THE EYE OPENER.
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‘Everybody has their favorite bird,” Bob Edwards wrote. “Mine is the bat.” But his fearless newspaper became a legend of the great West
IN guests CALGARY’S still occasionally big friendly look up Palliser from signing hotel the register and ask the desk clerk where they can get the current issue of the Calgary Eye Opener run by that fellow Bob Edwards. For though Edwards and his incredible paper have been dead these 28 years, although copies of the Eye Opener have become collectors’ items, although there is no complete file in existence and no exact count of how many issues were actually published, the name of newspaper and editor are almost as green today as they were in their heyday.
The Edwards legend has been weaving itself into the mythology of the last great West ever since the clear wintry afternoon of November 17, 1922, when hundreds of Calgarians, great and humble, trooped behind the scarlet Mountie pallbearers who bore his coffin up the snowy slopes of a foothills cemetery.
Who was Edwards? He was a short, squarely built man of solemn expression and sombre suits. He wore a wing collar and a luxurious black mustache. He had a slight Scottish accent and a lisping voice. He feared no man and ho produced the best-known Canadian periodical of his time. There has never since been a man like Edwards in the West and there has never been a paper like the Calgary Eye Opener anywhere.
The Eye Opener was published in Calgary from 1904 to 1922 at irregular intervals whenever the mood struck the editor, who was also the entire staff. There were perhaps 500 issues printed, many of them now lost forever.
Its contents skirted libel, its advertising surprised the advertisers and it rarely contained news. Ridicule of stuffed shirt authority was its trademark and the personality of its editor its stock in trade.
It violated every rule taught modern students of journalism, yet it reached a circulation of 30,000 at a time when 7,500 was considered goes! for
Western papers. It’s eight standard-sized pages were read avidly in the United States and Britain. It sold for a nickel but many a Calgary businessman paid 25 cents to have it smuggled into his office.
Its influence was enormous, though weeks might go by when the editor was off on a tear without the paper appearing. “Everybody has their favorite bird,” Bob Edwards once wrote to explain the paper’s absence from the stands. “Mine is the bat.” But ridicule by the Eye Opener was enough to bring R. B. Bennett to his knees.
Bennett was solicitor for the CPR which once tried to ban the Eye Opener from its trains. Edwards went to Bennett, who promised to try to rectify the trouble. Nothing happened.
Then for a number of weeks the Eye Opener appeared with pictures of terrible train wrecks, always captioned “Another CPR Wreck.” After several weeks there appeared a picture of R. B. Bennett. The caption was unchanged, “Another CPR Wreck.” The future prime minister and viscount took the hint and train travelers were soon able to read the Eye Opener.
Stuffed Shirts and Sharks
EDWARDS kept his office in his hat. He lived and worked in a single room in the Cameron block in the centre of downtown Calgary where, on a big roll-top desk covered with a welter of papers, he would inscribe his ideas in a precise longhand, chuckling as he wrote. He gave no receipts and kept no books. The paper itself was jobbed out to various printing plants in the city.
He ran an advertisement only if he liked the merchant. Sometimes several issues would roll by containing an ad without the knowledge of the advertiser. Then one day Edwards would amble in and say the merchant owed so much “if you feel like paying.” There is no record of anyone failing to pay.
This casual method of doing business made Edwards virtually immune from libel suits. He was never actually sued. Certainly any suit against him would have entailed the risk of being held up to ridicule.
Once he ran an item: “The three biggest liars
in Alberta are: Robert Edwards, Gentleman; Hon. A. L. Sifton (then Premier of Alberta) ; Bob Edwards, Editor of the Eye Opener.”
Sifton was reported to have consulted his lawyers and ordered them to sue for libel. Edwards, on hearing this, went to the lawyers and demanded that he, as Robert Edwards, gentleman, be permitted to sue Bob Edwards, editor, in a joint action with Sifton. The action was dropped.
Edwards attacked professional boosters, stuffed shirts, all governments in power, politicians, monopolies, railway grabs, subdivision sharks, lumber combines, civic pleasure jaunts and all tinsel and show. But he thought well of the N.W.M.P., cowboys and hired men, race tracks, barkeeps, the Salvation Army, hospitals, children, operatic music and the future of the West.
Calgary old-timers, who still discuss Edwards, invariably refer to him as “a grand fellow and a gentleman.”
A Brush With the Churches
IN ACTUALITY Robert Chambers Edwards was a “gentleman” in all senses of the word. Born in 1864 in Edinburgh, he was related on his mother’s side to the famous Chambers publishing firm of that city. “If mother had been a gentleman,” he would say, “I would have been head of the firm.” He was educated at Clifton Bank school, St. Andrews and at Edinburgh University, where he was a classmate of the late Senator Ian Mackenzie.
He traveled the Continent and around 1885 he made his literary debut with a gossipy, personal paper called “The
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A MACLEAN'S FLASHBACK
The Eye Opener
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Traveller,” published at Boulogne for the amusement of the Riviera café society.
In the early 1890’s he came to North America to try ranching in Texas. The lynching of a Negro sickened him and he moved to Iowa where he worked as a farm hand.
In 1895 his short, stocky figure appeared in the Wetaskiwin district. He soon quit farming to found the Wetaskiwin Free Lance.
The robust impertinence of the editorial Edwards soon rocked the town with mirth. In one report of a meeting of the town council he noted that the village fathers had been debat:ng what size of cemetery would be needed and had decided “10 acres—five for each of the town’s doctors.”
In the next few years he published the Alberta Sun at Leduc and at Strathcona. At the turn of the century he worked briefly on Winn peg newspapers and in 1902 went to High River, Alta.
In that year he announced to the citizenry that he would provide a good family paper for $1.50. If the other kind of paper was wanted, he said, it would cost $2.50.
He chose the name Eye Opener because, he said, “nobody can refuse taking one.” After two years in High River his fame was beginning to spread. But his attacks on small-town society made him 'ess than popular.
His status with the church authorities was such that the churches asked him to drop their advertising. Edwards did so, pointing out in print that they’d been getting it for nothing anyway.
The final break came one memorable Sunday service when some choral gramophone recordings at the Presbyterian church were switched over to bawdy ballads. Bob Edwards was blamed. Soon after he departed for Calgary.
Edwards at 40 soon became a familiar part of the cowtown scene. Though retiring in groups he was regarded by the ladies as charming and his lisping voice was capable of paying compliments in the old-world style.
What’s Next to a Man?
He spent a good deal of his time reading (he was an authority on Burns) and could occasionally be seen in the bar of the Royal or the Alberta (longest bar in the province). He was not a steady drinker but there was something in his makeup that periodically sent him off on a nine-day wonder.
His greatest friend was Paddy Nolan, the great Western criminal lawyer and Irish wit, who often dropped in to help get out the Eye Opener and check it for libel.
Edwards was highly amused by the “sassiety” columns of the orthodox Press, so he had one of his own. Sprightly social items such as this appeared: “Maude De Vere of Drumheller arrived in the city Wednesday afternoon and was run out of town Wednesday night. It is a pity Miss De Vere Ls not a race horse. .She is very fast.”
Or deadpan items of this type: “Hank Borden who was hanged last week at Lethbridge for a most atrocious murder is no relation to Hon. Robert Borden.”
Advertisers got it too. “We are requested to state in this column that the Pete Johnston who is held for cutting his wife’s throat is not P. '1’. Johnston, the well-known haberdasher, whose spring stock is now on view.”
The standard ads were unique. “Why
don’t they build mills on the Bow River? Because dam it they can’t,” was the eye catcher he used on the Macleod Brothers’ display, which also offered the information “next to a man is his underwear.”
Although Edwards’ bookkeeping was casual his paper was produced with almost loving care. John D. McAra, veteran Calgary printer who worked on the Eye Opener, says Edwards was the best proofreader he ever knew. And examination of copies shows that rarely if ever did a mistake slip through. The grammar was carefully correct.
His wit conceived many fictitious characters whose names appeared in the Eye Opener. One of the most delightful was Albert Buzzard-Cholomondely, son of Sir John Buzzard -Cholomondely, Skookingham Hall, Skookingham, Hants, England.
“Toss the Bounder in Jail”
Albert was a remittance man who resorted to various stratagems to get money from home. Correspondence from Albert to his father appeared periodically in the Eye Opener. From the Peace River, Albert wrote: “I
am now happily married to a halfbreed and have three bronze-colored papooses —your grandchildren, dear father
“We are all going to visit you at Christmas when you will be having your annual big house party at Skookingham Hall. My wife is most anxious to meet her husband’s people and the better element of English society.
“If only I had about £8,000 I would invest it in the cattle business and forego the pleasure of a trip home. But I do not know where I could lay my hands on such an amount. Dear old dad, I know you will be glad to see your affectionate son, Bertie.”
Another of Edwards’ sprightly citizens was Peter McGonigle, editor of the imaginary Midnapore Gazetfe. Once an Eye Opener story appeared about McGonigle’s coming-out party after a term in jail for cattle rustling. In the article Edwards ascribed to various public personages—including the mayor—words of tribute to McGonigle.
Lord Strathcona was quoted as saying: “The name of Peter McGonigle
will ever stand high in the roll of eminent confiscators. Once long ago I came near achieving distinction in that direction when I performt d some dexterous financing. In consequence, however, of stocks going up instead of down, I wound up in the House of
A Toronto correspondent for one of the London newspapers saw this report in the Eye Opener and forwarded it. It appeared as a news item for the editors were unaware of Edwards’ straight-faced humor. Lord Strathcona saw it, purpled, and forthwith ordered his solicitors to take uction against the
They contacted Senator Lougheed in Calgary and demanded he proceed “with civil and criminal actions at once.” The senator attempted to explain that it was a joke, but received from the London firm the angry wire: “Does not the King’s Writ run in your territory? Toss the bounder in jail.”
Edwards heard of the goings on and gleefully dared the Senator to take action. The Senator knew he would be Laughed out of court. In spite of the pressure he managed to withhold action until Strathcona forgot it.
In due course the death of McGonigle was recorded in the Eye Opener. The bartender of the Nevermore House, examining an ivory - handled revolver left by u stranger in lieu of
payment for a two-day drunk, accidentally shot McGonigle in the abdomen.
McGonigle was stretched out on the bar, his head resting on the slot machine, and brandy was forced between his lips. A glass stopper from a Gooderham and Worts flask was plugged into the bullet hole. Friends were sent to tell Mrs. McGonigle that her husband might not be home for supper.
McGonigle ordered a drink all round, and the slot machine pillow was replaced by the cash register. In lowering McGonigle’s head the machine rang up $14.65 but he regarded the transfer as well worth the money.
Two days later, McGonigle was dead. He willed his wife to the bartender.
By 1908 Edwards was able to claim a circulation of 30,000. This in spite of the fact that he was denied use of the mails because of his failure to publish regularly. He had to express his paper to newsstand dealers outside of Calgary.
By this time foothill politicos knew that having the Eye Opener on their side was a great advantage in a contentious issue.
Edwards’ attitude toward politics was summed up by his comment in one edition which appeared after he had attended the funeral of a local politician who had been given long graveside eulogies. “A statesman is a dead politician; what we need is more statesmen.”
An illustration of the Eye Opener campaign technique came in 1906 when Alderman R. J. Stuart entered the contest for mayor against a man favored by Bob.
The November 24 issue was devoted largely to the election. A front-page cartoon showed a man labeled “Stuart” drinking champagne with five gay girls noted as “Zinn’s dancing girls.” A news story below the cartoon reported that the girls had appeared at the Lyric Theatre during the past week but seemed to have additional sources of revenue to their stage appearances.
Another item announced that the girls were entertained by Leta Long, renowned madame of the Nose Creek red - light district, a favorite society column name in the Eye Opener.
Warming to his work Bob variously charged Stuart with campaigning for office to help his own insurance business and with writing a letter, which was printed, alleged to be from Stuart to his old friend the dog catcher in his home in Ontario. The dog catcher was promised the job of chief of police of Calgary if Stuart was elected.
He Found a Waitress Weeping
Additional cartoons depict Stuart as mayor trying to sell insurance to the citizens, with a hand holding a lemon outstretched to the citizens.
Stuart didn’t win.
Even in his declining years Edwards was politically unpredictable. A. L. Smith, K.C., M.P. for Calgary West, likes to tell of the time he ran in 1921.
“I hadn’t worried about the Eye Opener because Bob and I had been friends,” he says.
“Just before the election Bob came out with praise for my rival and a blast for me. It hurt a good deal and I lost. I didn’t say anything next time I met Bob. Finally he laughed that mischievous laugh and said: ‘You
know, Arthur, I couldn’t support you. They told me the other man was a Scotsman.’ ”
On the other hand Edwards was willing to help people who needed it. Once he walked into his favorite restaurant and found the waitress weeping. It was at the peak of the pre-
World War I land boom and she had been swindled of her savings.
Edwards went to the land agent who had taken the girl’s money and demanded it be returned. The demand was refused.
The next issue of the Eye Opener recounted the swindle of the waitress and announced that unless she was repaid at once the following issue would carry the name of the man who swindled her. The land salesman paid up.
Strangely enough, the only libel action in which Edwards was involved saw him as plaintiff rather than defendant. And the attack he suffered outdid anything he himself had ever written.
It appeared in the Calgary News, a daily newspaper run at the time by a Daniel McGillicuddy. There was bad blood between Edwards and McGillicuddy and it was also generally believed that the Sifton Government, supported by the News, wanted Edwards cut down.
On October 6, 1908, the News published an article under this head: “Real reputation of the man who is very busy blackening characters;” it was signed “Nemesis.”
For students of the almost extinct art of editorial vilification we quote sections of the long article.
To open, the article referred to Edwards as having “brought disgrace upon city and province by bringing out semioccasionally a disreputable sheet, the mission of which has been blackmail and the contents of which were slander and smut.”
Oscar Wilde Was Mentioned
Later, “The publication of a filthy sheet such as the Eye Opener is undoubtedly by a creature whose literary fulminations cannot but create the impression that he was born in a brothel and bred on a dunghill.”
After these loosening-up exercises “Nemesis” got down to business. “I intend to show that he is a libeller, a character thief, a coward, a liar, a drunkard, a dope fiend and a degenerate.”
“Nemesis” recalled the case of Oscar Wilde to show the effect of degeneracy on those in the literary life, then he added: “Usually the fate of such unfortunates is poison, the pistol, the razor or the rope.”
Edwards read only the first few paragraphs. Then he strode from his office to the quarters of Paddy Nolan. Paddy read the rest of the article to the editor who immediately demanded action for criminal libel.
McGillicuddy was represented by E. P. Davis, prominent Vancouver lawyer. The court house was crowded daily as Calgarians came out for the legal show. Many can still recall Davis pounding the jury box rail and thundering that Edwards was “a skunk, scamp and a scandal.”
Nolan held that truth was the only defense. The News counsel submitted some copies of the Eye Opener, notably the previous mentioned campaign against Alderman Stuart, and others with comments on the sporting life.
The jury found that Edwards had been libeled. However, they thoughtfully added the provision that libel was something not entirely foreign to the Eye Opener. McGillicuddy received only a nominal fine.
Bob never forgave nor forgot. Thirteen years later, when he was elected to the legislature and McGillicuddy had died, this note appeared in the Eye Opener. “Isn’t it remarkable. Here I am in the legislature and McGillicuddy is in hell.”
In 1915 the prohibition wrangle split Calgary. Edwards, addicted as he was
to liquor, might have been expected to favor the “wets.” In fact, he told a friend during the campaign that the hotelmen had offered him $20,000 for his editorial support.
But Bob came out for the “drys” —and they won. When the vote was being counted Edwards was in hospital recovering from a jag.
In 1917 the unpredictable bachelor editor married Kate Penman, of Calgary. She was considerably younger than his 53 years and still survives him.
By this time he had become an accepted part of the community. In 1921 a group of friends nominated him to run for the provincial legislature as an independent. Then they got his consent.
His campaign was typical Edwards. He packed up the Eye Opener, contending it was unfair to charge the customers for his election propaganda. He made no speeches but occasionally wrote articles in the Calgary Albertan. To people on the streets he promised that beer would run from the public fountains.
He came in fourth in a field of 19 and thus qualified for one of Calgary’s five seats. When citizens asked about the beer in the fountains he replied, with dignity, that it was ridiculous to ask — politicians never kept their promises.
He made only one speech in the legislature. It was a long - awaited event for it took Edwards some time to muster up his courage.
“He had several packets of ingredients for making beer,” Robert Anderson, clerk of the legislature, recalls. “He would take them into the House, sit there throughout the debate, lose his nerve, come out and leave them there until the next day.”
Finally Bob made his speech. He argued his favorite theory that 3Vi°7c lager beer should be allowed for sale and held up his packets of ingredients to illustrate that they could be bought easily in the stores.
Of prohibition, he said: “One half
the population of Alberta is trying to get liquor and the other half is trying to keep them from it. You can’t expect to enforce any act with half the population against it.” However, the “dry” forces were still in the saddle and Bob got only two supporting votes.
At the end of the session Bob was again a sick man. He went to the West Coast to rest and came down with influenza. It greatly weakened him, but he recovered sufficiently to come back to Calgary. On November 14, 1922, his heart gave out and with him died his paper. Friends published one last issue with reprints of some of his writings and tributes to him from leading citizens.
There have been attempts to revive the Eye Opener. A small magazinestyle paper with the title was published in the United States until the 30’s, but it was more of a girlie picture and joke
Rumors frequently get around that the paper will be revived, but as one old-timer commented, “How can they do that? They’d have to resurrect Bob Edwards.”
In 1937 the Calgary Herald discovered that a headstone for Edwards’ grave was still in the premises of a memorial stone company. Old-timers rallied immediately to buy it and place it on the grave, but one unknown citizen paid for it and a few hours after the newspaper had made its announcement the headstone was put in place.
A lot of words have been spilled in trying to explain Bob Edwards and his amazing newspaper, some of them damning, some apologetic. But the final words must lie with Edwards himself in the prayer which so often appeared in his paper:
“Lord, let me keep a straight way in the path of honor; and a straight face in the presence of solemn asses; let me not truckle to the high, nor bulldoze the low; let me frolic with the Jack and the Joker, and win the game; lead me unto truth and beauty and tell me her name; keep me sane but not too sane; let me condemn no man because of his grammar and no woman on account of her morals, neither being responsible for either.
“Preserve my sense of humor and values and proportions. Let me be healthy while I live but not live too long. Which is about all for today, Lord. Amen.” if