The Irish luck of Peter Kelley: a tall tale of considerable truth

‘The crime story you are about to read is true, with some embellishment for dramatic effect. Names have not been changed to protect the innocent, because everyone was guilty’

The following account was provided by former longtime Guelph Mercury reporter Virginia McDonald and recounts the tale told her by one of the main elements, Peter Kelley. She calls it ‘a true crime story with some embellishment for dramatic effect. Names have not been changed to protect the innocent, because everyone was guilty.’

All the Irish luck of Peter Kelley’s ancestors was surely with him in the wee hours of that St. Patrick’s Day in the mid-1960s. Kelly, a Daily Mercury reporter, was busy painting the door of the Guelph Orange Hall green, and there was no flatfoot or paddy wagon in sight. This was in spite of the short distance to the police station and the extra cops on bar patrol that night.

Kelley hatched the Orange Hall redecorating scheme over a few St. Patrick’s Day pints with fellow reporters Jerry Frank and Joey Slinger at The Albion Hotel. Back then, the Albion was a sunless den of smoke and beer fumes, conveniently attached by a brick umbilical cord to the Mercury building.

Reporters were part of Albion’s seedy furniture and held up its walls. They came post-deadline to take beer and spirits for restorative and medicinal purposes as antidotes for Mercury poisoning, an affliction caused by too much work for Lord Thomson of Fleet, and not much pay to show for it.

Kelley’s St. Patrick’s Day ambush was payback for the Orange Parade in July.

Each year Orange Lodge members marched downtown to mark the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, regarded historically as a victory for Irish Protestants. When the parade trouped past Church of Our Lady Immaculate, Orangemen always lowered their flags.

On the St. Patrick’s Day night in question, Kelly encamped at the Albion bar, mulled over the 280-odd years of ceremonial nose thumbing, and decided enough was enough.

The majestic Church of Our Lady stood across the street and towered over the Albion from a high vantage point. Its marble statue of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception gazed serenely down on carousing reporters in general, and in particular on the unholy trio plotting the Orange Hall Caper that night.

Kelley himself bought, with free will, intent, premeditation and without remorse, the can of paint from the local Canadian Tire store. Kelley’s Irish luck must have rubbed off on his partners in crime that night. Frank and Slinger also fled the scene as free men.

A few days later, Kelley turned up for work to discover his desk had turned orange, although this counterattack by persons unknown seemed a small price to pay compared to a criminal charge of vandalism.

However just months after escaping justice at the hands of Guelph constabulary and Orange Lodge members, Kelley was caught up in a more dangerous scheme and his lucky leprechaun wasn’t coming to the rescue. Instead, the newsroom’s mythical ogre Deadline poked Kelley’s back with a scaly finger, while flesh-and-blood editor Joe Collins breathed down Kelley’s neck.

Kelley kept trying to phone Sam Bowden, whose life story was about to go to print. At deadline, Sam wasn’t answering the phone. This was very bad luck for Kelley and his leprechaun seemed about to turn nasty.

Sam Bowden was a local farmer of pioneer stock and an octogenarian who had survived the Great War, the Great Crash, the Great Depression, the Second World War and everything in between. The story of Bowden’s life and times was set to be published as the Mercury’s weekly People Of Interest feature. But editor Collins had decided Kelley’s photo of Sam was too small and grainy to print. Collins told Kelley to call Sam and tell him to come to the newsroom to be rephotographed for publication that morning.

Kelley dutifully dialed, hung up, redialed again and again, all the while telling editor Collins that Sam Bowden wasn’t there. This was the one glimmer of truth in a morass of deceit. Sam wasn’t there. Kelley was actually phoning his home number over and over. He was praying, no doubt to St. Patrick, the Good Lord and the Blessed Mother, that his own mother Mrs. Kelly, who was visiting him, wouldn’t pick up the damn phone.

Sam Bowden wasn’t at Kelley’s place enjoying a chin wag with Mother. He wasn’t at his farmhouse stroking his cat by the fire. He wasn’t walking his dog in the fields. Sam wasn’t weeding his garden, canoeing the river, or otherwise rusticating in any of the ways Kelley had described in his story, which he’d hammered out during a frantic all-nighter.

In fact, Sam Bowden wasn’t anywhere at all. He existed only in the mind of Peter Kelley, born of yet another devious scheme, this time fuelled by deadline desperation. Kelley had called three possible People of Interest candidates during his weekend shift for his Monday morning deadline.  All three had declined. It was now Sunday after midnight and Kelley sat alone, his gaze travelling from his empty notebook to the silently waiting typewriter in front of him while the newsroom clock ticked.

The Daily Mercury’s People Of Interest feature was editor Collins’ beloved brainchild and it ran every morning without fail. Reporters who all had to take a turn writing the piece secretly loathed it. People of Interest profiled everyone and anyone among the elite and ordinary folk. It celebritized even the dullest and fossilized pillars of the community, often someone who had gone to school with the Mercury’s publisher, or who lunched with him cheek-to-jowl at the Rotary Club.

The feature also served as a sneaky way of prematurely gathering details on citizens of public note for a future obituary story. The more prominent People Of Interest subjects basked in the media spotlight, blissfully ignorant of the fact they were being measured up for a final editorial box on the broadsheet.

As far as Collins was concerned, the Monday publication of People Of Interest was sacrosanct, so he hardly expected one of his most reliable reporters to come up empty.

Somewhere between the peaks of angst and the flatlands of despair yawns an abyss of reckless abandon. Kelley counted the hours to deadline and with only a glimpse down into the bottomless pit, spread his arms and executed a foolhardy swan dive: He hunched over his typewriter and began to peck out the story of Sam Bowden’s life.

Sam Bowden, Kelley wrote, was the son of pioneer parents. Orphaned young, he got adopted, dropped out of grade school but graduated from the School Of Hard Knocks. In the First World War he got gassed, got hospitalized, got engaged to his nurse, got wise and broke it off. He travelled, worked, helped establish the Conservative Party of Canada, lost his investments in the stock market crash of 1929, drifted and survived on odd jobs during the Depression and sat out the Second World War in a government job.

Sam had travelled the world, but was born in a rural armpit called Rattlesnake Point. Giddy with insomnia and boldness, Kelley made up the name, thinking that it sounded so remote that nobody would search for it on a map. What Kelley didn’t realize was that, unlike Sam, Rattlesnake Point did exist, and was dangerously nearby outside of Milton – just down the road a piece, as Sam might say in his folksy way if he could speak.

However Sam wasn’t breathing let alone speaking, and Kelley now needed the mandatory photograph of his interviewee for the People Of Interest profile.

In order to depict his imaginary friend, Kelley thought it would be fun to use a photo connected with another newspaper reporter. Kelley happened to be reading the biography of Ben Hecht, the journalist who wrote the hit play The Front Page, and the book contained a family photograph. Kelley zoomed in his lens on the head of Hecht’s father-in-law, fired off a few frames and rushed to the darkroom.

The reproduction quality of the negatives was too poor even for the Mercury’s forgiving standards. But the alternative was to find, in the dead of the night, a live subject who would agree to both be photographed for the newspaper and to keep his mouth shut about it. The chances of that happening were as likely as Kelley painting the entire Orange Hall green in broad daylight and then being invited to become a lodge member as a reward for a job well done.

So when Collins saw Sam’s washed out headshot the next morning, and when Sam Bowden didn’t answer the deadline calls, Collins told Kelley to drive to Sam’s Eramosa Township farm, do a re-shoot, and get the film back to the dark room in time. Kelley obligingly drove out of town. Safely past the city limits he pulled off the highway, put his feet up on the dashboard, drank coffee and waited for deadline to pass while Collins paced the floor.

When Kelley finally got back to the newsroom, he showed Collins an exposed roll of film (deliberately ripped from its cartridge) and said he’d accidentally opened his camera before rewinding the Sam shots. Meanwhile, Kelley’s story with its purloined photo was already rolling off the presses and Sam Bowden was born.

Confession is supposed to be good for the soul, but Kelley was in no hurry. For the next decade, Sam Bowden became a well-known local character who was regularly quoted in Kelley’s personal column titled It’s About Time. According to the column, Sam constantly phoned Kelley or dropped into the newsroom to chat about current affairs, politics and offer unpolished gems of wisdom.

Editor Collins loved Sam’s wit, sarcasm and homespun philosophy, and was dying to meet him.

“Was Sam here?” Collins would ask whenever Kelley churned out a column.

“You just missed him,” was the stock answer from reporters in whom Kelly had confided the Sam Bowden scam.

In fact, Kelley later credited his Orange Hall collaborator Joey Slinger as being the evil genius who duped a local conservation authority publicist into issuing a news release which proudly proclaimed Rattlesnake Point as “birthplace of Sam Bowden, famed Ontario pioneer.”

When a local man actually named Sam Bowden turned up as a minor hopeful in a rural election, Kelley thought the jig was up. Irish luck was with Kelley once again when that real Sam dropped from the race, but Kelley decided not to chance it further. The fictitious Sam Bowden vanished like fairy dust from Guelph’s media spotlight.

Sam did not die officially. There was no newspaper obituary or headstones to mislead genealogists or searching relatives. Sam just

faded into the twilight of files created under his name at the newspaper morgue and public libraries, where he enjoyed a posthumous legitimacy for 35 years.

Kelley finally confessed the truth about Sam but at first only to editor Collins, only after Collins had retired, and only after Kelley decided they’d both had enough to drink at a local press party. Collins prided himself on his knack for hiring and coaching rookie reporters like Kelley, so at first Collins took his protege’s revelation like a knife to the heart.

As the party carried on and the drinks flowed, Collins was soon laughing along with everyone else.

Kelley never confessed to editor Collins about the St. Patrick’s Day Orange Hall caper, even though rumours circulated in the newsroom and on the street.

Kelley was ratted out at a 2001 Mercury reunion by retired advertising manager Pat Fitzgerald, a fellow Catholic who hailed from Northern Ireland and no slouch when it came to newsroom foolery. Fitzgerald had friends and contacts all over town, including at the Rotary Club and the Orange Lodge and did not reveal who turned Kelley’s desk orange.

Joey Slinger emceed the reunion but admitted nothing from the podium. Days later, urged on by a fellow Mercury alumnus, Kelley strolled behind enemy lines into the rival Guelph Tribune newsroom with the Sam Bowden files tucked under his arm for a tell-all interview.

Ironically, Peter Kelley and the other Orange Hall hooligans went from being what police call “persons of interest” in a criminal investigation to become People Of Interest or pillars of the community in their own right.

Jerry Frank became a respected college journalism professor. Joey Slinger became a well-known journalist and author, best known as the Toronto Star’s long-running humorist. Peter Kelley became a city councillor, Catholic school trustee and high school governor, library board chair and service club president.

Time passed. The Daily Mercury shut down its presses and was later shut down entirely. The Tribune was renamed the Mercury Tribune and moved its head office out of town. More small newspapers in the county folded or went online and reporters there became an endangered species.

Guelph’s Orange parades also became a thing of the past. The Orange Lodge still stands, as the last of Guelph’s six lodges and marked 150 years in 2021. At deadline, the door was a vibrant orange. The Albion Hotel was redecorated to attract a more upscale clientele, was sold, and remains temporarily closed. Church of Our Lady was renovated and became a basilica. The statue of Our Lady still serenely overlooks the former newspaper building and pub where Kelley and his St. Patrick’s Day conspirators celebrated and schemed.

But while a judge might dismiss the Orange Hall caper as a mere bit of St. Patrick’s Day mischief, was Kelley’s Sam scam a mere newsroom prank or a serious journalistic transgression? For an answer, consider the source of the famous misquoted saying, “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

So as a toast and a newspaper roast to the late Peter Kelley and his Sam Bowden, here’s an old Irish saying: “May misfortune follow you all your life – and never catch up.”

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