Canada, and places like Saskatchewan, never suffered from the lawlessness of the Old West like the American South did. That being said, there have been instances of violence and wild robberies in the past, especially in the prairies.
In Saskatchewan, few crimes are as famous as the 1922 bank robberies in Ceylon and Moosomin.
Today, Ceylon, located in the far south of Saskatchewan, is a village of 90 people. Brought into being thanks to the railroad in 1911, the origin of the village’s name is unknown but it was given to the community by John Alfred, who was the first postmaster and did not want the community named after him. Over the course of the years, the population of the community fluctuated with the harvests, typically staying around the 100 resident number. In 1926, the community was considered one of the best villages to live in the province in an article done by the Regina Leader.
Founded in 1882, Moosomin sits in the southeast corner of Saskatchewan, near the border with Manitoba. Named for Chief Moosomin, the community was home to several military units over the year, including the 10thRegiment, Canadian Mounted Rifles and the 1010st Battery of the 22ndField Regiment. The community’s military history is exemplified by the fact that General Andrew McNaughton was born in Moosomin in 1887. He would go on to command Canada’s overseas army during the Second World War, and would serve as Canada’s Minister of Defence.
Today, thanks to a major potash mine nearby, the community boasts 2,485 people.
So, let’s dive back in time to September of 1922 and learn a bit more about those robberies that broke the peace of Saskatchewan.
For Ceylon, the big commotion began in the middle of the night at the bank.
The bank had been operating in the community since 1910 when it was an independent bank situated in a small 12 x14 building on the north side of the tracks. By 1911, when the town itself moved, the bank moved into a 36 x 22 building. Seven years later, the rural bank was part of the Bank of Montreal chain.
On Sept. 27, 1922, a typical Wednesday for the community, a group of armed thieves arrived in Ceylon and made their way towards the Bank of Montreal.
According to Mary Hadley, an employee of the bank from May 1922 to September 1926, she was awakened on the morning in question by someone yelling that the bank had been robbed. Running out to see what had happened, she found the door to the bank had been blown off completely and the windows were smashed. Several people were in the area when the bank robbery happened, both at the rail station and the barber across the street, and they said the robbers were very well organized and had a truck that headed south after the robbery.
Emma Boss, who was the switchboard operator at the telephone office next to the bank, was awoken by a
loud explosion around 1 a.m.. Jumping up and lighting a lamp, she heard a voice say “Get that out quick, or we will put it out for you”. She then woke up the teller who also boarded there and they attempted to phone out, only to discover the wires had been cut. By the time they were able to alert authorities, by crawling on their hands and knees out the back of the building and into the alley, the robbers were long gone.
Within the bank, everything from cash and securities to bonds and mortgage notes had been stolen. According to the accounts of those who were awake late into the night, the men came into the town in a car loaded with guns, tools and nitroglycerine caps, fuses and a heavy suitcase for the stolen goods.
When the loud explosion happened, several townspeople awoke and a few were ready to run out and see what had happened. Toy Yee, who lived nearby with his father, said that his father had a revolver and he grabbed his gun to run outside and stop the robbery but he was stopped by another man.
The robbers took the money, ranging from $7,000 to $16,000 depending on accounts, and drove out of town. Just prior to leaving the town, one robber shot a rifle into the air. The last the men were seen was when they passed a farm at 4:30 a.m. about 17 miles south, heading for Big Muddy.
So, lets move over to Moosomin and the robbery that happened there on the same day.
On Sept. 27, seven charges of nitroglycerine was used to blow the bank safe open, while also destroying several windows and causing $3,500 in damages inside. The robbery, which happened at 2 a.m., resulted in two men bounding the night operator at the CPR station, a man by the name of Jim McDonald, and taking him to the bank. He was put under a desk while the robbers spent an hour cracking the safe and stealing
$8,000. It is believed to be there was at least six men who cut telephone and telegraph wires, as well as wires on all the cars parked along the street. The rope to the fire bell was also cut and G.J Nutt, the bank accountant, and his wife, were put under guard.
Around the time this was all happening, Harry Rivers, the night clerk at the Queen’s Hotel, noticed that several wires were cut and the CPR operator was missing at the station. He woke up several citizens who made their way to the armory and, once armed, walked to the bank. Unfortunately, the robbers had already left by this point.
Who were these robbers that targeted two communities in Saskatchewan and made away with a small fortune? According to Margaret O’Hara, who was a young girl in Moosomin at the time of the robbery, all the robbers were from the United States and were called The Norman Gang. It is not known if this is actually true regarding the name, or if O’Hara heard it second-hand from someone.
The robberies of the banks may have their origin almost a year earlier when a gang from the United States came up from North Dakota into Manitoba and Saskatchewan. According to the history of the Winnipeg Police Service, 1921 to 1922 was a period of several robberies and high crime in the two provinces.
On Oct. 12, 1921, there was a break-in at the bank in Elie, Manitoba with a gang stealing $1,200. Just over a month later on Nov. 16, a liquor warehouse in Carnduff, Saskatchewan was robbed and 60 cases of liquor was stolen. Once winter hit, the gang appears to have quieted down but by August of 1922, they started back up again. On Aug. 21, the bank in Melita was robbed unsuccessfully and on Aug. 28 the bank of Hamilton in Killarney was robbed of $11,000 after a safe was blown to bits. The bank in Elie was robbed again the next night, but this time the robbery was unsuccessful.
In September, on the 23rd, the gang robbed the Union Bank in Melita, again, and this time the robbers became violent. According to accounts, the men arrived in town at 3 a.m., walking from the outskirts where they had parked their cars. They cut the telephone and telegraph wires, overpowered the night watchman at the power station and tied him up, and made their way to the bank. Waking up two employees of the bank, they marched them downstairs and made them stand outside while under guard from one robber. Using eight charges of dynamite, the men blew open the safe and also woke up a number of residents. One resident thought there was a fire and ran to the fire hall to ring the bell, which may explain why in future robberies the bell was cut. The editor of the local newspaper walked towards the bank and was ordered to stop by the man guarding the bank employees. The editor continued to walk and was shot in the foot by the robber. A large amount of cash was stolen, later reported to be $108,189 in cash and bonds. The bandits then fled the town.
The robberies in Ceylon and Moosomin followed, with another robbery on Oct. 4 in Beinfait, Saskatchewan where the liquor supply depot was robbed of 100 cases of liquor.
Soon after, the gang took back roads and went back into the United States. A few days later, there was a violent bank robbery in West Hope, North Dakota where the town Marshall was killed.
At this point, things quieted down in Canada and the robberies came to an end. Now, who were those robbers? Well, it turns out they may have been a famous gang of brothers from the United States.
According to one account from the Texas State Historical Association, the robberies were done by the Newton Boys. The gang consisted of several brothers from a family of 11 children. Willis Newton, the oldest of the brothers, farmed until he was arrested for stealing cotton with his brother Doc in 1909 and sentenced to two years in prison. They would escape and be pardoned after being recaptured and serving five years. Willis would rob his first train in 1914, taking $4,700. He was arrested and released in 1917 on bank robbery charges, which led him into a life of gambling and petty crime. He would be arrested again, and pardoned by the governor again.
Willis would continue robbing banks over the next few years with several other men. In 1920, he was joined by his brother Joe Newton and another outlaw named John Glasscock to rob banks in Nebraska and Iowa, where they stole $400,000 in Victory and Liberty bonds that were worthless because they had already been registered.
In 1921, Willis enlisted his brothers Jess and Doc to help with bank robberies and they drove around in special Studebakers for transport, robbing banks throughout the continent.
Over the course of their most lucrative spree, which included the Canadian robberies, as well as several in the United States, they stole $200,000 in cash and bonds, valued at about $3 million today.
In 1924, the gang robbed a train at Rondout, Indiana. Stealing $3 million, or $43 million in today’s funds, they were responsible for the most lucrative train robbery in United States history to that point. In the robbery, Doc was accidently shot by Glasscock and eventually, the law caught up with the gang and each member was sent to Leavenworth Prison.
Doc Newton spent six years in prison, while Jess Newton served nine months for the train robbery, while his brother Joe served one year. Willis Newton, the ringleader and a man who had spent many years robbing places with friends before enlisting his brothers, was sentenced to four years.
Following prison, Willis worked odd jobs before going back to prison for hauling whiskey before being charged for a bank robbery and serving seven years. His brother Joe, charged in the same bank robbery, would serve 10 years. Jess would work ranches until he passed away from lung cancer at the age of 73 in 1960. Willis would farm with his wife for the remainder of his life, before passing away in 1979 at the age of 90. Doc, for his part, never seemed to calm down. He ran whiskey for a time and at the age of 77, was arrested for an attempted bank robbery in 1968. He was struck in the head when arrested, resulting in brain damage but he would be sent to prison to serve his sentence. He died of cancer at the age of 83 in 1974. Joe would work at several ranches over his life and die at the age of 88 in 1989.