“The Schomberg Swindler” left a trail of victims

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.


Stephen Thorning