Gang of pick-pockets stirred up excitement – and escaped – in 1898

The morning of Monday, April 11, 1898 began as a routine one at the Grand Trunk’s Mount Forest station.

Perhaps a dozen passengers were waiting for the morning train from Durham to arrive. It would take them to Palmerston, where they would transfer to connecting trains.

Two of the passengers were a Mrs. McCutcheon, of Thorndale, who was returning home after visiting her son and some friends in the town, and a Mrs. McCleary, of Mount Forest, who was heading to Tillsonburg that morning. Her friends, a Mr. and Mrs. Tasker, were at the station to see her off.

The women and the other passengers boarded the train when it arrived at about 8:20am, and found seats. About half way to Palmerston, Conductor Lavelle came through the train, asking passengers for their tickets. Both women were stunned to see that their purses had been rifled, and that their tickets were gone. As well, Mrs. McCutcheon was missing a couple of five-dollar bills, and Mrs. McCleary could not find the eight dollars and some change that she had in her purse when she had left home that morning.

Conductor Lavelle immediately realized that the women had been victims of pick-pockets, and skilled ones at that. He had noticed several men hanging around the Mount Forest station, but that was not unusual, as many people enjoyed seeing the train come and go. Usually they were simply idlers, but sometimes they looked furtive and suspicious. One of the latter type had been noticed at the station that morning by the conductor.

Lavelle halted the train at the tiny flag-stop station called Minto, half way between Mount Forest and Palmerston. He telegraphed back to Mount Forest and informed Station Agent King of the thefts. King had noticed the furtive individual as well. He picked up his telephone and called Mayor J.A. Halsted and Constable Tom Stovel, informing both of the incident.

Stovel had noticed three shady characters in Mount Forest for a couple of days, and he linked the man at the station to them. He began by making some enquiries up and down Main Street. At the Ontario Bank the accountant told him that a stranger answering the description of the suspect had come into the office shortly after it opened, and had exchanged two five-dollar bills for a $10 note. At the private bank down the street, owned by Mayor J.A. Halsted, Stovel learned that the same man come in shortly before, and had exchanged a $10 note for two five-dollar notes. Obviously, he was avoiding the danger of being caught with the purloined bank notes.

After talking to the bankers, Stovel had a chat with the Taskers and young McCutcheon. All had been pre-occupied with farewells, and had not noticed the stranger. They believed that the women had put their purses on benches in the waiting room while dealing with their tickets and luggage.

Meanwhile, Stovel’s wife was assisting the investigation, telephoning various people and witnesses from the Stovel home. Later in the day she called Mrs. McCutcheon to tell her that two $5 bills matching the description of those she had lost had turned up at the Ontario Bank.

Stovel, by this point, was certain that his suspect was one of the gang of three men. He decided to have a chat with the trio, but was still reluctant to place them under arrest, as he was unsure if the strength of his evidence was sufficient to hold them in custody. But before he could catch up with them he learned that they had decided to move on to Harriston, taking a train on the Canadian Pacific line a few minutes after noon.

Mayor Halsted had hired a part-time constable, Jim McCarroll, to shadow the men, and he took the same train, keeping them under surveillance. Halsted told McCarroll to keep an eye on them, and to advise the authorities in Harriston about the suspects, and attempt to catch them red-handed in some illegality.

On the train the three men realized they were being followed. When they got off the train they started to walk to downtown Harriston, and then left town on foot toward Palmerston.

McCarroll followed them for a while, then turned and went to find the mayor and other Harriston officials. That evening he took the train to Palmerston, hoping to catch up with the suspects there.

On the platform at the Palmerston station, McCarroll ran into a Mount Forest councillor who was changing trains to return home. It was after 8 in the evening, and darkness had fallen. While chatting with him, McCarroll thought he noticed one of the suspects step onto the train to Stratford, which was about to depart. McCarroll went in search of Conductor Lavelle, and the councillor, accompanied by the train dispatcher, boarded the train. All three of the suspects were in the car, and they immediately realized that they had been spotted.

The suspects got up, and jumped from the train on the side away from the platform, where it was quite dark. The three men began to run, and McCarroll and the others set off in pursuit, but thought better of the chase when the suspects fired at least two bullets at them.

In the darkness, and with their pursuers at a safe distance from pistol shots, the villains made good their escape.

The use of firearms by criminals in situations such as that was unusual, and it created a sensation in the days following. It was also unwise: judges of that era took a very dim view of gunplay.

A couple of hours later, the Palmerston authorities received a report that a horse and buggy had been stolen from a farm near town. The following day there was a report of a horse and rig, matching the description of those stolen, found abandoned at Walkerton.

At that point the trail turned cold. The three criminals seem to have made good their escape, perhaps even by train through Palmerston. Their escape was made much easier by the ineptness and incompetence of the authorities.

Constable McCarroll had the three under surveillance from early morning, and had sufficient cause to arrest them and hold them for questioning, but did not do so. The mayor of Mount Forest let the three leave town, pursued by only one man, who did not disguise the fact that he was following them.

In Harriston, McCarroll gave up the pursuit and let the three leave town while he sought to inform local officials about three men who were no longer in town. At the Palmerston station, McCarroll may have had hopes of encountering the three attempting to take a train out of town, but his main reason for being there was to catch a train back to Mount Forest.

He made no attempt while in Palmerston to enlist the help of either the town constable there, or railway officials.

With poor communication among police officers, and their general incompetence and lack of training, 19th century criminals had the advantage over law enforcers. All that would begin to change in the early 20th century, with better-trained officers, good use of modern communications, and a sense of professionalism and cooperation among police officers.

It was a slow process, though, and one that took decades to achieve in rural and small town communities.


Stephen Thorning