Guelph jail break in 1921 a bad idea for three men

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.

Back in the summer of 1921 three young men got to know one another as inmates at the Ontario Reformatory on the east end of Guelph.

They had been sentenced for various unrelated crimes to terms ranging from nine to 24 months.

Sam McArdle had been convicted on a charge of indecent assault in Ottawa. He was to be deported to the United States at the end of his two-year sentence. Joseph Hobson of London was serving two years for stealing a car, and John “Frenchie” Bedard had committed thefts in northern Ontario, and was serving nine months.

The men found conditions at the provincial hoosegow not to their liking, and they put together an inept plot to secure their freedom.

The three managed to escape, but their freedom was brief. Police quickly recaptured them, and hard-nosed Guelph magistrate Fred Watt was happy to sentence the trio to an additional two years at the Kingston Penitentiary for their escapade.

While awaiting arrangements to be made for their trip to the Big House, the three remained in the county jail in downtown Guelph under the supervision of the jail governor, 68-year-old John McNab, and his turnkey George Everson.

A good-natured man, McNab offered his prisoners a chance to get a little exercise in the corridor outside their tiny cells. That corridor had its own iron-bar gate, so the prisoners could not escape while socializing and pacing in the corridor.

A few minutes after 5pm on the evening of Nov. 7, 1921, which was Thanksgiving Day, McNab and Everson unlocked the corridor to bring the prisoners their suppers. In addition to the three men held pending transfer, there were two other prisoners serving brief sentences.

All the men were in their own cells when McNab and Everson entered the corridor. On a signal from Bedard, McArdle and Hobson joined him in charging out of their cells. The latter two grabbed jailor Everson, while the diminutive Bedard tackled McNab, who was obviously the weaker of the two officials.

To the surprise of the prisoners, McNab and Everson put up a valiant effort in resisting the attack. Bedard had prepared for such a development. With the help of one of the other prisoners, Bill Cook, he had removed a piece of pipe, with a tap attached, from the jail’s plumbing system, and had wrapped it in a piece of bed sheeting. 

Bedard cracked the pipe several times over the heads of both McNab and Everson. McNab dropped to the floor. Everson remained on his feet, but shuffled aimlessly, obviously stunned and oblivious to his surroundings. The three friends immediately fled through the open door. The other two prisoners decided not to follow them.

Though out of their cells, things immediately turned bad for the three escapees. They became disoriented in the jail building, and could not find an unlocked door to the outside. Finding no path from the cellar, they rushed to the second floor, which was the residence of jailor Everson and his wife.

Mrs. Everson had heard the commotion downstairs, and was on the telephone to the police when the men reached the top of the stairs. McArdle grabbed the phone from her and yanked the wire from the wall. The men made their exit through the door used by the Eversons for their apartment.

Though Mrs. Everson’s call to the police had been abruptly terminated, Constable Brush at the other end of the line had heard sufficient information. He hopped on his bicycle, and a couple of minutes later was in the jail yard. He saw the likely route of the escapees to Quebec Street. There he encountered several boys who told him the men had run in the direction of Woolwich Street.

Passersby joined in the chase. Brush found two of the suspects hiding in the backyard of Tom Darnell on Woolwich.

McArdle and Hobson were back in the jail roughly 10 minutes after they escaped. Bedard, meanwhile, had struck off on his own. Constable Brush traced his path to a disused portion of an industrial building on Quebec Street, then through the blacksmith shop of Penfold’s Hardware, and onto Macdonnell Street. But he lost the trail of his quarry.

About two hours later, the construction firm of McNamara Brothers, which had the contract to pave Highway 6 from Guelph to Hamilton, reported that a late-model Studebaker had been stolen. The car passed one of their watchmen at great speed, heading south.

Police quickly concluded that “Frenchie” Bedard was at the wheel. He had formerly worked as a chauffeur, and was an excellent motorist. He made a clean break. 

The next day the Studebaker was found abandoned at Niagara Falls. Bedard was known to the police force there. He was a former resident and had friends and relatives on both sides of the border. Obviously, he had taken refuge in the Land of the Free.

Meanwhile, things moved quickly in Guelph. Everson and McNab had their wounds dressed and cuts sewn up at St. Joseph’s Hospital. At first, Everson seemed the worst for the affair. Both were well enough to testify at police court on Nov. 10, when McArdle and Hobson faced stern-faced Magistrate Watt. 

They pled guilty to the escape charges, but denied the assaults on the jailors. Watt snorted at their denial, and awarded them two years for escaping custody, and three years for each of the assaults on Everson and McNab, to run consecutively. Added to the two years they received for breaking out of the Ontario Reformatory, the total came to 10 years each at the Kingston Penitentiary.

McNab, though, was not feeling well, and went home to bed after the court session. On Nov. 14 he returned to hospital. He grew progressively weaker until he died on the afternoon of Nov. 17. He had been governor of the jail since 1897. Previously he had farmed in West Luther, and had served as councillor and reeve during the 1890s.

By then McArdle and Hobson were in custody at Kingston. McNab’s death had altered their outlook: they would be returning to Guelph to face a charge of murder.

With more serious charges facing him, the dragnet for “Frenchie” Bedard intensified. Circulars with his picture, description and fingerprints went to police forces across Canada and the eastern United States. 

For two months Bedard seemed to have vanished. Then, on Jan. 22, 1922, a policeman in Jersey City recognized the fugitive from his photo on a wanted poster.

Bedard might have escaped capture but for his temper. He had attended a party, where illegal drinking was the main attraction. For some reason he became furious, and struck a girl in the face. Others at the party summoned the police.

Bedard quickly found himself in custody. The officer who thought he recognized the man checked his fingerprints. With a positive identification the Jersey City force immediately contacted the Ontario Provincial Police. Bedard faced extradition to Canada.

By then Guelph police had assembled a thick file on “Frenchie” Bedard. He had grown up in Niagara Falls, worked there, and at other places in that neighbourhood and northern Ontario. Though a small man, he was very agile, and had a quick mind. Previous to his two Guelph jail breaks he had escaped from the Burwash facility.

Processing the paper work and following the proper procedures took some time, but on Feb. 8 Bedard was back in Canada, after a stay at Ellis Island. He was just in time for the Provincial Assizes at Guelph, under judge W.R. Meredith.

[The rest of the story next week.]

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Jan. 21, 2011.

Thorning Revisited