Beer stores were a popular target of thieves during the depression years of the early 1930s. As might be expected, the frothy beverage was usually the goal. More serious burglars had their eyes on the money often on the premises.
Brewers Retail outlets invariably had a safe, and often it contained the receipts of several days’ sales. The haul in money, if the timing of the thieves was in their favour, could be substantial.
Brewers Retail maintained a warehouse in Palmerston, established soon after the restoration of beer sales in Ontario in 1927. As well as Palmerston customers, it served a wide area, embracing northern Wellington and portions of neighbouring counties. The Palmerston facility shipped to Brewers Retail outlets in more than a dozen other towns, and to some of the hotels in that area.
The Palmerston beer warehouse suffered two break-ins and thefts during the spring of 1933, one of beer, and the second of the money on the premises.
Though many think that the Brewers Retail network is a government monopoly, it has been, since 1927, a private company jointly owned by the major brewing companies active in Ontario, and authorized to supply beer to consumers and to licenced outlets such as restaurants and hotels. The Palmerston warehouse, situated at a major rail junction, handled a considerable volume of beer.
The first of the 1933 burglaries occurred early on the morning of Good Friday. On that occasion the raiders broke into the building through a rear door and made their exit with 19 cases of beer. The police spent substantial time on the case.
Ontario’s Provincial Police had an officer, Constable Oldfield, stationed at Palmerston. He enlisted the assistance of the OPP’s Mount Forest, Guelph, and Kitchener detachments, but no trace of either the thieves nor their frothy booty could be found.
The widespread belief was that local youths were responsible.
When the Palmerston Brewers Retail warehouse was again targeted six weeks later, the police were certain that a more professional gang was responsible. Management, in the meantime, had made the rear door inoperable from outside, and had added barricades to the rear and side windows to prevent another attempt.
The second 1933 break-in occurred early in the morning of Sunday, May 28. This was one was a bold and brazen attack. The gang smashed out the front door of the building, and then, using nitro-glycerine, blew the door off the store’s safe. It contained the previous day’s cash receipts as well as the working funds needed by the store.
The previous day being a Saturday meant that the banks had been closed, and the cash on hand was at its weekly maximum. Altogether, the haul was almost $400, a princely sum in 1933.
Several residents nearby the heard the explosion. Two of them told police that they believed the noise was made by a keg of beer exploding, a circumstance they had heard several times previously. When informed that the sound was the work of safecrackers, they were incredulous. Nothing of the sort had ever occurred in Palmerston in living memory. Old timers shook their heads, complaining that Palmerston was becoming the Chicago of rural Ontario.
The burglars, it seems, were only a short step ahead of the authorities. A Palmerston resident drove past the warehouse when operations were under way, and he thought it odd that the front door would be wide open at 2am on Good Friday. He went home and roused OPP Constable Oldfield by phone. The officer was soon on the scene, but the criminals had vanished, presumably by motor car. He found the door still open, and the mangled and empty safe inside. Oldfield believed he was dealing with professional safecrackers, and at once sought backup.
By daylight the next morning, OPP Sergeants Mennie, of Guelph, and Bush, of Kitchener, each with some of their own men, were on the scene to undertake a thorough investigation.
They discovered a discarded crowbar, and evidence that the thieves had attempted, unsuccessfully, to force open two small windows on the south side of the building. Forcing the front door obviously meant a quick and risky change in their plans.
The thieves were single-minded, and certainly a well organized gang. None of the beer in the building was missing or even disturbed. Their goal was the safe. It was a small one, about 30 inches high and 24 inches across. The burglars used soap to seal the crack around the door of the safe, then dribbled nitroglycerine behind it. They did not use a fuse, but a wire hooked to a battery, to set off the explosion. Transporting and using nitroglycerine in this manner was extremely dangerous. Those men obviously knew what they were doing.
Police concluded that at least one of them had a solid background in mining or construction work, and had substantial previous experience blowing up safes. The only error of the burglars was in leaving some of their tools and the detonating apparatus used to set off the explosion. That permitted police to easily reconstruct their methods.
Police were certain that at least two men were involved, and probably more. The men had used gloves, and had later wiped anything they touched to remove fingerprints. There were none on the bars of soap they left, nor on the front of the safe or on the detonating apparatus.
The OPP officers, after their initial investigation, telegraphed details to other detachments in southern Ontario. However, they could offer scant useful detail. There were no descriptions of the suspects, nor any identification of the motor car they used to make good their departure. There was even the possibility that the men were still in Palmerston.
Sergeants Mennie and Bush assigned several men to the investigation, and the Brewers Retail management assigned a man from their Guelph warehouse to assist, but the trail, such as it was, soon went cold. The culprits were never caught and convicted in what was one of Palmerston’s more spectacular crimes. No further robberies of a similar type were reported in the succeeding months. Perhaps the gang decided that raids on the Brewers Retail network had become too risky. Or perhaps they moved on to other crimes.
During 1932 and 1933, thieves broke into a number of Brewers Retail outlets and warehouses, but Palmerston was the only location to be hit twice in six weeks.
The major repercussion of all those crimes was a tightening of the security of its buildings by the Brewers Retail organization.
The beer companies were very sensitive to the links between alcohol and crime that were emphasized by temperance people. They had no desire to allow the enemy more ammunition.
As well, robberies of both money and beer were a direct attack on their bottom lines. New procedures at their store and warehouses minimized the amount of cash on the premises overnight. More importantly, reinforced windows and sturdier doors and locks kept out intruders in the first place.