Michael Dupuis. Foreward by Alan Ruffman. Bearing Witness: Journalists, Record Keepers and the 1917 Halifax Explosion (Black Point, NS: Fernwood Publishing, 2017).
By Stephen Kimber
As a practising journalist for more than 40 years and a teacher of journalism for more than 30, I am sometimes puzzled by the lack of scholarly attention paid to the role reporters play in our understanding of history, and perplexed also by the all-too frequent “just-journalism” dismissals by some academics of these first rough drafts of history. Journalistic reporting is usually considered less reliable than participants’ diaries and letters, official records, and transcripts. While there is some merit in that, it is also fair to note that self-serving diary entries, or transcript mis-statements (deliberate or inadvertent) all come with caveats too. At its best, journalism provides a rich trove of detail, incident, and anecdote that help us to see the world as witnessed by those who lived it at the time. This is especially true of reporting on disasters.
Michael Dupuis’s Bearing Witness: Journalists, Record Keepers and the 1917 Halifax Explosion is a case in point. A history teacher from Victoria, British Columbia, Dupuis has made something of a career documenting the roles reporters played in seminal events in Canadian history, including the Winnipeg general strike, the Regina riot, the sinking of the Titanic, and now the Halifax Explosion. A relentless researcher, Dupuis sifted through mountains of reportage to show how the explosion narrative unfolded from fragmentary wire service bulletins, to newspaper dispatches, through sketches and magazine stories. Significantly, however, Dupuis also pieced together brief biographical sketches of the journalists whose work he includes, even tracking down descendants for information about their lives.
One thing we learn quickly is just how difficult disaster news gathering can be. In the hours before communication with the “shattered” city was restored, Truro Daily News publisher A.R. Coffin had to hire a taxi, racing three hours over treacherous, icy roads to report to Canadian Press (and to the world) what had happened. Some local journalists were injured (one died rushing to the scene of the fire that preceded the blast) and many had to juggle reporting with desperate searches for loved ones. There was no modern media centre to provide the latest official word. So the Halifax Chronicle’s James L. Gowen, an old-school newspaperman “who never rode to a story in a car and seldom used the telephone to obtain information,” spent the day after the explosion walking the city’s streets “in the bitter cold to all known shelters and hospitals to compile lists of survivors” (43).
Getting to the scene became the first challenge for many outside reporters. The Ottawa Citizen’s Tommy Gorman made it to Saint John before officials told him that he would have to wait while a medical relief train proceeded to Halifax. Gorman stood on the platform with fellow reporters until the train “began moving out. At the last moment Tommy suddenly made a leap for a handrail, swung up onto a car-step and waved a smiling farewell to his bewildered and completely baffled confreres” (89). Despite threats of being tossed off the train or thrown in jail, Gorman arrived in Halifax, “appropriated” a typewriter from an explosion-shattered shop window, found a room in a hotel previously occupied by a dead man, and began work. That night he filed 5,000 words, including a full list of those killed in the disaster who had Ottawa connections.
Reporters encountered horrific scenes: “Horrible human fragments had to be gathered up – children’s heads – scorched limbs,” wrote Archibald MacMechan in the Canadian Courier. “The bodies were piled in tens to wait for the lorries, which were to carry them to the school, which had then been turned into a morgue” (53). There were several versions of one incident reported by the Boston Globe’s Anthony Philpott: “One mother had walked around for hours with her baby wrapped up in a shawl in her arms. The baby was taken from her. It was found to be headless” (117). Intriguingly, Stanley Smith of the St. John Daily Telegraph wrote later: “I felt curiously detached and not greatly moved by those distressing scenes” because his “single purpose” at the time was to provide “a living picture of what had actually occurred.” It was only later, trying to tell friends “the stories so glibly written… I find that I must stop short. So much for the psychology of it” (73). As horrific as it often was, the journalistic coverage influenced the outside world’s response to the explosion. Dupuis quotes one local clergyman, who claimed reporting, “written in graphic style, and full of human interest, was probably the greatest factor in starting the magnificent wave of sympathy and of practical assistance which swept over the American continent, and indeed, over the world” (143).
Bearing Witness is an important addition to the literature on the Halifax Explosion. That said, there are caveats. Given the structure (verbatim reports by local, national and international reporters, accompanied by their biographies) there is much repetition and much of the substance of that reporting will be familiar to those who have studied and read about the explosion. And, while Dupuis has done an excellent job of gathering material, he is clearly a better researcher than writer. Bearing Witness is an excellent research tool, but ironically, for a book about storytelling, Dupuis’s biographies of his journalistic characters read more like an assemblage of facts rather than narratives that places their work in a larger historical context.
Stephen Kimber, the co-founder of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction program at the University of King’s College, is a Professor of Journalism and the author of one novel and eight books of nonfiction.