Brazen youth sentenced to jail for series of thefts in 1912

In April of 1912 a 17-year -old young man named Howard Coughlin received a jail sentence for a series of thefts that had gained him a local notoriety over the previous 18 months.

Initially he ran afoul of the authorities in Guelph, where he was responsible for several break-ins and thefts from downtown stores. Coughlin was also a skilled shoplifter, but not as skilled as he believed himself to be.

That series of crimes landed him in magistrate’s court. He seemed sorry for his crimes, and was sufficiently convincing that the magistrate let him off with a suspended sentence.

His brush with the police and court should have deterred him from similar activity, but that was not the case. He resumed his petty thefts and shoplifting. Realizing that Guelph police officers would be keeping a close eye on him, Coughlin wisely moved on to other towns.

The school-leaving age in 1912 was 14, so Coughlin did not need to worry about overly-conscientious truant officers. It is highly unlikely that he supported himself exclusively by his criminal activities, but what he did to support himself was not reported at the time. The economy was at a peak in 1911 and 1912, so Coughlin would have no trouble finding legitimate work.

In the winter of 1912 Howard Coughlin was back in his home town of Arthur, where his father, step mother, and seven siblings lived. It is possible that he may have returned home after a layoff from an employer. A winter layoff was a risk faced by many employees in that era, especially by those who were unskilled labourers.

Coughlin resumed his specialty of petty thefts when he returned to Arthur. His skills had improved during the previous year. Even though Arthur merchants were aware of his conviction in Guelph, and tried to watch him closely, he still managed to pocket odd items under their noses.

A.W. Buschlen, an Arthur druggist, was convinced that he had been the victim of Coughlin’s light fingers on several occasions, but he could not prove it. In late April of 1912, Buschlen was out of town for a few days, and left his clerk, Ralph Wilkins, in charge of the store. One evening Wilkins noticed that Coughlin was hanging around the pharmacy, and seemed to be checking the layout of the back room. He paid particular attention to the cash register, attempting to see its contents, and watching the way Wilkins operated it. Coughlin purchased nothing.

Before the store closed, Constable P.J. Farrell stopped by the store and made some small purchases. Wilkins drew him aside, and told him of his suspicion that young Coughlin was casing the store. He feared the youth would return later, after the store closed. The constable thought the fear was a plausible one.

Constable Farrell and Ralph Wilkins discussed the developing situation in hushed tones, and soon came up with a plan. Wilkins closed the store as usual, sometime after 8pm. He locked the doors, and on his way home he dropped by the residence of the constable and gave him the key to the store.

About an hour later Constable Farrell went to the store. He tiptoed to the back door, and let himself in, prepared for a wait for the suspect. He decided to leave the back door unlocked, so that Coughlin would not damage the door when and if he showed up. He took up a position in the store behind a counter.

The constable had a long wait, but his suspicions were correct and his patience paid off.

Shortly before midnight a noise at the back door roused him from a light nap. He waited silently as a figure groped its way into the front part of the store. In the shadows Farrell identified the slim figure of Howard Coughlin.

The intruder pressed one of the keys that opened the cash drawer. As he reached in to scoop out the loot he felt a firm hand grasp his shoulder. Constable Farrell had captured the thief red-handed. The arrest was a thoughtful and intelligent piece of police work, securing both the suspect and solid evidence against him. At that time most small town constables were dim-witted drunkards, underpaid and untrained, and incapable of holding a regular job. P.J. Farrell was an exception.

Justice proceeded quickly in 1912. Farrell escorted Coughlin to the small but uncomfortable Arthur lock-up for the night. The next morning at 9am he had a date before Magistrate George Hudson in Arthur. The prisoner, with no legal representation, entered a plea of guilty. Constable Farrell described the trap he had set for the thief. There was no further evidence. Magistrate Hudson did not delay the proceedings. One year’s imprisonment in the Provincial Central Prison was his sentence.

Hudson might have pronounced a slightly shorter term, which would have meant a stay in the county jail, rather than have Coughlin mingle with the more hardened criminals that populated the provincial jail.

Coughlin did not seem intimidated by the legal proceedings the way he had been in his first appearance before a judge less than two years earlier.

He seemed unrepentant, retaining a slight smile on his face all through the proceedings. Press accounts described Coughlin as a handsome and confident young man, with a face and manner that suggested he was intelligent.

Magistrate Hudson knew that Coughlin had a previous conviction for the same crime, and probably concluded that he was already hardened, at least to some extent. In his comments, Hudson was clearly reluctant to send Coughlin to the provincial institution, but explained that “something must be done to stop the petty thieving which is becoming all too common in town.”

That afternoon Constable Farrell set off with his prisoner in tow, heading to Guelph by train. On arrival in the evening he handed Coughlin over to provincial authorities in the Royal City.

The county crown attorney and other officials in Guelph spent some time discussing Coughlin’s next move. Some believed he should be sent to Kingston, but others favoured the Ontario Reformatory at Guelph, a new institution, under construction at the eastern edge of the city. Indeed, Magistrate Hudson had that reformatory in mind when he passed the sentence.

Work on the Ontario Reformatory at Guelph began in 1910, and it was still under construction in the spring of 1912, with much of the work done by prisoners who were housed in temporary quarters. The new facility was intended for younger and first-time offenders who would be given courses and practical training, making them employable when they completed their sentences. A number of prisoners were employed on the construction of the buildings and the grounds. It is not known if Coughlin served his sentence there.

That appears to be the end of Howard Coughlin’s crime career. I have not attempted to follow his life after his release. By all accounts he was an intelligent young man. It is comforting to imagine that he put his career as a petty thief behind him, and became a useful member of society.


Stephen Thorning