Crime in 1939 was similar to crime today

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.

Occasionally I chat with oldtimers who complain about the high rates of crime today compared to when they were young.

Some have even told me that crime of any kind was unknown when they were young. Those people, alas, suffer from selective memory.

Another factor is the prominence of criminal activity in the news stories broadcast on radio and television. The effect of those is to cause some members of the public to fear that they are constantly in peril.

Recently I was sorting through some old local weekly newspapers that readers have passed on to me over the years. By chance there are quite a few from the fall of 1939. They make a nice study of the range of criminal activity and other goings on in the county in the last century.

It is both sad and regrettable that a common offence back then was impaired driving. Despite years of ever-stricter regulation and enforcement, such cases are still listed every week in this newspaper. In 1939 the evidence needed to secure a conviction was less than it is today.

In one of the 1939 cases, Drayton police chief Bill Lee arrested two intoxicated men in a motor car in late September. Trial and conviction followed within days, based entirely on the subjective testimony of Chief Lee – police did not then have the measurement equipment that is necessary today.

The driver, a man named Rosenthal, received 15 days in the hoosegow and his motorcar was impounded for three months for operating a vehicle while under the influence. It was not a good day for him: the magistrate levied a further $10 fine or 10 days in jail for driving without a valid licence.

Russ Thomas, the passenger, also felt the long arm of the law. He received a $10 fine or 30 days for being intoxicated in a public place. Those sentences were typical ones for those who chose to combine liquor and motoring.

Several other cases involved liquor, but not motor cars. Liquor charges were quite common during the prohibition years in Ontario prior to 1927, but they persisted long afterward as well.

There were fewer outlets in the 1930s – both liquor stores and beverage rooms. After the end of prohibition, the local option remained in effect in many municipalities, Fergus being the prime local example. The fact that many people did not own motor vehicles meant that bootleggers operated in most localities. And they frequently found themselves in trouble with the law.

Bill Deckert of Peel Township was one of the latter. In early October 1939 he received a two-month jail sentence for having liquor for sale. During the raid, provincial police stumbled on an unregistered handgun at Deckert’s residence. He said he had never fired it, and that it had been in the house 15 or 20 years. Nevertheless, the gun cost him a $50 fine or a further 30 days in jail.

The most common crime locally in the fall of 1939 was motor vehicle theft. In one case, Oscar Robinson, a Brantford native who was working on the construction of the Shand Dam, had his ancient Star sedan taken from the construction site, where he was living in at the workers’ camp. Provincial Police, acting on a anonymous  report, found the car several hours later, early on the morning of Oct. 24, at the first curve on Highway 6 below Fergus.

It was a total wreck. The thief had lost control and sheered off a telephone pole completely. The bumper was broken and the radiator pushed against the engine block. Two wheels had been torn off. The careening vehicle then struck a boulder, and came to rest on its side beside the fence. The driver’s side door was open, but there was no trace of the driver, who certainly had suffered some serious injuries. Like most such cases back then, the case was never solved.

A more brazen car theft took place in northeastern Peel Township. Someone walked onto the farm of J. Justin Morrison and drove away in his vehicle in broad daylight. Police recovered the car two days later at the side of the road on Con. 18 of Peel. There was no hint of who the thief had been, but most certainly it had been someone familiar with the Morrison farm.

Businesses occasionally had brushes with authorities. One of the innovations of the 1930s was increased inspection and regulation of food. The new rules required dairies to be licenced, and subject to inspection at any time.

Dairymen in Guelph resented the new rules, and refused to comply. In October 1939, police laid charges against seven of them, including the local branch of the Silverwoods chain. The others summoned to court were the Royal Dairy, Adam’s, Carter’s, Boreham’s, Woods, and the Phillips Dairy.

Today many people believe that drug-related crime is something new, but that is not the case. On Oct. 20 of 1939, Dr. G.Q. Sutherland of Fergus returned to his office after running some errands. There he discovered a stranger frantically helping himself to the doctor’s stock of medicines. The doctor grabbed the thief, who put up no struggle.

Soon Fergus police chief Foreman was on the scene. The man admitted that he was looking for morphine, but had found only some codeine tablets. He pleaded guilty before Magistrate Watt in Guelph a couple of days later. Before sending him to jail for a year, Watt noted that the man, W.J. O’Connor of Toronto, had a lengthy record of thefts and break-ins.

Perhaps the most serious criminal case of the fall of 1939 was a robbery in Eramosa. Today it would be considered a case of home invasion. At about 2am on Sept. 24, James Benham, who farmed in the Speedside area, awoke to the pounding of someone at the door. He opened it to be greeted by two armed men, both with their faces masked. One carried a pistol and the other a club.

They demanded his money and threatened violence. Benham’s housekeeper, a Miss Montgomery, tried to pick up the telephone, but the men caught her, and threatened her as well. The robbers told Benham that it was useless to call for his hired man, Ted Gaetz. They had already encountered him, and had tied him up.

Benham tried to argue with the men, but they became violent and abusive. They were familiar with his habits: they knew he kept money in two separate purses, and they demanded them both. Their haul totalled about $40.

Benham was not certain if a third man was in the getaway car. Before they left, the thieves cut the telephone wire. After Benham released the ropes binding his limbs, Ted Gaetz went to the closest neighbour, Wilbert Cormie. No one was home, but the door was not locked. Gaetz called the OPP, who were on the scene shortly.

So far as I can discover, this case was never solved, even though the culprits were probably local men. It is obvious that the thieves were familiar with the farm, and knew Benham’s habits. They knew the layout of the house, who lived there, and that Benham kept cash in two purses.

The incident was a very upsetting one to James Benham. He was astonished that he could be treated in such a manner in rural Ontario. He urged farmers to keep their doors tightly bolted, and to arm themselves with handguns.

Halloween in 1939 was one of the quietest in memory. That surprised everyone: it was a clear, warm night, and the moon was almost full. In Fergus, the Boy Scouts and their leaders provided a voluntary patrol to assist the police. Service clubs in other municipalities also offered their services. That practice continues to this day in several communities.

The reporting of crime in the 1930s was not done as thoroughly and systematically as it is today. The provincial force was smaller, not as well trained, and had not yet set up a comprehensive system of radio communication. Local forces often consisted of only one man, and sometimes he was a part timer. Fergus had a force of only two men, but on the other hand, the population of the town was a fraction of what it is today.

Much crime went unreported, and incidents that were reported to police often went no further than the local constable’s notebook. Local editors tended to downplay a lot of incidents involving locals, especially those who were well connected or influential.

There was ample criminal activity in Wellington County 85 years ago, and it covered a range of activity not dissimilar from what we have today.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Sept. 16, 2005.

Thorning Revisited