Anti-Semitic overtones to 1884 Peel 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.

During the 1870s, Max Simonsky built up a respectable business as an itinerant merchant, travelling among the smaller villages to the north and west of Guelph, with a stock of jewelry, watches, bolts of fine cloth, and some fancy clothing items.

We do not know a lot about Max. A Jewish immigrant from Poland, he landed in Guelph about 1868 or 1869. He sometimes used Mark as his first name. As often as not, his last name was spelled with an “i” rather than a “y.” Undoubtedly, these variants were due to his heavily accented English. He had a wife who operated a millinery store in Guelph in the 1870s. The couple separated in the early 1880s, and afterwards she earned a living as a dressmaker.

On the morning of Christmas Eve, 1884, Max was in Arthur, completing several sales. Much of his stock consisted of items suitable for Christmas gifts, and December was always a good month for him.

Max had his dinner at an Arthur Hotel. Another man there overheard Max saying that he intended to go to Goldstone that afternoon. The man introduced himself as George Buck, and asked for a ride. He wanted to catch the train to Guelph from there so he could be home for Christmas. Max said that he would be happy to oblige, but had some additional calls to make before leaving Arthur.

A little after 2pm, Max set off with his horse and cutter into Peel Township, down the Centre Line Road toward Parker. George Buck was nowhere in sight. Max had appointments to see customers in Goldstone later in the day, and wanted to get there by nightfall if possible.

As Max passed a bush, about two miles from Parker, he came up to George, standing on the road. He said that he had gotten a ride that far, and still wished to get to Goldstone. Max told the man to jump in the cutter; he was glad to have some company.

A few seconds later, two more men came out of the bush, brandishing revolvers. One of them grabbed hold of the reins on the horse, while the other pointed his gun at Max. By this time George had also produced a revolver.

The men demanded Max’s money. Max yelled for help – there were farmhouses nearby – but the men immediately silenced him by saying he would be shot if he made any more noise. They demanded his wallet, and then ordered him to walk into the bush. Not satisfied with the $6 in Max’s wallet, the bandits decided to search him. They found a roll of banknotes amounting to about $200 in one of his pockets.

Grabbing Max by the arms, the men dragged him into the bush a couple of hundred feet, well out of sight of the road. The man holding the horse led the animal into the bush after them. Using a piece of harness, they tied him to a tree, and put a stick wrapped in cloth in his mouth, which, in turn, they tied securely to his head and to the tree.

The men had a sleigh hidden in the bush. After they had Max tied securely to the tree, they argued about their next step. George said they should leave Max a little money. One of the others replied that by tomorrow, he wouldn’t need it.

After an animated discussion, the robbers decided to split up. George took the sleigh the bandits had brought with them from Arthur, and the other two took off in Max’s cutter, containing all his stock, worth about $2,000. George called back to Max that he would return in an hour to release him, but he never showed up.

After struggling for hours, Max succeeded in getting the gag from his mouth. With more effort, he was able to free himself.

Max staggered to a nearby farmhouse, but the owner refused to offer help. Max got the same reception at the next farmstead. Eventually he made his way to the hotel at Parker. The owner knew Max, and lent him a horse and rig. He advised that the best course would be to return to Arthur and inform the authorities there.

George Buck had returned to Arthur, and when he saw Max, he set off on foot to Cumnock, arriving there at about 8pm. On Christmas Day, George managed to get back to his home in Guelph.

Max’s story, meanwhile, caused a sensation in Arthur, and within three days, accounts appeared in most of the dailies in Ontario. It was a story out of the wild west: the brandishing of revolvers, the tying of the victim in a place where discovery was unlikely and death certain.

An undercurrent of anti-Semitism attached to the story: the Guelph Mercury’s Arthur correspondent described Max as “an honest and inoffensive man, rather dull and stupid in appearance.”

Most people, though, were outraged at the callous treatment of the victim, and the refusal of aid by local farmers on Christmas Eve. George Munson, the county constable stationed at Arthur, started an investigation at once.

On Dec. 27, Max’s brother arrived in Guelph from Toronto. Immediately he called at the office of Henry Peterson, the no-nonsense Crown Attorney. The brother had heard reports, as had many others, that the bandits had spent Christmas Eve at Northgrave’s Hotel in Glen Allan, openly dividing up the bounty in the bar room. The men, who had picked up another accomplice along the way, explained to suspicious onlookers that the jewelry was all for Christmas presents for their friends and relatives.

Peterson was already familiar with the details of the robbery. The additional details he heard from his visitor appalled him. At once he telegraphed Toronto, requesting the help of a provincial detective.

The bandits, flushed with their initial escape, continued to act carelessly. They abandoned all of Max’s goods, except the jewelry and watches, at the hotel in Glen Allan. There was no doubt that they were the guilty parties.

Detective Rodgers of Toronto went about his investigation methodically. Interviewing witnesses, he soon established the identities of two of the men who stayed at the Glen Allan hotel. They were Thomas Davidson, who lived in western Peel Township, and Mark Elwood, from the Listowel area. The third man was more mysterious. He was unknown to anyone in the area, and variously used the names Little and Jones. His real name, it turned out, was Joseph Armstrong.

Unlike most investigations of the day, this one dragged on for weeks, with seemingly no arrest on the horizon. At the meeting of county council on Jan. 28, 1885, reeves Jack Wissler of Nichol and W.L. Gordon of Pilkington introduced a resolution offering a $200 reward for information leading to a conviction.

Wissler explained that the widespread publicity the case received had given Wellington County a reputation for lawlessness and intolerance. The motion passed with only a half dozen tight-fisted dissenters.

The tireless legwork of Detective Rodgers paid off by the end of February. He found Max’s cutter and horse, and over a period of 10 days, arrested the three men who had committed the robbery. He had also recovered the bulk of Max’s stock of jewelry and watches.

Of the three, George Buck offered the best defence. He claimed that he had been forced into the scheme by the other two, and took part only on threat of being shot. George told the preliminary hearing that he went back to Arthur to inform the authorities, but became so confused that he didn’t know what to do. The fact that he made no confession of the crime until he was arrested undermined his story, and did not impress the Guelph magistrate.

The ringleader of the robbery, Joe Armstrong, offered little in the way of a defence when he appeared a couple of days later. Both men were bound for trial on March 17.

After the lengthy investigation, the most spectacular robbery of the decade in Wellington produced a brief and routine trial. Faced with irrefutable evidence against them, both Buck and Armstrong pleaded guilty, as they cowered under the penetrating stare of Judge George A. Drew. George Buck’s tale of extenuating circumstances failed to produce a glimmer of sympathy from the judge.

Drew’s decision: 14 years in the Kingston penitentiary for both George Buck and Joe Armstrong.

And what became of Max Simonsky? I have no idea. The last mention I have found of his name is the testimony he gave at the preliminary hearings for Buck and Armstrong in March 1885.

After his experience, it would not be surprising that he had lost his eagerness to run up and down lonely country roads, alone and with a fortune in watches and jewelry.

As for the others involved in the robbery, I have not been able to find out exactly what their fate was.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Feb. 21, 2003.

Thorning Revisited