Two weeks ago this column featured a story about an unsuccessful bank robbery in Grand Valley in 1947. This week’s column goes back a further 25 years, and a bank heist in Mount Forest in December of 1922.
On the evening of Dec. 14 1922, many people noticed a large, fancy motor car parked on Wellington Street in Mount Forest. Cars, of course, were common in the town by the early 1920s, but there were few exotic models, and this one was not known to anyone who saw it.
A solution to the mystery came the next morning. Mrs. Pfaff, the caretaker at Mount Forest’s Royal Bank branch, tried to enter the branch about 6:30am to tackle her daily cleaning tasks. She could not open the door: it seemed to be barred from the inside. She roused one of the clerks, who lived nearby, and the young man was able to gain entrance through a transom window, then move aside a desk that had been shoved against the door.
He knew at once that there had been a break-in and robbery. Papers were scattered all over the office. He grabbed a phone and called the Mount Forest police chief and then manager of the branch, R.A. Fowlie.
It was obvious that the intruders had gained access through a rear window. There had been three bars across that window. The thieves had used bolt cutters to break through the bars, and a crowbar to pry and twist them open. The window itself had been raised with a railway pry bar usually used to remove spikes. They left it on the ground beside the window.
The branch had two vaults, an older one used mainly to store papers and to house the branch’s safety deposit boxes, while the newer vault held the cash, important securities, and papers related to loans.
The intruders had succeeded in blowing the door off the old vault, but their efforts with the new vault jammed the locking mechanism, making it impossible to open. The thieves had been forced to make do with what they could find in the older vault. They found about $40,000 in war bonds, some held in safekeeping for customers, but most in safety deposit boxes which they opened by smashing the locks with a large sledge hammer. They also made off with about $5 in loose change from the postage box, and unknown other papers and securities held by the bank’s customers in their safety deposit boxes.
The bonds, to the relief of the owners, were fully registered, and therefore useless to the thieves. Most infuriating was the mess made of the various personal papers, including mortgages and deeds, held in the boxes. The bulk of those documents could be replaced, but a lot of work was involved.
The branch was able to open the day following the robbery after an expert in locks and safes arrived from Toronto, and spent several hours making the main vault serviceable and accessible.
The local police and bank manager Fowlie concluded that the thieves were professionals at their dubious trade. They had taken the time to cut the long distance telephone lines out of Mount Forest, and to disable the telegraph wires at the railway stations. They had not been counting on a gang of telephone repair men being in town that night. The linemen had the phone circuits back in operation in less than an hour after the cuts were discovered.
The Mount Forest police chief, as soon as the long distance lines were usable, contacted the Ontario Provincial Police at their Kitchener office. Inspector McCaffery took the call, and 90 minutes later he was in Mount Forest with three of his detectives. It was an impressive run over the rough 56 miles of gravel roads in McCaffery’s big 1921 Paige motor car.
The OPP officers gave an impressive display of modern police investigation methods. The four men spread out, systematically interviewing people who heard or saw anything and carefully gathering evidence.
They examined two sets of footprints to the rear of the bank from Fergus Street, and concluded that the robbers were small in stature. Several people living near the bank reported hearing a loud bang sometime after 2am. Most concluded that the noise was a tire blowout.
The officers were certain that the mystery car that had been parked on Wellington Street was involved in the case. They followed up on reports that it was seen near the hamlet of Egerton and in the Shelburne area in the early morning. They concluded that it headed to Toronto, where it was less likely to be noticeable.
Police had a great deal of information and clues in their file, but the robbers had several hours of lead time on them. Nevertheless, they had a good idea with whom they were dealing: a gang of robbers formerly active in western Canada but now working in the Toronto area. They linked the gang to another recent bank robbery at Stouffville, north of Toronto.
The robbery created a sensation in Mount Forest. Rumours put the haul as high as $60,000. The police, after consulting with bank officials, put the amount nearer $16,000, with the bulk of that in registered savings bonds. A more careful accounting a few weeks later put the amount in the range of $40,000.
The Mount Forest robbery slipped from public attention in the bustle of the 1922 Christmas season, but the OPP kept the file active. They traced their suspects to the United States, where they appeared to be the culprits in other robberies.
Their suspicions were confirmed when some of the stolen bonds turned up in Minneapolis. But again the robbers managed to escape.
In early 1923, police in New York City arrested a man named Lewis Austin and a pal of his on a minor charge. Austin was carrying some of the bonds stolen at Mount Forest. They soon discovered that he was wanted in Arkansas on a murder charge.
Canadian authorities began efforts to have Austin sent to Canada, but officials there refused to give him up, claiming that murder was the superior charge. A few months later the inept Arkansas police realized that they had bungled the case, and that the charges they had against the man were for bootlegging and minor liquor offences.
Austin hired a sharp lawyer who made a Herculean effort to keep his client from being extradited to Canada. The effort failed. On Feb. 15 1924, two OPP officers arrived in Guelph on the morning train with Austin handcuffed between them. They had retrieved him from Little Rock and brought him on a three-day train ride to the Royal City. After a 15-month pursuit they took no chances, keeping him handcuffed to one of them at all times.
The officers took Austin to the Guelph jail and a cosy cell, where he waited about an hour for a hearing before hard-nosed Magistrate Frederick Watt. It was a brief session. Watt brushed aside any consideration of bail. He scheduled Austin’s next appearance in a week’s time. Jail officials led Austin back to his cell with a set of prison garb to await his trial on the Mount Forest charges.
The authorities knew Austin was a slippery character. On orders from the Attorney General’s department he received a special guard 24 hours a day. Police told the press Austin was very talkative about every subject except the charges against him. He would only claim that he was not involved in the case, and insisted that he was not in Canada at the time of the Mount Forest robbery.
Next week: The conclusion of the story of the 1922 Mount Forest bank robbery.