Baffling mystery of Molsons Bank robbery — only suspect a former employee of the bank

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

According to Percy Davis, John Wesley Anderson said he had heard Galt died three weeks earlier and the secret of the $62,000 Molsons Bank robbery died with him. It was alleged by Davis that Anderson said he followed bank teller Galt to the spot where the money was buried.

But in court, it was revealed that Galt had a history of mental illness. On October 12, Dr. Blanchard was called to the Galt residence as “young Galt was in a violent insane condition ... suffering from a religious mania.”

Galt was sent to England for treatment by his parents.

“Anderson, you know more than you are telling me,” testified Davis, whose evidence led the police to arrest Anderson and charge him with robbing the bank on Portage Avenue. “I believe you are the man that put it there and if you don’t give me full particulars I can go no further in the case.”

“You are right,” Anderson is alleged to have replied, “and I suspected you were thinking so. I did not tell you before as I was suspicious of you coming here for that particular purpose, as I have been looking you up for the past three months and find you are no detective. I have been looking for a man to handle the money and from my close study of you and what you now know, I believe you can do it.”

Davis said Anderson told him he had obtained the combinations and was in the vault on three different occasions. The first time he took just $100 to prove it could be done. On the Friday before the robbery, Anderson said he hired a rig and on Saturday went into the vault and packed all the money in a valise he had bought. The valise was too small so he was forced to put some bills in his pockets. Anderson heard footsteps while coming downstairs and fled the bank for his room. He at first kept the valise in his room, but decided to put it in back of the Grace Church, but too many people passed the hiding place so he returned the valise to his room where it hung all day Sunday. In the evening, he drove the rig to Birds Hill Road and with a shovel  he bought for 75-cents, he buried the loot.

Anderson admitted during his subsequent trial to journeying to Birds Hill on October 1 in a rig he rented. William Bridgen, the hostler in the livery barn of Bannatyne and Simpson on Garry Street, testified he hitched up a team of horses to a buggy for Anderson at about 6 or 7 p.m. who returned about 2 1/2 hours later.

“You could not go to Birds Hill in that time,” Bridgen told the court he said to Anderson when the defendant brought the buggy back to the livery.

“I went over the Louise Bridge, but the roads were so bad (due to heavy rain) I could not go further,” Anderson was alleged to have replied.

Because he couldn’t complete his trip,  Bridgen said Anderson wanted half of his money back.

During cross-examination, Bridgen said he could not recall any further details, other than to say he sometimes heavily drank and wasn’t trusted with money nor did he remember Anderson taking out another buggy on October 2. Actually, two or three buggies did go out the next day, but Bridgen could not remember who had rented the buggies.

Bridgen testified his memory of the events of October was jogged when  he was shown a picture by Manitoba Provincial Police Chief Edward Elliott and later provided evidence at the police court. Under cross-examination, Bridgen’s evidence at the trial contained contradictions and gaps in what he remembered when compared to what he said in the police court.

Davis testified Anderson told him the events leading to and after the robbery on July 30.

After Davis recovered the money, he told his tale to the police who then arrested Anderson, who sat in jail for  three months before going to trial. Elliott said he found a key on Davis and a coat and hat as described by Davis at the McClary Manufacturing Co. office, where Anderson was employed. 

By this time, Anderson had left the employ of the bank and taken another job, which some saw as highly suspicious.

Anderson said his salary was $16.66 a month at the bank and he received another $20 a month from home. He told the court he left the Molsons Bank because a circular was sent from the head office in Montreal saying no salary raises would be given to staff due to the robbery. But Charles Mair was transferred to Vancouver and given a raise, which Anderson said showed not everyone was being treated fairly. 

When he was offered a higher salary by J.W. Driscoll, manager of McClary Manufacturing Co., Anderson said he quickly agreed to accept the new position. McClary accountant, T.J. Black, testified Anderson first received a salary of $35 a month which was increased to $40 “because he was worth it.”

It was while working at McClary that Davis came into his office and seeing the crownless hat and dark coat, asked him, “Whose hat is that?”

Black admitted in court that the hat was his, but not the coat, which he said had hung in their office for a long time.

During the trial, Davis said Anderson was afraid to be seen where the money was buried, so he suggested Anderson wear the hat and coat from the office.

After Anderson’s arrest, many were dissatisfied with the circumstances of the robbery related by Davis. Residents of Roblin House even wrote a letter supporting Anderson, citing his “uprightness, truth and worth of character; and also of our complete belief in your innocence of the crime of which you have been accused.” 

“The intense excitement which prevailed on Thursday afternoon during the cross-examination of Davis ... was not one that abated yesterday morning,” 

reported the Telegram on November 4, 1899.

In court was Anderson’s mother seated in front of the jury box. She listened to the cross-examination of Davis with “marked interest.”

As he had throughout most of the trial, defendant Anderson “looked cheerful,” while Davis was his “usual cool and collected manner,” according to the Free Press. 

Anderson’s lawyer, Nathaniel Francis  Hagel of Vancouver (he had practiced in Winnipeg from 1881 to 1898), “gave Davis a severe hauling over” during his cross-examination.

“The character of Davis was about to undergo a severe impeachment, and he frequently pleaded a bad memory to get away from a tight questions,” reported the Free Press.

The Telegram reported that under the fire of questioning by Hagel, “Davis’ memory seemed at times to wilt.” 

The hefty fee for Hagel, who was noted as one of the best trial lawyers in Western Canada, was paid for by the wealthy friends of Anderson. It seems that Anderson had accumulated a great many friends in Winnipeg whom he could rely upon for help during his ordeal.

Hagel’s cross-examination revealed Davis had been charged in Chicago with several crimes which he had not earlier admitted to in his testimony.

“You were charged with stealing a diamond?” asked Hagel. 

“No it was some money.”

Davis said he had the diamond in his tie clip when arrested and was never prosecuted for the crime.

Hagel had adeptly brought in six witnesses from Chicago to impugn Davis’ character, among them a Mrs. Craig, who ran a boarding house where Davis lodged in 1896 and 1897.

“You recognize Mrs. Craig?”

“Yes, I recognize the lady.”

“Were you not charged with being disorderly and firing off a gun in her house?”

“Not that I remember.”

“Did you ever go by the name Potter-Davis?”

“Fred Potter, not Potter-Davis.”

“Were you never again arrested for disturbing?”

“I can’t remember it. If I was I’ll own up to it.”

Hagel then gave Davis a document and asked, “Is that not your signature?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“What does it say?”

“Potter-Davis.” At which point, the people in the crowded courtroom burst into laughter.

The witnesses from Chicago heard by the court had little good to say about Davis.

Frank Perrin, who formerly resided in Chicago and had been the secretary for the manager of a railroad in the city, said he knew Davis since the summer of 1895 and would not believe anything the man said even if he had taken a solemn oath.

All the witnesses testified that Davis had a bad reputation in Chicago and was noted for his gambling. A couple of the witnesses even said Davis had a valise similar to the one shown in court while living in Chicago.

“Those witnesses you have called have ruined me in Chicago,” Davis told Hagel.

F.W. Scott, the foreman of the CPR gang who ordered the trench dug by the six immigrants recovered with earth, said Davis indicated to him he had not previously dug in the same spot, but Scott noticed that Davis had blisters on his hands and he had seen someone digging in the area two or three days before.

Thomas Strutters, who often herded cows across the Louise Bridge, testified that he saw a man coming out to the area quite often in June who did not 

resemble the prisoner Anderson. He said he remembered two men driving around the area in a buggy, while Davis walked around near him. 

When Anderson took the stand, he denied ever confessing to Davis or telling him Galt had buried the money. He never suspected Galt, he told the court.

He made a point of deliberately calling Davis “a liar.”

On June 22, the night Davis allegedly followed him across the Louise Bridge, Anderson said that wasn’t possible since he was in the company of a Miss Wood at the theatre watching a performance of La Tosca.

He said he had not gone out with Davis to dig for the money on July 30 or any other day, nor had he worn the crownless hat and dark coat as alleged by Davis and produced in court by Police Chief Elliott. 

As well, he denied owning the valise entered as evidence and did not know the combinations for the safes at the time of the robbery.

On the day of the robbery, he testified he had left the bank 15 minutes after accountant F. McBeth and returned between 9 and 10 p.m. when he saw Galt.

Other witnesses, such as David Hyslop, proprietor of Roblin House, and John Davidson, the principal of the high school in Norwood, Ontario, where Anderson attended, all said the man “had always borne a good character.”

The key found by Elliott on Anderson and alleged to belong to the valise was determined as quite ordinary and able to open over a dozen valises produced in court.

During his summation, Hagel said the Crown attempted “to collaborate the evidence of this doubtful character (Davis), doubtful no longer, for he was ashamed of himself. Not ashamed of himself, properly speaking, but ashamed of being found out. This man had been arrested for other matters in Chicago, but he had failed to remember these arrests ...

“No pity can be shown to a man who comes here to thrust into gaol a boy of good character.”

Hagel said both the Crown and 

Anderson’s defence team recognize 

the robbery was an inside job, but: “Probably Davis was the outside man chosen on account of his slickness, to come after the crime and find the valise and take it away from the original place of concealment. The money he had found (was) not fit for circulation. The bills were no good and they went after the ($10,000) reward.”

Davis had been seen around the spot were the money was buried in June, Hagel asserted, and it was he who had dug the original two-by-three-foot hole as Scott testified Davis had blisters on his hands when he saw him on August 7.

The biggest problem with Davis’ testimony was that the prosecution couldn’t find anyone to collaborate his version of events, added Hagel.

When making his instructions to the 12-man jury, Justice John Bain said they had to consider the “credibility of the witness” Davis, who was “practically uninformed.”

The judge said there was “no corroboration” of the alleged events, and it was “evident he came before the jury simply as a private individual who had taken up the case simply to make what money he could out of it.”

The judge added: “If the evidence lead them (the jury) to believe Davis’s story was true they must convict, but if it fell short in any particular, then they must acquit the prisoner.”

Appparently the jury did not believe Davis’ story as they returned with a not guilty verdict after being sequestered for just 90 minutes.

“As these words were spoken by the foreman there was a loud cheer and applause,” reported the Free Press, “which continued for several minutes. As Anderson left the prisoner’s box, a free man, he was surrounded by relatives and friends and warmly congratulated on his acquittal.”

The congratulation went on into the evening. At Roblin House, a party was held for Anderson in the dining room. When Hagel was introduced he was “wildly received.”

“In a few well chosen and modest remarks he (Anderson) thanked his friends for the great reception, their staunch friendship and their support in his great trial,” reported the Telegram on November 9, 1899.

Dr. Patterson rose and said there were three great liars in the world, one of whom was the devil and he believed Davis was the other two.

While Anderson was acquitted, there remained the question of who had been involved in the robbery. Both the Crown and defence professed one of those involved had to have been an employee since there was no evidence of tampering with the safe and vault.

Hagel presented a plausible explanation that Davis should be considered a prime suspect as the “outside party” in the robbery since he found the money when everyone else had failed. 

The evidence and testimony presented in court seemed to show that Anderson could not have told Davis the $62,000 had been secreted near the telephone post. There is a possibility that Davis had followed someone else to the location. On the other hand, people testified that Davis was seen by himself in the vicinity of where the cash was buried. 

What became clear is that Davis had a poor reputation and was considered by acquaintances as a bit of a con artist. 

There still is the fact that only two people were in the bank at the time of the robbery — Galt and Anderson — who failed to hear or see anyone else in the premises. Although Anderson would not implicate Galt, the man was soon after the robbery sent abroad to undergo treatment for a mental condition.

During his testimony in court, 

McBeth said he suspected one employee, but never revealed his name.

Other questions centre around  T.B. Phepoe, who subsequently was removed from his position as the 

Winnipeg branch manager and told 

to take a “vacation” by the head office in Montreal. Was it simply coincidence that Phepoe chose the time of the 

robbery to go shooting in Shoal Lake? 

While McBeth had been the acting manager when Phepoe was away, the permanent position of manager was given to Stevens instead of him. It was possible this was a result of McBeth leaving the combinations in easily discovered locations.

Why had McBeth and Nelles been so careless with the combinations entrusted to them when Phepoe was away? 

A number of different scenarios were given to explain the robbery — including Davis’ involvement — but in the absence of hard evidence these can only be regarded as speculation. 

Police Chief Elliott at first pursued the angle that the thief had fled south of the border after the robbery. During the Anderson trial, E.A. Kerr, a cashier at the Merchant’s Bank in Pembina, said a man who “looked like” Davis, but gave his name as Fred W. Baker, had tried to purchase a $1,700 bank draft using a Dominion of  Canada $1,000 bank note and $700 in Canadian and American cash. The man left the bank after being pressed about the large size of the Dominion of Canada note.

From the beginning, Elliott was suspicious of Davis and his motives. Elliott told newspaper reporters that that there was no reliable evidence to support Davis’ claim of being a detective and openly wondered how Davis knew where to find the money.

Kerr’s evidence was more or less a sidebar to the Anderson trial, since after his arrest and at the urging of the Molsons Bank, Elliott was not encouraged to pursue other leads.

What is known is that no one was ever charged with the robbery after Anderson’s acquittal. Essentially, the investigation died when Anderson was declared not guilty and the bank had its money back. 

That’s not strange in itself as the major concern of banks was the recovery of stolen money. As long as the money was found, bank officials didn’t press police to continue their investigations or make felony charges. 

After teller William Cameron was captured in Pembina, North Dakota, and confessed to the 1888 robbery of the Union Bank in Winnipeg, he was not brought to trial. Cameron negotiated a deal whereby he would serve no jail time once he returned the $40,000 stolen. Imagine the embarrassment of bank officials and police when Cameron told them the money could be found in a valise under the bank counter at the Union Bank in Winnipeg.

The bonus for the Molsons Bank was that the bank would never have to pay a $10,000 reward arising from the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the robbery. Because of the suspicion cast on Davis, he did not receive any of the reward for the money’s recovery; nor did Harris, as Hagel raised the possibility that he had acted in collusion with Davis to implicate his “not guilty” client in the robbery.

Another consideration is that the majority of bank robbers managed to elude capture. In 1882, the $10,000 robbery of the American Express safe in Winnipeg went unsolved despite several years of investigation by Pinkerton detectives.

Years later in 1940, lawyer H.W. Whitla would tell Free Press writer Col. G.C. Porter about the bizarre details surrounding the robbery as well as his fateful meeting with Davis when the “ordinary looking” young man walked into his law office on August 7, 1899.

Unfortunately, Porter’s article did not shed any new information on what has become one of the most mysterious bank robberies in Winnipeg’s