A brazen hold-up and kidnapping in 1929 seemed like a scene from a Hollywood movie.
On a Saturday evening late in the winter of 1929, the yard at the Canadian National Railways station in Mimico was the scene of a crime ripped straight out of a gangster movie, complete with three well-dressed bandits armed with revolvers and salty language held up a mail truck, forcing the truck’s occupants at gunpoint into their sedan and taken on a terrifying ride. Whizzing through the darkening streets at the whim of hardened criminals, the captives had no knowledge of their ultimate destination or fate as the vehicle sped passed dozens of pedestrians and motorists oblivious to their plight. The hostages survived, but the sensational hold-up—part of a crime-wave sweeping across Toronto—captured the attention of the press, and led police across the Great Lakes region, tracking the culprits.
At 6:30 p.m. on March 2, 1929, with the sun setting in the winter sky, a truck rattled north on Church Street (now Royal York Road). Coming from the Mimico Post Office, the truck passed beneath the rail overpass and swung left onto Main Street (now Judson Street) towards Mimico’s Canadian National Railways station, rushing to meet the westbound train. The weather was mild for the time of year, with the temperature lingering so close to zero that week that forecasters didn’t know whether to predict rain or light snow.
At the truck’s wheel was nineteen-year-old Harold Douglas who regularly helped his father, Thomas, haul the mail from Long Branch, New Toronto, Mimico Beach, and Mimico to the train station for dispatch to points beyond, a route for which his father had held the contract for 17 years. The elder Douglas’s age and artificial leg were making the work more difficulty, and on days like this, with a heavy load, he and his son were joined by their Burlington Street neighbour, teenager Joseph Hutchinson, to help with the heavy lifting.
Just as young Douglas steered up the slight hill towards the station, a hard-top sedan swerved to a stop in front, cutting off the mail truck’s path and forcing Douglas to slam on his brakes to avoid collision. An instant later, two armed thugs jumped out, fanning to either side of the truck with black-barrelled revolvers drawn while a third remained at the wheel. The three young hold-up men, well-dressed and sporting fedoras, looked like they’d just stepped from a gangster movie.
“Come on, stick ’em up!” one bandit yelled at the 19-year-old driving the mail truck. Another grasped the elder Douglas by the neck, violently shoving him aside when the disabled man couldn’t comply fast enough with the order to vacate the mail truck.
The robbers, seemingly expecting that the day’s mail should contain a shipment of gold bullion from a New Toronto business, demanded that Thomas identify the money bag, and any registered mail in the back of his truck. When the elderly mail courier protested ignorance of the mail-bag contents, the robbers grabbed five bags they felt most likely to contain loot, tossing them into the waiting sedan.
Meanwhile, brandishing a firearm from the driver’s seat, the third robber ordered the three victims into the maroon-coloured car with a fawn top. As the sedan sped off up Church Street under the darkening sky, bumping and skidding along icy streets, the kidnapping victims couldn’t tell which direction they travelled.
Spitting curses and threats, one gunman menaced them from the back seat, driving his knee into the back of one of the kidnapped men kneeling uncomfortably on the floor of the car, and occasionally thrusting the cold steel of his gun barrel against the skin of Thomas’s neck. If threats weren’t enough to spur the captives into silent submission the menacing bandit violently pulled their hats down over their eyes.
(Right: Thomas Douglas of 61 Burlington Street, Mimico, March 3, 1929. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 15828.)
In the front seat, another bandit used a knife to tear open the mail bags, loudly cursing in anger and frustration at discovering only first and second-class mail—mostly worthless personal letters—instead of the expected registered mail or gold shipment. “If any of you say anything,” he sneered, turning on the hostages, “we will riddle you with bullets.” When the dust all settled, postal authorities would determine that, for all their trouble, the robbers’ loot totalled a single registered letter containing five dollars and perhaps a handful of dollars found among copious letters to beloved aunts and business correspondence.
John McMillan was walking along Main Street as the sun was setting. Though his problems with discipline at home in Whitby had resulted in his becoming an inmate at the Victoria Industrial Home, the 16-year-old proved trustworthy to the reformatory’s officials, who entrusted him with gathering the institution’s mail each day at the Mimico Post Office. McMillan was headed there when, at 50 yards distant, he saw a car cut off the mail truck and two bandits jump out waving pistols. Immediately recognizing a crime underway, he took off at a sprint, past the scene in the station yard—just as the victims were being bundled into the car by the perpetrators—to the post office a few blocks away, from where police were telephoned.
Walter Perry, the Mimico postmaster rushed to the station, joined by a policeman he passed en route. But, by the time they arrived, the scene was abandoned. Perry could do nothing else but cart the remaining mail sacks from the truck to the platform for loading on the train then pulling into the station.
“I was pretty well excited, of course, and I did not stop to take a look at any license number,” McMillan later admitted. But the youth was able to give a physical description of the robbers to police, and earned accolades from Chief Fred Herman of the Mimico Police upon his arrival at the station within a few minutes.
“Now, get out and beat it, quick, see!” one bandit sneered like a Hollywood villain when the sedan finally came to a stop. Stumbling into the darkness, still half-blinded by hats pulled low over their eyes, the Douglas father and son and Hutchinson found themselves in High Park, near the pavilion. Again, Thomas Douglas’s artificial leg slowed his progress; and again a robber threatened his life, barking: “I should drill you with bullets anyway.” Then, an instant later, the sedan raced off into the night in the direction of Bloor Street.
Still dazed with fright, but relieved to emerge from the terrifying ordeal unhurt, the three made their way to the Cowan Avenue Police Station.
Almost as soon as they were notified, the police began an investigation as a cooperative effort between the Toronto Police, Mimico Police, provincial authorities, and Alex M. Gibson, Superintendent of the Toronto Postal Division. In the first few days after the robbery, the victims were interviewed extensively, then interviewed again. From the three, police received only vague descriptions of the perpetrators. Thomas Douglas repeated part of the description he provided authorities for the press: “I don’t think they were foreigners. They spoke like Canadians or Americans; not like Polacks or Italians. But then you can’t tell.” Investigators didn’t have much to go on.
The robbers, having switched from the sedan to an open touring car, promptly ditched the touring car and the worthless, ransacked bags of mail on South Drive in Rosedale, near Crescent Road. However, because a constable had been short-cutting his beat, and failed to notice the illegally parked car, police didn’t discover the stolen vehicle and process it for fingerprints and other evidence until late Sunday afternoon after a resident telephoned the station. The recovered letters found in the car—some torn, others splattered with mud—were put back in the mail for delivery to their destination.
With large quantities of currency and gold being shipped regularly, the postal system was an attractive, vulnerable target for criminals, particularly since postal workers—Thomas Douglas included—didn’t carry weapons.
Just over a year earlier, in mid-December 1927, someone had lifted a locked postal sack containing registered mail, including more than $10,000 worth of interim stock certificates, from the back of Thomas Douglas’s unattended truck while parked in the Mimico Station yard. Postal authorities believed the culprit acted upon knowledge that the registered mail that day contained valuable commodities, and absconded with the loot unmolested under the cover of darkness and fog.
However, given the “extreme coolness and rapidity” the three gunmen operated, and the “sensationally clever and successful manner” with which the robbery was staged—as the Toronto Star (March 4, 1929) described it—the heist seemed unlikely to be the work of the same thief. Speculation ran rampant that the culprits were seasoned professionals, and police looked for links with the numerous armed robberies the city had seen in recent years.
Between 1918 and 1927, there were only nine armed hold-ups in Toronto proper—not including the suburbs—with a steadily increasing number of bank robberies in the latter part of the time period. Then, over the next two years, there were no fewer than 15 armed robberies—ranging from brazen daylight bank heists, company payroll thefts, and stick-ups of Chinese laundries. Police struggled to address the crime spree, with the vast majority of the robberies resulting in no arrests and few convictions even when arrests were made.
Investigative tactics of the day were enthusiastic but unrefined. Fingerprints were taken and physical evidence gathered, but police relied primarily on eyewitness accounts, and having victims pour through mug-shots of known criminals. In the wake of a high profile robbery, officers often rustled criminal haunts and hang-outs—ostensibly to find anyone matching witness descriptions—rounding up suspicious characters on the catch-all charge of vagrancy, and encouraging out-of-towners with suspected links to mobs in Montreal, Windsor, and Detroit to leave town.
In the Mimico mail truck caper, the police’s only leads came from the victims’ mugshot identification of the unmasked gunmen. This allowed investigators to hone in on two men, John Miller and Fred Haight, who’d escaped from the Toronto Brick and Tile Company, a work-camp in Mimico run by the Ontario Reformatory (Guelph) earlier that winter—though their disappearance had never been reported to local police.
Miller (alias Harry Craig and John Mason) and Haight (alias Marvin Holly) had been arrested at Belleville in June 1928, armed to the hilt and driving a stolen car stolen, while en route from Montreal to Detroit to engage in the illicit rum-running trade. On the charge of possessing illegal firearms, they were sentenced to the Ontario Reformatory, and ended up working in the prison’s Mimico-based brickyard. The 28-year-olds had long criminal records with previous arrests for hold-ups in Toronto and, for Haight, the attempted murder of a Windsor policeman.
(Left: Toronto Globe [April 3, 1929].)
Investigators learned that during a stint in Kingston Penitentiary, the pair crossed paths with Findley McLeod Sr., the former postal employee who masterminded a $105,000 robbery of a mail truck at Union Station in 1923 and, upon his release from prison, hooked up with the Bill Boven gang to stage an intricately-planned and well-executed robbery of a mail-car at Union Station in June 1928. Wielding shotguns and revolvers for the latter heist, as Edward Butts described the hold-up in Running With Dillinger (Dundurn Press, 2008), McLeod and the Boven gang got away with over $300,000 in cash and bonds. All but Boven were quickly caught and convicted. Boven, who’d absconded with most of the loot himself, eluded authorities until being killed mid-robbery by Indiana police in 1932.
Police theorized that Miller and Haight were among the prisoners at Kingston who learned the inner workings and vulnerabilities of the postal system from McLeod, allowing them to hatch plans for the mail truck robbery (with an unknown third-party) while still imprisoned at the Mimico brickyard.
In keeping with standard procedure, police sent circulars with mugshots, fingerprints, and other particulars of Miller and Haight to police departments across the Great Lakes region, with a particular focus on the Windsor and Detroit area, where it was known Haight’s wife resided. The effort nearly paid dividends when, in mid-March, Haight was nearly captured at the general delivery wicket in Detroit, where he was trying to pick up mail.
(Right: Toronto Globe [March 25, 1929].)
Two weeks later, Haight was dead, killed in a shoot-out on March 24. Officers were dispatched to Haight’s rented accommodations on Detroit’s John R. Street when, just before midnight, the criminal accused his 19-year-old Irish-born wife of seeing other men, and their altercation escalated to his firing a revolver in her direction. Patrolman Ambrose Dolney, upon his arrival at the scene, demanded that Haight surrender. The criminal answered with gunfire. Firing their own weapons in return, Dolney and Patrolman Edward Pitz struck Haight seven times, killing him. Among the Seville, Florida, native’s personal effects, police uncovered evidence linking him to a mail truck hold-up in Orillia, and crimes in Cleveland. He was, investigators concluded, the leader of a mob, and an intimate of the Boven gang.
On April 1, in a blind-pig in downtown Detroit, Michigan State Police arrested a man (identified by his fingerprints to be Miller) and his associate, George Little (alias George Henderson and James Smith), on suspicion of involvement in an earlier bank robbery in that state. The pair, police discovered, were in the late stages of planning a payroll heist of the Swift Canadian Company. In their possession, police found not only a layout of the meat-packer’s premises on St. Clair Avenue, west of Keele Street, and details regarding how and when the company paid its employees, but also a street-map of Toronto with each police station carefully marked with an X.
(Left: Toronto Star [April 3, 1929].)
A day later, 24-year-old George Brown was arrested at Orillia, accused of being the third gunman from the Mimico hold-up. Police had been watching Brown for weeks, knowing he’d been a confederate of Miller and Haight in the Mimico brickyard until his release in December 1928 at the end of his two-year sentence for house-breaking. Smartly dressed when taken into police custody, a cool-headed Brown refused to make any statement regarding the charges against him.
At police headquarters in Toronto, the three Mimico victims were shown a line-up of a dozen men from behind a screen. “There is one of them,” Thomas Douglas exclaimed, pointing at Brown. “He is the man who sat in the robbers’ car pressing a revolver into my ribs and holding me down with his knee.” Hutchinson and Harold Douglas likewise identified the Orillia man as one of the culprits. The Douglas father and son travelled to Michigan to similarly identify Miller and Haight’s body.
Meanwhile in a Detroit courtroom, Little and Miller fought extradition. Having been born in Manitoba, and Forest, Ontario, respectively, however, the judge ruled against them. Although Little, aged 30, wasn’t believed to have played a part in the Mimico robbery, Toronto Police had been showing his and Miller’s photographs around town to victims of many of the city’s armed hold-ups, and were confident Little, along with Miller, Haight, or other associates, had been responsible for at least a few of the city’s recent spree of robberies.
(Left: Toronto Globe [April 5, 1929].)
In a daring, noon hour raid on April 21, 1927, three gunman had held up the Bank of Toronto branch at King and Bathurst streets. The bandits’ movements were so efficient and professional, securing the bank staff in the vault then calmly walking from the building to a waiting vehicle with $17,841, that no one on the street had been even aware a robbery was underway. The Bank of Nova Scotia branch at Ossington and Dundas had been held up on the morning of October 20, 1927, in another well-planned heist with the perpetrators speeding off in a stolen car with nearly $7,000 in cash. On April 26, 1928, the Standard Bank of Canada branch at McCaul and Elm, had been held-up for the second time in two years. Cursing a streak, the robbers jabbed a gun barrel into the bank manager’s ribs, threatening to kill him unless he opened a treasury safe in the vault. They got away, without a trace, with nearly $25,000 in cash and securities.
Although police sought to pin each of these painstakingly planned and smoothly executed robberies on Little, Miller, and Haight, the strongest—though still circumstantial—evidence linked them to the Standard Bank job. When the proprietor of a Michigan gambling house was caught cashing some of the securities stolen from the Toronto bank, he told Detroit police he’d received them from Haight in settlement of a gambling debt. And Haight’s wife, after helpfully confirming for police that Miller was a close friend of her husband’s, had disappeared, along with a small black bag from Haight’s apartment which, police alleged, contained more of the stolen securities. Once the alleged bandits were in custody in Toronto, however, eyewitnesses failed to identify Miller or Little with certainty. No charges ever stuck against Miller and Little for any of the hold-ups in 1927 or 1928.
Miller and Brown’s trial for the mail truck robbery and kidnapping began in mid-May in Sessions Court before Judge O’Connell. At the outset of the proceedings, Crown Attorney Eric Armour confidently stated that Miller and Brown been positively identified as the gunmen by the victims of the crime, a comment which provoked immediate objection from Basil Essery and H.S. Chaplan, lawyers defending Miller and Brown respectively. “Surely that is for the jury to decide,” Essery protested, setting the tone of what would be his vigorous defence of his client.
(Right: Joseph Hutchinson of 52 Burlington Street, Mimico, March 3, 1929. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 15830.)
The defence’s main contention during the four-day trial was that police had used unfair methods of identification against Brown and Miller. The robbery had occurred at dusk, Essery reasoned, making positive identification with absolute certainty a near impossibility. He convincingly raised the spectre of reasonable doubt by drawing attention to small inconsistencies in the victims’ accounts and identifications. Moreover, Essery alleged defects in the police’s investigation whereby detectives themselves led the victims to particular conclusions.
Harold Douglas, the defence lawyer pointed out, had been confused while reviewing mugshots—selecting another man then still a prison term—but later positively identified Miller in person at a Michigan prison. He had been prejudiced, Essery claimed, by having already seen Miller’s mugshot in the police’s rogues gallery.
(Left: Harold Douglas of 61 Burlington Street, Mimico, March 3, 1929. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 15829.)
Thomas Douglas likewise fingered Haight as one of the robbers when shown his body in Michigan. “[Thomas] Douglas knew quite well whom he was to identify at the morgue in Detroit,” Essery insisted before the jury. “He had been shown the photo of Haight in Toronto. He identified the body of a man whom he had never seen alive.” Seemingly knocked off balance, the prosecutor’s response was timid, bringing into the courtroom the screen used for the police line-up where the victims had identified Brown in order to demonstrate for the jury the police department’s new methods of having witnesses safely identify suspects.
“Is it likely,” Essery asked in court, setting the stage for his client’s alibi defence, “that Miller, who had escaped from the brickyard reformatory at Mimico, who was wanted here on a charge of escape, would return, guns in hand, to hold up a mail truck under the very doors of his prison?”
Building a case that his client was hiding out in the United States at the time of the mail robbery, Essery presented a Greyhound bus driver’s route report to show that Miller had been travelling from Detroit to Cleveland on March 2. The prosecutor, Armour, who’d so far been outmaneuvered in the courtroom by the skilled defence team, objected energetically and succeeded in quashing the log-book as evidence unless the driver appeared in person to swear to its contents.
Little re-emerged at this point, all the Toronto charges against him having been dropped, as the chief witness for the defence. The career criminal—who claimed on the stand to be a student of “human nature…and other things”—stated unequivocally that he and Miller had been together in Cleveland at the time of the robbery.
(Left: Toronto Globe [May 24, 1929].)
“Would it be impertinent for me to ask what you were doing in Cleveland?” Armour asked in cross-examination.
“We weren’t doing anything,” replied Little with more than a little swagger. Little was less than an ideal witness—admitting at one point to having been in the bootlegging business, and implausibly explaining his lifestyle to be the result of $18,000 he’d earned off a racehorse. His alibi testimony was contradicted by that of the detective who’d transported the Miller and Little from Detroit to Toronto, who testified that, in conversation during the trip, the two had resolutely denied ever setting foot in Cleveland. But the damage to the prosecution’s weak case had already been done. Brown’s lawyer, in turn, produced a series of witnesses, each of whom insisted that Brown had been in Orillia at the time of the crime.
On the evening of May 23, the jury returned a verdict of not-guilty against Miller and Brown for the Mimico mail robbery. “Announcement of [the jury’s] decision brought with it no change in the expression of the prisoners,” the Toronto Globe (May 24, 1929) reported. “The faces of the two men, both of them young, remained immobile—emotionless.” Though acquitted on the charges related to the mail truck heist, both remained in custody. Brown was to stand trial for a December 1928 car theft. And Miller had already been tried and found guilty of breaking out of prison. On May 29, he was sentenced to an additional two years in the penitentiary. “No sooner had you escaped than you began to associate at once with your former companions in crime, who were a danger to the life of the community,” the judge scolded Miller at the sentencing.
Little kept up his life of crime, eventually being wounded in a daytime gunfight with a Toronto police officer near College and Ossington in May 1936, resulting in his being given a 12-year term for shooting at the police.
The armed hold-up of the mail truck at Mimico Station remained unsolved.
Sources consulted: Edward Butts, Running with Dillinger: The Story of Red Hamilton and other Forgotten Canadian Outlaws (Dundurn Press, 2008); Susan McLeod O’Reilly, On Track: The Railway Mail Service in Canada (Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1992); and articles from the Montreal Gazette (April 22, 1927; April 27 and June 30, 1928); Toronto Globe (October 22 and December 29, 1927; January 2, April 30, May 1, June 18 & 30, July 2, August 31, and December 31, 1928; March 4, 5, 8 & 12, April 3, 4, 5, 8, 18 & 25, May 4, 18, 21, 22 & 24, 1929; June 18 and July 23, 1936; and the October 20 & 29, and December 29, 1927; April 26, 27 & 28, and December 31, 1928; March 4, 5 & 11, April 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 17 & 18, May 3, 21, 22, 23 & 28, June 5, and November 14, 1929; June 4, 1932; September 28, 1936; and November 16, 1945.)