Tobacco truck hijacking of 1934 ended at Fergus

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.

One of the curiosities of the 1930s was the dramatic rise in serious crime involving the use of firearms.

The 1931 and 1933 bank robberies in Morriston, described in this column a few months ago, were the local manifestation of a province-wide phenomenon. There were numerous others: stick-ups in grocery and drug stores, hijacking of trucks, and more bank robberies.

These armed robberies occurred at a time when crime in general had reached an all-time low. The public perception, though, was one of increasing lawlessness. Police, both the OPP and local forces, felt immense pressure to do something about it.

Locally, the feeling that gangsters were taking over peaked in October 1934. On the 12th of that month, two bandits brandishing revolvers, wearing slouched fedora hats, and with a getaway car with the motor running, held up the Bank of Commerce in St. Clements. They made their escape with $1,800 at high speed, being reported racing through Linwood and Peel Township.

That same afternoon, the people of Fergus witnessed a chapter in another saga. A little after 2pm, John Howard saw a large tractor trailer truck cross the bridge at Monkland Mills, then pull over to the side of the road on the Fergus-West Garafraxa town line. A sedan followed it, stopped for a moment, and then went on.

When the truck remained parked at the side of the road for no apparent reason, he went over to investigate. No one seemed to be around the truck, and there was no one in the cab. Then, Howard heard some noises from the back.

When he went to the back of the trailer he could hear someone calling for help. The doors were locked. Someone inside passed a key through the gap between the doors.

When Howard opened the doors he discovered three men inside.

They introduced themselves as Girard Batteau and Lionel Hebert of Montreal, employees of the Waller Transport Company. They told a fantastic story.

The previous morning, the men had left the Tuckett Tobacco Company’s Hamilton factory with a full load of cigarettes and smoking tobacco bound for Montreal. On the way they had picked up a hitchhiker, the third man, named Hunter.

The trip had otherwise been uneventful until they neared Napanee at about 10:30pm.

Suddenly, they said, a gang of five men, each armed with two revolvers, held them up. The bandits locked them in the back of the truck, then drove it to a house somewhere and unloaded the tobacco.

The drivers were then ordered back into the truck, which the robbers locked. They then drove for hours, eventually parking on the road at the edge of Fergus.

The men asked Howard where they were, and for directions back to Hamilton. Howard directed them to downtown Fergus and onto Highway 6.

They stopped in downtown Fergus at the municipal office, asking employee Grace Stewart for the local police. The Fergus constable was attending to some business out of the office. The men told their story to Miss Stewart, but declined to wait for the local police.

Proceeding out of town, they stopped at Mario Landoni’s service station on Tower Street. Here they related their story again before driving off. Within hours, the story was the talk of Fergus. Almost everyone had a theory on the case.

The men stopped their truck in Waterdown and reported to the OPP there, stating that they thought the tobacco had been removed somewhere in the Owen Sound district. An officer took their statement, then sent them on to Hamilton.

The story seemed unbelievable, particularly when it was coupled with the nonchalant attitude of the men; the variants in the stories they told to John Howard, Grace

Stewart and Mario Landoni; and their seeming lack of resolve to report the incident to the authorities. The OPP, though, took the matter quite seriously, warning all those involved to keep quiet. They already had a thick file on some suspects.

Four days after the hijacking, the OPP raided a house in North Toronto, recovering part of the stolen tobacco and arresting one man. Another raid followed two days later, on a shack near Bolton, where the remainder of the tobacco had been stashed. This raid led to two more arrests.

The truck’s cargo had a retail value of $14,000, an immense sum in an era of 30-cent per hour wages, and eight or ten times the haul in a typical bank robbery.

The Bolton raid produced a large quantity of other stolen goods. Police were able to tie a lot of loose threads together, all within a week of the truck hijacking.

The suspects had their day in court in Toronto, but the jury could not reach a verdict, resulting in a mistrial. The crown attorney brought the case forward against two of the men a second time, during the first week of February 1935. This time the jury produced a guilty verdict on charges of armed robbery and kidnapping against Howard Burbidge and Albert Prince.

Judge O’Connell sentenced them to seven years each in the Kingston penitentiary.

This case was one of Wellington County’s brushes with big-city gangsterism. Local people followed the case with much interest. The Fergus residents who spoke with the drivers enjoyed a brief flush of celebrity among their friends and neighbours.

Some people attribute this so-called crime wave to depression conditions and poverty, but it occurred at the same time as petty theft and housebreaking were at historic lows. Others associate armed criminals with the illicit liquor business, but Ontario ended prohibition in 1927, long before this wave of armed robberies began.

Some of these criminals may have been copycats, emulating the style and methods of American criminals. Others may have seen too many gangster movies. A major factor was surely the availability of fast motorcars and the building of good roads. These allowed robbers to make a quick getaway, something difficult in the horse-and-buggy era.

In any case, the pursuit of major crime in the 1930s did not result in a life of Riley for these bandits.

The OPP caught most of them, and obliging judges happily consigned them to long terms in small rooms at public expense.

Public pressure to put an end to armed crime prompted judges to levy much longer jail sentences than had been the case previously.

Incidents of armed robbery declined by the end of the 1930s.

Perhaps the longer sentences began to have a deterrent effect; perhaps an improving economy was responsible.

For a few years, though, many residents of Wellington County believed that gangsters had achieved a dominant role in society. Cases such as the hijacked truck of 1934 reinforced these fears.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Oct. 20, 2000.

Thorning Revisited