Back in 1901, a man named John O’Donnell rented a farm in Minto at Lot 5, Concession 12, in the northeast part of the township, near Pike Lake.
The rail line that ran from Palmerston to Arthur bisected the property.
A son in his mid-teens helped with the work, and O’Donnell also employed an orphan boy 16 years of age named James Cummins.
O’Donnell proved to be something of a lazy farmer. Rather than raise livestock he preferred to steal farm animals. He was responsible for a rash of thefts from the latter part of 1901 until July 1902.
Most of those thefts were committed with the help of Cummins, a somewhat naive but obliging boy. The story of O’Donnell’s activities came to public notice when a victim of the thefts, Sam Shaw of Concession 11 in Arthur, laid a complaint with police chief Tom Stovel of Mount Forest. After his arrest, Cummins explained and described at length the activities of his employer.
Stovel went to arrest the mastermind of the scheme, but when he arrived at the O’Donnell farm he discovered that the man had fled, apparently to the United States.
In committing the crimes, O’Donnell would drive around the neighbourhood with young Cummins, and stop at a farm. O’Donnell would tell Cummins that the farmer owed him some money or other obligation, and that they had agreed to settle the debt by having the farmer give O’Donnell a cow or other livestock, which he would point out to Cummins from the wagon before driving on. After dark the next day, O’Donnell instructed Cummins to return to the farm and retrieve the animal he had pointed out the previous day.
Over a period of nine months, O’Donnell secured at least five head of cattle, two sheep, several hogs, and a horse using that scheme. There may have been more that were not reported to authorities. The victims farmed in Arthur and Minto Townships, and a couple in Normanby and Egremont.
O’Donnell resold most of the animals, but in the late spring of 1902 he came up with a better scheme. After insuring them, he killed a couple of cows with a heavy blow to the head, then submitted an insurance claim, stating the animals had been struck by lightning. That gave O’Donnell the value of the animal while removing any possibility that the beast could be traced.
The scheme began to unravel in July 1902. O’Donnell instructed Cummins to take some hogs to Harriston, and to sell them to a livestock dealer named Hyndman, who purchased them on behalf of the pork packing plant there.
Someone in the plant determined that one of the hogs belonged to P.G. McLellan of Arthur Township. Hyndman was out the price of the hog. He informed the police of the discovery and his loss. When O’Donnell learned that one of his hogs was being traced, he sensed that the lasso of the law would soon be tightening around him.
It was a good time to leave the area.
After young Cummins sold the hogs there was another development. Though he was a slow learner and naive, by this point Cummins was fully aware of what was going on. He had an angry argument with Mrs. O’Donnell. He insisted that he be cut in on the scheme, and demanded $10 of the proceeds on the hogs delivered to Hyndman at Harriston. Cummins claimed that he was at risk of arrest, just as she and her husband were, and therefore he should get a share of the money earned by their scheme. She refused to give him a dime.
Fearing that he might be arrested for his role as the actual thief of the cattle, Cummins decided to leave the O’Donnells. He immediately found another position as a hired hand, on the Walsh farm on Concession 9 of Arthur Township.
A couple of days after he arrived at his new abode, he got into a conversation with some masons building the foundation of a barn.
Perhaps out of youthful bravado, he boasted to the men of his exploits while in the employ of O’Donnell, including the first theft, of a cow from Sam Shaw the previous fall.
A couple of the masons knew Shaw, and told him of the confession made to them by Cummins.
Shaw lost no time in laying a complaint with Police Chief Stovel of Mount Forest, who quickly had Cummins rounded up and in the Mount Forest lockup. At his hearing before the Mount Forest magistrate, Cummins, shaking out of fear and nervousness, admitted to his participation in the thefts. He entered a plea of guilty, and explained to the magistrate how he was made a tool of O’Donnell before he realized the nature and extent of the thefts.
The Mount Forest magistrate ruled that there was sufficient evidence to hold Cummins for cattle stealing. He remanded him to Guelph and a date before Judge Chadwick. That session was brief. Crown Attorney Henry Peterson desired to hold Cummins in jail for two weeks, not for his crimes, but to keep him in reserve in the hope that John O’Donnell would be arrested in that time.
Peterson believed that Cummins was led into the stealing spree by O’Donnell, telling the court that “he was a tool in the hands of his employer.” He was, no doubt, very generous with his treatment of Cummins, who surely realized from the beginning that he was part of a cattle rustling operation.
Peterson wanted to get his hands on O’Donnell. He wished to use Cummins as his key witness in the prosecution, and did not want to alienate him or cause him to slip away.
It appears that John O’Donnell made good his escape to the United States. Once there, it was easy to avoid the long arm of the law. In 1902, police forces did not co-operate as they did in the 1920s and after.
Following young Jim Cummins’s appearance before Judge Chadwick there is no further mention of the case in the local newspapers. It would seem that O’Donnell evaded a day in court.
The O’Donnell name goes back to the first settlers of Minto, when two men of that name purchased farm lots farther west on Concession 12 and 13 than the one that John O’Donnell had occupied. However, that name was a fairly common one amongst Irish immigrants, and there may not be a connection. It would be very strange for a member of a long-established family to be involved in stealing livestock from neighbours.
As for Jim Cummins (spelled Cummings in some sources), the orphaned lad seems to have drifted off elsewhere after his detention in the Guelph jail. His was a close shave with the law, and he probably concluded that Minto Township was the last place he should go following his release.