During the first weeks of 1893, a number of farmers in West Garafraxa, Eramosa, Nichol and Guelph Townships suffered losses at the hands of a fellow named John Smith. He was originally from Eramosa, but in the mid 1880s he rented the farm at Lot 11, Concession 4 of West Garafraxa. It was a large spread, 194 acres, and on the road to Belwood near the flag stop of Spires on the Canadian Pacific line. The farm was owned by John Brydon, of Nichol Township.
Smith did some farming there, and as a sideline bought and sold cattle from farmers and other dealers, shipping them in carload lots to Toronto and sometimes Montreal. Over the years, many farmers did business with him, and he gained a reputation as an honest trader.
Around the end of January 1893, Smith changed his business methods. He offered to buy a carload lot of cattle from the firm of Casey and Robinson, telling the men he would give them their money. They were suspicious. Smith’s offer was higher than the price on the Toronto market. They declined his offer. Two weeks later they were very glad they did.
Smith was last seen on the morning of Feb. 13, when he purchased a watch at the Vickers Jewelry Shop, in Fergus. He charged it to his account there. Two days later, on the afternoon of Feb. 15, several men sought him out and went to the farm. The men found a few hens and decrepit animals in the barn, and some old furniture in the house. Otherwise, the farm was deserted.
Word quickly spread of the disappearance of Smith and his family. It appeared that sometime between Feb. 11 and Feb. 15 he cleared out most of his household possessions, and much of what was in the barn. Eventually his pursuers discovered what happened to the goods: Smith had shipped two carloads of miscellaneous freight and household effects to the village of Clifford, Michigan from the Guelph Grand Trunk station.
Smith might have used the stations in Belwood or Fergus, which were much closer, but it is obvious that he did not want his activities to be widely known. Surprisingly, no one had noticed wagons leaving the farm.
Over the next few days, many of his creditors made contact with one another. It appeared that Smith owed something like $8,000 to a couple of dozen farmers for cattle shipped but not paid for. Others had endorsed promissory notes that Smith had signed. Some people suspected the number of losers, and the amount owed by Smith, to be much larger than those figures.
Smith’s sudden departure and defalcation caused a sensation. He and his family had been widely respected and highly regarded. Previously he had paid all his debts when they were due. Every Sunday he was in his pew at the Methodist Church, praying and singing as loudly as anyone in the congregation.
A major creditor was John Black, the leading grain and cattle dealer in Fergus. Black was proud of his reputation for honest dealing, and was livid at being taken for a sizable sum. On Feb. 16, he left Fergus for Michigan, and the following day he found Smith, nicely settled on a 240-acre farm near Clifford, Michigan, about 50 miles west of Sarnia. Black refused to tell reporters anything of his financial dealings, but he described the farm as an excellent one, with good cattle and horses in the barns, a flock of about 150 sheep, and substantial buildings.
Accompanied by the local sheriff, Black surprised Smith in one of the barns. Black demanded payment of the amount owing to him, reportedly $700, but Smith claimed poverty. Black and the sheriff searched Smith, and found $13 in cash in his pockets. Smith claimed the money belonged to his son.
John Black would not confirm the amount owed to him, or whether he had made any arrangements for payment, when he returned to Fergus. Always tight-lipped about his business affairs, he said nothing more about his dealings with John Smith. Other creditors suspected he and Smith had come to some sort of arrangement at the expense of themselves.
Many of the other creditors declined to make a trip to Michigan. Instead, they visited the farm to seize whatever they could, without the support of either the bailiff or a court order. The remaining hens, cattle, and horses were soon in new homes. Other creditors helped themselves to the grain and hay in the barn, and what was left of the furniture was carted away within a couple of days.
During the week after Smith’s departure to the Land of the Free, newspapers across the country, and some in the United States, picked up the story. One of them was the Detroit Evening News, which printed the story on Feb. 25.
The account of the affair that paper printed was too much for Smith. He replied in the paper’s letters column in the Feb. 28 issue. He explicitly denied that he had absconded with $8,000, claiming that he had never owed that much in his life. As for John Black’s visit, he stated that the Fergus cattle dealer visited him to have some legal papers corrected, and that it was Black who owed him money, not the other way around.
As for the livestock, Smith claimed there were only three old horses on his new farm, and that the sheep numbered 50, not 150, and all belonged to his son. He concluded that the farm he was on was far less well equipped than Black had led reporters to believe.
That Smith was taunting them from across the border, where he was more or less safe in the arms of Uncle Sam, further infuriated his creditors in Wellington. But there was little they could do about it. Extradition proceedings would be extremely costly, with a good chance they would be unsuccessful.
A week or so later, Smith’s former landlord, John Brydon, weighed into the dispute. Still fuming over Smith’s cheeky letter to the Detroit paper, which itself was widely reprinted, Brydon called at the Guelph Mercury office. There he told a reporter that Smith had been complaining for some months that he was in bad financial shape, both with the farm and the cattle business.
Brydon was sympathetic, and shaved $500 off the outstanding bill for rent owed by Smith.
Despite the help, Smith still owed Brydon more than $300 at the time he fled. And the other creditors, in their zeal to get something to offset their losses, had stripped things from the farm that belonged to Brydon, not Smith.
That seems to be the end of the story of John Smith’s 1893 escapade. The full extent of the amount involved was never known. Not all the creditors revealed what they were owed, but it seems that most losses were in the range of $200. Though not a large amount today, that was a bundle in 1893, especially considering that the North American economy was in a depression at the time and most farmers were hard pressed to stay above water. It was an expensive lesson.
John Smith’s escapade was a fascinating one, and there is probably much more to the story should anyone wish to chase it down.