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.
A surprising of aspect of 19th century criminal activity is the relative rarity of domestic burglaries.
In an era of poor communications – before radios and telephones – we might expect such crimes to have been rampant because escape would have been easy before authorities were aware of the crime. As well, police were not well organized. Small towns and townships employed, at best, a part-time constable.
Quite the opposite was the case; burglaries and house break-ins seldom occurred. When they did happen, the authorities took all available measures to solve them.
A rare example of such a burglary occurred in Eramosa Township 141 years ago, on April 6, 1878, a Saturday.
Patrick Mellon lived on the town line between Eramosa and Guelph, about four miles east of the city and near the hamlet of Eramosa, on what is now Highway 124. He shared a house with his sister, Ann. On the fateful night, both were asleep, Ann in an upstairs bedroom, and Patrick in a downstairs room. He was partially crippled, and had difficulty negotiating the stairs.
A mob of young men, mostly from Guelph, had been drinking and carousing in the neighbourhood, beginning at a tavern in Eramosa. The proprietor asked them to leave when they overstayed their welcome there. Emboldened by drink, they set off, whooping it up around the neighbourhood.
A few minutes before midnight, a noise woke up Ann. Someone was raising the window to her bedroom, having gained access by climbing onto the verandah.
She focused her eyes to see three figures entering the room. When she attempted to jump out of bed, one the figures seized her by the throat and threw her back on the bed. Another grabbed a pillow and held it over her face when she started to scream.
The Mellons were in the habit of keeping their savings in a small trunk, which was shoved underneath her bed. The intruders were fully aware of this. One of them pulled the trunk from under the bed, and two of them wrestled it out of the window and out onto the verandah roof while the third continued to hold the pillow over Ann’s face.
After a few minutes, allowing time for his accomplices to get the treasure away, he quickly released his captive and slipped out the window, presumably to follow and catch up with his comrades.
By that time, Patrick had been awakened by the scuffling upstairs and the noise on the verandah roof. Ann began screaming as soon as the third man slipped through the window.
A few seconds later, Patrick managed, with great exertion, to climb the stairs and reach his sister’s room. By then, though, there was nothing that either of them could do.
The following afternoon, Ann Mellon went to Guelph, and found Police Chief Kelly, the bumbling Irishman who headed the city’s small force. She told him the details of the incident, and described the missing trunk. She said it contained $310 in cash, some legal papers, and an heirloom watch.
Kelly realized the affair had occurred in Eramosa Township, and therefore was outside his jurisdiction. Normally, he had little interest in occurrences outside the city limits, but young hoodlums had been vexing him and his men for months.
He set off immediately to see Henry Peterson, the no-nonsense crown attorney, to plan a course of action.
Peterson was fully aware of gangs of trouble-making hoodlums in the city. Under pressure from Kelly’s men, they frequently went outside the city to stir up trouble. He had been unable to get convictions in the past, but this case went too far. He grabbed his coat and rounded up County Constable Armstrong and Jim Lynch, the bailiff and part-time county officer.
Ann Mellon had given Kelly some solid leads. Though it was dark, she was able to provide a name for one the suspects, Charlie Duggan. She recalled that young Duggan had seen her receive a cash payment from James Loghrin, a neighbour, for some cattle. Somewhat embarrassed, she remembered telling Loghrin that she would put it away safely in the trunk under her bed. As well, she provided good descriptions of the other two.
With the help of some witnesses from the Eramosa tavern, Lynch and Armstrong soon had a list of suspects. By Monday evening they had a group of them in custody. As well as young Charlie, the roundup netted his brother, Ed Duggan, Tom Brown and Joe Jennings.
Another named Jim Kennedy tried to sneak away when he saw the constables approach the house. They caught him on the roof of a shed. Kennedy climbed down meekly when Lynch pulled out a revolver and fired a couple of shots over his head. A sixth suspect, James “Buck” Rae, was brought in early on the morning of April 9.
The police realized that only three of the six suspects could have been directly involved with the robbery. Henry Peterson believed they would soon turn on one another, and he was right. After a night in jail, Charlie Duggan was ready to talk.
Duggan confessed to Chief Kelly that the others involved in the robbery were Jim Kennedy and Buck Rae. He also told Kelly that the trunk had been hidden near the Grand Trunk Railway tracks, just east of the city. Kelly sent two men at once to the location. They found the trunk with the bottom kicked in. Some of the bank notes were missing, along with a watch. Various other legal papers and the bulk of the money remained.
Perhaps the most valuable information provided by Charlie Duggan was that Buck Rae had been involved in the burglary, and had masterminded the operation. Kelly arrested Rae on the basis of that statement. Both Kelly and Peterson had suspected that Rae had a long involvement with petty criminal activity in Guelph. They lost no time in pushing the prosecution now that they had some evidence.
Henry Peterson managed to get the case into police court late in the morning of April 9, less than two hours after the arrest of Rae. Jim Kennedy and Buck Rae, after a quick presentation of the evidence, were held over for trial. A few weeks later, the judge awarded them a two-year vacation, at public expense, to Kingston.
It does not appear that Charlie Duggan ever faced charges. It seems that he convinced Peterson that he had been drawn into the plot by the others, even though he took an active part in it, and supplied the information about the Mellon’s money squirreled away in the trunk.
For Constables Armstrong and Lynch, and Chief Kelly, this case ranked as one of their best efforts: the suspects had been identified, found, arrested and gone through a preliminary hearing in less than 48 hours, and most of the loot had been recovered.
Cases such as this one are exceptionally rare in late 19th and early 20th century history. When they did occur, they received wide publicity. As is the case today in such crimes, the perpetrators committed many foolish actions that aided in their detection and arrest. For them, the crime was one of impulse and opportunity, rather than one resulting from careful planning.
Nevertheless, the speed and determination of the authorities certainly sent a powerful message through the community, and particularly so to the three innocent men arrested. They walked out of the lockup after an unpleasant night with a powerful lesson to be more careful in their choice of company.
*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on April 11, 2003.