The North American economy suffered a major and sudden downturn in the summer of 1907.
Recovery was rapid during the following year. Consequently, that depression is forgotten today, overshadowed by lengthier economic setbacks. One of the effects of the 1907 recession was a huge floating population of unemployed men, wandering the continent over the winter of 1907-1908. Though they were very much in the minority, some of those men turned to criminal activity, and that created something of a panic in small towns and rural communities.
Accounts of several incidents from that time have appeared in this column over the years. One of the most publicized incidents was a robbery of a freight train travelling between Guelph and Palmerston in January, 1908.
Frank Hetherington and George McAllan (he gave his name variously as McAlvin and McAllynn during his dubious career) were two young men who lost their jobs in Toronto in the summer of 1907. Rather than search for alternate employment, they set about supporting themselves with petty thefts around the city, usually selling their ill-gotten gains, and drinking up the proceeds.
In December of 1907 a third man, James Davley (alias Jim Darling), newly arrived from Ottawa, fell in with them. They had a few close calls evading capture by police. Sensing that the authorities were closing in on them, the three decided a vacation from the Queen City was in order.
The men drifted to Guelph, early in 1908. One afternoon, when no one was watching, they decided to hop into a box car at the Grand Trunk Railway freight station, bound for Palmerston and points north. The car was filled with small packages consigned to various stores in Palmerston, and shipped by the T. Eaton Company and the wholesale firm of Hawthorne and Company.
The men opened some of the packages as the train rolled north from Guelph, through Elora, Fergus, and Drayton. Railway employees noticed that box car door was open slightly, and that there appeared to be men inside, but that was not unusual. Thousands of men were hitching rides on freight trains that winter. As the train neared Palmerston, they tossed out some of the packages for retrieval later.
The men disembarked when the train stopped in the Palmerston yards, and set fire to the boxcar in a foolish and futile effort to cover up their thefts. After retrieving some of the items they had tossed out of the boxcar, they headed to the Queen’s Hotel, across the tracks from the station, and a hangout for railway workers. Soon they were roaring drunk, picking fights with other patrons, and boasting of their pilfering of the boxcar.
The Queen’s management did not tolerate disruptive behaviour. Palmerston’s constable soon had the three in custody.
They had on their persons some items of costume jewellery stolen from the car. By then, the constable had a couple of reports of the other items tossed from the car, mostly shoes and boots that the men presumably had planned to sell to storekeepers. It did not take the constable long to link them with the thefts from the boxcar and their attempt to burn it.
Though their actions – drunken boasts in the barroom and the theft of items that would be impossible to sell without arousing suspicions – showed the three men to be inept bunglers, press accounts depicted them as a desperate gang of criminals. The case heightened fears that criminals were taking over the country.
The day after their arrest, the men retraced their trip to Guelph, accompanied by a constable, for a stay in warm but cramped quarters in the county jail. Meanwhile, provincial detective Hodge investigated the case. He was certain that the men had previous encounters with the law, and endeavoured to discover their histories. Lack of good records and poor communications among police forces was then a major impediment to effective police work.
Detective Hodge discovered that all three men had experienced brushes with the law, with convictions for fighting, disorderly conduct, and petty theft. The accused men had their day in court on Jan. 20, 1908. All three entered guilty pleas to the charges of theft and setting fire to the boxcar. Detective Hodge outlined their dubious career highlights to the court, and described the events at Palmerston that had resulted in the charges being heard that morning.
His was the only evidence entered. Considering their records, and the alarming wave of criminal activity across Wellington County and elsewhere in Ontario, the judge sentenced each man to three years in the Kingston penitentiary.
The convictions and sentences received wide publicity in newspapers across the province. In reports of the trial, the convicted men were described as “three young desperadoes” and “pretty bad characters.”
Among those reading the stories were a couple of police officers in Toronto. They had been looking for the two Toronto men, McAllan and Hetherington for some time, as prime suspects in several cases of thefts in Toronto. Their brushes with the law, it seemed, were far from over, as the police made arrangements for further prosecutions.
The convictions of Hetherington, McAllan, and Davley resulted in the most severe sentences of all the criminal cases in Wellington during the 1907-1908 crime wave.
There were dozens of other robberies and thefts, and a sprinkling of assaults of various types during those months. Fears were not aroused so much by the crimes themselves as by the fact that most were perpetrated by non-residents and unemployed transients. Consequently, strangers were regarded with much suspicion, and the unemployed were usually identified as criminals as soon as they appeared in a small town.
A surprising aspect of the brief 1907 depression was a disregard for the law exhibited by otherwise respectable people. The best example locally was a rash of thefts by employees of the Taylor-Forbes firm in Guelph, a manufacturer of hardware items. One man was discovered stealing copper. He smuggled the metal out of the plant through his young son, who came regularly to the plant with some snacks in a lunch box, and took scraps of metal in the box when he left.
Initially, manager John Taylor seemed unwilling to press charges, but he did hire a private detective to investigate because he suspected that thefts were more widespread. The detective discovered that more than a dozen employees were involved in pilfering copper, and all sold it through a local scrap metal dealer, who was quite willing to supply the names of his sources.
Furious, Taylor dismissed the thieves identified amongst his work force. With unemployment at very high levels, he had no difficulty finding replacements for them.
Surprisingly, the Great Depression of the 1930s did not produce a big wave of petty thefts and other offences. Crime rates, in fact, hit all-time lows during the 1930s in most categories, though the popular view is clouded by a handful of high-profile, violent criminals.
Based on historical experience, the relationship between crime and economic conditions is not a simple one. Unemployment in itself does not seem to push people into criminal activities.
Those interested in such matters will watch with interest the crime figures that are compiled during our current economic downturn. So far there is nothing to suggest that conditions have inspired any successors to the 1908 Palmerston “gang of three.”