Sunday, December 20, 2015

Tracks in the Midnight Snow

In Winnipeg, the crime was known as "the Robinson safe breaking affair," but the man under suspicion for masterminding it was called—at least by one newspaper account—William Anderson. Along with his accomplice, "Sheeney" Holmes, he was arrested and stood trial in that Manitoba city in October, 1916. By the time his sentence—a mere three months—was up, authorities had discovered he was wanted for a similar crime back in the United States.

To accommodate the Michigan jurisdiction which had requested his extradition, the criminal was to be transported by rail, escorted by a Canadian immigration official, to the city of Windsor in Ontario—which happens to lie directly across the river from the American city of Detroit. Then, in the intricate dance between jurisdictions not wanting to overstep the bounds of their authority, the Canadian law enforcement official would board a ferry with his charge to cross the Detroit River halfway, at which midpoint he would consummate the exchange of the prisoner with Michigan officials at the international border.

Just before Marshal Jackson was to complete that journey—the Canadian Pacific Railway train was three miles due east of its destination after midnight on January 24, 1917—his prisoner abruptly brought his manacled wrists upward, then quickly down upon the officer's head, partially stunning him. The momentary pause was all it took for the man to grab the officer's gun and shoot him with it, killing him instantly.

Shackled yet still holding the revolver, the man exited and then jumped from the moving train, apparently leaping without injury to the snowy field below. Though word spread quickly about the fugitive—over the next several hours, posses were formed from several nearby towns to aid in the search, and bloodhounds were called out in the chase—after two days, the trail was lost. Authorities speculated that their suspect had likely managed to slip away by somehow crossing the border into the United States—some even surmising that he had taken the risky route of attempting a crossing of the iced-over Detroit River.

The news traveled quickly back to Winnipeg, home of the slain officer. All in a jumble, the front page story there gave confusing reports on just who it was who had been shot. The headline said the victim was Detective Nesbitt, but in the story that followed, he was identified as Detective Jackson. The conclusion of the report, however, mentioned that there was no Detective Jackson on the Winnipeg force, and speculated that the slain was actually a private investigator in the area, frequently under contract to provide services to the local government.

Is it any surprise then—considering all the confusion in the wake of the uproar—that in the follow up report the next day, all in the same column the fugitive would also be identified by two different names? Despite the details provided by the Manitoba Free Press on Friday, January 26, 1917, concerning William Anderson and his three-month incarceration in Winnipeg leading up to this unexpected climax, perhaps owing to an editorial sleight-of-hand, one report overlaid another, and in one breath the article fingering William Anderson bluntly asserted the perpetrator was a man by a different name.

That other name, incidentally, was James Stewart—the same James Stewart wanted back in Battle Creek for blowing the safe in Arthur B. Mitchell's Billiard Hall.

Photograph above: The Canadian Pacific Railway station in Winnipeg, circa 1920where the journey began on the long trip back east for Marshal Jackson and his prisoner in January 1917; courtesy Library and Archives Canada via Wikipedia; in the public domain.   


  1. Why has this story not made its way to Hollywood?

  2. I have to say my thoughts were along the lines of Wendy's. What an ugly saga. Perhaps he should have been called Jesse James Stewart.

    1. Yes, it was a messy affair--seemingly got worse, the farther into the story it got. Makes me wonder how many such episodes like this there were, a hundred years ago, that might only have been known locally.

  3. Replies
    1. That's what's got my mind wanting to ask so many questions. What I want to know: how did he get that way. Of course, I know the rest of the story ;)


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