Booze and break-ins kept authorities busy in late 1930

Prohibition in Ontario ended in 1927, when the provincial government authorized the sale of beer and later distilled spirits in government-run stores under carefully regulated supervision.


That move though, did not end illicit sales of beverages, which sometimes led to charges that continued to clog the legal system into the 1930s.  As well as a plethora of liquor charges, there was a great rise in robberies, with the thieves using motor cars for quick getaways. It took police authorities a few years to catch up, but by 1930 they were doing so.  

A disproportionate share of liquor charges were laid in the northern part of Wellington County and in the adjoining counties of Grey and Bruce. The provincial government had a liquor inspector, Andrew Noble,  stationed at Palmerston, and in September of 1930 he laid charges against Andrew Miller, a farmer living in West Luther Township, for selling intoxicating liquor.

The case came up before Magistrate Hellyer in Mount Forest on Sept. 4. According to the evidence presented by the crown, Duncan Kerr of Proton Township, accompanied by his 12-year-old son Gordon, had driven on Aug. 1 to the farm of Joseph Farrell on Concession 4 of Arthur Township. Kerr purchased a cow and 11 goslings from Farrell.

After concluding their business, Farrell asked Kerr to drive him to Andy Miller’s farm. On the witness stand at the trial, Farrell admitted that he paid Miller $3 for liquor. Gordon Kerr followed Farrell on the stand, and testified that Miller carried a sack from his house to Kerr’s car.

Miller and his wife testified next. Both vehemently denied that they sold liquor that day. They claimed that Farrell “was very much intoxicated” that day when he visited their farm.

Kerr drove away from the Miller farm, with his son and Farrell as passengers, and arrived at Farrell’s farm, where they remained into the evening. At about 7pm, Inspector Harry Noble and Police Chief Agar of Mount Forest arrived at the Farrell farm. They found Farrell and Kerr drinking together in the kitchen. They seized the partially-consumed bottle that was on the table.

Later in the evening, Noble and Agar left the Farrell place and secured a search warrant before they headed to Miller’s residence, where they arrived a few minutes after midnight.

A search of the house turned up no spirits, but there was a considerable quantity of wine and homemade beer on the premises. Inspector Noble originally intended to put Miller under arrest, but instead he issued him a summons to appear in court.

The crown produced a number of other witnesses, and taken together, their testimony was very conflicting, a fact remarked upon several times by Magistrate Hellyer. Nevertheless, Hellyer said he was inclined to convict Miller. Campbell Grant of Walkerton, who was Miller’s attorney, made a strong argument concerning the conflicting evidence against his client. On reflection, Magistrate Hellyer said he was inclined to agree.

The County Crown Attorney, J.M. Kearns, agreed with Grant’s argument, stating that Miller should be given the benefit of the doubt. Magistrate Hellyer concurred. He dismissed all charges against Andrew Miller.

Interestingly, the dismissal received wide praise in several of the weekly papers in Wellington County, even those edited by professed abstainers. They claimed that in recent years the courts had come to rely too heavily on dubious statements made by some witnesses, and that the cases against many alleged violators of the liquor laws had been put together sloppily.

The Miller case is a good example of the huge resources and time that were being expended to investigate liquor cases and try them in court. Most of them were, as in this case, victimless crimes. Those resources could be profitably directed elsewhere, and especially to the rash of thefts that were perpetrated at that time.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of 1930 facing police in Wellington County and the areas surrounding was a series of thefts from service stations. Some of those incidents have been mentioned previously in this column. The police believed that a single gang was responsible for them all, due to the similarities of the “outrages,” as they termed them, and their inability to identify suspects.

During the summer and fall of 1930 the gang struck automotive businesses in Durham, Mount Forest, Kenilworth, Shelburne, Dundalk, Milton and Georgetown, and possibly in Fergus and Elora.

Early in the morning of Nov. 22 the thieves hit Arthur village. McLean’s Garage was the biggest loser.

The manager of the shop, Walter Saunders, reported his loss at better than $1,000, consisting of both cash and goods. It was a considerable blow to an operation of its size trying to cope with a sliding economy as the Great Depression deepened. Their next stop was W.S. Stuckey’s garage. He put his loss at about $400. There was no hint of where the thieves came from or where they went with their loot.

They gained entrance to the McLean garage through a side door that had a multi-paned window, the favourite of thieves. To gain entrance they simply broke a pane and reached in to unlock the door. Once inside, they got into the office through a fanlight, and opened the office door from the inside.

They were able to break into the safe and cash register, grabbing about $50 in cash. Then they helped themselves to an assortment of automotive accessories, and a 500-foot roll of brake lining. The haul at Stuckey’s garage was less because of the smaller quantity of parts and accessories there.

Aiding the thieves was a power outage at about 3:30am. Police believed the thefts were made about that time. A blown fuse on a transformer was the reputed cause. There is no evidence that this incident was connected with the gang of thieves. It was another in a series of incidents that seemed to bless their crime wave with good luck.

Walter Saunders discovered the theft when he arrived at his shop the next morning at about 7am. He at once notified the Arthur police force’s Constable Tindale, who constituted the whole force.

Tindale immediately suspected that he was dealing with the infamous gang, and notified the Ontario Provincial Police.

The OPP conducted a brief and somewhat lacklustre investigation, concluding that the perpetrators left town without a trace, and that there was nothing further they could do.

That infuriated Walter Saunders. Through the rest of Saturday and all day Sunday he seethed. He was so furious that he left by car for Toronto on Monday morning and marched into the OPP headquarters, which were then at the Parliament Buildings.

Saunders was most impressed with the reception he received in the Queen City. Officials there took him very seriously, and apologized for the earlier treatment of the case.

When Saunders got into his car and headed back to Arthur, an OPP car followed him, containing an inspector and a finger-print expert. The lasso was beginning to tighten around the gas station gang.

The local OPP men undoubtedly received an earful from the inspector from head office, though there is no surviving record of it. An account of that session would certainly make interesting reading.

The gas station gang and their demise will be the subject of a future column.

Stephen Thorning