‘Voices from Lambton’s Past’: the Labatt kidnapping, part 3

United States


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n part one of this story, four men kidnapped John Sackville Labatt in August 1934 as he drove alone in his REO motorcar, along the Egremont Road, heading for his office in London.

In part two, while one man took Labatt’s car and a ransom note to London, three of the men drove Labatt up to a cottage in the Muskokas to be held there until the ransom was arranged.

A few days later, the fourth man had just joined them when he said “Francis, Melvin, I got bad news and I got worse news. What do you want to hear first?”

Now, let’s rejoin the three remaining members of this gang at a cottage near Bracebridge, Ontario late on the night of 16 August 1934.

Kidnapping of John Labatt – Part Three

“Francis, Melvin, I got bad news and I got worse news. What do you want to hear first?”

“Come on, Russ. Just tell us everything.” It was Melvin speaking. But Abe also wanted to hear everything too. So he quickly added “Just tell us everything that happened since we grabbed Labatt and you left with his car.”

Russ sat down on a chair in the kitchen and began his story.

“Francis, while you were driving north, I drove Labatt’s REO to London and parked it just like we planned. After I had pinned the note on to the front seat, I walked a couple of blocks away and waited until noon before I phoned John Labatt’s brother.

“Hugh Labatt answered, just as we planned. Then, I read my notes aloud just as we decided, telling him ‘Your brother’s motorcar is at the St. Joseph’s Hospital with a note under the front seat that should be acted upon immediately.’

“When Hugh Labatt reacted by yelling into the telephone that he would hang up and call the police, I told him to cool down, that we had kidnapped his brother and he had better listen to what we wanted if he wanted to see his brother alive again. When he was asked who I was, I answered ‘Three-fingered Abe.’

“Imagine. While we was sitting holding his brother, Hugh Labatt was threatening to hang up, seeming to not even care about his own brother.

“You know I never even had a brother myself. But if I did, I would care more for him than that.

“Then, I took a bus to Toronto where I booked a room at the King Edward Hotel so that I would be near to the Royal York when we got word to pick up the ransom. As planned, I was going to wait there ‘til the next morning to call Hugh at the Royal York and make arrangements to pick up the dough.

“But by the time I got to the hotel, the snatch was already in the news. Don’t know if that Hugh Labatt just told the coppers or some nosy reporter just got wind of it.

“So I went out and picked up a Toronto Star and a Toronto Telegram. What we done was all over the front pages. I brought the papers with me for you to read.

“Look here at the Star. The headline reads:

’J. Labatt kidnapped – Gang Seizes president of Brewery Asking Payment of $150,000 Ransom Before Giving Captive His Release’

and here in the Telegram:

’Labatt Kidnapped – Brother Is Named Negotiator by Note and Starts Work With Police in Toronto.’

“The only good news was that the ‘Three-fingered Abe’ gang, as they called us in the papers, was rumoured to be hid out near Grand Bend or to have already crossed over into Michigan. They had no idea we was way up here.

“Why, there was even some speculation that John Labatt was nabbed by some of John Dillinger’s men.

“So I just decided to lay low and not try to phone Hugh Labatt ‘til the next morning. Even though I thought nobody here would know me, I just went to my hotel room and stayed out of sight until the next day.

“Then, when I went down to the lobby, I could see people everywhere. Most of them seemed to be reporters asking everybody questions. All everybody seemed to be talking about was the Labatt snatch.

“I avoided them as best as I could and went to the dining room to get some breakfast. It was very busy and noisy there too. 

“As I was standing in the entry, an attractive young lady approached me and told me she was alone and asked if I would like to pay for her meal and then join her in her room. But I didn’t have time for any of that and politely declined.

“An elderly man, sitting at a nearby table on his own, must have seen what happened. After saying ‘Sir, that was a wise decision’, he invited me to join him at his table.

“Now, Francis, you will not believe who I had breakfast with. This elderly man soon began talking about the kidnapping and told me that he was from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and had been sent here last night from Ottawa to assist with the investigation.

“He wanted to talk. So it was easy to find out how the police and the press got involved so quickly.

“Apparently, a friend of Hugh Labatt, a Major General James Melburn, was having lunch with him when I called his home.

“This Melburn is a prominent lawyer, a former federal cabinet minister for militia and defence, a man described by my tablemate as someone who, when he gets mad, is like a bear. Even though Melburn is an older man, he is used to getting his way.

“It seems he immediately told Hugh he was contacting both provincial and federal police and getting them right on the case. Then Melburn got in touch with the inspector of detectives of the London police and they both immediately went to the car parked at the hospital. Within a matter of hours, London police and Ontario Provincial Police had men working on the case across western Ontario and in Toronto.

“Then, my new friend from the Mounties said that he had been put on the case yesterday afternoon and had come down to Toronto by train the previous night to assist with the investigation. So that’s how the police and press got involved, Francis.

“To make things worse, as if they could be, later that night, just last night, there was a story about a man who had phoned Hugh Labatt at his hotel room and asked if the one hundred and fifty grand was available yet. I guess Labatt had been told to stall and try to keep the kidnappers on the line if they called.

“He did so while making arrangements to deliver the money to a place along the Humber River. But the call took long enough that the police were able to trace the phone being used and arrested some punk late last night. It was all in the Toronto Globe this morning. Imagine that guy trying to steal our ransom money.

“Then, to top it all off, Bert still had not turned up in Toronto by this morning. I guess he got scared and must have kept our motorcar and went on the lam on his own. He is probably back in the States by now.

“So, Francis, I decided that our plan wasn’t working and that I would not even try to phone Hugh Labatt. I just checked out of the hotel and got a bus north to Muskoka and then had to walk all the way here from the bus station.

“Long walk too. Took me near three hours of trudging. So here I am. What do we do now?”

As Abe started to pace the room, trying to think about what they should do next, a voice was heard from the other side of the kitchen wall.

“Gentlemen, perhaps I have a solution.”

It was the voice of John Labatt coming from the bedroom where he remained blindfolded and chained to the bed. He must have heard everything that was said, including all of their names. Now, Abe wondered, what could they do?

“Gentlemen, I said that perhaps I have a solution which will help you and me. Are you prepared to listen to what I have to say?”

After he had walked to the bedroom door and answered “John, we have to talk. We will be back in a few minutes to listen to your suggestion,” Abe motioned to Russ and Melvin to join him.

Then the three of them went to the other bedroom and whispered, agreeing that the plan had gone all to hell and now they just had to try to think of some way to avoid getting pinched for the crime of kidnapping, which, if they were found guilty, could mean twenty or more years each in the hoosegow. They had to figure a way out of this situation or look at big jail time.

Abe commented “Bert’s skipped and we don’t even know if he has already fingered us to the coppers. Perhaps they are already on their way here even now.”

When the three of them had finally agreed that they should at least listen to what John Labatt had to say, they went over to the bedroom where he was tied up and Abe said “Okay, John. What do you propose?”

“Well, Mister Abe, or whatever your name is, the way I see it, you will never get the $150,000 you were asking for. In fact, you will likely get nothing at all unless you agree to what I am going to propose.”

“Well, what do you propose?”

“Abe, all of you have treated me swell. None of you has in any way caused me harm, at least not yet. If you can guarantee that you can return me to Toronto still unhurt, I will promise to deliver the sum of $25,000 to a place of your choosing and will tell the police that I know nothing about any of you, which is true, anyway.

“Perhaps you can all still get away without doing any jail time and still get a few bucks for your trouble. Well, Mister Abe and friends, is it a deal or not?”

After another huddle, the three of them agreed to trust John Labatt. Russ told them that a friend of his, a one-time rum-runner, was living in Muskoka and would likely loan them his motorcar to drive to Toronto and back.

So they told Labatt they agreed and would be leaving within a couple of hours. Then, Russ walked back into Muskoka and returned well after midnight with an old Model T. 

About four the next morning, they pulled into Forest Hill Village just north of Toronto and removed John Labatt’s blindfold after he had promised to keep his eyes closed until they had driven away. Before they left him, Abe gave him back a dollar of his money from the bills he had taken a few days before and told him “John, we ain’t going to just strand you out here. This is for cab fare. You know we may be criminals, but we are Canadian criminals and we treat our victims well.”

That was the last time they saw John Labatt. They never did get the $25,000 that he had promised, perhaps because they had never tried to contact him again.

 HISTORICAL NOTES from the author: 

After writing the note after being stopped on the Egremont Road, Labatt was shoved into the Hudson and blindfolded with taped goggles. While three of the gang members drove Labatt to a cottage near Bracebridge, Russ Knowles drove Labatt's car to London where it was parked in front of St. Joseph's Hospital.

First word of the kidnapping was received by telephone at the brewery from a man who called himself Three-fingered Abe. The press soon heard about the story and started to ask, “Where is Labatt?”; “Is he still alive?”; “How much do they want?”

Labatt was blind-folded and chained to a bed for three days and two nights. But McCardell’s hopes were doomed to fail because his plan was too muddled.

Word had got out that the ransom request was for $150,000. Hugh Labatt was to gather the money and register at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto, where he was to wait for further word from the gang.

On the third day of the kidnapping, at about midnight, John Labatt limped into the hotel lobby. He had been released unharmed having secretly offered to pay the kidnappers $25,000 in exchange for safety.

The gang members fled. Melvin Pegram went to the United States where he was killed by members of the underworld before he could be brought to justice. Russell Knowles also fled to the USA and was finally arrested near Chicago in 1935 and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The leader, Michael Francis McCardell, who had lost a finger when shot by police in Indiana a few years earlier and liked to be called Three Fingered Abe, was also arrested and convicted.  He would die in Windsor, Ontario in 1950.

For the full story of the Labatt kidnapping, look for “Snatched”, a book written in 2004 by Susan Goldberg.

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