Three-ring robbery

In an excerpt from his latest book, Dean Jobb looks back at P.T. Barnum’s connection to an infamous Halifax bank heist

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ean Jobb’s new book Daring, Devious & Deadly: True Tales of Crime and Justice from Nova Scotia’s Past (published in September by Pottersfield Press), is jammed with stranger-than-fiction stories. In the following excerpt (shared with permission), we travel in time to 1876, when the circus came to town and a daring bank robber struck Halifax. For background on the book, see Jobb’s recent interview with Trevor J. Adams.

It was billed as “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and it was coming to Halifax for the first time. Special trains were arranged to bring thousands of spectators into the city on the first three days of August 1876 to see P.T. Barnum’s Circus. Advertisements and billboards, using money as a measure of the show’s grandeur, boasted that the spectacle was worth $1.5 million, paid $2,000 a day in wages, and filled three “monster” trains.

Patrons were promised “a Noah-like menagerie” of exotic animals, including the only living hippopotamus in North America. Headlining the show’s human marvels was Captain Costentenus, a Greek man who had been tattooed from head to foot with 388 images of “birds, beasts and men.” Acrobats, trapeze artists, trained elephants, a museum of curiosities and artifacts “from every Clime,” and a portrait gallery of “the most distinguished Rulers and Statesmen of the Old and New World” were also featured. Admission to the wonderous show, crammed into three tents set up on the Halifax Common, was fifty cents, a quarter for children under nine, and free to those willing to shell out a princely $1.50 for the nine-hundred-page, illustrated Life of P.T. Barnum.

Halifax was in the midst of a summer heatwave and turnout was heavy; some 9,000 tickets were sold for just one of the evening performances in a city of 30,000. “There may not be much money in Halifax,” noted the Morning Herald, “but there will no doubt be enough found to enable every man and his neighbor to be there at some time during the show’s stay.”

There was no shortage of money at the Bank of Nova Scotia on Hollis Street, a two-story stone building replete with pillars and gargoyles. And even bank clerks found it hard to resist the lure of the Big Top. On Wednesday morning, August 1, Barnum’s performers staged a massive promotional parade through the business district. As it passed the front doors of the bank about half-past eleven, all eight employees – including John Nalder, an accountant who was in charge while the cashier was out of town – grabbed their hats and headed outside. Horace Flemming, one of the clerks, locked the door and gave it a rattle to make sure it was secure. They were out of the building for ten minutes, fifteen tops.

Back at his desk after the parade had passed, clerk St. George Twining reached for the cashbox he kept in an unlocked drawer. To his shock, it was empty. When he had received it from the safe earlier that morning, it had been stuffed with roughly $17,000 in small bills.

“I first spoke to Mr. Nalder and asked him if he had been meddling with my money,” Twining recalled, thinking he was being made the butt of a joke. He also accused Flemming of hiding the cash. But Flemming was scrambling to find about $5,000 that had been in his own desk before the parade passed.

It was no joke. Twining sheepishly entered the office of the bank’s president, who had just arrived at work, to break the news: somehow, someone had cleaned out the till to the tune of $22,000.

*   *   *

Word reached the Halifax police station, just two blocks away at the corner of George Street and Bedford Row, about noon. Sergeants Nicholas Power and Daniel McDonald were dispatched to investigate. Power, a burly Royal Navy veteran who had been with the force for a dozen years, took charge and began interviewing witnesses. The only lead came from Mary Anderson, the wife of one of the bank’s messengers, who lived upstairs. About the time the parade passed, she said, someone rapped at the side door, a private entrance serving the upstairs apartments. She answered and was confronted by a stranger who said he had dropped a “valuable paper” through a sidewalk grate that connected to the building’s basement. He wanted to go to the cellar to try to retrieve it.

There was nothing strange about the request. Anderson was used to fetching items lost down the grate, but the man pushed past her and said he would get it himself.

Anderson stood at the door and stared down the hall as she waited for the visitor to return. After a few minutes he rushed past her from another direction. He had taken a second stairway leading from the cellar into the bank, then cut through the boardroom to return to the side door. “He stepped past me so quick that I just asked him if he got the paper; he said ‘Yes,’ and began to run.” He headed south on Hollis Street and disappeared into the crowd. Anderson, who had no idea the bank was empty, thought nothing more of the encounter until the clerks discovered they had been robbed.

The policemen were able to extract only the barest description of the man: short, wearing dark clothes and a hat. It wasn’t much to go on, but Power suspected whoever had pulled off the daring heist would be trying to make a getaway. He and McDonald headed for the railway station in the north end of the city.

At Flinn’s Hotel, near the depot, they hit pay dirt. Two men, one answering the description, had dropped in to ask where they could hire a wagon. That tip led the policemen to William Hinch, a cabman who lived nearby. Yes, Hinch said, two men, one tall and one short, had tried to hire him about half past twelve. He told them the fare would be five dollars. The shorter man reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of bills “nearly as thick as my wrist,” Hinch said, and peeled off some tens and twenties. He asked his companion if he had a five, and the tall man produced a smaller bundle of bills and found a five.

“They were in a great hurry,” Hinch told the policemen, “they wanted to meet some friends in Bedford,” a few miles north of the city. Hinch lined them up with another driver and the pair left. Each man carried a suitcase and the taller one had a small leather satchel tucked under his arm.

Large bundles of bills, suitcases, a short man in a hurry to leave town – Power and McDonald were convinced they were on the right trail.

The suspects were sitting down to a meal at French’s Hotel in Bedford when Power and McDonald walked in. They refused to give their names or answer questions. Power searched the shorter man and found a loaded revolver in his pants pocket. He also had twenty dollars in U.S. greenbacks and three dollars in Canadian currency. McDonald searched the other man and found a watch and no more than thirty-five dollars in American bills. There were no thick wads of banknotes like the cabman Hinch had seen. Power retrieved two valises from a room the pair had rented; they contained clothing and a black felt hat.

Under questioning, the short man said he was C.T. Watson from New York. The taller man gave the name Charles G. Hampton of Springfield, Massachusetts. Anderson was brought to the police station to see if she could identify Watson as the man who had entered the bank. “I would not take an oath positively,” she said, “but to the best of my belief that is the man.”

The identification was shaky, but it was bolstered by Anderson’s servant. Before the circus procession passed the bank, Elizabeth Langille had gone to the side door to take a delivery from a bakery. Just outside, a short man dressed in a dark coat and felt hat was leaning against the building. Shown Watson at the police station, Langille said she had “no doubt” he was the man. Watson and Hampton were charged with robbery and locked up to await a court hearing.

*   *   *

The bank clerks were chastised for displaying “the carelessness of children and the curiosity of nursery maids” when news of the robbery broke on August 2. “That grown men, with average intellects, should abandon the care of large sums of money, and leave their desks unlocked, to go out to gaze like raw bumpkins at a passing show,” fumed the Morning Herald, “is something that excites one’s scorntoo much to leave room for any pity for the victims of theclever rascality which followed.”

The Herald believed The Greatest Show on Earth was partly to blame. “There is no doubt that the circus was followed by some desperate ruffians, and the city is well rid of them,” the paper editorialized on August 5. “Thieves hang around Barnum like the cloud of camp followers.”

There was speculation the robbery had been an inside job. At least one city newspaper put the allegation into print, drawing a stern rebuke from the Herald. “Rumours, affecting the honesty of the bank officials, and hints of collusion, are baseless, and are very unkind to those who are already suffering deeply from the consequences of their neglect.” The paper that had scolded the clerks now leapt to their defence. “The young men yielded to an impulse to which nine tenths of the population able to walk would have yielded,” the Herald noted on August 5. “The Bank clerks only did as other mortals did.”

But the heist reeked of collusion. If Watson had swiped the cash, how did he know he could get inside the bank through the basement? The robber had to duck in, rifle the desks, pocket the money and duck out, all within a few minutes. Then he had made a beeline for the desks of the only tellers who had large sums of money. It was as if he knew the safe and cashier’s room, both containing large amounts of money, were locked. And how could the man seen waiting by the side door have known the bank would be empty, and for how long? The timing seemed too perfect.

The bank’s directors huddled in an emergency session within hours of the robbery, but there was no internal investigation and no search of the premises for the money. Still, heads rolled. St. George Twining, who had lost the bulk of the cash, was fired for carelessness. The other teller who was stung, Horace Flemming, was fired but later rehired. Nalder, the accountant who was in charge on the day of the robbery, was also fired. Within days of the robbery he had announced he had received an urgent telegram from his father and had to return to England. He left on the next steamer, his hasty departure adding fuel to the rumours of collusion.

Meanwhile, Watson and Hampton would stand trial that November. Would a jury find them guilty of swiping $22,000 from a bank in broad daylight, when the surrounding streets were crammed with people? If so, they had pulled off a feat of daring that would have impressed P.T. Barnum himself.

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