Inspector Romain cracked down hard on county booze in 1872

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.

(Last week’s column featured a brief biography of Charles Romain, District Inspector for the Department of Inland Revenue in the 1870s. This week looks at some of his activities in north Wellington, closing down illicit stills.)

When the Department of Inland Revenue was created after Confederation, Charles Romain was the first (and only) official appointment in Wellington County.

As the department began to function, Romain quickly received a promotion to the position of District Inspector. This covered responsibilities not only in Wellington County, but over a large area of southwestern Ontario.

Romain’s duties, according to his job description, were largely administrative. He issued licences for the operation of distilleries, collected data on their activities, and made frequent unannounced visits to licenced distilleries. The actual collection of the tax fell to the Collector of Inland Revenue, James Gow.

In practice, one duty assumed a disproportionate amount of Romain’s time: investigating illegal distilleries.

Shortly after his appointment, Romain rented office space in Guelph, in rooms above a store on Carden Street, across from city hall. His absences became frequent, especially after 1871, when he decided to move decisively against the moonshiners. With an ear to the ground, and by gradually developing an extensive network of reliable informants, Romain began to realize the full dimensions of the illegal whiskey business, which appeared to be concentrated in Maryborough, Minto, Arthur and Luther Townships, plus adjoining townships in Grey and Bruce Counties.

Romain made some scattered investigations of these operations in 1869, 1870 and 1871. All he accomplished was to become well known in the bailiwick of the moonshiners. News of his presence in the area preceded his movements there. The still operators had the sympathy of the vast majority of their neighbours, who would go to great lengths to protect them and to mislead Romain. He seized pieces of distilling equipment, but could never catch anyone in the act of operating them. Charles Romain loved a challenge like this. He had never liked the dull routine of desk work. With his other duties well in hand, he decided to make north Wellington his priority for 1872.

Moonshiners liked the northern townships because a large proportion of the land was as yet uncleared. The distillers could set up in an inconspicuous site, make their whiskey, then haul it out to ready markets in the south of Wellington and as far as Hamilton. In many cases, the owner of the farm was not aware of the presence of trespassers. Those who were aware, with few exceptions, remained tight lipped.

Early in January of 1872, an informant tipped off Romain about a distilling operation some four miles west of Arthur village on the Arthur-Maryborough boundary. He managed to slip into Arthur undetected. Once there, he hired four local men as special constables. All had been involved in law enforcement activities on a part-time basis.

With his four assistants, Romain proceeded to the site. The equipment was warm, and there was a small quantity of whiskey on the site. This pleased Romain. Had he been expected, the operators would have removed their whiskey. He removed the condensing coil from the apparatus for use as evidence.

Within hours, Romain realized that his next move was a mistake. He left the four men in charge of the site while he went on to interview the owner of the farm and to follow some leads about the identity of the operator. The four had instructions to destroy the equipment completely. Instead, they removed a few pieces from it.

When Romain was out of sight, they told the farmer that they would return the following day to haul the boiler away. Chief Inspector Romain never saw any of this equipment again. It was a hard lesson, but it increased his respect for his foe. They were not all unsophisticated hayseeds. Indeed, they were almost as good at this game as he was.

A major decision was to minimize his use of temporary local assistants. After this point, Romain normally arrived on the scene with his colleague James Gow, the Collector of Inland Revenue. The two worked very well together. Gow became a sidekick to Romain, accompanying him on most of his raids beginning in the spring of 1872.

A fresh opportunity appeared in late April 1872: reliable information about a good-sized operation on the Grand River, just east of Grand Valley. Moving cautiously, Romain and Gow went to Orangeville on May 6, planning to approach the site from the east, where they were much less known.  

They planned to catch the westbound train bound for Arthur and Mount Forest, slip off at Grand Valley, and proceed to the still before news of their presence could get there.

Eating some lunch at the station restaurant at Orangeville, Romain’s eyes scanned the room. He feared losing the element of surprise. He noted something that looked like trouble. A couple of men were chatting with the crew of the Mount Forest train, and were nodding their heads in his direction from time to time.

Gow and Romain boarded the train with the rest of the passengers. When the train passed Waldemar station, Romain announced that he wanted some fresh air, and went out on the open platform of the car. In fact, he wanted to get a better view of anything that might happen.

He knew he was right when the train slowed to a crawl. A man slipped off the train, and took off into the swamp. Romain took off after him into the swamp. He fell a little behind because he did not know the terrain, but caught up with him at the site of the distillery.

The man turned out to be Reeve Dawson of Luther Township. He had helped a man and his wife lower the equipment out of site into the Grand River. They were in the process of rolling a 50 gallon barrel of whiskey into the river when Romain caught up with them. Romain pulled out his revolver and ordered the people to freeze. After a few moments James Gow arrived on the scene, out of breath and scratched by the underbrush. Gow made an inventory of the equipment while Romain covered the three with his gun and began asking questions.

The proprietor gave his name as W.J. Johnson. The site was near a tavern and ashery owned by the partnership of Hicks and Evans. After a while, “Johnson” admitted that he was Hicks, and that the woman was his wife. There was no sign of Evans. Hicks and his wife claimed to have no idea where Evans was at that time.

This was the first time that Romain had caught the operators of a still so red handed.

After a preliminary hearing, the case did not reach trial until October 1874, and when it did, it was heard in Toronto. This is an extraordinary length of time for the 1870s, when most cases, even very serious criminal ones, were dealt with in a couple of months at most.

Why did this one take so long to get to trial? I have found nothing to explain it, but have some suspicions.

Romain maintained social contacts with the upper society in Toronto, including senior government and court officials. He had attended Upper Canada College, and some of his classmates now held positions of authority. I strongly suspect that Romain wanted to make an example of Hicks, and took his time to set the trial up beforehand.

The charges were against both Evans and Hicks, but there was no real evidence against Evans. Hicks must have realized that his situation was hopeless. He did not even bother engaging a lawyer, and sat through the trial with no defence counsel. Romain and Gow were the only witnesses against Hicks. Romain did not want to risk bringing in any secondary witnesses who might cloud the evidence. Romain punctuated his evidence with sarcastic asides and comments. He ridiculed the quality of Hicks’ whiskey, which he claimed tested at only 33 proof. In taste and quality, he told the court, it was “ordinary swamp whiskey.” Though he pleaded not guilty, Hicks offered no evidence in his defence. He faced six separate charges, all of which overlapped to some extent.

In his address to the jury, the judge noted there was no real evidence against Evans. He went through the list of charges against Hicks, saying “they could scarcely doubt” that he had committed the offences.  His Lordship then instructed the jury to bring in guilty verdicts on all the charges. The penalties might be harsh, he admitted, but that was the intent of the law.

The jury returned in less than 20 minutes, with guilty verdicts on all charges. The judge then listed the penalties:

– distilling illegally $200;

– rectifying illegally (a stage in the process designed to remove impurities) $200;

– failure to secure a licence, $600, plus unpaid tax on whiskey found $63;

– possession of distilling equipment $100;

– failure to make a return describing the equipment $500;

– failure to provide other information $100.

The fines totalled $1,663.

Romain had made an example of Hicks.

This was an era when a reasonable annual salary was in the range of $600. The equivalent in today’s money would be well in excess of $100,000 in fines.

Hicks, as the proprietor of a small tavern, could not possibly have been able to pay such a fine. It is also doubtful that he ever made much money with his still. Swamp whiskey sold at very low prices. It had to, considering the abysmal quality of it. The Hicks case is notable because it was the first major blow struck by Charles Romain in his battle with the moonshiners. There would be others as Romain cut a swath through the illegal distilling business in Wellington.

(Next week: The continuing adventures of Chief Inspector Romain. Part three: fun and games in Fergus.)

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Aug. 2, 1999.

Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015