Crown attorney failed to get conviction after fatal 1929 crash

Both the public and police authorities cringe at the number of automotive crashes today, but in terms of miles traveled by the public, the totals are far below what they were in the 1920s and 1930s.

In the “good ole days” motor cars were not designed to withstand impact. Drivers were not well trained, and seat belts were unknown.

The roads themselves were, more often than not, obstacle courses with non-existent shoulders, narrow lanes and poor surfaces.

Quite a number of accidents occurred in Wellington County in the fall of 1929. Few were collisions. Most involved single cars running off the road, and often overturning. Others resulted from tire blow-outs and simple running off the road due to high speed.

One of the worst wrecks of the fall 1929 season took place just north of Fergus on Sept. 13. Tom Ritchie was driving his 1926 Model T Ford touring car south toward Fergus, having come from Palmerston by way of Arthur. In the car were his brother Bill and two friends, Emery Warmington and Bill Collinridge.

Two witnesses, Russ and Howard Magwood, noticed the car seemingly out of control as it passed their farm. It narrowly missed a fence post, then turned suddenly across the road. The car turned over completely, then landed on its wheels and continued rolling along in the ditch. It more or less rolled along, as one of the rear wheels was knocked off.

Tom Ritchie and his friends were tossed from the car, and rendered unconscious. Bob Ritchie remained in the back seat, his feet pushed through the floorboards. A truck from the Department of Highways happened to pass by moments later. The driver reported the accident to the police and called Dr. Abraham Groves.

Soon all four occupants of the car were at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Fergus, where Robert Ritchie died about an hour later.

Ritchie left a wife and six children. The other three all sustained injuries. Corner Dr. Kyle immediately called an inquest, which met briefly and then adjourned until the following Monday evening.

A huge crowd attended the inquest in the hall at the Fergus library. Every seat was filled and the overflow stood around the perimeter of the room, which was very hot. There was a moment of levity when an onlooker sitting on a window sill leaned back and broke the window.

Dr. Kyle was in charge, and Crown Attorney J.M. Kearns grilled the witnesses, including the onlookers who saw the crash, two of the passengers, and two doctors.

Crown Attorney Kearns dwelt on the fact that the men had purchased whiskey and beer earlier in the day.

Questioned by Kearns, Dr. Abraham Groves would not confirm that the men were drunk when he arrived at the accident scene. In fact, he could not say that they had been drinking at all. Tom Ritchie claimed they all had consumed beer about two hours before the accident.

Eventually all the witnesses were questioned. Kearns made a brief summation, telling the jury that he did not call one of the men in the car as a witness because he was badly injured and in pain. He requested that, in their conclusions, they should name anyone who could be held responsible for the accident.

The jury retired to consider what they had heard. They deliberated for only a half hour, and returned with a verdict that Bob Ritchie had died of a broken neck in the car accident, and that no blame could be attached to his brother, the driver of the vehicle.

Crown Attorney Kearns was livid. The jury had said less than what was generally known, and they refused to find Tom Ritchie at fault. They made no mention of the possible effects of alcohol on Tom Ritchie and the others.

Kearns had wanted Ritchie to be held responsible for the accident, based on the fact that he had been drinking whiskey and beer.

In fact, one of the other occupants of the car admitted only that they had consumed a bottle of beer each, two hours before the wreck, and the empty bottles were in the car. That was confirmed by garage owner Roy Dunn, who removed the car from the scene with his tow truck. Ritchie claimed that they had not touched the balance of the case of beer they had purchased, or two bottles of whiskey they had acquired.

Kearns continued in a state of agitation for the rest of the week. On Nov. 7 he laid charges of negligence against Tom Ritchie, and he was taken into custody by two constables. He appeared in court the following day. Bail was set at $2,000, which was posted by two Fergus merchants.

Ritchie appeared at a preliminary hearing a few days later, and was committed for trial on a charge of criminal negligence. The case would be heard at the fall assizes, scheduled for December 1929.

Ritchie’s case came up for trial on Dec. 10 and 11 before Judge R.L. McKinnon. Crown Attorney Kearns handled the prosecution. Ritchie’s friends had engaged, at considerable expense, Hugh Guthrie to handle the defence.

Guthrie was easily the most prominent lawyer in the county, and had served as an MP and federal cabinet minister.

Unlike at the inquest, Kearns took no chances in trying to prove his case. He called 15 witnesses, and questioned most of them at length. The case occupied two full days of court time, an extraordinary length for those days.

The jury retired at 4:30pm on Dec. 11 to consider their verdict, and did not return until midnight.

The foreman told Judge MacKinnon that they had exhausted themselves in discussion, and were unable to come to a conclusion. The verdict did nothing to ease the fury of Crown Attorney Kearns. He announced that he would try the case again at the next assizes, expected to take place in June 1930.

In the meantime, Tom Ritchie would continue a free man on bail.

It appears that the case was dismissed before it got to the second trial. Perhaps Kearns realized the chances of a conviction, after the conclusions reached by the jury at the inquest and the failure of the jury to come to a verdict at the trial, were slim to nil, and that continuation of the case would be a waste of money and time.

The evidence was clearly against Kearns, and he had not been able to produce any witnesses supporting his interpretation of the crash.   

The Ritchie case was the most involved one resulting from a motoring incident in 1929. It would seem that public sympathy was with Tom Ritchie. He had no difficulty finding men to post his bail, and friends and acquaintances readily came together to get him the best lawyer available for his trial. It is a certainty that many people believed he had suffered sufficiently, being badly injured himself, and losing a brother who left behind a wife and six young children.

All in all, it turned out to be a sad outcome to a day of joyriding.



Stephen Thorning