Kingston’s Literary History: When Hemingway came to town

Ernest Hemingway: July 21, 1899 – July 2, 1961.

For ten years, Kingston WritersFest has brought noted authors to town to discuss their work and read from their latest book. Aspiring writers have taken the influences of the writers they see, meet, and hear from at this conference to motivate them to continue in their work. Kingston has a proud literary history, both with writers from the city, and those who simply came for a visit.

A few years back, I did some writing about how Ernest Hemingway came to Kingston to cover a 1923 prison escape from Kingston Penitentiary. Having visited Kingston Pen this past summer walking the grounds where thousands of prisoners and guards had gone before, I could feel the countless stories that were begging to be told from within these walls. I thought with the celebration of creativity and writing prowess that Kingston WritersFest has showcased, I would start a new series of articles highlighting Kingston’s Literary History.

Confession: I am a huge fan of most of Ernest Hemingway’s books. He has multiple faults about his personality, and in how he projects the male image in some of his works, but his influence on writing is in no doubt. The master of sparse narrative has influenced countless writers.  Hemingway didn’t start off as a Nobel Prize winning author. It took him decades to hone his craft, and his starting point was as a correspondent for the Toronto Star.

Returning from years of living the bohemian life in Paris with his wife Hadley, the two made their home in Toronto, and Hemingway was regularly sent off to cover noted events for the Toronto Star. An escape from Kingston Penitentiary by notorious criminal Red Ryan and four other prisoners was a story that needed to be covered, and Hemingway was on the next train to Kingston.

September 10, 1923 was the day that five prisoners, including bank robber Red Ryan made their escape. After setting fire to the stables and using the smoke as a screen, the five felons climbed the wall in the exercise yard to freedom. Dropping almost thirty feet to the ground, they hijacked a car and made their way up Pembroke Street.

By 11:30 that morning the car had been found abandoned 4 miles northeast of Kingston. Citizens from all around were rushing to the prison to volunteer their time and vehicles in the search. The convicts fled into the woods, pursued by two cars of guards. Shots were fired, and the chase was on.

The next day Ernest Hemingway would come on the scene. His headline for the Toronto Star, Escaped Kingston Convicts Still at Large was eye catching and the prose would engage readers to buy a copy of the latest edition of the Toronto Star.

From Hemingway’s own words starting at 10 am of the day of the escape: “Thick yellow and white smoke began to pour from the barn just inside the east wall of the penitentiary. As the others (escapees) climbed an improvised ladder, Red Ryan stood at the bottom.”

The wall of Kingston Penitentiary that five convicts scaled to escape the institution in 1923, which would result in Hemingway coming to Kingston to report for the Toronto Star.

Hemingway would accurately sum up the look of the noted bank robber: “A freckled face man whose prison cap could not hide his flowing red hair.” A guard named Matt Walsh tried to shake Ryan off the ladder, but Ryan came down the ladder and incapacitated Walsh. The prisoners were free, and the chase had just begun.

After catching up on the previous days action, Hemingway reported that 4/5 convicts were still at large. Bloodhounds were being brought in, and a $50 reward was being offered. The felons were believed to be somewhere between Perth Road and the Cataraqui River towards Kingston Mills. The previous day’s action of gunshots brought about one wounded convict. Ed McMullen, shot in the hand, was found by the Warden of the prison, Ponsford, and a few guards while searching the area.

Ernest Hemingway, who is celebrated for his sparse narrative and getting to the point of the sentence, was showing his style in the writing he did for this story. “Everyone in the countryside seemed content to leave the job of manhunting to the professional manhunters.” That firefight that took place the night of the escape was detailed and straight forward. “About fifteen rifle shots were fired in the dark. There is no blood and there are no bodies.”

The adventurer, the author, the spirited warrior that Ernest Hemingway always sought to portray himself as, can be viewed in these early news dispatches. It was not enough for Hemingway to simply report the news, he brought himself into the story with a line such as this: “I went over the ground where the shooting occurred with Warden Ponsford this morning. He had nothing to say for publication but is confident that all men crossed into the northern tract during the night.”

It would be a year before Red Ryan was captured in the United States and returned to Kingston Penitentiary. Ernest Hemingway would be long gone when the convicted bank robber was returned to prison, but his time in Kingston and the story of Ryan’s escape would stay with Hemingway for years. At one point in the decades to come, Hemingway would toy with the idea about writing a book about Red Ryan, but never got around to it.

Kingston has a proud history spanning centuries. Whether you think about the city being the first capital of the united province of Canada, the place where hockey was first played, or home to a world renown university, there is a lot Kingston has to offer the world.

With the success of the Kingston Penitentiary tours, which I am sure will continue for years to come, I would love to see a branching out of stories, focusing on past inmates like Red Ryan, the escape, and how Ernest Hemingway was here to write all about it. The possibilities for education and entertainment on the Kingston Penitentiary tours are endless. The wealth of stories waiting to be told, is infinite.

At one point in time, one of my favourite authors was walking the streets of my hometown, covering a story for the Toronto Star, and practicing his writing. To me, that’s awesome to know and I look forward to diving into the literary history that Kingston has, and writing all about it.

Bill Gowsell

Bill has been an elementary school teacher for the last 12 years. His passion for writing includes a wide variety of interests, from history, food, pop culture, and anything to do with Disney. Recently he published his second book, Extra Magic Days: Thirty Years of Walt Disney World Vacations. Learn more about Bill...

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