Sunday, June 14, 2009

Customs Stories II: Roaring Twenties (Part I)

They were called the Roaring Twenties - and with good reason. Bank robberies, machine guns, strange cars bearing stolen license plates, shoot-outs with law enforcement officers, international manhunts. At first you might think this story takes place in Chicago - what you are about to read happened in North Dakota. We are turning the clock back to 1928. Imagine what it was like to be a law enforcement office back then - no two-way radio communications, no high speed patrol cars equipped with fancy flashing red lights, no PA systems, no cages for holding prisoners - there was no highway patrol, nor county contract law enforcement. It was a time of each officer working more or less on his own, relying on his own wits to keep himself alive.

The story is true - the events have been reconstructed from the pages of the Manitoba Free Press (now the Winnipeg Free Press), the Grand Forks Daily Herald (now just the Herald) plus major excerpts taken from the unpublished book "My Experiences While in the Government Service" written by retired U.S. Customs Officer Lester Eddington.

Following his retirement, Office Eddington parked himself behind a typewriter and wrote a 116 page book detailing the experiences he encountered during his 31 year career working the U.S.-Canadian border. It was a career that ranged from the illegal liquor smuggling of the 20's to the smuggling of illegal Canadian seed wheat in the 50's. But the incident that nearly brought Eddington's career - and his life - to an end is the story you are about to read...
MONDAY, JULY 30, 1928 - 9:15A.M.

For Canadian Bank of Commerce couriers Kenneth Nicholson and Robert H. Jones it was just another typical Monday at work. They were on foot this particular morning, carrying a satchel containing $25,000 in Canadian currency from the Bank of Commerce near Portage and Main in Winnipeg to the nearby Provincial Savings Bank on Ellis Avenue. For security the satchel was chained to them, and Nicholson was armed with a handgun. Turning off Portage Avenue to Notre Dame, then rounding the corner at Ellis they were, as the Free Press told it "100 steps" from their destination when Nicholson thought he heard something behind him. Turning slightly Nicholson's worst nightmare had become a reality - he found himself staring into the wrong end of a Thompson .45 caliber machine gun wielded by a man in a slow moving automobile on the street beside them. From the corner of his eye he saw two men on the sidewalk ahead of them turn around - both were armed with handguns. To resist what was about to happen would have been fatal.

It was over in a matter of seconds - a fourth man jumped from the now stopped sedan and disarmed Nicholson, then ordered both men to lie face down on the sidewalk. A chain cutter was employed to snap the money satchel loose, then the men calmly and quickly piled back into the car and sped away. Lying helpless on the sidewalk the bank couriers made a quick note of the car's license number and description, then called the Winnipeg Police Department. Within minutes the word was being passed far and wide to all officers. The car, a blue Buick Master sedan. The plates, Illinois 834-890. Caution - armed and dangerous! For Jones and Nicholson, it was a hell of a way to start the week.

One of those receiving the lookout that morning was Canadian Provincial Police Officer William G. Renton. Stationed close to the U.S border north of Langdon, Officer Renton thought it might be wise to inform any American officers working that day of the situation. The border crossing near Maida had figured in a previous escape by U.S. based bandits that had robbed a Winnipeg street railway some years before and Renton had that gut feeling the Winnipeg Bank robbers might choose that same route to make good their getaway today. The only officer Renton found on duty that morning was U.S. Immigration Patrol Officer Lester Eddington. From here we'll let Les tell the story in his own words:

"Mid summer arrived and this morning I was working alone near the Mowbray store when alone came Constable Bill Renton, a Canadian provincial police officer. He informed me that there had been a couple of bank messengers robbed of $25,000 on the streets of Winnipeg. He said some years ago after a previous robbery by men from the United States, they had returned to the U.S. via Mowbray.

"Renton and I then drove to the edge of the coulee, one mile east of Mowbray and one mile north of the border. He gave me a description of the car, as well as the license number. As we sat there talking I noticed that he loaded a couple of clips for an English-made, high-powered rifle. He continued that there were five men in the gang and that one, the largest of the five, manned a machine gun.

"We sat there for about three quarters of an hour when Renton said he was going to drive back to the Mowbray store and ask the postmistress if she had seen any such car in the previous few days, reasoning that the robbers would have planned their escape route beforehand to acquaint themselves with the road. We had called Officer Bill Henneberry at Hannah and asked him to get out, and when Renton left me he said, 'Now don't be afraid to shoot just because you're in Canada!' in case they should show up before he got back. Bill seemed quite sure they would use this road. I said, 'O.K., Bill, if they come along before you get back, I will let them have it...' - I had our buck shotgun and my Colt .45 pistol.

"Renton hadn't gone over a quarter mile when I noticed a car approaching from the north on this coulee road, traveling at a fair rate of speed. I got out of my patrol car, threw a shell into the chamber of the shogun and stood in the middle of the road. As the car got closer I could see that it was a Buick sedan, and was a dark blue color. When they got real close I noted an Illinois license plate. But eh number was different than the number Renton had given me. I tried to stop them but would have been run over if I hadn't jumped to one side. If this had been in the U.S. I am sure I would have blasted them with the riot gun, however in Canada that would have been a wrong number, as it could have just been a bunch of fishermen returning with a quantity of liquor or something like that. However, I was quite sure this was the car we were looking for.

"I jumped into my car and took after them. I could see that they were throwing nails out on the road by the handful - each time they would throw out a handful a piece of paper would fly in the wind. They must have had these large headed roofing nails done up in paper. The Buick hit the CPR Railway crossing so far that I could see daylight under their tires. They passed Renton about a half mile east of the Mowbray stores, on the border road. Renton said later that he didn't know they were behind him until they whizzed past. They crossed into the U.S. at Mowbray and headed south.

"By the time Renton and I got to the Mowbray store we were only a short distance behind them, but I had three tires down and Renton had two down, with the rest going down! They quit throwing nails after leaving Canada, I guess they figured they had us stopped, which they sure did. As luck would have it Bill Henneberry and George Nelson arrived at Mowbray within minutes after Renton and I got there, driving Henneberry's brand new Paige sedan. Renton grabbed his coat, belt and rifle from his car and all four of us piled into Henneberry's car, with me at the wheel. By this time the Buick was completely out of sight.

"We hit the Mount Carmel road so fast that the Paige jumped into the air and after coming back to earth, I saw the spare tire flying through the air in the rear view mirror - we didn't stop to retrieve it. We were quite sure the bandits would go to Langdon in order to get gas, figuring that their gas supply must be getting low. We pulled into Langdon and drove to the several gas stations but no one had seen them - until they heard what had taken place, then it seemed that most everyone had seen them!

"We split up at Langon, Nelson and Renton traveling with Cavalier County Sheriff Carl Tollefson, while Henneberry and I remained together. We headed west on Highway 5 to a point four miles west of Langdon where we noted fresh car tracks over the highway, continuing south on a seldom used trail. As the tracks were quite large we figured it must have been made by the Buick. We continued south on this tail and at a point five miles south of Highway 5 we noted a man mowing the weeds. We asked him if he had seen a car pass by within the past 20 minutes - replied that about 30 minutes earlier a large blue Buick, with four or five men in it had passed. He didn't know what kind of license plates it had but said that it was not a North Dakota plate. We felt we were on the right track.

"We followed the tracks to a point about five miles north of Highway 17 where they turned east, crossed over Highway 1 and then continued east for another five or six miles. At one point a mailman had driven over the top of this track and we followed these tracks into a farmhouse but a young man at the place told us it had been the mailman but that he had noted a blue Buick going east. It had passed just minutes before and wasn't traveling very fast. This young man was about 20 years old and asked what was up. When we told him, he waned to go along. We asked if he had a gun but when he said all he had was a single barrel shotgun we told him to never mind the gun but if he wanted to go with us to hop in. He got in the back seat and I handed him my .45.

"After eight or 10 miles we were within sight of the Buick - Henneberry asked the kid to hand him Renton's high powered rifle. Bill tried to throw a shell into the chamber but was unable to operate it. Bill held the steering wheel for about a mile, while I tooled with it, but neither of us could figure out how it worked.

"Bill said 'There they were - five of them and with a machine gun and three of us with two .45s and one shotgun.' He said we really needed a little reinforcement! 'Yes,' I said, 'I think that is correct!' We decided to stop at the next farmhouse that had a telephone wire leading to it and the next house was it. We drove in the yard and Bill and I jumped out. Bill ran for the house, while I ran for the windmill and started to climb it in order to watch the Buick. I was part way up the windmill when I heard two blood curdling screams come from the house. I looked in the direction of the house to see two women pop out, running for all they were worth. Bill was running behind them trying to get them to come back - it was then that I noticed that Bill was carrying his .45 in his hand! Well, sir, the two ladies didn't want any part of it and kept on running to a cook car that was some distance from the house, which they entered and slammed the door shut. If it hadn't been for the gravity of the situation I would have thought it was one of the funniest maneuvers I had ever seen. You couldn't blame the ladies for being frightened - as Bill never knocked, just busted on them carrying this big .45 in his hand - he had no hate on, his hair was disheveled and his shirt tail was hanging out - and he wasn't in uniform.

"I looked back to see that the Buick was still headed east while Bill ran back into the house to try and call ahead, but the only town he could reach was Edmore and we were already past there. He was unable to locate the sheriff at Lakota, so he ran back out to our car. After speeding east for five or six miles we met a farmer with four horses on a drill, who pulled off the road to let us pass. We only went a short distance when we met the Buick coming back at us - but there were only three men in it. About a mile before we passed the farmer on the drill we had noticed two men walking south and wondered if these two might have been from the Buick but dismissed the ideas we didn't feel they would leave two of their men in strange, open country. Now we knew these two were part of the gang.

"After meeting the Buick we made a bootlegger turn and continued after them. Again we met the farmer on the drill and again he pulled over for us - I imagine this farmer thought that traffic was getting awfully heavy on this seldom used road. Bill and I talked it over and decided that this was it, if they were to be taken. Our boy in the back seat hadn't said a word since we first sighted the Buick and I thought perhaps he wasn't enjoying the ride. We figured they had doubled back in order to look use over - we were in hilly country and at times their car would be out of sight. The strategy that we had figured out was that we would follow as long as they kept going as we were expecting they would be running out of gas at any time, so if and when they stopped, we would take to the ditch and blast them from there. It didn't quite work out that way!"

From "A Tale from the Roaring Twenties" by Jim Benjaminson with Lester Eddington, North Dakota Peace Officer (Volume XII, No. 1 - April 1997)