Fast-talking ball player swindled dozens in Guelph

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.

No Wellington County baseball team ever enjoyed greater success than the Guelph Maple Leaf Club of the 1870s.

Organized in 1861, it ranked as Canada’s best by 1871, achieving three successive national championships, followed by the world amateur championship in 1874.

The “amateur” designation was dubious. The team had turned semi-professional years before, and hired players from all over Canada and the United States. One of the better American imports went by the name of William A. Jones, but everyone called him Billy.

A second baseman and a powerful hitter, Jones joined the Maple Leafs in 1872 after playing in New York State. The usual practice was that a supporter of the team would hire the player, providing year-round employment, and excusing frequent absences during the baseball season. Guelph industrialist John Crowe offered Jones a job in his foundry, cleaning the sand off castings.

All who knew Billy Jones agreed that his ambition exceeded his considerable skills as a ball player. He was not content to shake out castings at Crowe’s Foundry for long.

Early in 1873 he went to Fergus and a position as a trainee machinist at Wilson, Bowman & Company’s sewing machine factory. Jones impressed his new employers, but they laid him off in a business downturn later in 1873.

Billy returned to Guelph, where Charles Raymond hired him at his sewing machine factory. During the 1874 season he became an annoyance to the management of the ball team, and gradually lost his interest in the sport. He played his last games in 1875.

Billy traded his Maple Leaf uniform for a business suit, and accepted a position with insurance agent W.J. Paterson. He grasped the business immediately. In a couple of months he was handling Paterson’s major accounts. He took delight in hobnobbing with the business elite of Guelph, who found him intelligent, knowledgeable and obliging.

Nathan Higinbotham, senior partner of Higinbotham & McLagan, hired Jones on the spot when he showed up to ask for a position. This was the largest insurance, brokerage and real estate firm in the city. Within weeks, Jones was handling much of the firm’s insurance business all by himself, and building the portfolio by snaring accounts from other insurance agents.

Billy’s salary and commissions amounted to a sizeable sum, but his expenses began to outgrow his income. Many considered him the best dressed man in the city. He purchased the clothes on credit. Billy liked to treat his clients to lunches and drinks, and he entertained lavishly. To furnish his living quarters in proper style, he purchased $600 of furniture – an immense sum in 1876 – from Burr & Skinner, the leading Guelph furniture dealers.

By Christmas 1876, he owed accounts in most of the stores in the city. Still, he was often short of money. He took to borrowing $5 and $10 at a time from associates and friends, then borrowed more to pay back the first loans.

Billy’s castle startled to crumble in February 1877. Early in the month, Postmaster David Stirton received a letter from a woman in Brooklyn, New York, enquiring about her son. She wrote that he was a baseball player, and that she had heard a report that he played for a team in Guelph, Canada. His name was Silkworth, she said, but sometimes he used the name “Jones.”

When confronted with the letter, Billy tried to cover his embarrassment with a convoluted argument about why he preferred the name “Jones.” No one was entirely satisfied. Over the next few days, very few of his friends would lend him any money.

Billy reacted by making a big display of economizing. He and his wife moved out of their rented house and took rooms at a boarding house.

Still, his nerve and his cheek had not left him. He sold the $600 of furniture for $200 cash, while still owing money on it. He convinced a storekeeper to sell him a couple of Saratoga trunks. They were for his wife, he said. She needed to go to a spa in St. Catharines.

Billy Jones spent his last two days in Guelph maintaining his normal routine. On Feb. 13 he called on clients who had premiums falling due in the next couple of days, collecting money and giving receipts. Massie & Co., the retail and wholesale dry goods firm, had a $50 premium coming due later in the week. Bookkeeper Fred Innes told Jones that there was not sufficient cash on hand to cover the amount that day. Jones then suggested that Innes give him a promissory note “so that he could balance his books.” Innes readily complied.

The next day, Feb. 14, Billy made some more calls and collected more insurance premiums. He went around again to Massie and Co. Fred Innes had the cash for the premium due, and gave it to Billy. He told Innes that he did not have the promissory note with him, but “would bring it later.”

Late in the afternoon, Jones called on at least a dozen friends, businessmen and hotel keepers. The bank was closed for the day, he told them. He asked them to cash personal cheques for him, drawn on the Guelph branch of the Federal Bank. Most complied, giving him $10, $15 or $20.

At a quarter to seven that night, Billy Jones and his wife were spotted at the old Great Western Railway station, off Edinburgh Road, with their new Saratoga trunks. They boarded the 6:55 train for Hamilton, having purchased tickets, the agent later revealed, through to St. Catharines. Billy had told the agent he was taking his wife to a spa there.

More than a few people had developed suspicions about Billy Jones over the previous weeks, but the real nature of his activities surfaced when the first of his cheques passed over the Federal Banks’s counter the next morning. There was no money in his account. Fred Innes of Massie & Co. was in for a bigger surprise. Jones had taken the promissory note to the bank and borrowed $48 on it. When he checked with Higinbotham & McLagan, he learned that the insurance premium was still due.

Innes and other creditors started asking questions around town. Before the day was over, they had a list totalling more than $700. They later added another $500 to it. Some sheepish creditors, ashamed in retrospect at their gullibility, didn’t want to talk. The equivalent in the debased money of the early 21st century would be in the $100,000 range.

Most tight lipped of all was Higinbotham & McLagan. Jones had been the virtual manager of their insurance department. The firm admitted that the money Jones had collected over the previous two days had all gone into his pocket, but the senior partners refused to discuss what other irregularities there might be. Nervous policy holders lined up at the office to find out if their insurance was in force. Rumours on the street put the firm’s loss at several thousand dollars.

Jack Kelly, the burly Irish police chief, telegraphed St. Catharines, but the hounds were too late. Billy Jones, evidently, had crossed the border and returned to the land of the free. He never returned to Guelph.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Feb. 1, 2002.

Thorning Revisited