Not an Ordinary Love Story

Submitted by kkerr on Filed under Library News:  Mills Innis Thode Archives & Research Collections

Author Stephen Reid penned his first novel in Kingston Penitentiary.  He also began a love affair behind bars that still lasts today.

One of Canada’s most notorious bank robbers, Stephen Reid, achieved celebrity status as an outlaw bandit.  His life has touched extremes of both delight and despair.  The paradox of Stephen Reid’s life and work is documented in his archives in the McMaster University Library.  Born in Massey Ontario, Reid became a best-selling author after a career as a bank robber. He spent over two decades in more than 20 prisons in Canada and the United States and made 3 daring escapes.

With his cohorts Patrick (Paddy) Mitchell and Lionel Wright, Reid was a member of the Stopwatch Gang. The gang was so named after the stopwatch worn by Reid during the precision heists that never took more than a few minutes. The gang was estimated to have stolen more than $15 million in about 140 robberies. In 1974 the gang staged the biggest gold bullion robbery in Canadian history. Between heists, they lived in a lavish cedar-and-glass home in the Arizona mountains. Their exploits were highlighted in Greg Watson’s The Stopwatch Gang (1992)  and in several movies, most notably Point Break (1991) and The Heist (2001). Reid was on the FBI’s most wanted list in the 1970s, before finally being arrested in 1980. In 1984, while serving a 20-year sentence, the private persona of Reid was manifested as he started writing: "I was pushing my pen through the paper getting this stuff out".

At this time, Canadian poet Susan Musgrave, whose archives are also at McMaster, came into Reid's life like a guardian angel. Musgrave, a published poet since the age of 19, had come to prominence with the publication of Songs of the Sea Witch (1979). While writer-in-residence at the University of Waterloo (1983-5), she received a manuscript of a novel from a convicted bank robber. Musgrave visited Reid at Millhaven penitentiary every week to read his work, "a very fine writer," and spent four years editing the manuscript that became Jackrabbit Parole. Musgrave fell in love with the novel's protagonist. An uncommon romance, conducted by letters, was blossoming behind bars. In 1986, Reid and Musgrave were married at Kent Institution, a maximum security prison. Jackrabbit Parole, a semi-autobiographical novel drawn from Reid's days on the run, was published in 1987. In his "Author’s Note" to the American edition of Jackrabbit Parole (2003), Reid writes, "I have been ‘returned’ from three separate escapes and whenever I am dragged back in leg irons and handcuffs and locked up again inside a steel cell the first thing I do is find a scrap of paper and begin to scribble a story. Jackrabbit Parole was written with a stubby pencil on purloined notepads in a maximum security lock down almost twenty years ago." Reid turned from a life of bank robberies and escapes to a writing career: " My criminal career ended the day I began writing." In 1987 he was released from prison.

For the next 12 years, Musgrave and Reid began raising a family on Vancouver Island. Reid worked with prisoners and ex-cons. He hosted literacy benefits, wrote plays, fiction and book reviews, and taught classes in creative writing.  He lived the life of a Canadian littérateur. Struggling to find a balance in a world so different from any he'd known, he was also battling a heroin and cocaine addiction.  His public persona - that of a glamorized criminal - was never far from his mind.  CBC's documentary, "The Poet and the Bandit," was broadcast in January 1999.  For the documentary, Reid and Musgrave dressed as the infamous bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde. In the independent movie Four Days (1999), Reid also appeared as a rifle-toting security guard as well as being the film’s consultant.

Elements of an action novel came together one more time in Reid’s life in June 1999. He was arrested for bank robbery in Victoria, following a shootout and car chase through Beacon Hill Park. A drug binge had preceded the attempted robbery. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison on December 22nd,1999.  In 2007 Reid was the subject of a documentary film, Inside Time, produced for the National Film Board of Canada. The story is centered on Reid, a celebrity bank robber, writer and philosopher, who contemplates his life and times from the inside of an 18-year prison term.  Although Stephen Reid was released from prison on day parole in January 2008, he is presently back behind bars.

The archives of Stephen Reid and Susan Musgrave at McMaster University Library document their struggles and love story.

by Renu Barrett