Ginger Snook — “I’m old and blind and I must fight for the restoration of my property”

by Bruce Cherney (part 5 of 5)

Albert “Ginger” Snook had a knack for invoking some bizarre incident to ruffle the feathers of civic officials. The August 13, 1920, Tribune contained a story in which Snook claimed to have been electrocuted by a “live wire” along Portage Avenue, which forced him to spend seven days in hospital. He didn’t know whether the city owned the wire or the Winnipeg Electric Railway Company, but he said at city hall that he would sue both parties, if necessary.

“I can’t find it (the wire), but I can show you the crack it made in the wall. It’s up Portage ave., off a lane that goes up the back of Strathcona st., beside the track where there is a coal yard,” he told city council.

The case was eventually dropped, since Snook’s story was short of real evidence, making his claim quite suspect.

Despite his gruff tone and shabby appearance, Snook was a generous man, even providing funds for an entire ward at Winnipeg General Hospital. In other instances, he gave young interns fine overcoats or new suits. Nurses were often rewarded with fur coats for putting up with Snook.

Ethel (Reid) McIntyre encountered Snook during her training as a student nurse (1905-08), and in the Family history, Mary-Elizabeth McIntyre Malmaeus, it was written that: “He broke his leg and was brought into the hospital. Ethel spoke of the trouble the nurses had in getting him bathed and getting his bright red hair and beard washed and trimmed. He shocked the whole staff by his vocabulary. When his leg healed somewhat and he could get around on crutches he would mortify the nurses by chasing them and trying to kiss them always in the presence of the doctors or the superintendent of nurses. Ethel was a favourite target because she blushed so easily.”

When his generosity to Winnipeg General Hospital workers was questioned, Snook replied: “Yes, too blankety blank bad! But listen, when people like that will put up with an old man as mean as I am and as rough, and be so kind, there ain’t nothing too good for ’em” (Col. G.C. Porter, Winnipeg Tribune, April 9, 1938).

During the May-June 1919 Winnipeg General Strike — over 30,000 workers walked off the job — Snook claimed that two “returned soldiers” (veterans of the First World War) had attacked him. “I am 86 years old and never did any harm to anyone,” he said at the time, “and was helping to remove garbage when those two men set upon me” (Winnipeg Free Press, June 5, 1919).

At the trial of the strike leaders, Snook testified he was attacked on numerous occasions by “union” men objecting to him working during the general strike.

As reported in the December 11, 1919, Free Press, Snook testified that during one instance, he demanded to be left alone, but the men continued to call him names. If they didn’t stop, he threatened that he “would knock this stick into ye.” Snook had begun carrying a baseball bat for personal protection during the strike, which was reminiscent of his time working on the railroad when he wielded a pick axe handle to keep workers in line.

An August 1, 1919,  Free Press article, stated that Snook testified at another sitting of the court that he had been attacked by about 300 men, “who forced his driver to unhitch the horses and drive them home while they demolished his wagon.”

Another gang initiated a second attempt at intimidation, according to Snook. “I took my stick and fetched a blow at the leader and broke the stick in two. Then I turned to the man with me and said, ‘Get the pitchfork.’ I told the gang that they might kill the old man, but that he’d be one up on them, anyway; I’d get one of them with the pitchfork.”

At the December session of the trial, Snook was asked if he disliked unions. He replied that he had never been connected with a union, but did not dislike them, although he also claimed that no one had the right to interfere with a non-union man trying to make a living.

Such interference, claimed Snook, continued after the strike. He charged that he was being discriminated against and couldn’t get work for his horse teams because he assisted the city during the strike. At the height of the strike, Snook was hired by the city to haul away garbage.

“He said the teams were withdrawn from a coal company’s plant because other team owners refused to work with them ...” (Tribune, December 6, 1919).

Actually, Snook did support at least one strike. In 1898, when 35 women workers walked off the job at the Emerson & Hague Company, makers of overalls and tents, he donated $25 to their strike fund, but these garment workers in no way interfered with his money-making ability.

Throughout his career as the city scavenger, Snook said he was nothing more than a hard-working labourer. On the other hand, union officials noted his wealth. And, his refusal to cease working during the general strike reinforced their opinion that Snook didn’t support unions.

Interestingly, Snook was reported in the Winnipeg Telegram (an anti-strike newspaper that labelled all strike leaders of Bolsheviks) of May 28, 1919, that he boasted of being his own union “and affiliated with nobody.” At the time, he was the only person collecting garbage in the city and was using three horse teams for that purpose. The Committee of 1,000 (an anti-strike group created by the city’s elite) called for volunteers to help out Snook.

 Still, union officials regarded Snook’s actions — verbal or otherwise — over the years to be mere distractions punctuated with humour than any real threat to their cause. Snook was continually dismissed as a serious candidate for civic office in the pages of the Winnipeg-based labour-oriented newspaper, The Voice.

By the 1920s, Snook was entering another phase in his life — he was losing the battle with his health and over his finances.

“The savings of 42 years have been swept away from me,” he told a Tribune reporter (published May 3, 1922), “but I am planning to ask the courts in some manner to give me what I claim is my due.”

Snook, then 88 years old, said his days of fighting city hall were over, and he would instead battle to provide his children — Elizabeth, Nellie, Caroline and Albert (names provided by Heather Dunn, the great-granddaughter of Snook)  — with an inheritance. Another of his children, Frederick, died when he was nine months old in 1899 of pneumonia.

“I’m old and almost blind and I must fight for the restoration of my property in the interests of my children.”

When Snook talked to the reporter, he alleged that he had earlier amassed property valued at $75,000. He said his financial difficulties arose as “a result of transactions and winding up processes when he thought he was on his death-bed in the hospital after a serious accident. He declares he will take steps to have his claims for the restoration of his property dealt with in the courts.”

Snook even wrote to Winston Churchill, the then British colonial secretary and future British prime minister, seeking his help. Churchill replied that it was beyond his power to interfere in a purely Canadian matter.

“I believe God raised me to fight for my children,” he told the reporter.

It was a forlorn hope, as the courts ruled decisively against Snook being able to recover his property.

The December 6, 1922, Tribune reported that when the “final chapter was written by the master of chambers ... Walking unsteadily from the court room the old man went into the corridor, sank to the marble floor and wept aloud.

“He lay there with his head buried in his arms, until some court attendants picked him up and placed him in the hallway of the court. For hours, he sat gazing into space, the tears trickling down his old wrinkled cheeks.”

It was reported that years earlier Snook had overdrawn his account and while in need of money had heavily mortgaged his properties, including his home on Victor Street and a farm just outside the city.

A few months before his court appearance, Ginger needed more money and attempted to sell his properties only to discover his holdings faced foreclosure for mortgage default.

“He denied his own signatures on the mortgage papers, but handwriting experts and the court also found the names written were bona fide. The action (he placed before the court) was to forestall foreclosure under the mortgages and for an accounting from his agents. It failed.”

His agents said they would help out Snook even though they had suffered monetary losses “through Ginger’s funding methods. They will have to make good the interest on the mortgages and pay a number of other debts contracted by their client.”

The newspaper reported their efforts on his behalf were “poor consolation for Ginger.”

“To groups of court attendants who gathered around him at various intervals he told and retold his story. He said he had lost $75,000 that his wife, (Caroline) before she died (in 1911), helped to make, and that he had intended to make his will shortly, leaving it to his children.

“The closing hour at the law courts found him still seated in the corridor. In the midst of the financial shambles he refused to admit it was his own business methods that had placed him there.”

When friends arrived to take Snook home, they found him still protesting the court decision that went against him. A subsequent appeal by Snook to overturn the verdict was dismissed.

Following the adverse ruling, Snook’s health began to take a turn for the worse. On January 30, 1924, the Tribune reported that Snook had to be admitted into the hospital 10 days earlier for a “bad attack of influenza touched with pneumonia,” and hadn’t been well for several weeks.

But that wasn’t the end of Snook’s appearances at city hall. On several occasions in 1925, he lobbied council and the safety committee to allow him to erect a new stable on McGee Street near Notre Dame Avenue to replace his Victor Street facility. Through persistence, Snook’s proposal was accepted by the city on June 1, although over the objections of McGee Street residents who claimed there were already too many stables along the street.

The Winnipeg Free Press reported on June 2, 1926, that Snook, who then resided at 694 Notre Dame Ave., was not in good health and was “compelled to remain indoors the most of the time.”

When Snook died on November 18, 1926, in Winnipeg General Hospital after lingering chronic bronchitis brought about a heart attack, praise was heaped upon “one of the city’s most picturesque figures” (Tribune obituary, November 18).

Alderman Robert Shore, chairman of the city’s health department, said that as far as his department was concerned, “Mr. Snook was a veritable friend ... He took over the work of city scavenger when nobody else wanted it or would do it. In particular, every citizen is indebted to him for the work he did during the smallpox epidemic of some 20 years ago. Of course, he was quite a character and had his peculiarities, but he was always a mighty good citizen and always had the city’s interests at heart.”

This viewpoint was quite a change from earlier complaints about Snook’s continual disruptions in the health department’s offices.

James Simpkin, another alderman, expressed his respect for Snook. “While he had a rough way of expressing his feelings, he was about as honest a man as there is in Winnipeg. Certainly the City Hall will miss him.”

Alderman John McKerchar had visited Snook while he was ill in the hospital, where Snook correctly predicted he wouldn’t be around much longer. “His passing will create a distinct gap around the city hall,” said McKerchar.

Alderman Frederick Davidson, who had known Snook for over 30 years, said he “was a marvelous man for his age, clever and smart. In the old days no civic meeting was complete without ‘Ginger,’ and he enjoyed a tolerance which would have been accorded to very few others.”

C.H. Newton, the city’s police chief, said his death “removes a colourful character.” In the article, Newton repeated the claim that in the 1860s Snook had served as a constable on the London Metropolitan Police, “and was fond of boasting of the fact.”

It was reported in the November 20 Tribune that representatives of the city, Winnipeg oldtimers, relatives and scores of personal friends attended Snook’s funeral service at the Thomson’s Funeral Home, 501 Main St. A long line of cars then followed the hearse carrying the body to Elmwood Cemetery, where the “counter-irritant” of civic politics — as Snook was referred to by former Mayor Richard “Dick” Waugh — was buried.

No longer would the man known for his “huge shock of gray hair sticking out in every direction, shaggy brows, untidy in the extreme” be seen on the city’s streets, “sitting in his ramshackle buggy, behind the old white horse famous for its ability to stand up in all kinds of weather without being shod” (Col. G.C. Porter, Tribune, April 9, 1938).