Amazing Stories from
Canada's WILDEST Decade


by TED



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Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Ferguson, Ted
Strange days / Ted Ferguson.

ISBN 978-1-897126-82-0

1. Canada – History – 1918–1939.

2. Canada – Social conditions – 1918–1930.

3. Canada – Biography.
i. Title.

FC560.F47 2011      971.062'2      C2010-906967-6

Editor: Paul Matwychuk
Cover and interior design: Natalie Olsen, Kisscut Design
Author photo: arf


NeWest Press acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, and the Edmonton Arts Council for our publishing program. We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund for our publishing activities.


#201, 8540-109 Street   Edmonton, Alberta   T6G 1E6


No bison were harmed in the making of this book.

printed and bound in Canada   1  2  3  4  5  13  12  11  10

To my wonderful grandchildren,
Harlan Jazz and Ruby Lulu.























































Author's Note


In the summer of 2008, Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff mounted the podium at a Singapore financial conference and surprised the participants with a prediction that seemed to be more than slightly off-the-wall. “We are not just going to see midsized banks going bankrupt in the next few months,” he said. “We’re going to see a whopper. One of the big investment houses or big banks.”

Rogoff’s dire prophecy came exactly one month after the World Bank Monetary Fund surveyed the global economic landscape and issued the reassuring word that the North American economy was certain to remain prosperous. The 2009 growth rate, the WMF declared, would be a gratifying 3.9 percent.

Three months later, of course, Lehman Brothers went belly-up and, in the wake of its calamitous fall, chief executives at other debt-ridden financial institutions flocked to federal government offices, begging bowls in hand, soliciting bailouts.

Many economic observers raised the spectre of another Great Depression but few, if any, mentioned that the Great Recession of 2009, like the crash of 1929, arrived after long periods of healthy economic growth and a general feeling that the boom times were invulnerable to change. After the misery of the First World War and an influenzia pandemic that killed 55,000 Canadians, the country wanted to kick up its heels and have some fun. The revigorated financial situation enabled that desire to become reality.

An age of exuberant self-indulgence took hold in 1920 and didn't let go until the 1929 stock market collapse. It was an era of fast cars, jazz clubs, hip flasks, the foxtrot, bell-bottomed trousers, and knee-high skirts. Less hedonistic souls went to vaudeville shows and silent movies, participated in the countrywide crossword puzzle craze, listened to Salvation Army Band concerts on the Canadian National Railway’s six-city radio network, and ordered double-decker cones at the popular neighbourhood establishment known as the ice cream parlour. The war-weakened economy limped through the early stages of the decade, then suddenly strengthened and began strutting. There were 80 millionaires in Vancouver alone. One in every 40 Canadians owned an automobile in 1919; by 1929, one in every 10 did. Millions of households relished the benefits of modernization. Only the poor were denied washing machines, telephones, and indoor toilets.

In many aspects, the 1920s marked a turning point for Canada, laying the foundation for social and political practises we take for granted today. The arrest of a Montreal priest on a murder charge changed the Catholic Church’s virtually untouchable status and pointed Quebec down the road toward the Quiet Revolution. Ottawa strove for greater national autonomy from Great Britain’s international endeavours. Plucky women demolished restrictive social and political barriers, and a Bible-toting drifter introduced a chilling new concept to Canada: the serial killer.

Historians and journalists tend to refer to the years preceding the Great Depression as the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, or the Fabulous Decade. British Columbia author Charles Lewis saw things differently: in his 1938 memoir Beachcombing, he wrote that the decade’s defining characteristic was not high-spiritedness, but downright lunacy. “The entire period from commencement to termination was, I do not hesitate to write, touched by madness,” Lewis wrote. “How else can one decipher the spiritualist nonsense and multiple behavioral abnormalities saturating the fair Dominion?”

He may not have been far off the mark. During the 1920s, the colonel in charge of Canada’s military intelligence plotted an armed invasion of the United States led by bicycle-riding soldiers; a mind reader was credited with helping bring an Alberta murderer to justice; a distraught father accused Ontario nuns of “kidnapping” and raising his Protestant daughter; and six Nova Scotians raced to the West Coast on foot in the middle of a perfectly hideous Canadian winter. The rich seemed to be the most susceptible to strange impulses. Pursuing his proclaimed ambition to go to his grave penniless, Montreal millionaire J.K.L. Ross built an 40-room mansion, employed 30 servants, and bought eight Rolls-Royces and seven yachts. Victoria wild child Dola Dunsmuir scandalized the city’s social set by taking to the tennis courts without a stitch of underwear beneath her skirts. A Toronto lawyer’s bizarre will inspired a decade-long baby-birthing competition. And the Webber brothers dug ditches alongside Ontario road crews to augment their already substantial fortune.

Whatever its strengths and weaknesses are, Strange Days owes its existence to the parsimonious Webbers. I was skimming the pages of a 1925 newspaper, looking for information for a travel article I was writing for a magazine, when a story about the brothers caught my eye. It occurred to me that there were probably scores of similarly long-forgotten stories buried in old archival files that might be entertaining enough to resurrect in book form.

As it turned out, there were. And soon after I began researching this book, I reached the conclusion that, lunatic or not, the 1920s were vibrant, brassy, and occasionally brutal — a powerful refutation of the global misconception that Canada was that poor, pitiful thing, a bore’s paradise.


Essex County is the devil’s dance floor.
He’s doing a hoedown with the drunks, rum- runners,
and prostitutes. The rum-runners

and roadhouse operators are diabolical.
Step on their toes and they shoot you.



No matter how hard and long the Reverend Leslie Spracklin complained, the local police failed to make good on their promise to close down the all-night roadhouse blemishing his neighbourhood. A Methodist minister, Spracklin lived in Sandwich, a small community outside Windsor, Ontario. By a quirk of fate, his boyhood friend, Babe Trumble, was operating Chappell House, a two-storey hotel a few doors down from the pastor’s home. Trumble and a silent partner purchased the near-bankrupt enterprise in 1919; six months later, it was showing a robust profit.

Prohibition was responsible for the hotel’s financial turnaround. Thirty-three American states, Michigan among them, had banned the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages before the rest of the nation followed suit in 1920. A similar regulation, the Ontario Temperance Act, was passed in 1916. Chappell House successfully attracted customers from surrounding Essex County and across the river in Detroit with a simple two-pronged plan: by serving bootleg booze, and encouraging Windsor prostitutes to frequent its premises. Spracklin informed the authorities that he and his neighbours were jolted awake every night by rowdies in automobiles and noisy sidewalk drunks. On several occasions, he left his residence in the morning to discover an inebriated person lying in the yard. Chappell House was the worst of the three illegal roadhouses in Sandwich and Spracklin told the town police chief that if he didn’t padlock the place, he’d know that he was on Trumble’s payroll.

One frigid night in March 1920, the pastor and his wife were awakened by the sound of someone banging on the front door. It was 3 AM. Spracklin hurried to investigate. A young woman was standing on the veranda. Her nose was bleeding. She was barefoot and naked beneath a thin wool coat. She said she was freezing and in need of a taxi. Thinking she had been in an accident, Spracklin ushered her inside. She was drunk. Her boyfriend, she said, had punched her face and pushed her out of his car. Spracklin and his wife gave the woman a cup of tea and drove her home.

The next day, the pastor wrote a letter to Attorney General W.E. Raney describing the incident and the shameful situation in Essex County: “The roadhouses in this region,” it read,“disgorge more disgraced and debauched womanhood than all of the churches in Canada can comfort and cure.” Raney and Premier E.C. Drury both belonged to the United Farmers of Ontario, a predominantly rural-based party that gained power the previous year. Knowing that Raney and Drury both advocated strong moral conduct and absolute temperance, Spracklin expected them to support his plea for a full-bore crackdown.

Raney replied with a brief letter stating that the government was greatly concerned about the status of Essex County and intended to deal severely with it. Spracklin waited three months and when nothing happened, he went to the press. Starting in July, the Toronto Evening Telegram published a series of articles profiling Spracklin, dubbing him “The Lord’s Crusader” and detailing how a 22-kilometre riverfront area had developed into “the plague spot of the province.” Besides the roadhouses (“a carnival of vice”), rum-runners piloting speedboats transported thousands of cases of illegal booze a week across the Michigan border.

True, the police and provincial licence inspectors would board the odd boat and seize the liquor, but they didn’t disrupt the smugglers as intensely as the rival gangs who would intercept shipments, force crews to jump in the water, and abscond with the booze-laden launches. In June, at least five gun battles between enemy factions erupted during river trips, and if anyone was killed or wounded, the victims were never reported. Spracklin said the police departments in numerous Essex County communities were staffed by corrupt officers and, on the heels of his accusation, licence inspectors arrested the Amherstburg police chief for holding onto 88 cases of whisky he had confiscated from a roadhouse proprietor.

Spracklin’s comments did not go unnoticed. He received death threats in the mail and over the phone. One night, while Spracklin and his wife were in bed, a shotgun blast shattered their parlour window. Refusing to be intimidated, Spracklin telephoned a reporter at a Windsor newspaper, the Border City Star, to say that he planned to continue urging the Drury regime to take action in Essex County. The newspaper stories in Toronto and Windsor pressured the attorney general into doing precisely that. In late July, he contacted the clergyman and disclosed he was establishing a special squad of licence inspectors to patrol the county. The person he wanted to spearhead the team was none other than Spracklin. The pastor was delighted. He would now have the power to tackle the criminals head-on.

Many people in Ontario believed that appointing a man of the cloth to combat the booze merchants was an absurdity. These criminals were tough cookies, men who would not hesitate to exchange gunfire with anyone who interfered with their business. Spracklin, by contrast, was pale, flabby, and resolutely free of vice: his only objectional habits, his wife said to a friend, were whistling “Camptown Races” day in day out and eating sardines on toast for breakfast. But anyone who thought the pastor was ill-suited for the job didn’t know his background. He was a tough cookie too. His father was a factory foreman who taught all three of his sons to box — he even built a ring in a spare room and had a Windsor resident, the trainer for world heavyweight champion Tommy Burns, drop by to give them pointers. When their older brother was killed in a duck-hunting mishap, Leslie and Arthur entered the ministry so they could help other people suffering emotional pain.

Shortly after joining Spracklin’s squad, three of the four inspectors were offered bribes by bootleggers who wanted to be tipped off prior to speedboat boardings and roadhouse searches. In August, a raid on a Sandwich hotel resulted in a brawl during which Spracklin decked a couple of participants. On Halloween, Toronto Daily Star reporter Roy Greenaway managed to survive the night with Spracklin and his men. Around midnight, he was sitting on the government launch in the boathouse when a passenger in a speeding car shot out the building window. Minutes later, the same vehicle cruised by Spracklin’s residence. The passenger fired three bullets into the house, almost hitting the minister’s wife. Spracklin told Greenaway that he didn’tanswer the door anymore without a gun in his hand.

Greenaway and practically everyone else in Sandwich were sure Spracklin’s days were numbered. They were wrong: it wasn’t the Lord’s Crusader who hadn’t long to live. At 3 AM on November 6, Spracklin and two inspectors, brothers Frank and John Bell, were driving past Chappell House en route to the government boathouse. The pastor spotted a man sprawled on the veranda, looking as though he had been badly beaten. Spracklin braked the car and the three officers got out. The man was semi-conscious — a hotel waiter had assaulted him with a baseball bat and thrown him outside. Then Babe Trumble himself came onto the veranda. It was not Spracklin and Trumble’s first encounter; in fact, the two men had fished, boxed, and gone camping together in their younger years, but thanks to Spracklin’s anti-vice campaign, the hotel owner now thoroughly despised his boyhood companion. Trumble demanded Spracklin quit the property. Spracklin stood his ground. Trumble wheeled and strode into the building. Spracklin followed him. Not long after, the Bell brothers heard a gunshot. Upon racing to Trumble’s private dining room, they saw the innkeeper lying on the floor, bleeding from his abdomen. He died 25 minutes later.

The news of the fatal shooting stunned the province. How could this happen? How could a clergyman take another person’s life?

Spracklin argued self-defence: Trumble, he said, had aimed a cocked revolver at his stomach. But racetrack tout Ed Smith, who claimed to have witnessed the killing, said the clergyman was lying — the innkeeper was unarmed. A coroner’s jury was convened and, although the lone weapon the police found in the room belonged to Spracklin, the jury exonerated him. Crown Attorney John Rodd announced that in light of the verdict, Spracklin would not have to stand trial. But when a flood of letters and a 2,000-signature petition protesting the decision reached his office, Rodd relented. Instead of a murder accusation, however, he charged Spracklin with manslaughter. Spracklin resigned from the licence squad.

In February 1921, the trial opened in a packed Sandwich courtroom. More than 1,000 people began lining up on the sidewalk at dawn, but the space inside was small and most of them were denied entry. Trumble’s wife took the stand and swore her dead husband was not carrying a weapon when Spracklin appeared in the dining room. A prosecution witness, Jack Bannon, corroborated her account. Noticing that Bannon was so nervous that he was sweating, Spracklin’s lawyer, R.L. Brackin (a provincial Member of Parliament renowned for his debating skills), questioned him aggressively about his friendship with the Trumbles, his opinion of Spracklin, and his participation in Chappell House poker games.

“Did you hear Spracklin say, ‘Don’t be rough, boys, there’s no need for trouble?’” he asked.

“Yes,” Bannon muttered.

“Did you see a gun in Trumble’s hand?”

“No,” Bannon said.

Brackin then looked the Trumbles’ friend straight in the eye, raised his voice, and asked, “Did you see it in Mrs. Trumble’s hand?”

“Yes, I did,” Bannon blurted.

Brackin was even more successful in tearing Ed Smith’s testimony apart. The tout admitted taking a ferry to Detroit after the shooting and using a false name on the hotel register. Positioning himself directly in front of the witness, as he had done with Bannon, Brackin pressed Smith into admitting that Mrs. Trumble had snatched the gun from her dying husband’s hand and instructed him to toss it off the boat.

The Crown case collapsed and Spracklin was freed.

Spracklin’s wife couldn’t handle stress as well as he could. Her health deteriorated. For his wife’s sake, Spracklin moved to Michigan to become the pastor at the Methodist church in Saginaw. Realizing the clean-up campaign was making little progress without Spracklin’s courageous leadership, the attorney general added nine inspectors to the Essex County squad. A year or so later, smuggling had been significantly reduced and 80 per cent of the illegal roadhouses were forced out of business.


The telegraph message travelled across the Atlantic ocean to the Belgian city of Antwerp in the wee small hours of April 27: “Well done, Winnipeg team,” enthused Charles Gray, the mayor of the Manitoba city. “All Canada is tickled to death at your splendid victory.”

All of Canada was indeed tickled to death: the Winnipeg Falcons had whipped the supposedly unwhippable American team to capture the gold medal in the first-ever Olympic hockey tournament. Mayor Gray wired a second cable the following day informing the Falcons that the city planned to honor the team with a victory parade and civic banquet.

In fact, Gray was not just offering the athletes a party, but something they and their ethnic counterparts had been deprived of in Winnipeg for years: social acceptance. Except for one player, the Falcons were Icelanders, members of a race of partially civilized mis-fits, at least in the opinion of the Anglo-Saxons who ran the Winnipeg Senior Hockey League and who had rejected the Falcons’ membership applications in 1910 and 1918. “The reigning poobahs peered down at us from a mighty height,” team captain Frank Frederickson later recalled. “We resented it. We had supremely talented boys in our line-up. Too talented to be eternally shunted aside.”

Those talented boys lived in the same West End neighbourhood, some of them on the same street. It was a working-class district, but the Icelandic inhabitants were proud to call it home. The West End represented a big step up for the community. The first contingent of Icelandic immigrants — 38 men, women, and children — arrived in the city in 1875. Short of money, they clustered on land no one else wanted, the bleak and windy river flats. A sawmill owner permitted the settlers to cart off scrap lumber, with which they built their austere single-room dwellings. Within the next five years, roughly 400 Icelanders crowded the settlement. Winnipeg natives scoffed at the river flats community, labelling it Shanty Town. Meanwhile, their inability to speak fluent English restricted the immigrants to low-income jobs. The men laid railway track, delivered coal, or went door-to-door in middle-class neighbourhoods offering to chop firewood. The women worked as hotel maids or cooks for rich families. Dollar by dollar, though, the Shanty Towners saved up enough cash to buy decent houses on tree-lined West End streets. They mastered the English language, secured better-paying employment, and often adopted Anglo names, Jonasson becoming Johnson, Petursson changing to Peterson. No matter: the WASPS still snubbed them. And Icelandic children still contended with taunts like the schoolyard chant, “Iceland, Iceland, it’s a very nice land. Go back there!” Some settlers did go back, but most dug in their heels.

Sporting events glued the community together. Each summer, the Icelanders staged a 24-hour walking marathon on an outdoor track. Rain or shine, contestants circled the track, taking short breaks for refreshments, body rubs, and washroom trips. The winner walked about 160 kilometres. Baseball, lacrosse, wrestling, and archery drew crowds, but none of those activities rivalled the popularity of hockey. In 1896, the Icelanders created a neighbourhood hockey league. What it lacked in size — there were just two teams — it made up for in ferocity. The Vikings and the Icelandic Athletic Club battled for the championship as though winning the trophy would guarantee them immortality. In 1908, the Vikings and the IAC amalgamated under a new name, the Falcons, and joined the fledgling Independent Hockey League, a six-team outfit that included out-of-town competitors from St. Boniface, Selkirk, and Portage la Prairie. “The sons and relatives of well-heeled Winnipeggers played for the city league,” Falcons coach Steamer Maxwell remembered. “The Independent League was for the sons of farmers, shopkeepers, factory workers, and fishermen.”

The First World War disrupted the status quo. With its regular players quitting to enlist in the Canadian military, the Winnipeg senior team scrambled to keep the sport alive in the city. The Winnipeg Patriotic Hockey League was born and the powers that be held their noses and agreed to open the door to the Falcons. At the time, Frank Frederickson was studying liberal arts at United College, a University of Manitoba affiliate. He seemed to have a natural aptitude for stick-handling: he played in six games during the 1914–15 season and bagged 13 goals to win the Patriotic League’s scoring crown. Upon dropping out of college, Frederickson signed up with a Manitoba battalion and was posted overseas. He switched to the Royal flying Corps and was sent to a training base in Egypt. While sitting on a Cairo park bench, he chanced upon a discarded copy of the Winnipeg Free Press. He read the sports pages and wrote a wistful letter to his family: “I sure would like to be in Winnipeg for the hockey. . .”

At war’s end, Frederickson returned to the prairies and his beloved game. But not with the city league. Once again, the men controlling the organization slammed the door on the Falcons. Undeterred, the team banded with Brandon and Selkirk squads to forge yet another new alliance, the Manitoba Senior Hockey League. With Frederickson netting 23 goals, the Falcons won eight out of ten matches and the championship title. The team advanced to the playoffs for the Allan Cup, the country’s most prized amateur hockey trophy, and found themselves tackling the city champions, the Winnipegs, in a best-of-three series. The Falcons trounced the Winnipegs 5–0 and 10–11 before going on to the semifinals and impressive 7–2 and 9–1 triumphs over Fort William. The team journeyed to Ontario for the final, and beat a University of Toronto squad 8–3 and 8–2. The Cup was theirs.

The Falcons’ uniforms and equipment were sadly worn, but the team had no time to replace them. Instead, they hurried to catch a boat steaming toward Belgium and the first Olympic hockey tournament.

In Antwerp, the Icelanders learned that the Americans were heavily favoured to take the gold medal. In its first game, the U.S. team lived up to its reputation, humiliating Switzerland 29–0. The next day, though, the Falcons demonstrated that they were equally capable of registering an embarrassingly one-sided victory by walloping Czechoslovakia 15–0.

In the next round, the Canadians and the Americans faced their first real challenge: each other. Neither team scored a goal in the first two periods. Frederickson broke the deadlock midway through the third period with a breakaway shot into the net, and five minutes later, Konnie Johannesson made it 2–0. Canadian goalie Wally Byron deflected a barrage of late-game American shots to preserve his shutout. The victory over the U.S. team all but guaranteed the Canadians the gold, providing they got past Sweden in their third and final match. That task proved easy. Fredrickson scored seven goals to lead the Winnipeggers to a 12–11 rout.

The Winnipeg Falcons, Olympic gold medalists, came home to a reception they never dreamed of when they were merely a pack of outsiders from the city’s lowly West End. “If members of the Anglo-Saxon hockey establishment had once looked down their noses at the Falcons,” sportswriter and novelist Eric Zweig commented in a 1999 issue of The Beaver, “they managed to set aside their prejudices for the returning heroes.” On a cloudy May afternoon, the Falcons stepped off the train at the CPR station to be greeted by an estimated 10,000 people, all cheering, hooting, blowing whistles, and ringing handbells. Thousands more lined the streets downtown. A biplane circled overhead, a husky male led the parade carrying a large Union Jack. Store windows and procession vehicles displayed congratulatory signs. WELCOME WORLD'S CHAMPIONS was the message on a City Hall banner. Senior league officials who had previously disdained the Icelanders rode in parade cars, smiling and waving as though it were the happiest day of their lives.

That evening, a civic banquet was held at the Fort Garry Hotel. An alderman praised the Icelandic community’s contributions to Canada, and presented team members with gold watches. The following week, the players dined at Kiwanis and Rotary Club luncheons and the T. Eaton Company sponsored a dinner dance where an establishment stalwart, Sir James Aikens, toasted the Olympians. The dinner dance menu included Cream Frederickson, Fridfinnson Rolls, Roast Byron Potatoes, Goodman Tenderloin Steak and, in honour of the lone non-Icelander on the team, Woodman Carrots.

The city’s love affair with the Falcons amazed Frederickson. “People ostracizing us for years were all of a sudden crossing the street to shake our hands,” he recalled. “I recollect the coach joking that there was a spate of full moons that week.”

As it happened, a Winnipeg lawyer used a similar rationale while defending a butcher named Percy Campbell who, incensed by the team’s kingly treatment, had hurled a severed pig’s head through the Icelandic Athletic Club’s streetfront window. His lawyer said that Campbell was passing the building, the noggin in a burlap sack, when the full moon induced “a spell of momentary dementia.”

“Is Mr. Campbell a werewolf?” inquired Magistrate Warren Grigg.

“No, I don’t believe so,” the lawyer answered.

“Then his excuse is asinine. The fine is $25.”

The dementia defence riled the butcher. On a drunken Saturday night, lacking the foresight to bring a pig’s head, he picked up a parked bicycle and flung it through the lawyer’s office window.

Sometime between the victory celebration and Percy Campbell’s second arrest, six members of the Falcons team signed professional league contracts. Frederickson was one of them: he went on to play in the Pacific Coast League and for three NHL teams. “My professional career was exciting,” he later re flected, “but you know, it’s the small moments in life that stir the heart. I was in the parade and passed this store sign, WINNIPEG IS PROUD OF THE FALCONS. I could’ve wept. ‘Proud of the Falcons.’ The ugly ducklings were swans after all.”


By the fall of 1920, the forces of progress had trooped across the province of Alberta, dooming the Old West and its rough and rollicking ways. Ford motor cars rumbled along 56 kilometres of paved streets in Edmonton, the Calgary telephone lines buzzed with accounts of massive oil discoveries, and people in both cities were packing moviehouses to watch Lillian Gish jump the ice floes in Way Down East.

On the southern plains, cowboy country, a ranch hand named Tom Bassoff did his best to isolate himself from these dramatic social changes. He rode a horse everywhere, he camped on the open prairie whenever he could, and he seldom deviated from the frontier mode of dress, a Stetson and a cowhide vest. Bassoff kept a Smith & Wesson revolver in a bureau drawer, the very weapon Harry Longbaugh (a.k.a. the Sundance Kid) supposedly used for target shooting when he spent a summer cowboying near High River. On August 2, Bassoff removed the gun from the drawer and rode to the CPR station in Lethbridge. He had resolved to emulate the western outlaws he admired in his youth by committing what would turn out to be the most notorious train robbery and gunfight in Alberta history.

Bassoff and his two accomplices, Alex Auloff and George Akroff, were of Russian peasant stock. Their parents were farmers who emigrated to Alberta and found poverty in the New Land to be pretty much indistinguishable from poverty in the Old Land. At 14, Bassoff quit school to work on sheep farms and cattle ranches. He read everything he could find about Longbaugh, Butch Cassidy, Black Bart, and Jesse James. In later years, he was enthralled by the exploits of Bill Miner, the aging criminal who robbed a couple of British Columbia trains. Bassoff dreamed of staging a daring hold-up equally worthy of front-page newspaper coverage, grabbing a small fortune and escaping without a trace. (Auloff and Akroff didn’t share his interest in outlaws and newspaper headlines. They simply wanted to steal enough cash to form a partnership and buy a ranch.)

The plan to rob CPR train No. 63 on its run from Lethbridge to Cranbrook, B.C. began when Bassoff overheard a saloon patronsaying the so-called King of the Bootleggers, Emilio Picariello, was scheduled to be aboard. Operating out of the Rocky Mountain town of Blairmore, Picariello had grown rich smuggling booze across the Canada-U.S. border in a fleet of Model T cars. He was known to carry large rolls of cash in his pockets. Bassoff and his friends intended to rob Picareillo, the other passengers, and the express car safe.

The province hadn’t experienced a rail holdup for more than 20 years. The advent of the telephone, faster trains, reinforced express cars, and police units who could now speed to crime scenes in automobiles had lulled CPR officials into thinking such capers were a thing of the past. At 5 PM on that warm autumn day, conductor Sam Jones discovered otherwise. The train was in the Crowsnest Pass, approaching Coleman, Alberta, when the CPR veteran heard two men speaking quietly in the lavatory and opened the door to investigate. Bassoff shoved his Smith & Wesson in Jones’ stomach. Auloff, the second man in the cramped compartment, drew a Luger automatic, and together the two thieves marched Jones to the crowded first-class coach. Akroff was already there; spotting his companions, he pulled out a pistol.

The shocked passengers obeyed Bassoff’s instruction to fill an empty suitcase with money and valuables. To the bandits’ chagrin, Picariello had missed the train and was not even on board — the man they thought was the famed bootlegger turned out to be an unemployed labourer. The bandits deposited Jones on a wicker seat at the rear of the car. While the Russians busied themselves robbing the passengers, Jones jumped up and yanked the cord above his head, activating a whistle in the locomotive cab. Bassoff pivoted and fired a shot. The bullet lodged in the woodwork, half an inch from Jones’ hand. The railway’s communication system stipulated that a single pull of the cord was a signal to stop at the next station, while two pulls would cause the train to halt immediately. Engineer George Alexander, unaware anything was awry, slowed the train, preparing to stop at the next station, in the village of Sentinel.

Bassoff and his accomplices searched the male passengers to make sure they had surrendered all their cash and valuable possessions. Noticing the thieves weren’t searching the women, a few men passed their wallets to their wives, who hid them under their dresses. Two businessmen stuffed cash in their socks and a third man shoved $1,000 in bills beneath a seat cushion. At one point, Bassoff tossed 65 cents back at a man, snarling, “Keep it for your supper — you look like you need a meal!”

Bassoff and Akroff proceeded to the express car. Left alone with the passengers, Auloff snatched the conductor’s pocket watch, breaking the gold chain. It was a painful loss — Jones had bought the watch, a gold Elgin, just two weeks earlier for $96, roughly a month’s wages.

Meanwhile, in the express car, the terrified clerk swore he didn’t know the combination for the safe. As the train slowed to a halt at the Sentinel station, Bassoff and Akroff hurried back to the passenger coach in alarm. Jones insisted Sentinel was a regular stop, but the bandits leapt off the train in panic and dashed into the bush.

The robbery had largely been a failure, but it still caused the sensation Bassoff craved. It was front-page news throughout the country. The trio’s booty was approximately $300 in currency and valuables, yet the authorities treated it as if were a million-dollar heist. The RCMP, the Alberta Provincial Police, and railway constables all scoured the region for the “three burly characters with Russian accents.” Ordinary citizens clutching rifles and shotguns joined the manhunt.

The bandits divided the loot and hightailed it further south. Auloff crossed the border into Montana, while Bassoff and Akroff rented rooms in a brothel in nearby Bellevue. Five days after the hold-up, the pair went for a walk along the main street of the coal-mining town. Pausing in front of Justice of the Peace Joseph Robertson’s office, the pair noticed a wanted poster on the sidewalk bulletin board. The descriptions of the gang members were remarkably accurate, right down to the detail that the ringleader had a glass eye. Figuring the police would never think of looking in a brothel just 48 kilometres from the holdup scene, the pair lingered on the sidewalk, joking and laughing.

At that moment, Robertson himself happened to pass by. He glanced at Bassoff and noticed his glass eye. He stood in a doorway, feigning interest in a window display, and observed them sauntering into a Chinese café. As soon as they were inside, Robertson ran to the APP office and alerted the three policemen on duty, Corporal Ernest Usher and Constables Jimmy Frewin, and Fred Bailey.

Frewin entered the café first, a gun in each pocket of his tweed jacket. Bassoff and Arkoff were sitting in a booth. At a pre-arranged signal, Usher came through the front door and Bailey the rear. The lawmen drew their guns. Arkoff’s hand dipped under the table and grabbed his Luger, whereupon Frewin fired his weapon, mortally wounding the bandit. As Akroff slumped forward, Bassoff hurled himself from the booth, colliding with Usher. The corporal’s gun went off, hitting the Russian in the leg. More shots rang out. Bassoff was either a superior marksmen or had luck squarely on his side — the policemen’s bullets missed their target. Bassoff got off five shots, killing Usher and Bailey and badly wounding Frewin. Akroff rose and, bleeding profusely, managed to stagger to the street, where he collapsed and died. Bassoff limped from the café. Crouching behind a telephone pole, Robertson emptied a .22 pistol at Bassoff’s back, but missed with every shot. Bassoff disappeared down an alley.

The slaying of the two lawmen brought more than 200 police and armed civilians to the Rockies and southern prairies. The RCMP cautioned the civilians against transforming the manhunt into a lynch mob. Still, tragedy occurred. The night after the shooting, a police constable witnessed an armed male crawling out of a shack window and, mistakenly believing that the man was Bassoff, shot and killed him.

For two days, Bassoff dodged his pursuers. On the third day, though, a CPR engineer spotted the robber limping across the railroad tracks outside Pincher Creek. The engineer picked up four CPR constables at the next town and transported them to Pincher. Within an hour, the constables located the Russian sitting beside a stockyard shed, eating a tin of bullybeef. The foursome swooped down upon him before he could react.

A court of law found Bassoff guilty of Bailey’s murder. The cowboy who romanticized outlaws met a decidedly unromantic end on a prison gallows.

Auloff, meanwhile, continued to evade capture long after the Bassoff hanging. Leading the manhunt was APP Assistant Superintendent J.D. Nicholson, a former Mountie and master detective famed for his role in the 1906 conviction of Edmonton murderer William Oscar King. King had robbed and killed a farmer named Joseph Hindahl, but the police lacked the proof needed to lay charges until Nicholson traced clues in the province and the northern United States linking King to Hindahl’s death. (Oddly, a key piece of evidence was a pocket watch King had stolen from Hindahl, an Elgin similar to the watch Auloff took from the conductor during the CPR heist.)

Nicholson picked up Auloff’s trail at the border and followed it to the West Coast. On at least four occasions, he came within minutes of catching Auloff, who was working odd jobs in lumber camps and small towns in Washington and Oregon. But each time, Auloff’s friends (and they seemed to be numerous), would warn him whenever the detective showed up asking questions.

Reluctantly, Nicholson returned to Edmonton and the mountain of paperwork waiting on his desk and assigned APP Detective Ernest Schoeppe to the Auloff case. Auloff was sticking close to the Russian communities, and as Schoeppe spoke Russian, Nicholson reasoned he had a better chance of apprehending the fugitive. For three months, the detective wandered around the West Coast, pretending to be a labourer and an old friend of Auloff’s. He barely missed the holdup man twice. After hearing that someone was asking about him, Auloff decided to leave the country. He went south and vanished into Mexico. Realizing he was gone, Schoeppe returned to Alberta.

To Schoeppe and Nicholson, the search seemed over, Auloff now far beyond the grasp of Canadian law. But on January 18, 1924, a detective in Portland, Oregon sent Schoeppe a telegram. A pocket watch matching the description of the one Auloff had taken from Sam Jones had shown up in a local pawnshop. There were thousands of gold Elgins in the world, but the detective suggested Schoeppe might like to come to Oregon anyway. Schoeppe did. He traced the ownership of the watch to Ali Hassen, an unemployed miner. Hassen said he won it in a poker game in Butte, Montana. The losing player was from Alberta and, yes, he did have a Russian accent. Schoeppe journeyed to Butte. Six hours of inquiries led the detective to a boarding house. The proprietor said the only person with an accent on the premises was a fellow called Aix Holloff. Schoeppe sat and waited for the suspect to come home after his shift at the mine. When “Holloff” walked into the house, the detective arrested him.

The man protested that he was Aix Holloff, a Calgary black-smith’s son, and not the fugitive Schoeppe was seeking. The following morning, on a train heading north, Schoeppe pulled out Jones’ watch and dangled it in front of Auloff’s face. The Russian broke down and confessed.

“That bloody watch,” he grumbled. “Why didn’t I throw it away?”

The watch was introduced as evidence at Auloff’s trial, and the thief was handed a seven-year prison sentence. When the trial was over, Jones retrieved the gold Elgin. He looked at it every day for the remainder of his railway career.


Who says you can’t take your dough with
you when you expire? Patently untrue. The
question is, why should you? What is there to
spend it on, save for harps and prayer books?
I aim to meet my Creator flat broke.



Early in the evening of January 12, J.K.L. Ross, millionaire sportsman, naval commander, and devoted philantrophist, walked into Morgan’s, a classy restaurant in downtown Montreal, in quest of the establishment’s specialties, roast beef and rice pudding. A man he knew, a banking executive and fellow racetrack punter, invited him to his table. Over lunch, the executive revealed that he was in the throes of a prolonged losing streak and, deeply in debt, he was selling some of his possessions, including a 10-metre yacht he owned in Florida. Ross had never seen the boat and had only a vague idea of its value, but before the two men departed the restaurant, he wrote a cheque and bought it, even though he really didn’t need a yacht. . . he already owned five.