Skip to content

Many names, many victims for notorious Guelph 'swindler'

The local paper's headline from 1907 read 'SWINDLER OF BANKS NOW IN THE TOILS' regarding William Hanlon's defrauding of several Guelph banks in the early 1900s
The Dominion Bank was located at the northwest corner of Wyndham and Macdonell Streets.

Canada has certainly had its share of con artists, fraudsters and assorted charlatans. One was Edwin Johnson, an English-born counterfeiter who flooded both Canada and the US with phony money in the 1870s. His fake bills were so well-crafted, that some of them are now on display in the Bank of Canada’s Currency Museum in Ottawa.

Cassie Chadwick was a master Canadian swindler. In the 1890s and early 1900s, she convinced gullible American bank managers that she was the illegitimate daughter of steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie. The bankers loaned her vast amounts of money in anticipation of the big inheritance that awaited her when “daddy” passed on.

Neither Johnson nor Chadwick was known to have visited Guelph before they were finally apprehended and packed off to prison – although who can be sure.

However, at least one ne’er-do-well who could be considered a colleague in crime passed through the Royal City, and left with more money in his pockets than he had when he arrived.

In February of 1907, a man calling himself John Bell took a room at Guelph’s Commercial Hotel. He said he was looking for work, so hotel staff recommended him to Miss Willimina Dawson of Surrey Street, who operated a dairy. She hired him as a labourer.

No one in Guelph knew that police in other Ontario communities were looking for Bell, although likely not under that name. Bell worked for Dawson for only two weeks before she fired him for some unrecorded reason. The job at the dairy was just a cover, because Bell had another means of making money.

His real name was William Hanlon. He came from Lloydtown, a tiny community near Schomberg. Hanlon was a professional crook.

Over several weeks in February and March, Hanlon visited all of the major financial institutions in Guelph: the Royal Bank, the Dominion Bank, the Bank of Montreal, the Bank of Commerce and the Traders and Metropolitan Bank. In each one he passed himself off as John Gillies, a prosperous Wellington County farmer.

Apparently, Mr. Gillies didn’t get into town very often, because nobody in any of the banks suspected that the man in front of them was an imposter. Even more incredibly, Dominion Bank manager H.C. Scholfield, who had lived in Lloydtown as a boy and went to school with Hanlon, failed to recognize him.

Hanlon presented the tellers with forged cheques and bank drafts for various amounts of money for which he received hard cash. Altogether he scammed the Guelph banks out of $1,400 – more than $50,000 by today’s standards.

The machinations of business moved slowly in those days, especially in small communities like Guelph. By the time Scholfield and the other bank managers realized they’d been hoodwinked, the culprit was long gone. Nobody had any idea who he really was.

All Chief Frederick Randall of the Guelph Police Department could do was send out descriptions of the suspect to other communities, along with lists of the amounts of money taken from each of the victimized banks. In those days banks issued their own paper currency, so police would be advised to keep an eye out for shady characters who suddenly had a lot of, for example, Bank of Commerce notes.

Spring and summer passed, and police had no leads on the man the local press dubbed “the bank swindler.” Then in the autumn came news that a forger had tried pulling the same trick at the Bank of Commerce and the Sterling Bank in Orangeville. But this time he’d been positively identified.

Police arrested William Hanlon at his home in Schomberg, where he had a wife and children, and took him back to Orangeville.

When Chief Randell learned of the arrest, he contacted the Orangeville police and asked them to mail him a photograph of their suspect. He wanted to show it to the Guelph bankers to see if they could identify him as the man who had conned them. The local Crown attorney went to the Orangeville jail with a photographer and a reporter from the Toronto Globe. They told Hanlon to put on his coat and “look pleasant” for the photograph, but the suspect refused to cooperate.

He said that he didn’t have any money from any Guelph banks, and since bankers had “lots of coin,” they could travel to Orangeville and see him for themselves.

The Crown attorney could have legally forced Hanlon to have his picture taken, but decided not to. He said a picture taken of an uncooperative subject would not be a good likeness and wouldn’t be acceptable as a means of identification.

Two Guelph bank managers went to Orangeville to have a look at the prisoner. They made the trip in an automobile – a two-and-a-half-hour journey on muddy roads. They positively identified the suspect as the man who had been in their banks posing as John Gillies.

A Guelph Mercury front page headline announced, “SWINDLER OF BANKS NOW IN THE TOILS” – using an old expression that meant a person had been caught up in trouble of his own making.

Hanlon confessed to the crimes he’d committed in Orangeville and was sentenced to five years in the Kingston Penitentiary. But the law wasn’t finished with him.

In April of 1908, Hanlon was brought back to Guelph for trial. He denied having anything to do with Guelph banks, and he denied ever being employed at Willimina Dawson’s dairy, insisting that he had never worked for a woman.

However, the manager at Dawson’s dairy identified Hanlon as the short-term employee who’d called himself John Bell. The bank managers identified him as the imposter who’d claimed to be John Gillies. A handwriting expert said the hand that had signed the name John Bell on the Commercial Hotel register was the same as that which had signed John Gillies’ name to the fake documents in the banks.

Hanlon was sentenced to an additional 15 years.

Before Hanlon was put on the train to Kingston, Scholfield visited him in his jail cell. He reported that his old schoolmate was “very glad to see him, and that he seemed to be taking his imprisonment as a matter of fact.”

The Guelph bank swindler would have plenty of time to consider a different career.