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Historicist: Titillating and Terrorizing Toronto

Toronto press and public alike swoon for the city's most notorious bank robber and murderer.

Historicist is, like many in Toronto, off to the movies this week. Here is one of our favourite installments, first published on September 13, 2008.

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Front Page of the Globe and Mail from September 9, 1952.

On September 8, 1952, four men sawed through the window bars at the Don Jail and crawled over the wall to freedom. The jailbreak of the Boyd Gang—Edwin Alonzo Boyd, Leonard “Tough Lennie” Jackson, Willie “The Clown” Jackson (no relation), and Steve Suchan—set off the biggest manhunt in Canadian history with a jaw-dropping reward of $26,000 offered for their capture.

The metropolitan area was locked down, and police were given orders to shoot to kill. Squads of 20 or more officers, armed-to-the-teeth with rifles, shotguns, and sub-machine guns, raided known underworld haunts and scoured the Don River ravines, which had long been a refuge for drifters and anyone else who wished to remain missing. For 10 months, the Boyd Gang had reigned as Canada’s most notorious bank robbers, with brash escapades straight out of James Cagney movies. Their bravado, violence, and entourage of beautiful women kept the public enthralled. The media gaze on Edwin Boyd and his colleagues was so intense that it was difficult to separate the “ego-driven psychopath”—as a 1998 Life and Times episode uncovered him to be—from the media-inflated myth of a gentleman bandit.

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Early in life, Edwin Boyd (born in Toronto on April 2, 1912) turned his back on his policeman father’s religious influence to seek adventure during the Great Depression. He rode the rails, spent time in jail for minor offenses, and lived off the charity of gullible women. During the Second World War, he served overseas as a military policeman and trained as a commando. So, after he returned to Toronto, his mundane life as a streetcar driver soon grew tiresome, and a restless Boyd began looking for another way of supporting his war bride and three children.

What’s known for certain is that on September 9, 1949, Boyd robbed a North York branch of the Bank of Montreal. But details are murky as to the motives for his first bank robbery. According to one account—the version Boyd himself boasted to the Fifth Estate in 1996—Boyd heard a story of an autistic kid holding up a bank without even using a gun. If it’s that easy, Boyd asked himself, “What the hell am I workin’ fer?” He grabbed a gun and downed so much liquid courage that he claims to have blacked out a few times during the hold-up. In another version of the tale, Boyd covered his face with makeup and puffed out his cheeks with cotton for a disguise, and he was so cocksure of his infallibility that he returned to the scene of the crime a few days later.

A good-looking man with dark eyes and a square jaw, Boyd quickly developed a reputation for leaping over bank counters with pistol brandished. In the days of vigilante bank staff, Boyd’s robberies sometimes ended with bullets whizzing by his head when tellers pulled concealed revolvers or chased him into the streets. Between September 1949 and October 1951, Boyd pulled at least six bank heists, sometimes alone and sometimes with a partner. The latter didn’t really work out when, under intense police interrogation after a botched robbery, Howard Gault ratted out Boyd as his partner-in-crime.

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Image of the Don Jail from 1949 or 1950. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1152.

Now a resident in the Don Jail, Boyd began comparing notes with Leonard Jackson, who had been pulling off heists with another, quite violent gang of bank robbers. They were soon joined by another bandit, Willie Jackson. With hacksaws hidden in Lennie Jackson’s wooden foot—the result of an earlier encounter with a train—the trio got through the bars and scaled the jail walls to escape on November 4, 1951. As an indication of their level of fame at the time, the reward offered was a meagre $500 per head. They were supposed to have been picked up by Steve Suchan—born Valent Lesso and one of the more violent members of Lennie Jackson’s gang—but he’d been so occupied with entertaining his girlfriend that he’d forgotten.

Within two weeks, Willie Jackson was recaptured at a Montreal restaurant. The rest of the group, however, held up the Bank of Toronto near Dundas and Roncesvalles in late November 1951 to kick off a four month streak of robberies netting a loot totalling over $75,000. They even staged what was then the largest bank robbery in Canadian history when they made off with $46,000—according to The Boyd Gang by Marjorie Lamb and Barry Pearson (Peter Martin Associates, 1976)—from the Royal Bank’s Leaside branch.

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In another era, the Boyd Gang—as they had been christened by Toronto Star reporter Jocko Thomas—might’ve been mere common criminals. But they appeared at a time when the Toronto newspapers were locked in a circulation war. The added attention made them media stars. (It was later said that Boyd was such a publicity hound that he’d go to the library to read his own clippings, and that he once tried to enlist Gordon Sinclair to write his biography as the “adventure story of a bank bandit.”)

In reality, it appears that the gang was a loose amalgam, sometimes using other partners for stick-ups. And, as police discovered in later questioning, Lennie Jackson was probably the true brains of the operation. But, to the newspapers, Boyd was more charismatic, and the unusual biographies of his fellow hoodlums gave the press fuel to celebrate their infamy. Lennie Jackson, a hairdresser from Niagara Falls, was driven to crime when he grew envious of the cars and cash flaunted by criminals in a bar where he worked. Steve Suchan had been a multi-talented musician who gave up his dreams of earning a living with his violin to rob banks. Even Boyd’s beautiful wife, Doreen, became a common presence on the front page. Staid, quiet Toronto was so titillated (and terrorized) by the gang’s activities that the foursome achieved a near folk-hero status until one fateful encounter on March 6, 1952.

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On alert after the broad daylight robbery of a Bank of Montreal at College and Manning, Detective Sergeant Edmund Tong and his partner, Roy Perry, pulled over a suspicious black Mercury Monarch at College and Lansdowne. Had he known the vehicle carried Suchan and Lennie Jackson, Tong would’ve been extra vigilant—he’d have easily recognized Jackson, who he’d previously arrested. As Tong approached from the rear driver’s side, Suchan rolled down his window and unleashed a blaze of gunfire. With Tong crumpled to the ground, the desperate bandits continued to fire on the police cruiser. Tong was mortally wounded—he would die on March 23—and Perry was shot in the arm. Suchan and Lennie Jackson fled to Montreal, where they were both eventually recaptured in separate incidents and sent back to the Don Jail to await trial. On the assumption that Boyd was also in Montreal, Toronto policemen were attached to the force in that city.
Working off another hunch, Detective Adolphus ‘Dolph’ Payne kept Boyd’s brother Norman under surveillance until he led to Edwin Boyd’s hide-out in a second-floor apartment on Heath Street. Wanting to avoid a shoot-out, Payne waited until the crack of dawn to sneak into the apartment. Finding the bandit asleep in bed, Payne aimed his revolver at the outlaw’s temple and yelled, “Give up!” A startled Boyd surrendered without incident, which was lucky because, in addition to a briefcase containing over $25,000 cash, there were five loaded automatic weapons beside the bed. Boyd was held in the apartment until Allan Lamport, the grandstanding mayor and police commissioner, could arrive with the media for photos.
Reunited in the maximum security wing of the Don Jail, Boyd, Suchan, and the two Jacksons began plotting their escape almost immediately. Lennie Jackson’s hollowed-out foot had been confiscated by prison officials, so they had to become more inventive with their efforts. An early attempt was thwarted when a guard admitted he’d smuggled a screwdriver to the quartet of prisoners. Whether through bribes or cunning, the gangsters either procured or fashioned a copy of their cell key so they could sneak out and systematically chip away at the bars in a hallway window with a hacksaw until their escape on September 8, 1952.

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Mayor Lamport was outraged and called their second escape “the most shameful thing that has occurred in the city.” He told The Star that the administration of the jail “sounded like the operation of a bunch of morons.” In the aftermath, the warden and several guards would be suspended, but Lamport also tore into bank officials whose cavalier attitude towards security, he felt, put the public at risk.
Once again, the media ramped up its salacious reporting—almost hopeful that it would all end in a grisly Hollywood shootout. One of the first news broadcasts on the just-launched CBC television network covered the ensuing manhunt, complete with imaginative reenactments and overly dramatic Hitchcockian theme music. In The Star Gordon Sinclair claimed that the Boyd Gang “had active plans…and may still have these plans…to stick up two, three, or even four banks at the same time in the Toronto district.” The prevailing public mood was gloomy and fearful. One police officer predicted: “These men have nothing to lose. Two of them were in the shadow of the noose. They’ll shoot anyone who gets in their way. There’ll be a lot of killing before this is over.”
Given all this hype, the gang’s actual demise was anti-climactic. While police and reporters swarmed the jail yard right after the escape—on the mistaken assumption the escapees were hiding on the roof—the fugitives were very slowly limping their way through the nearby Don River ravines. (Lennie Jacskson was missing his wooden foot after all.) They slowly made their way to a barn near Yonge and Sheppard where the gang hid out for days. Their arrangements with accomplices on the outside had apparently fallen through. Working off public tips, the police stormed the barn and arrested the convicts without incident on September 16.
Within two weeks, the trials began. Suchan and Lennie Jackson were both charged with capital murder and were found guilty after an exasperated Jackson broke down under cross-examination. They were hanged back-to-back shortly after midnight on December 16, 1952. Boyd was sentenced to eight life sentences on an assortment of bank robbery-related offences. (Much later, when being interviewed by Brian Vallee—the author of Edwin Alonzo Boyd: The Story of the Notorious Boyd Gang [Doubleday Canada, 1997]—Boyd may have cryptically admitted to escaping justice for a gruesome double homicide.) Willie Jackson got thirty years. Both were paroled in 1966. Boyd lived under an assumed identity in British Columbia until his death in May 2002.
Front Page of the Toronto Star on September 8, 1952. Mug Shots from the Globe and Mail on September 9, 1952. Image of Police Constables (July 7, 1949). City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 41, Item 422. Diagram of Escape Route from the Globe and Mail on September 9, 1952.


Every Saturday morning, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Comments

  • TokyoTuds

    Wow, a great story again …. my father sometimes evokes the Boyd name in jest, but I never knew he was a Canadian bank robber.

  • CanadianSkeezix

    It’s been said before, but this is my favourite feature of Torontoist. Keep up the good work.

  • antonio

    from argentina..recien terminode ver la pelicula bsadaen su reportaje y la verdad q me intereso mucho sus fotografias y todo lo ya mencionado antes gras goodbye

  • antonio

    from argentina..recien termino de ver la pelicula basada en su reportaje y la verdad q me intereso mucho sus fotografias y todo lo ya mencionado antes grasias goodbye