You can support Canadian History Ehx with a donation at https://www.buymeacoffee.com/craigU
On Aug. 14, 1934, a man was returning to his office in London, Ontario after spending a holiday at Faethorne House, the family cottage along Lake Huron. It was a good drive; despite running late for work. The weather was beautiful, and the road was clear of traffic. Many have worse commutes than a drive through the country.
For the past two decades, the driver had served as the president of his family’s company. The company went through some difficult years, but it seemed, at least to the man, that better days lay ahead. About 10 minutes from the cottage, as he drove down Egremont Road, and approached Camlachie,, he noticed another car following him closely. It was odd, but not out of the ordinary.
Then, the car pulled past him and raced down the road. The driver watched the car speed away and his mind went back to the day ahead. Suddenly, as he rounded a corner, the car that had just passed him was coming straight at him. He slammed on the brakes to avoid a head-on collision, as did the other driver.
Both vehicles now sat idling on the road. In the other car, there were four men staring back at him. Then, three of them stormed out of the car and before he knew it there was a gun pointed directly at his face.
This was about to become one of the most famous crimes in the country’s history.
I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx!
The story of John Labatt’s kidnapping begins with something Canadians love…..beer. The national consumption which totals two billion litres of beer puts us 13th in the world. In Canada, no brewer is larger than the Labatt Brewing Company. It even predates Canada itself.
Labatt Breweries was founded in 1847 by John Kinder Labatt in London, Canada West, you might know it as Ontario. Kinder arrived in Canada from Ireland a decade earlier and established himself as a farmer before moving into the alcohol business. Along with his partner Samuel Eccles, the two built the brewery into a prosperous business.
Eccles retired in 1854 and Labatt took over his interest, assisted by his sons Robert and John. After Kinder died in 1866, John took over as the head of the company and guided it to become one of Canada’s largest companies. In 1915, John died, and the company came under the control of a trust operated by his nine children. One of those children became the leader, John Sackville Labatt.
The same year his father died; John Labatt ushered tremendous change by making it one of the first Canadian companies to pay its employees for statutory holidays.
Four years later, the horse-drawn carriages that delivered the beer were replaced by Keg trucks that carried 10-tons of alcohol, greatly increasing the range of the company’s delivery. Unfortunately, there was another change on the horizon and for the next decade it slowly eroded the company’s profits and nearly destroy it, prohibition.
Prohibition had been a growing issue across Canada since the turn of the 20th Century. Unlike the United States, Canada never implemented a federal prohibition on alcohol. Instead, the federal government left it up to the provinces to decide. Beginning in 1916 and throughout the next decade, nearly every Canadian province implemented prohibition.
Some, like Prince Edward Island kept it in place for decades, while Quebec only tried it for a few months before repealing it. For the most part, prohibition lasted only a few years before it was repealed. But the impact on Labatt was immense.
To put it into context… prior to 1916, there were 64 Labatt breweries operating in Ontario, By the time prohibition was repealed in 1927, only 15 remained. These were hard times for the company, but John Labatt kept the company afloat by releasing two temperance ales with two per cent alcohol, and by catering to the American market. Unfortunately, the American market was soon eliminated as well. In 1919 the United States implemented prohibition, which lasted until the early-1930s. The 1920s may have been the Roaring Twenties, but for Labatt, the revenue stream was, pardon the pun, drying up.
Despite the hard times, Labatt was the only brewing company in Canada to survive the prohibition years with its management intact.
John kept the company on track and brought in more revolutionary changes for his workforce. In the 1920s, Labatt his employees were among the first Canadian to receive annual vacation pay and in 1932, the company established a group insurance plan. While his employees loved him and the company, others looked to the Labatt family with envy.
Money was tight in The Great Depression and seeing the Labatt family and their fortune made them an enticing target. Meanwhile John Labatt, had taken the company through a world war, and prohibition, and as he drove down a country road on August 14, 1934 he likely felt the best days were ahead.
That is until he found himself with a gun pointed at him.
Almost as soon as the gun was drawn, John was pulled out of his car and thrown against the hood. One of the men gave John a pen and paper and dictated to him as he wrote a letter to his brother Hugh, which stated,
“Mr. Hugh Labatt, we are holding your brother John for $150,000 ransom. Go to Toronto immediately and register in the Royal York Hotel. We will negotiate with you from that point. We advise you to keep this matter away from the police and the newspapers so as we can return your brother safely. You will know me as Three-Fingered Abe.”
That $150,000 would be worth $3.1 million today.
John was then blindfolded and put in the kidnapper’s vehicle while another man drove John’s car to London and left it near St. Joseph’s Hospital. The reason this hospital was chosen was because John’s wife had been a patient at the hospital with an undisclosed illness recently, and his car parked there would not raise eyebrows.
It was clear, the kidnappers had done their homework on John Labatt. Once the car was dropped off, Hugh Labatt was telephoned, and he was told where the car could be found. At first Hugh did not believe the man on the phone but details about what his brother was wearing, the make and model of the car, made Hugh realize this was not a prank call.
The Windsor Star reported,
“A telephone call to the Labatt residence was the first intimation the family had of the kidnapping. A man’s voice told where the car could be found. When Labatt asked, ‘who’s calling’, the man hung up.”
Hugh was told not to involve police. While Hugh didn’t contact police, Sydney Mewburn did. He was John’s uncle and a take-charge type of person. A former soldier and colonel during the First World War, he had served in Parliament from 1917 to 1926, he became a leading figure in the kidnapping story as the go-between the police and Hugh.
Detective Thomas Bolton was assigned to the case and with Hugh they rushed to the location of the car. As for John’s wife Elizabeth, the family didn’t tell her John was kidnapped out of worry of how she would react. John on the other hand was taken to a cottage along Lake Muskoka.
As the car drove down the road, the blindfold became loose, and John was able to catch glimpses of passing objects.
Little did the kidnappers know that their actions were about to take the country by storm.
After the car was found, Sydney Mewburn used his extensive network of friends in law enforcement and government to get resources behind the search. As the head of Labatt, John was not only one of the richest men in the country but also one of the most famous. The Government of Ontario was not about to let him turn up dead somewhere.
Ontario premier Mitchell Hepburn cancelled all police holidays across the province and every available resource was mobilized to search for John. A fingerprint expert from Ottawa was also brought in to go over the entire car to see if further clues could be found. Detectives quickly worked to determine John’s whereabouts.
The possibility of gangster involvement was considered, and they searched the area around Detroit, Michigan. The newspapers reported the belief of the involvement of a professional kidnapping ring from the US.
During American prohibition, gangsters transported alcohol from Canada to the United States in rowboats across the Detroit River. Detectives believed Labatt had been transported in a similar fashion.
One man pointed to as a potential kidnapper was Joe Massie, a liquor runner out of Detroit. When contacted by Detroit authorities though, he stated that he was quote “no snatcher”.
Known criminals in Toronto and Detroit were rounded up but their fingerprints didn’t match the ones found in the vehicle, making things difficult for police. In the hopes of locating John Labatt, police searched the shore and vacant buildings of Port Huron, Michigan, across the river from Sarnia, roughly 100 kilometres from London.
The RCMP, Ontario Provincial Police and Toronto Police Services were all involved in the search, which tipped off the press. In particular when they all descended at the Royal York Hotel, so it didn’t take long for the story to get out.
A day after his disappearance, only one story dominated every front page in Canada, the kidnapping of John Labatt.
The public fervor over the kidnapping was due to several factors.
Mass media was on the rise, radio and newspapers served as a person’s link to the outside world and people were hungry for distractions, because of the Great Depression.
The biggest factor, though, was the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Two years earlier on March 1, 1932 the 20-month-old son of aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anna was kidnapped. It was a massive story that gripped people around the world. Sadly, the child was found dead two months after he was kidnapped. When John Labatt was kidnapped, no one had been arrested in the Lindbergh case. That would happen less than a month later in September 1934, when Bruno Hauptmann, a German carpenter, was arrested, charged, tried, and executed for the crime.
In an interesting side note, the evidence against Hauptmann is seen as circumstantial today, and the carpenter proclaimed his innocence throughout the trial.
In John Labatt’s case as soon as the kidnapping hit the media, people called in with tips. One couple stated they saw an elderly man being led to a car by three younger men along the highway between Warwick and Watford. That was close to the area where the kidnapping took place but police were unable to gather any additional information from that tip. Another man said he saw two cars, one with only one man in it and the other with four men, including one with something over his eyes, go past his property while he was working on his fence.
People also called the hotel to mislead or prank Hugh Labatt. At 1 a.m. the day after the kidnapping, someone called to arrange a meeting to transfer the money. Hugh asked to see his brother, but then the caller hung-up. Police ran to the room when the call came in, and reporters swarmed the hall hoping to get a scoop on the biggest story in Canada.
Hungry to fill newspaper pages, reporters published incorrect information.
Including that the note was hand delivered to the family, that employees of a Labatt brewery were behind the kidnapping, or that John Labatt had been on his way to Detroit, despite being warned not to go there by his family.
Reporters even became bold enough to walk directly into Hugh Labatt’s room only to be pushed out by police.
Anything that resembled news was reported, including what was called a mysterious meeting between Hugh and a man in a grey suit. The Ottawa Citizen stated,
“Attired in grey flannel trousers, blue serge coat and Panama hat, the well-dressed stranger disappeared as suddenly as he arrived. He had sat quietly in the hotel rotunda, it was said, while police conferred with Labatt. His entry into Labatt’s room was made while police were outside the building.”
Many quote “close friends of the family” unquote were interviewed.
Those sources stated that a few weeks earlier a stranger had been found lurking outside of John Labatt’s home. Another story said John had escaped a previous kidnapping attempt a year earlier while motorboating when he pulled away on a faster boat than that of the would-be kidnappers.
The truth behind these stories is up for debate, but they were gold for newspapers hungry for them.
Detective Inspector Thomas Bolton said,
“If you want me to say something, I’ll say this. John Labatt would be home right now, safe and the gang that kidnapped him would be in the toils of Canadian justice, but for you newspapers. These kidnappers are not too slow to read the papers. The papers are simply helping them out by keeping them abreast of every move.”
For the family, the incessant media coverage made them worry that the kidnappers would get nervous and l murder John Labatt. There was also no way to keep John’s wife from discovering the news that her husband had been kidnapped. Reporters swarmed the fence of her property.
Hugh Labatt said,
“I wish the newspapers would say nothing. Publicity of any type will make it very difficult for me. I don’t want to say a word.”
Privately Hugh withdrew $150, 000 from a London bank and waiting for words in a new hotel room. He was forced to change rooms due to the constant barrage of reporters at his door. The media sensation didn’t just impact the investigation. The kidnappers saw their hope of getting the money quickly and slipping away into the shadows slipping away and changed their plans.
Back at the cottage on lake Muskoka, 3 out of the 4 kidnappers, Michael Francis McCardell, Jack Bannon, and Russell Knowles, were getting nervous about the huge police response and media firestorm. Knowles is the one who drove John’s car to London with the note inside. McCardell was Three-Fingered Abe.
McCardell was a small-time bootlegger in Canada but had transitioned to robbing produce truck drivers between Gary, Indiana and Chicago. During one robbery, a police bullet shot off his index finger, hence the nickname. Albert Pegram had also been part of the scheme. After the kidnapping he was supposed to pick up Knowles at a pre-arranged spot in Toronto, but Pegram never showed up.
In my research I couldn’t find out how Knowles got back to the cottage, but when he did, he told Bannon and McCardell that Pegram never showed up and was likely long gone with their car. At this point, Pegram left not only the kidnapping story, but also the pages of history as he was never seen again.
The kidnappers had another issue when John told them the brewing company had not done well the previous three years and he was only one shareholder among many within the large family. Obtaining the money they wanted, he said, would not be easy.
Of course, this was his attempt to convince the kidnappers to release him. None of them knew that Hugh Labatt had already obtained the ransom. John also showed little fear towards the kidnappers.
“I never saw anybody in my life sleep like him. Must be strong beer they make.”
Overall, John was treated well by the kidnappers but by the end of the ordeal and as police closed in on them, there was talk of murder.
John said years later,
“Outside of the terrible suspense of the hours when they were planning to murder me, I was well treated.”
Realizing that they were in over their heads as the entire world seemed to be looking for them, the kidnappers decided to return John Labatt. They made John promise he would send them $25,000 after his release, and took him to St. Clair Avenue in Toronto’s Forest Hill neighborhood and dropped him off with enough money for a cab.
As John Labatt walked through the crowd into the Royal York Hotel, no one seemed to recognize him.
He made his way to the front desk and said to the clerk, “I am John Labatt, will you take me to my brother.”
At first the clerk thought it was a joke, but after some convincing he took John to the freight elevator and to his brother’s floor. John told police he caught glimpses of road signs as he was being transported but that information didn’t lead to any immediate arrests. That led American newspapers to speculate that the entire thing was a publicity stunt for the brewery.
Meanwhile John Labatt’s kidnapping had other prominent Canadians worried about their own safety. Federal opposition leader William Lyon Mackenzie King was in the middle of the an election campaign and had a vision that he was kidnapped. He wrote in his journal on Sept. 9, 1934,
“I ought to be campaigning etc., that my work will be well done and above criticism when the time comes. I pray that this is so. The basis for the vision might be kidnapping talk of Labatt.”
John Labatt made it safely home, but what happened after?[TRANSITION]
For two years, police searched for the kidnappers in both Canada and the United States.
The Labatt Brewing Company provided $70,000 for legal and investigative costs, as well as reward money.
In a funny twist of irony, the police went to John Bannon, one of the men who helped orchestrate the kidnapping, as an underworld contact to see if he could help them find the kidnappers.
Hoping to divert attention away from himself, he told police that he had asked around and found out that David Meisner was the man behind the kidnapping.
Police apprehended Meisner and John Labatt testified that it was Meisner who held him captive. Meisner was sentenced to 15 years in jail, while Bannon received $500, about $10,000 today, for his help. Things probably would have ended there. Meisner would have sat in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, while the actual kidnappers got away scot-free but Bannon wanted more money.
Hoping to collect the $5,000 reward from the Ontario government, which amounts to $100,000 today, he ratted out McCardell, who was in an Indiana jail under an assumed name. McCardell was sent to Canada for trial where he pled guilty, but he ensured to bring both Bannon and Knowles down with him.
McCardell was sent to Kingston Penitentiary for 12 years, but he was released before his sentence was up due to failing health. He died in 1949. Knowles was convicted on charges of kidnapping, armed robbery and sending extortion letters. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Bannon was sentenced to 15 years as well.
Despite being the leader, McCardell treated Labatt well during the kidnapping and was given a lesser sentence. Knowles and Bannon both entered not-guilty pleas. Meisner was granted a new trial since there was no evidence to support that he took part in the kidnapping.
The jury came back with a not guilty verdict after just seven hours and Meisner was acquitted of the crime
In all, he spent 13 months in prison before he was released. As soon as he was declared innocent, he sued John Labatt and settled for $5,500, about $105,000 today.
John never sent $25000 to the kidnappers as he promised.
Faethorne House, the cottage John was leaving when he was kidnapped, was sold by the Labatt family in 1938.
The property became a summer resort and golf course called Wildwood.
In 1978, the Sarnia Township restored the house, and it became a library and then the Gallery in the Grove, which it remains to this day.
John Labatt remained the brewing company’s president. He navigated the rest of The Great Depression and the Second World War. After the war, John t took the company public and issued 900,000 shares to raise capital. Many Labatt employees were among the 2,000 original shareholders of the company. In 1951, John gave up the presidency of the company to his brother Hugh, who served as president until 1956 when he died.
John Labatt was never the same after the kidnapping. Although he had not been physically harmed, the emotional scars took much longer to heal.
The men had been caught, but John was deeply impacted by the entire incident, and he spent the rest of his life as a near recluse, spending most of his time in his home while he ran the company. On July 8, 1952, John died at the age of 72 from a heart attack.
Today, the company remains the largest brewery in Canada.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Labatt Heritage, Chatham Daily News, Wikipedia, Library and Archives Canada, The Windsor Star, National Post, Windsor Star, Edmonton Journal,