered the service of the railway.

Ham’s office was at the CPR’s Windsor Station in Montreal. It was there that he organized the first trip of women journalists to St. Louis in 1904 and during the journey became the honourary president of the Canadian Women’s Press Club.

On June 8 and 9, 1906, the press club’s first national convention was held in Winnipeg. Ham brought 14 women journalists to Winnipeg from Eastern Canada. At the Winnipeg meeting were representatives of the women’s press from Vancouver to Halifax.

E. Cora Hind of the Free Press drafted the club’s constitution, with the purpose “being the advancement of mutual sympathy, counsel and helpfulness among press women for promoting and protecting the personal and professional interests of its members, and improving the status of journalism as a profession for women; the promoting of Canadian national sentiment in all papers and magazines with which its members are connected, and the promotion of a higher standard of literary excellence in newspaper writing.”

(Next week: part 6)