Historicist: The Girl Bandit


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Historicist: The Girl Bandit

What prompted a bobbed-haired choir singer to join her brother-in-law to rob a bank?

Gladstone Avenue looking north from near Queen Street, March 23, 1949. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 58, Item 1880.

On a Thursday afternoon in April 1930, a comely 17-year-old blond stormed into a bank and shoved a nickel-plated revolver into the face of an astonished teller. Meanwhile, her handsome 28-year-old accomplice terrorized bank staff and customers by firing a warning shot from his sawed-off rifle, which ricocheted across the banking floor as the bystanders were herded into the vault. The pair made off with nearly $3,000, but were captured by police within hours.

“It was one of the most spectacular hold-ups ever staged here,” the Toronto Globe (April 25, 1930) proclaimed; and the first “in which a gun-woman has actively participated.” The novelty of the crime ensured a flurry of short-lived media infamy for Kathleen Boyle and her brother-in-law, Cecil Irving.

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Arrested within hours of the stickup, Kathleen Boyle made a full confession to police, nervously biting her lips as she recounted the affair. “I have never been in trouble before, and joined my brother-in-law in the bank robbery for the sake of my sister, her child and the delicate condition my sister is in,” Boyle stated to police. She added: “I did not know what I was doing. I seemed as if I was in a trance.”

(Left: Toronto Star [April 25, 1930])

At about noon on April 24, Cecil Irving telephoned his 17-year-old sister-in-law, visiting from Buffalo, and asked her to meet him at the nearby corner of Stonebridge Crescent and Gladstone Avenue. Irving picked her up in a borrowed blue sedan. When Irving confided his financial troubles to Boyle, she promised to help him any way she could. It was then that he revealed his intention to rob a bank, and outlined her part in the plan. He handed her a nickel-plated .38-calibre revolver, not knowing it was harmless: its barrel was plugged and filled with dummy bullets to appear loaded.

After staking out a couple of bank branches in the north end of the city, Irving got nervous. A policeman was loitering near one bank, and Irving didn’t want to rough up the manager of another because he wore a military service pin on his lapel. So they drove back to their own neighbourhood, pulling up outside the Canadian Bank of Commerce branch at Dundas Street and Gladstone Avenue at 2:30 p.m., mere blocks from the Irving house at 158 Gladstone.

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Walking into the bank first, Boyle quickly stepped to the teller’s wicket, asking cashier R.E. Little for change for $5, then drew her revolver and demanded he raise his hands. Irving, who’d followed her into the branch, unlaced the sawed-off .44-40 Winchester rifle strapped to his side, and ordered the staff and customers into the bank vault. When they didn’t move swiftly enough, Irving fired his weapon as a warning.

(Right: Toronto Star [April 25, 1930])

Grazing one customer’s overcoat, the bullet ricocheted off the grillwork of the teller’s cage and smashed through the window of the manager’s office before lodging itself in a portrait of bank president Sir John Aird hanging on the wall. Two customers, Mrs. E. Hartwick and her mother, Mrs. J. Norris, moved to escape through the front door, but were headed off by Boyle. Irving hastily stuffed cash into his pockets.

Toronto Star (April 25, 1930)

Toronto Star (April 25, 1930)

Victor Tuft, son of a local detective, was in a nearby store when a passerby alerted him to the robbery in progress. “I ran to the bank door, and as I put my hand on the door to walk in, a woman thrust a revolver toward me. She was shaking and the revolver was wobbling in her hand,” Tuft later stated. He contemplated rushing in and wrestling the revolver from her, but saw her accomplice pointing his rifle at him from the teller’s wicket. Tuft retreated to a neighbouring store to call police.

The pair made their getaway in the waiting sedan, speeding south on Gladstone Avenue towards Queen Street, then turning sharply towards Dufferin Street while narrowly managing to avoid detection by a police cruiser rushing to the crime scene.

The robbery and arrests occurred within a few blocks of the Irving home at 158 Gladstone Avenue  Detail from Algate's Toronto & Suburbs Map (Map Specialty Co , 1935)  From the University of Toronto Maps Library

The robbery and arrests occurred within a few blocks of the Irving home at 158 Gladstone Avenue. Detail from Algate’s Toronto & Suburbs Map (Map Specialty Co., 1935). From the University of Toronto Maps Library.

They abandoned the car on Gwynne Avenue, just south of Queen. But the duo’s nervous behaviour as they walked away and through the side door of a nearby restaurant aroused the suspicions of a passing woman, who passed the information onto police. After ditching the rifle, they emerged onto the street. Parting from Boyle, Irving immediately set off to purchase two dozen bottles of beer to celebrate in a binge with friends.

Boyle returned to the Irving home, arriving just after 3 p.m. “She did not seem excited or worried and never said anything about a bank robbery,” a friend visiting the house recalled. “I did not know anything was wrong until the police came into the house about 5 o’clock.”

Francis W. Crowe of the No. 2 police station, ca. 1920. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 1385.

Police officers from the neighbourhood station quickly discovered the abandoned vehicle and, based on a telephone tip, Detectives Frank Crowe and William McAllister tracked the robbers to the Queen Street restaurant, where they recovered the sawed-off Winchester under a dress in a backroom. The proprietor gave Irving’s name and place of employment, a downtown butcher that soon furnished police with Irving’s address.

Accompanied by Inspector Miller, the detectives arrived at the Irving household at around 5:30 p.m. and located Boyle feigning sleep in an upstairs room. When confronted by police, she denied any knowledge of the crime. “Getting up and rubbing her eyes,” according to a reporter’s recreation of the scene, “she was snappy in her answers, saying she had not been out of the house.” But after they discovered her blue chinchilla coat and black, tight-fitting felt hat—matching descriptions furnished by witnesses at the bank—in a cloakroom, Boyle tearfully admitted her role.

William J. McAllister of the Toronto Police, ca. 1920s. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 1390.

The questioning of Irving’s wife by Detectives Crowe and McAllister and Inspector Miller led them to seek her husband at a friend’s house. The three were cautious on their arrival at 23 Gladstone Avenue, with McAllister guarding the rear of the house and Inspector Miller covering the front, while Detective Crowe, a large man of Irish extraction, knocked on the front door. Questioned in the front hallway about Irving’s whereabouts, Ernest Connors and Kenneth Walsh admitted being friends with Irving but claimed not to have seen him at all that day. According to one newspaper columnist, Crowe had a reputation as “one of the toughest men in Toronto,” known “for the welts he distributed [to criminals] instead of summonses.” Crowe casually leaned against a parlour door; it gave slightly for a moment, then he felt resistance from behind the door. Forcing it open, the detective discovered Irving brandishing a loaded pistol. Crowe leapt upon the robber, wrestling the weapon from his hands to make the arrest.

Irving was so “staggeringly drunk” at the time of his arrest that he dozed off in the police car en route to the station and could barely stand to be photographed. While Boyle provided her statement to investigators, Irving was so intoxicated that police still hadn’t been able to interview him by 10 a.m. the following morning.

At 10:15 a.m. on April 25, Boyle and Irving were arraigned in police court along with Connors and Walsh, who were charged with aiding and abetting. Within three minutes, and without either of them saying a word, the petite bank robber and her fair-haired co-accused were ordered remanded for six days.

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Irving was described as “a clean-cut, essentially sane and respectable looking young fellow,” but reporters were far more intrigued by his accomplice. Although many likened her more to a frail schoolgirl than a brazen criminal, others described her being “as self-possessed as a girl modestly working her way into a crowded church” when she crossed the courtroom. Standing before the magistrate, “[t]he expression on her face was that of a waitress waiting with slight boredom to take an order.”

(Left: Toronto Star [April 28, 1930])

Boyle’s parents objected to newspaper headlines suggesting Boyle was a jazz-age flapper-turned-bandit. “That ‘flapper’ business leaves a nasty taste,” her father declared. “She was as good a kid as you could find. She never read this stick-up stuff, had no complex of that kind, and did not even want to go out nights.”

After returning from service in the First World War, Liverpool-born Thomas Boyle worked as night superintendent at the National Steel Car Works in Hamilton, where Kathleen was born. But in 1921, faced with unemployment, he relocated to Buffalo, where he was joined by his family two years later. The parents applied for American citizenship, a status which extended to their children.

The family was rather poor. Mr. Boyle’s job at the Houdaille Shock Absorber plant didn’t pay enough to make ends meet for his large family. Mrs. Boyle worked as a cleaner at the an apartment building at 17 Oxford Avenue in exchange for free accommodations for the family in a tiny basement apartment. Like her siblings before her, Kathleen Boyle sought work to help out the family after graduating high school by joining her father at the plant.

Friends said her departure was prompted in part by a dispute with her strict father, who reprimanded her severely for once staying out at a dance hall until 4 a.m. in March 1930. Against her father’s wishes, in early April, Kathleen left her part-time job and crossed into Canada with her twin sister Nora, who holidayed with friends in Hamilton. Boyle’s sister Patricia had asked her to come to Toronto and stay at the house she shared with her husband, Cecil Irving, and his mother to assist with her newborn baby.

Toronto Star (April 28, 1930)

Toronto Star (April 28, 1930)

“I didn’t want her to go,” her father told a Star correspondent. “I have no use for my son-in-law. I never allowed him in my house and since my daughter [Patricia] married him, I have been estranged from her.” Growing up in Toronto, son of Jonathan and Louise Reynolds Irving of 138 Beaconsfield Avenue, Cecil Irving had a long record of petty crime, including numerous terms of imprisonment in Canada and the United States. At some point, while working for the Buffalo street railway, Irving lived in the state of New York where he met and married Patricia Boyle.

“Kathleen is a highly emotional and highly strung girl,” her mother told a journalist. “The reason she went to Toronto was her love for her sister, Pat. It was for Pat’s sake she stole the money, I am sure. She is so good-hearted. There isn’t anything in the world she wouldn’t do for all her sisters.”

Her father added: “I can’t see why my daughter would have done this thing. Lots of times I had $400 or $500 in rent money here in my apartment and there never was anything missing. If she wanted to steal, she could easily have stolen the rent.” Thomas Boyle worried that the apartment manager, concerned about the publicity brought to 17 Oxford Avenue over Kathleen’s crime, would kick the family out of the building.

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Seeking to get to the bottom of the 17-year-old bank robber’s motives, the Star dispatched a reporter to Buffalo to interview her relatives, friends, teachers, employer, and priest, each a character witness dumbfounded by her crime. The slight young woman with a bobbed haircut was described as a “very well mannered, and…an intelligent, upright girl” who sang in the choir and always volunteered to help neighbours with chores and child care. A quiet girl, she’d wanted to be a writer and kept a journal in which she composed sentimental songs and juvenile short stories.

(Left: Toronto Star [April 26, 1930])

A male friend of Boyle recalled how she went into frightened hysterics when she found a blank cartridge in the street. “She has always been afraid of things like that,” he said. “A tire explosion will nearly send her into fits of fear.” Some observers, disbelieving in the idea of a teenage girl with agency, suggested that Boyle had been drugged prior the taking part in the holdup. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to believe Boyle was the unwitting victim of a manipulative older man. She even found sympathizers in no less than Police Chief Dennis Draper and Judge Emerson Coatsworth, who oversaw the proceedings.

After it was revealed her family couldn’t afford to assist in the 17-year-old’s legal defense, a portrait of Boyle of the front page of the Star—depicting her as a young, fashionable beauty—inspired one of the city’s leading brokers from a blue-blood family to step forward. This anonymous benefactor placed his own counsel, Murray L. Keyfetz, at her disposal with all costs covered. A veteran of defending reckless drivers and other petty criminals in police court, the lawyer’s avowed strategy was to have Boyle throw herself on the mercy of the court as a first-time offender led astray by strong external influences.

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The Toronto media lacked imagination in covering Boyle and Irving. There was no probing of the girl’s relationship with her brother-in-law (was she infatuated? Were they lovers?) and no questioning of whether she might have been a willing actor. At least one observer in the Star recognized that press coverage, “often the terror of the criminal classes, has played the part of fairy godmother to Kathleen Boyle.”

(Right: Toronto Star [April 25, 1930])

The exception came with a Globe (April 29, 1930) editorial. “That a young girl brought up in respectable surroundings, conscientious and efficient in her work, and regular in church attendance, should have yielded to the inducements of a renegade relative to participate in such a mad enterprise is a matter for some wonder,” the piece opined. “Yet it seems clear from the evidence that Miss Boyle yearned secretly for ‘romance’ and ‘adventure.’ And to her, as to too many other misguided youngsters of the present day, banditry appeared in a viciously false light.”

Anticipating the glamourous appeal of Depression-era gangsters, like Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow (who wouldn’t begin robbing banks until the spring of 1932) the Globe editors feared Boyle and Irving’s escapade might inspire children to glorify bandits as heroes in their games of cops and robbers in the street. “The chief responsibility lies upon the sensational press,” the newspaper judged. “On every street corner in great Canadian cities the lurid American tabloids are available, directly or indirectly popularizing moral laxity, criminals and crime.” As a solution, the editors proposed: “In the home, the school and the press, no less than in the church, the bandit must be pictured in his true light—as a mean thief; as a potential murderer pouncing on his prey with the cowardly tactics which Anglo-Saxons were wont to associate with Sicilian assassins who stabbed their victims in the dark.”

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The public paid less interest to Irving, who was considered to be just another common criminal. Patricia Irving told the press that her husband took the occasional drink, but that “his kindness and consideration offset this.” Since October 1929, Irving had been steadily employed as a salesman at Puddy Brothers, meat packers and provision merchants, earning a weekly wage of $26 that he always turned over to his wife.

(Right: Toronto Globe [April 29, 1930])

“My husband does not know why he did it,” Mrs. Irving said, having grasped for understanding when she and her mother-in-law had an emotion-draining conversation with the prisoners after the preliminary hearing on April 25, 1930. “I asked him this morning what his reason had been and wearily he told me he must have been drunk.” There were insinuations that Irving was short in his accounts at Puddy Brothers, or that medical expenses for a recent surgery remained unpaid, but neither avenue of inquiry was pursued. In court, Irving blamed liquor for what happened. Of the $2,867 stolen, the only money not recovered by police was that which Irving had spent on booze. Initial reports indicated that Boyle had received $50 or $60 but, by trial, Irving stated he’d only given her $5 of the stolen money.

In the courtroom on April 28, Crown Attorney Gordon accepted that Boyle had been working under inducement, deserving of punishment but also mercy. Speaking sternly though not unkindly to Boyle from the bench, Judge Coatsworth explained how a male in similar circumstances would be treated much more harshly as a potential murderer before the court.

Throughout the proceedings, Boyle had betrayed no emotion. But when Coatsworth pronounced her sentence, two years less a day, the 17-year-old “presented a picture of misery,” according to press reports, and stood at the summons rail in the courtroom on the verge of tears.

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Well-groomed and stoic, Irving “went through his ordeal without a flinch,” newspapermen contrasted. “Not even the exemplary sentence asked for by Crown Attorney Gordon brought any sign of penitence from the male prisoner.” He was sentenced to the penitentiary for 15 years, and to be lashed 10 times at the end of two months, 10 times after four months, and a further 10 times after six months. Irving’s wife collapsed at hearing the news and needed to be carried from the courtroom.

(Left: Toronto Star [May 14, 1930])

Boyle entered the Andrew Mercer Ontario Reformatory for Females on May 8, 1930, which upset her supporters. “There are three places to which they can send this girl in Toronto,” Judge Coatsworth explained to the press a month after her sentencing. “They are the Mercer, the Home of the Good Shepherd and the women’s farm at Concord. Personally I believe the girl should be out of the Mercer. I do not think that the contact with other women inmates in the Mercer will help this girl.” Police Chief Draper echoed the jurist’s worry that incarceration at the Mercer was too harsh a sentence, and hoped she might be transferred. Officials from community service organizations and members of the public likewise advocated for Boyle’s transfer or release to the supervision of a parole officer. “It is a shame that a girl seventeen years old of the previous character of Kathleen Boyle should be sent to the industrial reformatory to associate with the type of girl usually sent there,” stated a letter to the editor signed “Mercy” in early May 1930.

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The Mercer Reformatory’s officials, however, were unconcerned about Boyle being hardened through contact with other inmates, or about her morals being further contaminated. “It’s a rather foolish criticism for nobody knows what the girl’s morals are,” one official stated. “The trouble with a case like this is that there is so much notoriety in connection with it that no one seems to look at it in the proper light.” The institution’s superintendent revealed that Boyle busied herself with needlework and had not herself expressed a desire for transfer elsewhere. For its part the provincial government, with oversight of prisons, stated unequivocally that there was no immediate intention to transfer Boyle.

(Right: Toronto Star [May 7, 1931])

By November 1930, the Ontario Parole Board was ready to release Boyle from the Mercer Reformatory. “She was just a dupe in the hands of her brother-in-law,” Judge Coatsworth asserted, in announcing the parole. But because the parole board had no power to make the deportation of the American citizen to her parents’ home in Buffalo a condition of release, as was customary with non-citizen criminals who’d completed their sentences, the board required the consent of the federal government. She was eventually released in March 1931 after serving just under a year of her sentence and immediately deported. Her moment of notoriety passed, Boyle returned to Buffalo and faded from the newspaper page.

Additional sources consulted: Greg Marquis, “Working Men in Uniform: The Early Twentieth-Century Toronto Police,” in Histoire Sociale—Social History, Vol. XX, No. 40 (November 1987); John Vernon McAree, Culled From Our Columns (Longman, 1962); and articles from the Toronto Globe (February 6, 1920; August 13, 1923; September 17, 1928; April 25, 26 & 29, May 2, and September 13, 1930); the Globe and Mail (June 21, 1934; October 11 and December 22, 1938; February 27 and April 14, 1939; June 15 and July 15 & 23, 1946; April 17, 1951; and May 10, 1961); and the Star (January 4, 1921; August 12, 1929; April 25, 26, 28 & 29, May 3, 8, 14 & 16, and November 5 & 6, 1930; March 7, 1931; October 2, 1933; January 3, 1936; and April 25, 1938).

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