Thieves went on Halloween break-in spree in 1920

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

ELORA – Halloween night was long established as a time for mischief and petty crime in 1920.

Property owners, especially those in small towns, were generally on the watch for anything unusual on the streets and their properties.

Halloween was a Sunday night that year, and after the attendees at evening church services went home, the village was, as was normally the case, very quiet.

The fact that Halloween fell on a Sunday probably helped minimize the activities of pranksters and mischief makers. Nevertheless, residents kept their eyes peeled as they did every year.

All the extra vigilance did not deter a carload of four men who went on a crime spree that night in Elora.

Their first stop was the Grand Trunk Railway station at the southern end of town (near where the Gorge Restaurant now stands). Other than an occasional extra freight train, there was no Sunday rail service in 1920, and the station was locked and deserted. No one seemed to have noticed the car and men, who probably pulled up to the station near midnight.


This photo, from Fergus, shows typical Halloween costumes, dated around 1910.

The men did some damage to the door, and then pried open locked drawers and cabinets, but all they were able to find to their liking were a few pennies in a cash drawer.

Disappointed at the haul, the men got back in their car and headed downtown. Next stop: Capell’s Drug Store. Three of the men got out, leaving the driver sitting in the car behind the wheel.

The men managed to gain their way into the premises with little difficulty, smashing the flimsy lock on the front door. Brazenly, they switched on all the interior lights. Several passersby reported that they had noticed the lights, but they all assumed that Capell had been called to fill a prescription for an emergency medical problem. F.J. Capell was often called on in emergencies, and the passersby thought nothing of it, or of the man sitting in the parked car, who seemed to be waiting.

The men in the store, though, had not stopped for medicine. They made a thorough search of the store, emptying drawers and cupboards, and helping themselves to perfumes, cameras, and razors, among other things.

Their efforts seemed to have worked up an appetite. They helped themselves to armloads of candy and soft drinks, and handfuls of cigars to enjoy later.

Unlike most store owners, Capell was in the habit of leaving cash in the cash register overnight. He lost about $25 that was in the drawer.

The men discreetly closed the door of the drug store and turned off the lights.

Their next stop was Bell Brother’s clothing and dry goods store to the north. (That premises is now the older portion of the Elora L&M store.) The Bells were much more conscientious than Capell regarding security, and they kept their till empty at night and the doors securely locked. The locked front door slowed down the thieves, but did not discourage them. The thieves loudly uttered oaths in their frustration with the locks that had been installed on the door by the Bell brothers.

Eventually they retrieved a crowbar from their car and noisily splintered the door frame to release the stubborn lock. Amazingly, no one seems to have seen them at work or heard the splintering of wood. At least, that is what the thieves thought.

Immediately to the south of the Bell store was Kerr’s Meat Market. Proprietor AJ. Kerr lived above the store, and he heard the noise made by the attempted break-in.

Kerr was no shrinking violet. He leapt out of bed and rushed to investigate the noise, pulling on his trousers as he descended the stairs. Within seconds he was on the sidewalk in front of his shop, a few feet away from the startled thieves.

That caused the men to revise their plans at once. They dropped their tools and rushed to open the doors of the car. The driver already had the motor running, and he screeched away as the other men slammed close the doors to the vehicle.


A Halloween post card, circa 1910

Surprisingly, no one else living in the vicinity, other than Kerr, admitted to hearing or seeing anything.

Kerr could do nothing to stop the car as it sped away, but he had noted the licence number. He had managed to get a good look at all the men except the driver. None wore a mask or a disguise of any kind.

Within seconds the car was out of site. The next step for Kerr was to telephone Constable Maitland, who constituted the entire Elora police force in 1920.

Maitland was on the scene in minutes, and accompanied by Alex Kerr he investigated other stores on Geddes and Metcalfe Streets. The two soon stumbled on the shambles inside Capell’s store.

Maitland called the druggist, and Capell was soon in the store, evaluating his damage and loss. Capell put the total, including the $25 that had been in the till, at about $300.

A few hours later Grand Trunk staff reported the break-in at the station. There seemed to be no other victims of the crime spree. Constable Maitland telephoned other police forces in the area, relaying the information provided by A.J. Kerr.

Not surprisingly, it soon became evident that his information was not very useful to the solution of the case. The getaway car had been a stolen vehicle, and was found abandoned early the next morning.

Though Kerr provided good descriptions of three of the men, no one was able to identify them. It is unlikely they were local residents.

As a businessman and as an activist in the community, Kerr had served several terms as a councillor and as reeve, and was active in a couple of fraternal organizations – he knew virtually everyone in Elora and the immediate area, and he did not recognize the men.

The robbery caused an immediate sensation in Elora. There had been robberies and break-ins previously in the village, but none had been executed so bravely, and never before had a getaway car been vital to the criminals. The fact that the driver remained in the car, with the motor running, gave this gang the aura of big-city criminals.

Other than the recovery of the getaway car, police were unsuccessful in following up on the crime or identifying the perpetrators. There was, in 1920, little coordination among small local police forces, other than informal relationships built by some of the officers.

The Ontario Provincial Police had been in existence since 1909, but that force had as yet to become a major factor in solving crimes.

In 1920 the OPP was a very small force, with most resources assigned to the mining areas of northern Ontario and to enforcing the Ontario Temperance Act. That force did not play a large role in cases such as this one.

Two of the victims of the 1920 robbery were already taking all reasonable steps to minimize losses due to robbery. The Grand Trunk station never kept cash on the premises overnight and made the building as secure as reasonably possible.

The Bell brothers had maintained sturdy locks on their doors, front and back. For Fred Capell, the thefts and the vandalism to his store prompted him to pay more attention to security and to be mindful of the potential impact of robbers.

By the end of the 1920s the outcome of incidents such as this would be quite different, with investigations by properly trained OPP officers and later, with the use of two-way radios to coordinate police action.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Dec. 28, 2012. 

Images from Wellington County Museum and Archives ph31716 and ph21038

Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015