Four men changed their plea in 1921 attack on jailor

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.

[Note: This is the second part of the story of Sam McArdle, Joseph Hobson and John “Frenchie” Bedard, three convicts who escaped from the Wellington County jail in Guelph on Thanksgiving Day, 1921. Police captured McArdle and Hobson within 10 minutes of the break, but Bedard successfully fled to Jersey City, where he lived quietly until an alert officer identified him in January 1922. The case took on a more serious tone when jail governor John McNab died of injuries sustained in the escape.]

Guelph police and the jail officials took no chances when they had Frenchie Bedard back in their custody. 

On Feb. 9 the diminutive but wily Frenchman arrived in Guelph on the morning train from Toronto, handcuffed securely to an OPP officer. 

A sizable crowd of loafers and the curious was on hand at the station, but the rubber-necking spectators got no more than a glimpse as the police pushed their prisoner into the back seat of a car and conveyed him to the police station, where a court session was awaiting him.

Mayor Howard sat at the bench, in place of the vacationing magistrate, Fred Watt. The mayor wasted no time, arraigning Bedard on a charge of murder, and ordering him held in custody until a preliminary hearing on Feb. 15.

The session took only a few minutes. Police then took Bedard to the county jail. On the advice of Inspector Miller of the OPP, local officials took no chances with their captive. They kept him under constant watch, day and night. Bedard taunted the guards, telling them he would stop at nothing to escape custody.

The other two escapees, McArdle and Hobson, had already been formally charged with the murder, along with an accomplice, Bill Cook, who had assisted in the escape but had not followed the other three out of their cells.

In an interview with the press, Frenchie Bedard claimed that Bill Cook had been the mastermind of the escape plot, and had persuaded the others to go along with it. The accusation infuriated Cook, who believed he was tricked into assisting with the jail break. He stated that Bedard had been the ringleader of the whole affair. Bedard had also made enemies of McArdle and Hobson, who felt they had been pushed into unnecessary violence by Bedard, and then abandoned by him.

All three indicated that they would testify against Bedard at the trial.

Magistrate Watt was back in his chair for the preliminary hearing on Feb. 15, with Crown Attorney J.M. Kearns prosecuting. Bedard had retained a defence lawyer from Hamilton, C.W. Bell. 

The first witness, jailor George Everson, related the events of the jail break, stating that he was slugged over the head and knocked out while has was holding McArdle. He did not see who had struck him, but believed it to have been Bedard.

Kearns entered into evidence a pipe and tap that had been used by the escapees, and Everson identified it as having come from the cell occupied by Bill Cook and another prisoner. Defence lawyer Bell cross-examined Everson closely, but the witness did not deviate from his story.

Police chief Rae was the next witness. He related that he had been with John McNab at St. Joseph’s Hospital shortly before McNab died. The jail governor had told the chief that Hobson had been holding him down, while Bedard struck him with the pipe.

Two Guelph doctors testified that the blows sustained by McNab had led to his death, but one, Dr. Lindsay, admitted that McNab had been suffering from kidney disease, weakness and loss of weight, and high blood pressure, any or all of which might have been complicating factors.

C.W. Bell had no witnesses for the defence. Magistrate Watt ordered Bedard held for trial on a charge of murder, alongside the other three involved in the death of McNab. 

Bedard did not have a long wait. The spring assizes opened on Feb. 20, with Justice R.M. Meredith presiding.

The case was an unusual one: it was the first time four men had been tried at the same time on a charge of murder. The court session attracted much attention locally and across the province. 

R.H. Greer of Toronto took over the prosecution, assisted by J.M. Kearns of Guelph. C.W. Bell defended Bedard, Harry Howitt of Guelph represented Cook, and George Drew represented both McArdle and Hobson.

McArdle, Hobson and Cook, already imprisoned at the Kingston Penitentiary, arrived in Guelph on the morning train from Toronto on Feb. 20, each shackled to a police officer. They were hustled off to jail at once. They did not appear at court that day, where a grand jury brought in true bills against them and against Bedard. 

Officials thought it wise to keep the three separated in jail from Bedard because their feelings against him were so strong.

The grand jury, as expected, brought in true bills against the four accused. The trial would commence first thing the next morning. 

Meredith took the unusual step of commenting at length on the administration of jails, and the large number of recent jail breaks, saying they were invariably “a result of the indolence or incompetency of the officials in charge.” 

He requested that the grand jury make a thorough and thoughtful examination of the jail and its facilities, and report their findings to the court.

At 9am the next morning an overflow crowd crammed the courtroom to watch what promised to be an interesting trial. Following the opening formalities, the four accused entered “not guilty” pleas. R.H. Greer then rose and outlined the case for the prosecution. Justice Meredith called for the first witness to be sworn in.

Then attorney C.W. Bell rose to address the court. He described the relatively poor health of John McNab in the months leading up to his death, and stated that it might be difficult to prove that his death resulted from the attack on him by the prisoners, citing the opinion previously given in court by Dr. Lindsay. He was willing to enter a plea of guilty of manslaughter for his client, he told the court, and that the other accused would also admit guilt to that charge.

The courtroom at first reacted with stunned silence, then with loud murmuring, which prompted Justice Meredith to call repeatedly for silence. 

The change in the defence strategy seemed to take everyone by surprise, particularly Justice Meredith and the prosecution team of R.H. Greer and crown attorney J.M. Kearns.

Perhaps realizing that they had their hands full to prove premeditation on the part of Bedard and the other defendants, Greer and Kearns accepted the plea, as did Justice Meredith. He asked each of the four accused whether they consented to a guilty plea for manslaughter. All answered in the affirmative.

Justice Meredith then passed sentence. He awarded Frenchie Bedard 20 years, 15 years each to McArdle and Hobson, and five years for Cook. The sentences would run concurrently with those already being served by the men. That meant a full 20 years for Bedard, five more years for McArdle and Hobson, and three years further for Cook.

For Cook it was a sobering lesson to think before acting. Originally he had been serving a short sentence, and on a whim had helped cell mates with a weapon for a jailbreak in which he refused to participate. 

The other three had been serving relatively short terms when they first decided to escape, mindlessly following the leadership of Frenchie Bedard. 

Their antics, and their foolishly aggressive attack on John McNab, cost them their freedom for a large portion of their adult lives.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Jan. 28, 2011.

Thorning Revisited