In February of 1907, a man arrived in Guelph with his wife, and, over a period of about six weeks, he negotiated small promissory notes, seemingly signed by prominent local men, at the Royal City’s branches of the Bank of Commerce and the Metropolitan Bank.
He gave his name as John Bell, but authorities later discovered that his real name was William Hanlon, and that he came from the Schomberg area.
Hanlon’s initial success with two bogus promissory notes emboldened him. He forged the name of John Gillis, a prominent farmer in the Guelph area, to a series of promissory notes, and presented them at the other Guelph banks as security for small loans. The bankers all knew the Gillis name, and did not hesitate to advance Hanlon money on them.
Soon the list of victims included all the banks doing business in Guelph: the Dominion, Royal, Montreal, and Traders, in addition to the Commerce and Metropolitan. The total loss topped the $1,400 mark, equal to perhaps $80,000 or $100,000 in today’s purchasing power.
Though Guelph banking was then fiercely competitive, the managers always shared useful information. They had suspected nothing wrong with the transactions until the notes became due. When Gillis failed to pay the notes they quickly realized what had happened. It did not take long to piece together the story. The bankers informed Chief Randall of the Guelph police of the forgeries, but Hanlon had gotten wind of the falling net. He quickly disappeared.
William Randall did not go far. He landed in Orangeville, and during the fall of 1907, when he assumed the memory of his Guelph career was fading, he resumed his old activities. He presented promissory notes for $200 at Orangeville’s Sterling Bank and $100 at the Bank of Commerce and borrowed against them.
The Orangeville bankers discovered the forgery within a day. The authorities took action at once. On Oct. 5, Orangeville constables Hughes and Stonehouse, accompanied by the Sterling Bank manager and the bank’s solicitor, called at Hanlon’s residence. He was there, and he instructed his wife to return the Sterling Bank’s money. She handed over $100, apparently from the Sterling Bank.
Hanlon seems to have believed that handing over the Sterling Bank’s money would be the end of the matter, but the constables arrested him, and later returned and searched the house. They discovered $80, $70 in Bank of Commerce banknotes and a $10 bill of the Sterling Bank. (At that time chartered banks issued their own paper money.)
Hanlon cooled his heels in the Orangeville lockup until Oct. 11, when he appeared before Magistrate Pattullo, represented by Orangeville lawyer W.D. Henry. He requested a trial by magistrate alone, and entered a plea of guilty. It appears that he wished to have the case dealt with as quickly as possible and with little publicity, lest his Guelph career come to light.
While he was waiting in jail, the Bank of Commerce and the Sterling Bank began a dispute over the ownership of the confiscated banknotes. There was no direct evidence linking any of the actual notes to the ones handed over to Hanlon for his loans. Solicitors for the two banks dug in their heels.
Bankers a century ago were avid readers of local newspapers, and they had their own information networks as well. While Hanlon waited in the Orangeville lockup, the Guelph bankers consulted with Crown Attorney Henry Peterson. On the morning of Hanlon’s first court appearance in Orangeville, Police Chief Randall, of Guelph, formally charged Hanlon with passing forged promissory notes and cheques.
With Hanlon charged for his Guelph activities, managers Duff and Nelles of Guelph’s Commerce and Metropolitan Banks decided that they should make an appearance at the Orangeville court session that afternoon. A little after 11am they set out in a motor car over the Orangeville Road (later Highway 24), which was then a rutted and muddy country road. They suffered no breakdowns, but the trip took them more than three hours. Consequently, they arrived in Orangeville after the court had adjourned.
Hanlon’s guilty plea for the Orangeville crimes had been entered, and the case adjourned to Oct. 19 for sentencing.
Nevertheless, Duff and Nelles viewed the prisoner, and advised court and police officials that Hanlon, aka John Bell, was definitely the man who had swindled their banks. Reporters noted that Hanlon sported a huge walrus moustache, and that he presented a “villainous appearance.”
Though unable to offer testimony and fresh evidence against Hanlon, the bankers’ trip by motor car caused a sensation. In 1907, even the sight of a motor car was a novelty for many people. No one had ever heard of a rushed car trip playing a major role in a trial.
With a set of charges outstanding in two jurisdictions for similar offences, Hanlon’s case presented a tricky problem of jurisdiction. Eventually, Magistrate Pattullo agreed that Hanlon would be sent to Guelph for trial after sentencing in Orangeville.
Meanwhile, Crown Attorney Peterson directed a full investigation of Hanlon’s life before he came to Guelph, attempting to discover any property he held that might be confiscated to repay his victims.
Hanlon’s Oct. 19 sentencing date in Orangeville was deferred for a week, at the request of Guelph Crown Attorney Peterson, who still had not decided what charges to proceed with at Guelph.
Chief Randall made a trip to Orangeville to interview Hanlon, accompanied by a Miss Dawson, the proprietor of a small dairy in Guelph Township and who had employed a man named John Bell. She identified Hanlon as the man. He denied that he had worked for her, and denied any involvement in the Guelph forgery cases.
During October 1907, Peterson became more determined that all the cases be dealt with at the same time. He requested that the Ontario Attorney General decide the matter. That resulted in Hanlon’s sentencing in Orangeville being deferred yet again. He offered a deal to Magistrate Pattullo: he would make full restitution to the Orangeville banks in return for a suspended sentence.
Though he formally placed the offer before the court in Orangeville, Hanlon gave no indication of where the money would come from. Authorities had seized only $180 of the $300 he swindled from the Orangeville banks. Admitting responsibility for the Orangeville cases and vehemently denying those in Guelph was his last futile attempt to avoid jail and to cast doubt on the charges made by the Guelph banks. Pattullo eventually rejected Hanlon’s offer of restitution unless all the Guelph banks were included. That $1,400, it seems, was long gone.
The two jurisdictions reached a compromise before Hanlon’s appearance before Magistrate Pattullo on Nov. 2. He sentenced Hanlon to three years in Kingston Penitentiary for the Orangeville forgeries. It was a stiff sentence for those two charges, but a moderate one when the Guelph cases are considered.
Though he was not convicted on the Guelph charges, Henry Peterson was reasonably satisfied with the sentence. He believed Hanlon would receive a three year sentence in a Guelph court, to run concurrently with the Orangeville sentence. In his view, that would not be worth the time and expense, even though he was certain he would get a conviction.