Baffling mystery of Molsons Bank robbery — “solution will require some skilled detective work”


by Bruce Cherney (part 1 of 2)

Just one of the six “Galicians” from Immigration Hall understood some English and he believed the only explanation for why the two men had hired them to dig in a field two  kilometres from the Louise Bridge was that the Canadians were hunting for a treasure buried by a long-dead Indian chief.

The six men had been picked out by federal government interpreter Cyril Genik, a Ukrainian immigrant who had come to Canada in 1896, at the request of Percy Davis and lawyer H.W. Whitla.

Starting from a telegraph pole,  near a gate off the Birds Hill Road where the old trail crossed the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks, they had already cleared a 40-foot-long trench, but had found nothing. Next, the two men in charge ordered the immigrants to begin digging another trench adjacent to the one they had just completed. 

Observing the rather peculiar proceedings of August 7, 1899, Canadian Pacific Railway section foreman, F.W. Scott, and his gang arrived on the scene and insisted the men start returning the earth to where it had been turned over. Two immigrants didn’t quite understand what was wanted of them, but started to poke at the loose earth at the foot of the telephone pole.

Soon one of them throw up his hands and gestured toward what seemed to be a “small root.” Davis stooped down and grabbed the handle of a valise and called over Whitla.

Whitla stood by as Davis took a shovel from a Galician and used it to poke around the earth. He handed the shovel back and the Galicians were then told to continue digging. Within a short time, they exposed the entire valise, which was removed and wrapped in Whitla’s waterproof coat and placed in an express wagon hired by the two men. They then drove to the Immigration Hall, dropping off the workers after paying them. With the workers satisfied they had been fairly rewarded for their labour, Davis and Whitla hired another cab and proceeded to the Queen’s Hotel. In Room 29, they bolted the door, Whitla took out a knife and used it to cut open the valise. Once the case was open, the two men saw $60,000 in water-logged bills, which they realized was the lion’s share of the $62,000 stolen in what was described in newspapers of the era as the most mysterious robbery in Winnipeg’s history. 

The valise had been destroyed in the process of opening it, so Davis transferred the money to a new case which was taken to Whitla’s office and placed in a vault. The next day the new valise and its contents, along with what remained of the old valise, were placed in a box and brought to the Molsons Bank (sometimes referred to as Molson’s Bank or Molson Bank) on Portage Avenue. In the presence of bank employees, the contents of the box were revealed and the water-logged and dirty money was returned to the vault next to the manager’s office. 

The remaining $2,000 was later found and dug up. In fact, the recovery of the cash came as a surprise at the November 1899 trial of the man accused of being involved in the bank robbery. City assessor J.W. Harris said he had been following the case with great interest and took it upon himself to try and discover the remaining money near where Davis and Whitla had uncovered the $60,000. Harris said he, his wife and another man found the money on August 29 in a bundle amid a tree’s roots.

Harris said the money was found buried less than a foot deep and wrapped in brown paper. It took him only about five minutes to find and recover the money, he testified. The trio contacted a lawyer the next day and keep the secret of its discovery until Anderson’s court case.

The events leading up to the recovery of the majority of the money were truly bizarre — an amateur detective from Chicago and originally from Ontario had found the stolen cash, while the world-famous Pinkerton Detective Agency based in the United States and local and provincial police had been baffled by the crime for nearly a year.

The very fact that Davis had hired  lawyer Whitla of the firm Haggart & Whitla before attempting to recover the money added to the mysterious circumstances surrounding the case. Supposedly Davis had hired Whitla to ensure that he would receive the $10,000 reward offered by the Montreal head office of the bank. The bank offered $5,000 for information leading “to the conviction of any persons or persons concerned as principals in the ... robbery,” and $5,000 from information leading to the recovery of the money.”

By recovering most of the cash and handing a suspect over to the police, Davis was heralded in local newspapers as being made from the same mould as Sherlock Holmes, the fictional sleuth created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 

“The silent manner in which the secret was ferreted out has reminded many of the stories of Conan Doyle,” according to the Telegram.

The suspect in question was John Wesley Anderson, a former employee of the bank at the corner of Portage Avenue and Fort Street.

The robbery was discovered on Tuesday, October 4, 1898, at 4:30 p.m. when the bank’s vault was opened for the first time since funds had been placed in it on September 28. It was quickly determined that $62,000 had been taken without any evidence of force being used to gain entry into the bank or break open the vault and inner safe (referred to as the treasury). From the beginning, the accepted theory was that the robbery had been an inside job.

It was reported that the money was probably removed on Saturday or Sunday, October 1 or 2.

In today’s dollars, the money stolen would have a value over $815,000.

“Before the money could be reached,” reported the Morning Telegram on October 6, “the following combinations had be encountered one on the outer door, a lock opened by key on the inner door, two combinations on the safe door and one on the treasury door ... and is sufficient to show that if the robbery was done by one man, he must either have been a phenomenal expert on safe combinations or else he had obtained by some means the combination numbers, from those whose sacred duty it is to keep them secret.”

The procedure in the Molsons Bank was to have three different people responsible for a portion of the combinations. The numbers were entrusted to manager T.B. Phepoe, accountant F. MacBeth and teller A. Nellis. At the time of the robbery, Phepoe was on a shooting trip at Shoal Lake. While he was away, his combination numbers were given to MacBeth, who was designated as the acting manager of the bank. 

During the November 1899 trial of Anderson, Nelles said he had copied the numbers entrusted to him in the inside drawer of his teller’s cash drawer, which he admitted could have been read by anyone working in the bank. 

McBeth said he had written his combinations on the back of an envelope and then went to his desk where he rewrote the combinations in code on a piece of paper which was to be sent to the bank’s head office in Montreal. The coded combinations actually remained in his desk until the robbery was discovered. He had placed the original uncoded combinations on the envelope in his coat which he left in the bank overnight. He later discovered the envelope was missing from the coat pocket and nowhere to be found.

Working in the bank at the time of the robbery were McBeth, Nelles, George Laing, Galt, Charles Mair, W.S. Stevens and Anderson.

Six hours after the money was found missing, Phepoe received a telegram and immediately returned to Winnipeg.

The Manitoba Free Press on October 6 called the bank robbery a “baffling mystery.”

“The problem is a hard one, and its solution will require some skilled detective work.”

“The circumstances of the robbery are of so mysterious a nature that future developments will probably result in a sensation fully equal to that created by the now celebrated Dominion bank robbery in Napanee (Ontario),” reported the Telegram. 

In the Napanee robbery, teller Billy Ponton was long suspected by the Pinkerton agency as being part of the gang which stole $32,000 from the small-town bank near Kingston. As in the Winnipeg robbery, the only way the safe could have been opened was if the thieves had the combination. While three men were eventually convicted for the theft and testified against Ponton, the man had the support of the community and good lawyers who effectively disparaged the testimony of the career criminals with the result that Ponton was found not guilty.

A month before the Molsons Bank money went missing in Winnipeg, police had received a tip that the bank would be robbed and then alerted Phepoe. As a result of the warning, Phepoe assigned two bank employees to sleep in the bank each evening after it  closed. From September 26 to October 3, Galt and Anderson were the employees sleeping in the bank.

The fact that two employees were on guard and neither heard nor saw anything suspicious made the robbery even more mysterious.

“I goes without saying, that all the members of the bank staff deny any knowledge of the affair whatever,” reported the Telegram. “And it is even said that all have solemnly protested their innocence upon oath.”

While the investigation was underway, “a young man, tall, gaunt and cadaverous, attempted to jump into brief notoriety by confessing to being guilty of the robbery.”

It was determined by the police that the man was ignorant of the facts of the case and he was dismissed as a crackpot.

At the Molsons Bank board of directors meeting in Montreal in October 1898, president W.M. McPherson said $42,000 of the sum taken from the Winnipeg branch was in “non-negotiable Dominion bills, many of them of large denominations (five bills were $5,000 notes which could only be passed from one bank to another; several others were $1,000 notes), which will render them difficult, if not impossible, for them to get into circulation, leaving $22,000 in Molson’s Bank bills.”

During this period in Canadian history, all banks,  including Molsons, issued their own legal tender in the form of bills of different denominations.

Davis testified in court that he had been involved in detective work for 13 years, starting in his youth in his hometown of  Mitchell, Ontario. Later he worked for James H. Walker, a dry goods merchant in Chicago, where Davis alleged he helped with the police investigation of the notorious Holmes case for six weeks to two months.  

Chicago police denied any association with Davis, although the amateur detective said he was paid witness money totalling $100 by police station “O” in Chicago from John Grant. In contradictory testimony, Davis later said Police Station “O” did not exist, then it did exist or that he meant postal station “O.”

“I made other money on the side by allowing people (including reporters) to look through the Holmes building,” Davis admitted.

Dr. Henry Howard Holmes  is often called the first American serial killer. Holmes trapped and murdered possibly hundreds of guests at his Chicago hotel, which he opened for the 1893 World’s Fair. He confessed to 27 murders, although only nine were confirmed.

Davis travelled from Chicago to Flint to Terra Haute to Detroit where he first read of the Molsons Bank robbery. He returned to Mitchell “waiting for a chance to get to Winnipeg.” His opportunity came when his family convinced businessman Jerry Robinson to hire Davis as a clerk in the dry goods department of his Winnipeg store.

Davis arrived in Winnipeg in March 1898 and first came into contact and befriended Anderson when staying at Mrs. Dawson’s boarding house on Ellice Avenue. In June, he persuaded Anderson to join him as a roomer at Roblin House (Hotel).

After befriending Anderson, Davis said he began to question the man about the Molsons robbery and took to following him whenever Anderson left his room.

One night in the middle of June, Davis said Anderson went out bicycling and he trailed him on his bike until they were about a half mile from the Louise Bridge which Anderson crossed. Davis surreptitously followed Anderson when he took a track through the bushes, but it was too dark and he lost sight of Anderson.

The next morning he asked Anderson where he had been and received the reply from Anderson that he had been in Elm and River parks.

Davis testified that Anderson later told him of his intention to travel to China.

“Wouldn’t you like to take a trip?” Anderson asked.

Davis told Anderson he didn’t have any money to which Anderson reportedly replied that he could get his hands on $2,000 and admitted he knew where the Molsons Bank money was located. 

The amateur sleuth said he continued to press Anderson about the money over the next few days until the man drew a diagram of where the money was buried. 

“Now don’t go out there for a couple of weeks,” Anderson was alleged to have said, “it requires lots of thought and study.”

Davis said he wanted to keep the diagram but Anderson burned it. Davis testified it was the first of two diagrams drawn by Anderson and both were burned by his suspect.

After the second diagram was burned, he convinced Anderson to tell him where the money was buried. With Anderson remaining behind, Davis found the specified telephone pole but could find no marks of recent digging.

Davis said Anderson had agreed to meet him near the site. The signal to alert Anderson of his arrival was to hit a nearby wire fence twice and then after counting to 10 hit the it again. After striking the fence, Anderson emerged from the underbrush. They hid in the brush until daybreak and proceeded to a location indicated by Anderson.

“It is right here,” Davis testified Anderson said. “It’s in a valise and we’ll see if it’s all right.”

Anderson said he knew where the valise was buried because he followed  Molsons Bank teller Galt to the spot.

Anderson said he had followed Galt from the bank down Notre Dame Street to the CPR tracks and along the tracks to the spot where Galt dug a small hole.

(Next week: part 2)