Thieves hit Fergus stores twice in six months

One of the consequences of the widespread popularity of mot­or cars and improved roads in the 1920s was the appear­ance of a new type of crimi­nal – the thief who used a getaway car.
Wellington County suffered a rash of break-ins and rob­ber­ies in the 1920s by organized gangs who sped away and out of the area before authorities knew what happened.
For a while, that class of criminals enjoyed considerable success. Most local police forces did not have motor cars in the early 1920s. But by the 1930s the police had closed the odds. Local councils began supplying their police with cars, or with an allowance for one. And communications im­proved. Police realized what a resource the long-distance tele­phone could be, and many dream­ed of acquiring two-way radio systems like their big-city cousins used.
One of the more daring gangs of robbers honoured Fer­gus with their presence in Nov­ember of 1924. Using a glass cutter, they cut a circle in the glass front door of the dry goods and clothing store of James Russell. They used the hole to reach in and unlock the front door.
The thieves then strolled through the store, making a sel­ection of merchandise, includ­ing several fur coats. Brazenly they turned on some of the lights to make their shopping spree easier. They obviously had good taste. Only top-of the-line merchandise seem to in­ter­est them.
The thieves drove off and disappeared into the night. Fergus police turned up no leads, and the provincial police were unsuccessful as well. Russell estimated his loss at about $3,000.
Early on the morning of April 8, 1925, sometime after midnight, the gang returned, or so everyone assumed. Their meth­ods were identical to those used at the burglary six months earlier. They entered Russell’s store in the same way, and took similar merchandise. This time they even took Russell’s own overcoat. The proprietor put his loss, after a quick evaluation, at between $1,500 and $2,000, a con­siderable sum in the era of 40-cent per hour wages.
Having made their selection from Russell’s merchandise, the crooks moved down the street to Steele’s store, which was then the largest in Fergus, with both grocery and dry goods sections. Here they had no luck with the glass cutter. Instead, they broke a pane in the lower half of the door to the grocery department.
That action almost resulted in their identification and pos­sible capture. J.G. Tweddle lived nearby, and he was hav­ing trouble drifting off to sleep. Tweddle heard the noise and got up to investigate. He not­iced a big sedan in front of Steele’s store with the engine running. But Tweddle thought the car was the big Dodge be­longing to the proprietor.
From his angle it looked as though the car had hit a lamp post, breaking a headlight. Twed­dle went back to bed. He reported that he heard the en­gine running for about 15 minutes before the car drove off. That was about 3am, he re­membered.
The thieves had little inter­est in the grocery department. They went next door to the clothing section, and picked up a carton of boys’ clothing that had not yet been unpacked. As well, they picked out several pairs of good shoes, and a roll of expensive cloth. Satisfied with their merchandise, they unlocked the door to the dry good section and loaded the merchandise into their sedan.
Clerks in Steele’s store esti­mated the value of the haul at close to $2,000. As with James Russell, this was the second bur­glary of Steele’s store, which had been hit in 1923. Both burglaries had gone un­solved.
About 3:30am, a young res­i­­dent of Fergus, Borden Boyn­ton, drove down the main street with a friend. They were re­turn­ing home from a dance in Belwood. Though sleepy, the men noticed a light burning in Russell’s store, and thought it strange. They found the Fergus night policeman, Constable David­son, farther down the street.
A quick glance told David­son that there had been a break-in at Russell’s store. A quick in­spection of the downtown re­vealed the broken glass at Steele’s store. Davidson at once tele­phoned the proprietors of the stores. They rushed out their doors as they pulled on their trousers, and were on the scene in a few minutes.
Both Steele and Russell con­firmed that there had been burglaries, and that their losses were considerable. With that information, Davidson tele­phon­ed municipal police forces in the area to watch for sus­picious characters with a car full of clothing. He also in­formed the provincial police of­fice in Guelph. By 1925, the OPP offices were taking the lead in conducting investiga­tions into cases such as this one. Earlier in the decade they had been obsessed with crack­ing down on the illegal liquor trade, to the neglect of other matters.
At 5am, two OPP consta­bles roared in from Guelph to investigate. They carefully ex­amined the stores, but found no solid evidence that would iden­tify the thieves or indicate the path of their flight.
By then the excitement had moved to Orangeville. Consta­ble Davidson, of Fergus, had telephoned the Orangeville chief, William Marshall, about 4:40am. Groggy with sleep, Marshall assumed that there was solid evidence that the bandits were headed his way. Quickly he assembled a wel­com­ing committee that includ­ed his night constable, along with H.R. Dodson of the OPP, licence inspector Tom Robin­son, and a handful of volun­teers. Armed with rifles, pis­tols, and shotguns, they took up positions at the west end of Orangeville.
By then it was past 5am. With no sign of the thieves, Chief Marshall decided to drive to­ward Fergus to look for them, accompanied by his sidekicks, and with rifle barrels sticking out the car windows. The trip took them all the way to downtown Fergus without sight­ing the criminals. On re­flection, the chief must have felt foolish. If the thieves had indeed gone to Orangeville, which was not at all certain, they would have passed through a couple of hours ear­lier. And Marshall had neither a description of them nor a posi­tive identification of their car.
Inept police work like that of Chief Marshall certainly aided the escape of the Fergus burglars. But the police were learning, particularly the pro­vincial force, which soon the developed the skills and com­munication networks to aid in dropping a net on fleeing motor cars.
It appears that the bandits were never apprehended – or if they were, it was for some other crime. As for James Russell and the Steele Brothers, both decided to take out special insurance policies specifically to cover break-ins. Neither men­tioned installing a burglar alarm – or if they did, they preferred not to publish the de­tails of their protection sys­tems.
A peculiarity of the Fergus burglaries in the 1920s is the role of the night constable. In those days he was assigned to foot patrol, concentrating in the downtown area, and checking doors and windows for signs of entry or hints of fire. It is re­markable that, given such an assignment, a gang of burglars could spend at least a half hour robbing two stores without be­ing noticed. In any case, the burglaries of April 8, 1925 were the last major ones in Fergus in that decade. It is a peculiarity of history that crimes such as those were more common, in Wellington and elsewhere, in the prosperous 1920s than they were during the depression years a decade later. Crime and hard times do not necessarily go together.

Stephen Thorning