Armed holdup of farmer shocked Peel Township in 1925

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.

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 Aug. 14, 1925 he worked late, and did not come to the house for his evening meal until after dark. He started cooking at 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. Emboldened 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 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 near Fergus.

Dickson said 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 George 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.

Morphy’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.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Feb. 29, 2008.

Thorning Revisited