WECo robbery

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

With a “huge” revolver in his hand, the robber turned around in the entrance vestibule of the Winnipeg Electric Company (WECo) and demanded that messenger Richard Shaw, “Stick ’em up!” Shaw refused and attempted to flee, so he was pistol whipped into unconsciousness by the well-groomed stick-up man described as wearing a straw hat and clad in a blue serge suit.

The bandit was one of five men involved in the $87,478 robbery of the company’s payroll for its 1,400 employees at about 9:30 a.m. on August 14, 1925. It was a staggering amount for the period and equivalent to over $1.1 million in today’s dollars, which provides emphasis for the magnitude of the crime.

The August 17, Winnipeg Tribune, described the robbery as “one of the biggest hauls taken by crookdom in the annals of Western Canada.” Only the $95,000 robbery of the civic payroll in Vancouver in the previous spring topped the Winnipeg caper. 

According to a Winnipeg Free Press next-day account of the robbery, the five bandits showed “the smoothness of careful planning and a close attention to details.”

The five men had waited for the arrival of the messenger — bearing money obtained from the main office of the Bank of Montreal on Main Street — outside the electric company headquarters at the corner of Notre Dame Avenue and Albert Street. In city records, the WECo Building’s street number was 213 Notre Dame Ave.

“As the messenger turned his back to the car and started for the doorway, one of the loungers about the doorway ... walked into the doorway just ahead of the messenger, Richard Shaw, who carried the weekly payroll. A second bandit closed in behind Shaw and (cut off) Leslie Montgomery (a WECo guard), who accompanied Shaw.”

A third bandit stood guard to the north of the swing door.

“In the meantime one of the bandits stepped to the running board of the car, in which the chauffeur (and also a WECo guard), Sydney Knowler sat, opened the door to the seat beside the driver, and shoved a large revolver into his ribs.

“‘Keep that engine going or I’ll blow your brains out,’ he said in a low voice.”

Knowler “deemed it best to obey orders.”

It was at this time that the fifth of the five robbers joined his companion, leaping into the backseat of Knowler’s car.

In the entranceway to the bank, when the “well-groomed” man demanded Shaw put his hands up over his head, the messenger “made an ineffectual, though nervy, dash for the offices less than twelve feet in front of him.”

This was when the bandit swung his gun and delivered two blows to Shaw’s head. It was the last blow that felled the messenger. Once Shaw was on the ground, the bandit then stooped down and swung hard twice more, rendering him into unconsciousness. 

Instinctively, Shaw had tried to protect the satchel containing the cash by clutching it to his body. As he hit the floor of the entranceway, Shaw landed atop the satchel, forcing the man to reach under the prostrate messenger to free the bag. Once the satchel was in his possession, the robbers dashed out of the vestibule to the Studebaker driven by their hostage.

“Drive like hell,” a bandit demanded of Knowler. “Run into anything and you’re a dead man,” a voice from the backseat warned.

“When I saw the gun I knew it was a hold-up,” Shaw later told a Free Press reporter while recovering from his ordeal in bed at his 213 Kennedy St. home. “I tried to save the money. I might of been shot but didn’t think about it until after I woke up. There wasn’t very much that I saw of the whole affair.”

Knowler was forced to drive past the corner of the Lindsay Building and down Ellice to Donald. From there the robbers and their hostage proceeded north on Donald past the Canada Building and onto Cumberland. At this point, while the car was still rolling down the street, the man next to Knowler gave him a shove and told him to “get out.”

Once Knowler was out of the vehicle, the man slid over, “clashed the gears with a great roar,” and drove away.

“When the gun was put on me by the first of the bandits I knew I didn’t have a chance to do anything but obey him,” Knowler told the reporter. “It was a big gun and he spoke in a calm matter of fact way. He crouched down in the seat beside me and told me to keep my eyes straight ahead.”

Knowler said he wanted to try to get a look at his abductor, but thought better of it.

“I was sort of glad when they pushed me out of the car and made away but it was not till I had time to think it over that I was really scared. It was all done so rapidly. I ran into the International garage and as I was too excited to dial the police number ...”

George Morley, the owner of the garage, said he was startled by the loud grinding of car gears at about 9:45 a.m. and then when Knowler rushed into his establishment “muttering something about a hold-up.”

When Knowler, in his excited condition, was unable to dial the police number, Morley took the telephone and completed the call to the police.

(Next week: part 2)