Armed holdup of farmer shocked Peel in 1925

Back in the 1920s, Joseph Davidson operated a 150-acre farm on Concession 13 of Peel Township, about a mile and a half west of Alma.
On the evening of August 14, 1925 he worked late, and did not come to the house for his evening meal until after dark. He started cooking about 9pm. He had just finished eat­ing an hour later when two men showed up at the door. Their motor car was in the ditch, they said, and they wanted Davidson to hitch up a horse to pull the vehicle out of the mud.
Something about the men didn’t seem right. Davidson re­plied that he had no horse available for the task.
One of the men then pulled a .22 calibre rifle from under his coat, and told Davidson to stay in his chair. The other man began to ransack the house. He found little of value, only a dol­lar bill in a drawer and a gold watch in an upstairs bedroom.
The intruders ordered Dav­id­son to remove his boots. They hurled the footwear out the back door, and told Davidson to stay in the house for a half hour or they would shoot him with the rifle.
The men did have a car, but it was not stuck in the ditch. They had parked it on the sideroad adjoining the David­son farm, and they took off across the farm to reach it.
Joe Davidson did not have a telephone, but the next day he visited a neighbour and report­ed the incident to the police.
The ringleader of the pair was a young farm worker nam­ed George Dickson. He was a busy man that summer. Em-bol­dened by the robbery of Joe Davidson, he had plotted sev­eral other robberies later that month. His last was the theft of some tools from the Beatty Brothers plant in Fergus.
Dickson’s luck ran out with that burglary. Witnesses identi­fied him, and he was convicted and sentenced to a month in the county jail.
A few days after the con­viction, police charged Dickson with another crime, the theft of some chickens from a farmer near Cooksville. Trial on that charge would await the com­pletion of his sentence at the county jail in Guelph.
While in jail Dickson suf­fered pangs of remorse. He con­fessed to the other crimes, including the armed robbery of Joe Davidson, and he identified his accomplice in that affair: Otto Nesbitt, who was then living in Fergus. Nesbitt was another young man who work­ed as a farm hand and with threshing crews in the area.
With Dickson’s confession, and other evidence, the police had a sufficiently strong case to lay charges against Dickson and Nesbitt for the armed rob­bery of Joe Davidson. Crimes involving firearms were con­sid­ered most serious in the 1920s. A magistrate’s court heard the evidence in Fergus on Oct. 2, 1925 at Fergus, before Judge Hellyer.
The police filed a transcript of Dickson’s jail-cell confes­sion, along with Davidson’s gold watch, which Dickson had in his possession. Joseph David­son was the first to testify at the magistrate’s hearing. He related the events of the rob­bery, but could give only a sketchy description of the rob­bers. He was not able to iden­tify Dickson and Nesbitt in the court room.
George Dickson, the alleged ringleader, was next on the stand. He identified the .22 rifle, and explained that it had been purchased at a Fergus store by an acquaintance of his, James Quinn, whom he had met some time before in Tor­onto. At the time, Quinn was working as a farm hand in near Fergus.
Dickson said that he had been employed on a farm near Elora in July and August, but had been seeking a better-pay­ing  job with a threshing crew. He had met Otto Nesbitt, his accomplice in the Davidson rob­bery, while visiting thresh­ing crews, and the two had together continued their search for work, travelling around in Nesbitt’s motor car.
Nesbitt seems to have been something of an adventure seek­er. He obviously had re­sources beyond what he earned as a hired farm hand. His car was a late model vehicle, and at the Fergus court session he was represented by a high-priced Toronto attorney, a man named Morphy.
Emboldened by Joe David­son’s inability to identify posi­tiv­ely the culprits, lawyer Morphy set his sights on Dick­son, badgering him to admit that Otto Nesbitt had not been his accomplice. Dickson was, Morphy insisted, covering for his friend Jim Quinn, the owner of the rifle used in the robbery.
Murphy’s best efforts failed. Dickson stuck to his original story. Magistrate Hellyer order­ed Nesbitt to be held in custody without bail, awaiting trial be­fore Judge Spotton in Guelph. Dickson was already in custo­dy, serving his sentence for the Beatty robbery.
Nesbitt and Dickson did not have a long wait. Judge Spotton heard the case the following morn­ing, a Saturday. George Dick­son pled guilty; the judge ordered him held for senten­cing. Trying to appear remorse­ful, he told the judge that his problems were the result of falling in with bad companions. He had seen the error of his ways, he pleaded to Judge Spot­ton. His future would be on the path of lawfulness and respectability, he promised.
Spotton commented that Dickson would be wise to mend his ways; otherwise he would end his earthly days on the gallows.
Nesbitt chose trial by jury, insisting that he had nothing to do with the robbery of Joe David­son. The judge ordered him held without bail.
Justice in 1925 certainly moved at lighting speed. The sentencing of Dickson came up the following Monday, Oct. 5. He received a term of two years in the Ontario Reformatory, with release after one year on evidence of reform and good be­haviour. Judge Spotton ad­vised that the sentence was a light one, taking into account Dickson’s youth and his prom­is­es of reform.
He did not want to send him to the penitentiary, believing that mixing with hard­ened criminals was no place for a 21-year-old.
Otto Nesbitt sat in Guelph jail for a week, awaiting trial. On Oct. 7, Judge Spotton re­lent­ed, and allowed bail. Nes­bitt was free on $2,000 bail posted by his father, who lived near Palmerston.
At the trial later in the month, he maintained his inno­cence. Joseph Davidson’s mem­ory seemed to improve over the weeks: he testified that Nes­bitt was definitely the man who had held the rifle during the robbery. George Dickson again insisted that Nesbitt had been his accomplice.
The jury believed the wit­nes­ses, and found Nesbitt guil­ty. In view of Nesbitt’s age and lack of criminal history, the judge ordered a sentence of two months.
The crime had shocked Peel Township and other rural areas of Ontario. No one could re­member a gun ever being used to rob a farmer. The affair seem­ed all the more alarming because the gain was so small – a dollar and an old pocket watch.
Many people thought that Otto Nesbitt and George Dickson had been dealt with too leniently. Judge Spotton, though, thought that both were good prospects to amend their behaviour.
As well, there was some doubt that Nesbitt had actually been the accomplice. For those reasons he wished to give them every chance, and to keep them away from older criminals who would certainly turn them into career criminals, ruining their prospects in later life.

Stephen Thorning