Store robberies were an epidemic in Wellington County in the 1920s

Over the past year this column has described some of the store robberies that plagued Wellington County merchants in the early decades of the 20th century.

Thieves took advantage of fast motor cars, improved roads, and telephone communication. For a time, police forces were unable to meet the challenges.

On the evening of Oct. 19, 1923, a car pulled up in the alley that runs behind some of the stores on the south side of St. Andrews Street in Fergus. The vehicle stopped at the rear of the general store of C.S. Ewing.

The burglary of the store drew no attention. Not until one of Ewing’s employees, a clerk named Tindale, discovered the robbery.

It was easy to trace the steps of the burglars. They had used a door from the alley into the basement of the store, employing a glass cutter to remove a small window, and then removing a heavy bar that had locked the door. The burglars then climbed a staircase to the main level of the store, and broke through a second lock.

Ewing sold, among other things, fur coats. They took several of them, including two that were in a window display. Ewing had emptied the cash register before leaving for the day. The thieves, apparently, were looking for money. They pulled open any drawer that might contain cash. They did manage to remove a few cents in loose change. They had to make do with merchandise, of which the fur coats were their first targets.

Ewing quickly checked his stock the next morning. He made some rough calculations on the back of an envelope, and totalled the loss at about $1,000, plus the damage to the doors. He told reporters that he carried some insurance, but not enough to cover his loss.

The thieves, meanwhile, had lost no time in leaving town. At 2am they were in Milton. A railway employee named George Buck ended his shift about that time, and one of the thieves followed him in the getaway car.

As he was entering his residence a man with a handkerchief over his face and a pistol in his hand stopped Buck and took his motor car.

By the time the car was speeding around the corner, Buck was inside the house and on the telephone, rousing the Milton police chief from his sleep. The chief quickly rounded up a posse of volunteers to search the town.

They found the man and car in short order. He was waiting for an accomplice to pull another robbery. Realizing that he was caught, the man surrendered. In the back seat of his Model T Ford were the goods stolen from Ewing’s store in Fergus, along with burglary tools and a glass cutter.

The culprit identified himself as Jim Chadwick, from a hamlet near Orillia named Sprucedale. He claimed he was a butcher by profession, but had recently failed.

He had taken up a temporary career as a burglar, and intended to start over with a butcher shop in Toronto. He had a wife and five children, and was originally an American, having lived in Canada for six years.

Milton police called their counterparts in Fergus. Chief Angus McGregor and Ewing’s clerk Tindale drove to Milton, where Tindale identified the goods. By Sunday night Chadwick was in a cell in Guelph, awaiting trial.

When they searched the car, police found the wallet of the other culprit. He was an American named Anderson, who had lived for a time in Sudbury.

It was Chadwick’s unfortunate luck to come up in front of hard-nosed Magistrate Watt in a Guelph courtroom.

He complained to Watt that he had not been allowed any phone calls. Chadwick declined the offer of a lawyer, stating that he would conduct his own case. He elected trial by judge alone, and entered a plea of guilty.

Chadwick told Watt that he had only assisted in the robberies, and that Anderson was the actual culprit. Watt retorted that he was equally guilty under the law. All agreed to proceed at once with the trial.

Crown Attorney Kearns rejected Chadwick’s claim that he was not a professional criminal, pointing out that the car had carried a full set of burglar tools and a gun.

Chadwick delivered a statement in his defence. He claimed that he was not a criminal, and had only resorted to crime to support his family. He had been led astray by his accomplice Anderson. Before passing sentence, he urged Magistrate Watt, that inquiries should be made regarding his prior life and his character, and he offered a number of names of people who would vouch for him.

To the surprise of many, the appeal worked on Watt. He ordered Chadwick remanded for a week so that inquiries could be made.

After a couple days of investigation, Chadwick’s sob story began to fall apart. It appeared that there were three other accomplices, not just Anderson, and that the robbers had two cars. The other one was used to make a getaway when Chadwick was arrested. Some officers suspected that the others had watched as Chadwick was arrested.

Chadwick’s next session before Magistrate Watt came on Nov. 6, 1923, more than two weeks after his first appearance. Watt accepted the character references, all of which were favourable, and said he “would take them into consideration.”

Watt then reverted to his usual form. He castigated Chadwick for carrying the burglary tools, which he said could not be used for any good purpose. The revolver, he said, was a danger to the public, and in his opinion Chadwick would not hesitate to use it.

“Five years in Kingston Penitentiary,” thundered Magistrate Watt in passing sentence. As he was taken back to his cell, Chadwick passed his wife in the hall, with their youngest child in her arms. Seasoned reporters covering the trial sympathized with her and the other children.

For his part, Chadwick remained closed mouthed concerning his accomplices and the other robberies committed by the gang.

Police had suspicions that Chadwick and members of the gang were involved in other robberies in the area, and they hoped that he would eventually turn against the others. Meanwhile, they continued to assemble evidence on the wave of burglaries that plagued the area during the fall of 1923.

One theory was that the rest of the gang loaded into their second car and headed north.

The evening following the Fergus burglary, a gang hit the business section of Clifford. They hit four stores in that village, which in the 1920s had a small but vital retail sector. Their take topped the $1,500 mark. But they left no clue as to their identity, and the link with Chadwick was never definitively established.

Nevertheless, things did not go well for Jim Chadwick. Soon after his Guelph trial, he had another court date in Orangeville before Magistrate Falconer, who found him guilty of the theft of about $500 worth of furs from a store in Shelburne.

Falconer sentenced him to the same term as Chadwick received in Guelph: five years in Kingston penitentiary.

The accused had one consolation. The sentences would run concurrently.



Stephen Thorning