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Thorning Revisited

by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015

Prohibition, guns, police chases in Mount Forest, beyond

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

On several occasions over the years this column has featured stories of the crime and violence during Ontario’s experiment with prohibition.

The sale of liquor, under tight government control, resumed in this province 90 years ago – June 1, 1927 – and six years earlier than in the United States. The characters connected with the illicit liquor business here ranked, for the most part, as petty operators compared with their American brethren. Nevertheless, they did leave some memorable moments in the historical record. This is the story of one of them.

Archie Hyatt, who also used the names Lyle Kirby and Leo Sales, among others, had built up a solid list of liquor customers during the mid 1920s.

Operating from Toronto, he concentrated his distribution in the area from Grand Valley west to Arthur, Mount Forest, Harriston and Palmerston. No one bothered him as he made his deliveries from cases piled in the back of his big six-cylinder Hudson sedan.

The opening of the first LCBO stores in June 1927 rattled men like Hyatt.

Though Ontario’s Ferguson government opened no stores in north Wellington and had no plans for them in the immediate future, bootleggers such as Hyatt could see the writing was on the wall for their lucrative trade.

Hyatt decided to branch out. On June 7, 1927, he broke into O.B. Henry’s store in Arthur, abstracted $20 from the till, and made off with a large radio. The next night he struck in Durham, taking some money from the office of Smith Bros. garage.

A short time later he hit the Smith’s Mount Forest garage, taking some cash and an electric drill. Hyatt’s next call was at Scott’s Department store, where he scooped up $55 worth of women’s clothing, including a fancy dress from a mannequin in the window. Another attempt failed: he was unable to open the door of J.T. Skales’ store.

Accompanying Hyatt on this escapade was Ed Wallace, the 17-year-old son of a Hamilton policeman.

Mount Forest’s Canadian National railway station had been burglarized twice in May 1927, and a continuing rash of break-ins plagued the area during June, but these could not be linked conclusively to Hyatt and Wallace.

On July 2, the pair made an early morning raid on Bill McConnell’s garage and radio shop in Harriston, taking some petty cash and three radios. Later that morning, Hyatt and Wallace drove into another Harriston garage, offering to sell the drill stolen from Smith’s garage. The owner knew of the theft, and telephoned Lorne Smith of Smith’s garage, telling him that Hyatt’s big Hudson was headed to Mount Forest.

Smith immediately contacted Police Chief Cringle, and the pair headed out of town to meet Hyatt, waiting in a laneway. Smith brought along his revolver and his bulldog. They followed Hyatt’s Hudson into town when it roared by.

In town, Hyatt pulled up to the gas pump at McLuhan’s garage. Chief Cringle ordered the two men out of the car, brandishing the revolver borrowed from Smith.

The quick-witted Hyatt immediately put the car into reverse, and sped down Main Street backwards at more than 30 miles per hour, sending other traffic and pedestrians scurrying for cover. As the car receded, Cringle fired a bullet into a front tire and another into the radiator.

Out of revolver range, Hyatt turned the car and headed down Queen Street toward Conn. In hot pursuit, Chief Cringle got off more shots. One pierced a door, and another ricocheted off the sidewalk.

Lorne Smith tried following Hyatt, but the dust raised by the Hudson made close pursuit difficult. As he drove, Chief Cringle hung out the window, attempting to aim the revolver in his best Hollywood style. Several more Mount Forest motorists followed, anxious to be part of the chase.

About four miles out of town, Hyatt and Wallace abandoned the Hudson, disabled and low on gas. They sprinted across the fields of Joe Stortz’s farm.

Chief Cringle, Smith, and the other motorists took up the chase. After a few paces, Cringle handed the revolver to Louis Pfaff, who he considered the best runner of those in the posse. Pfaff, accompanied by the bulldog, continued the chase alone.

Pfaff was able capture Wallace, who found it difficult to run with Bowser’s jaw clamped onto his ankle. Hyatt got away.

Later that evening, Hyatt knocked on Fred Nicholson’s door and asked for water. He claimed he had been chasing bootleggers through the bush. Still later, on the highway north of Mount Forest, Hyatt flagged down a car. He tried to take possession, but backed off when a bad-tempered dog in the back seat growled at him.

Hyatt eventually stole a car from Alf Hutchinson’s garage, and was last seen in the area buying gas at Teviotdale. Toronto police recovered the car two days later. Hyatt narrowly evaded them. They knew him well: he was on their “wanted” list, and had been for some time.

Chief Cringle, meanwhile, had the Hudson and its contents as evidence: 10 cases of beer, three cases of whiskey, some loose bottles, and goods stolen at various recent break-ins.

The Provincial Police took young Ed Wallace to Guelph, where he faced the stern Magistrate Watt. Wallace was remanded several times as the crown attorney tried to build a case against him, but there was little solid evidence to link him with any of the crimes. He pleaded not guilty to a charge of vagrancy, and spent a short term in jail.

Archie Hyatt enjoyed remarkably good luck in evading capture during the following weeks. Toronto police thought they had him cornered in his lair, but no one was home when they raided his Toronto hideout on June 5. They did recover the radio stolen from O.B. Henry a month earlier.

The next reports on Hyatt came from Hamilton, where he stole a late model Studebaker on July 7. A day later he slipped from the grasp of police again at Tilbury. Two visiting nieces of the local police chief heard about Hyatt’s escapades from their uncle over lunch. Less than an hour later they spotted the stolen Studebaker on the town’s main street.

The girls immediately informed their uncle, and he soon found the car parked on a side street, with Hyatt and an accomplice inside. The desperado stomped on the accelerator when the chief tapped at the car’s door, showering him with loose gravel. The chief fired several shots at the car, one of which punctured a tire. But Hyatt kept going, speeding east and out of town toward Chatham.

Hyatt abandoned the car near Chatham, and there were reported sightings of him later that day in several locations. On July 9 he stole another car, a brand new 1927 Star, and loaded it up with tires. Police found the car a few hours later, with the tires apparently sold.

The provincial police were closing in. Two of them eventually cornered Hyatt on the platform of the Lakeside railway station, near St. Mary’s. Once again he fled under a hail of bullets. This time one hit him, but he still got away.

On July 11, Hyatt approached a farmer near Embro. He identified himself as an undercover RCMP officer, in pursuit of the outlaw Archie Hyatt. The farmer gave him a ride to Woodstock.

The next sighting was back in Guelph on July 18. Several people claimed to have seen Hyatt lurking about the court house, while Ed Wallace faced Magistrate Watt inside. Mount Forest Police Chief Cringle received a phone call, stating that Hyatt was heading north from Guelph in another Studebaker. Cringle and OPP officers watched all the roads, but he never showed up.

This was the last report of Hyatt. I have not found whether there was a resolution to the case. Perhaps he took refuge with acquaintances in the Mount Forest area. Perhaps he fled the country. With authorities on the watch for him everywhere, it would be surprising if he was not eventually captured.

In any case, the rash of break-ins in the Mount Forest area ended. Archie Hyatt provided Mount Forest with more excitement than had been seen locally in years. The tale also shows how much police procedures have changed in 75 years. The passing around of loaded revolvers, gunplay on the main street, and the recruitment of bystanders and volunteers are all unthinkable today.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on July 12, 2002.


Vol 50 Issue 16


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