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Thorning Revisited

by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015




Crime and punishment - and a second Morriston robbery

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.

 

Last week’s column described the robbery of the Bank of Toronto’s Morriston branch on Friday, Nov. 13, 1931, and the ensuing search for the bandits by police and a large band of pitchfork-wielding volunteers through the swamps and backroads of Puslinch.

This week, I pick up the story the week after the holdup.

The Morriston robbery dominated conversation for a week or so in Wellington County, and even made front page headlines in the Toronto papers for a couple of days.

While the public moved on to other matters, Inspector A.B. Boyd of the OPP, assisted by Sgt. Tom Cousans and his men, moved the investigation into a quieter phase.

Several times reporters pressed Boyd for reports on the progress of the case. He offered only the vaguest of generalities and an enigmatic sphinx-like smile. For three months the officers pieced together bits of information, aided by tips and files on other cases, and the co-operation of other police forces.

Although only two men robbed the bank, Boyd collected evidence that they were members of a gang of five, with links to other criminal activities in the area. By the middle of February 1932, Boyd was ready to move.

Police began a round of arrests in Montreal when they took Earl Watchorn of Kitchener into custody on Feb. 15, 1932.

Next was William Habermehl of Preston, and on Feb. 19, Milton Moral and Bernard Brodhaecher of Kitchener.

The fifth member of the alleged gang, Harvey Blundell, eluded authorities. They thought he had gone to the United States, but had no leads until Feb. 19 – when he dropped right into their hands.

According to evidence later brought out in court, Blundell and Watchorn committed the robbery, then drove off, abandoning their stolen car and joining the other three in another vehicle. They had immediately headed for Buffalo, dividing the proceeds on the way, and then split up.

Five days after the robbery, Blundell with his wife and two children, the younger a babe in arms, had left the country, bound for Los Angeles.

While on the west coast, Evelyn Blundell again became pregnant, and the couple decided to return to Canada and her parents’ home for the birth. Using funds sent by Evelyn’s father, they purchased day coach seats on a Union Pacific train headed for Chicago on Feb. 17, 1932, at the very time that Boyd was in the process of arresting Blundell’s associates.

The excitement of the trip, it seems, proved too much for Evelyn. Labour pains set in soon after the train passed through Las Vegas. The conductor found a vacant bed for her, and assisted by several passengers, acted as midwife for the birth of the child.

The train paused at Caliente, Nevada for an examination by a doctor, and again at Salt Lake City. Tipped off by railway workers, reporters picked up the story there, and within hours it was on news wire services and radio broadcasts all over North America. It was the perfect human-interest story to take people’s minds off the worst period of the Depression.

Inspector Boyd almost jumped out of his chair when he read his newspaper on Feb. 19. His men had just brought in Moral and Brodhaecher. And here was a story about a Mr. and Mrs. Blundell, with a new addition to their young family, headed to her parent’s abode in Preston. He knew he would soon have his man.

In Chicago, the Blundells, with their new baby, transferred to a Canadian Pacific train bound for Toronto and Montreal on the morning of Feb. 20. They were assisted by helpful railroad personnel, and followed by reporters. Watching the activities were Chicago police officers, who reported the events immediately to Boyd.

A large crowd of well-wishers waited on the platform of the Galt railway station to greet the famous mother and child when Train 22 pulled in that evening. An ambulance was there to take them away to the hospital. Not wishing to alarm Evelyn Blundell, Sgt. Cousans and two constables waited until the ambulance pulled away before arresting a very surprised Harvey Blundell. He hadn’t realized that the birth of his new son on a speeding train had made the family famous all over the continent.

The suspects began parading through police court to face Magistrate Frederic Watt the following week.

First were Bill Habermehl and Earl Watchorn on Feb. 23. The both pleaded guilty to the charge of armed robbery. Watchorn pleaded guilty to additional charges of stealing Harry Behling’s Model A Ford, used in the robbery, and of burglarizing the Granite Club in Kitchener and taking $130. Magistrate Watt deferred sentencing for one week.

Harvey Blundell refused to plead until he found a lawyer. Watt remanded Blundell until Feb. 26, when he would also see the remaining two suspects, Milton Moral and Bernard Brodhaecher. When they appeared only Brodhaecher pleaded not guilty. Watt denied his application for bail.

When the four prisoners lined up for sentencing before Watt on March 1, they could see by his scowl that he had no sympathy for them.

He began lecturing them by calling them “potential murderers” and pointing out that while only Watchorn and Blundell actually committed the robbery, all were equally guilty.

“This was the first daylight bank robbery in the history of Wellington County, and I will do my best to see that it is the last,” he concluded.

Watt then passed the sentences: ten years in Portsmouth Penitentiary and 12 lashes for Watchorn, Blundell and Moral; and ten years without lashes for Habermehl because he had assisted police with information.

On the additional two charges, Watchorn received one year sentences, to run concurrently. Magistrate Watt and crown attorney J.M. Kearns expressed high praise for Insp. Boyd’s investigative work.

The sentencing again placed the Morriston bank robbery on the front pages of newspapers across the province. Bernard Brodhaecher, who had pleaded not guilty, elected trial by jury when he appeared before Judge R.L. McKinnon. The trial began on June 14, 1932.

Brodhaecher and his counsel, H.V. Hattin of Kitchener, based their defence on the somewhat improbable notion that he had no idea the $1,500 that the five men divided on their high speed drive to Buffalo was stolen.

Crown attorney Kearns brought three of the convicted men from Kingston to testify against Brodhaecher. The fourth, Milton Moral, testified for the defence.

The only excitement during the trial came from skirmishes between Hattin and Judge McKinnon, twice over Hattin’s lengthy questioning of witnesses, and again when he tried to bring in three of Brodhaecher’s cell mates to testify. McKinnon refused to hear them.

The trial claimed about two days of court time, and the jury took barely an hour to come back with a verdict of guilty.

At the sentencing a week later, Judge McKinnon had stern words for Brodhaecher, identifying him and Milton Moral as the ringleaders of the gang, assembling “this group of young men who were tools for you.” McKinnon made much of the fact that the evidence suggested Brodhaecher and Moral had been partners in a bootlegging racket.

“I observed your demeanor in the court. You appeared to be more hardened than any of the others except Moral. I was shocked to see the fresh young Blundell, Habermehl and Watchorn brought into such a position,” the judge said.

The sentence was the same as for the others: 10 years in Portsmouth and 12 lashes. Meekly, Brodhaecher’s lawyer asked that time already served be credited to the sentence. Judge McKinnon could see no reason for doing so.

The sentences given to the Morriston bank gang were harsher than might have been a few years previously. Ontario suffered a rash of armed robberies in the early 1930s, not only of banks, but also of stores and even homes. Previously, such crimes had been exceedingly rare.

Police solved only a minority of these cases, and the legal system determined to make an example of those who were captured. The investigation of the Morriston case had involved many hundreds of hours of police work.

The gang itself hardly rate a place as guileful criminals. Their activities in the illegal liquor trade had netted them little profit. The spoils of the Morriston bank robbery, which was ineptly executed, brought each of them less than $300.

Although the Morriston bank maintained only a small amount of cash on hand, it undoubtedly had been the target of Wellington County’s first armed bank robbery because police were unlikely to be in the vicinity.

This fact made it the target of Wellington’s second armed robbery, only two years after the first.

At a few minutes before 2pm on Dec. 1, 1933, two men entered the bank holding revolvers, and tied up teller G.C. Gilmour and accountant C.F. Perkins with ropes. They then rifled the teller’s drawer of some $500, neglecting the larger bills in a rear compartment of the drawer.

In the midst of the robbery, Miriam Westlake, 18-year-old daughter of the proprietor of the Morriston hotel, entered the bank to cash a money order. They ordered her at gunpoint to get behind the counter and be quiet.

As they prepared to leave, the pair decided to use her as a hostage, and ordered her to precede them through the door. She refused.

The bandits then each grabbed her by an arm, and started to leave. As they neared the door, she broke free and ran quickly back to the hotel. The men quickly jumped into a blue sedan and headed south in the direction of Hamilton.

John Elliott noticed the car as it sped off, leaving a shower of gravel. One of the robbers pointed a gun at him.

Elliott had noted the licence number of the car, and both he and Miriam Westlake provided good descriptions of the men, who were not masked, when the OPP, Guelph city police and Deputy Chief David Green of Wentworth arrived within the half hour.

Other witnesses stated the car had turned west near Freelton. Traffic officer Culp followed the trail down the loose gravel of a sideroad, but caught no sight of the car.

The vehicle licence had been taken out earlier in the week in the name of Robert Fulton, who had given his address as Morriston. Police continued their investigation of the case in the Galt and Hamilton area during the first week of December 1933, but I have been unable to find any report of arrests in this case.

Having suffered two robberies in two years, Morriston’s Bank of Toronto subsequently enjoyed an uneventful life.

The office remained open following the merger of the Bank of Toronto and the Dominion Bank in 1955, and served the community until it closed in 1974.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on April 28, 2000.

 

Vol 51 Issue 38

 
 

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