Day 6

How an abandoned suitcase in Hamilton found its way to a wrestling hall of fame

When a Hamilton police officer found an abandoned bag filled with thousands of vintage wrestling photos, he was determined to solve the mystery of its origin and find its rightful owner.
Some of the contents from an old abandoned briefcase found by Hamilton, Ont. police officer Pete Wiesner at the site of a closed 'tent city'. (Terry Morgan)

Police constable Pete Wiesner hardly expected to uncover a piece of history while cleaning out the remnants of a 'tent city' site in Hamilton, Ont.

The site was empty and all but uninhabited, its former residents relocated to social housing and safe homes.

But some of their former belongings lingered — including one surprisingly heavy old briefcase.

Jim Irvine's abandoned briefcase, found in Hamilton, Ont. (Terry Morgan)

The weight of the bag piqued his interest, so he opened it up.

What he found astonished him.

"I pulled out one of the files in there, and I saw old wrestling pictures," he says.

"Lo and behold, when I got back to the station … I realized that there were thousands and thousands of pictures and negatives and wrestling magazines from the late '70s and early '80s."

The photographs were glossy and professional, featuring a who's who of big-name wrestlers — Jake the Snake and Andre the Giant among them — in studio portraits and live action shots.

There were thousands and thousands of pictures and negatives and wrestling magazines from the late  70s  and early 80s.- Pete Wiesner

All the items were all meticulously labeleld and catalogued. But there was no sign of the person who'd owned them.

"There was only one clue within the bag," Wiesner says. "It was a business card taped to the inside of a binder there that said: 'Jim Irvine, photographer.'"

The abandoned briefcase sits in Terry Morgan's barbershop in the west end of Hamilton. (Terry Morgan )


Wrestling with a mystery

In an effort to get in touch with Irvine, Wiesner reached out to Terry Morgan, a retired pro wrestler who runs a barber shop in Hamilton's west end.

When he saw the collection, Morgan was taken aback.

"He came by the barber shop first and he had these two binders," Morgan recalls.

"I opened them up and I was actually pretty surprised at what I [saw] — with all of the black-and-whites, the negatives from just about everything I did in my past life."



"It was surreal. I was shaking, I was kinda sweating. But I was actually pretty happy to see my background, and see all of the guys that I hadn't seen in probably over 20 years now," he says.

"It's like you're getting taken back in your life 30 years right at that moment, and it's just a really phenomenal thing for me to experience."


Closer to answers

Morgan believes he must have come into close contact with the photographer during his pro wrestling career.

"He had to be close to us, because it was some very personal pictures [of us] that were in his bag. So he was a ring photographer with us guys, travelled with us at some point. You know, we probably [just] didn't know his real name."

Hamilton police constable Pete Wiesner (left), former pro wrestler Terry Morgan (centre) and Hamilton Spectator columnist Jeff Mahoney (right). (Terry Morgan)

In November, Hamilton Spectator columnist Jeff Mahoney published an article about the story. It didn't take long for the first response to come in.

"By about 10:30 in the morning, I'd received probably about 30 phone calls," Wiesner says.

"First phone call was from a fella, and he said, 'You know, I used to work with a Jim Irvine. But he passed away in June.'"

That call finally provided Wiesner with a solid lead on the photographs' origins.

The caller mentioned that Irvine had had a longtime girlfriend named Debbie Kay. An hour later, Wiesner's phone rang again.

It was Kay.

I'm actually just getting shivers here, talking about her desire for Jim's legacy to be carried on.- Pete Wiesner

She explained that after Irvine's death, she'd taken on the responsibility of going through his belongings and clearing out his home.

"They ended up getting a couple people coming up to the house ... and she believes that somebody took the liberty to help themselves to the photos and left," Wiesner says.

"I'm actually just getting shivers here, talking about her desire for Jim's legacy to be carried on."


Coming full circle

Wiesner suggested that they donate the photographs to Morgan, who could turn them over to the Cauliflower Alley Club Hall of Fame in New York City.

"I'm sure that these photographs will be blown up and displayed, and the legacy of Jim Irvine will be carried on forever," Wiesner says.

Morgan plans to follow through on that plan.

An old photograph of Terry Morgan striking a wrestling pose back in the 1980s. (Terry Morgan)

"You know what? It kinda brings tears to my eyes," he says.

For the former pro wrestler, the story is nearly as remarkable as the contents of the bag.

"Thousands and thousands of pictures and negatives and programs from this era," Morgan says. "You know, to have it end up where it did in this tent city is just totally amazing."


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