Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Family Felon

Calling all family historians. Or just Smiths with long memories. I’m trying to find details of grandfather Tom H Smith’s conviction and incarceration sometime in the 1930s, or possibly 1940s.

It’s an episode in Smith family history that has been shrouded in some mystery, certainly for Blackwells. We didn’t even know about it until we were middle-aged adults, our mother apparently being too ashamed to ever mention it.

Tom H. Smith
When I first saw this picture, I assumed because of the way it was printed, that it was one of my father's, but it's frankly far too good for that, and was probably taken long before my father met him. (He may have copied the original picture.) Check out the next picture, a snapshot of Ralph Yull in his and Kay's first apartment. Note the picture on the wall.

Ralph & Kay Yull residence, circa 1939

It is possible to extract court and other records of criminal cases from the Archives of Ontario, which I would like to do. But if the case is less than 100 years old, it requires a special request under Information Access and Privacy regulations. This costs money, and I’ve already made one request that came to nothing. The Archives could find no records related to a Tom H Smith for the dates and courts I specified: 1927 through 1934 in the Toronto area or Middlesex County.

My assumption was that the case had something to do with our grandfather’s work as a strock broker. This was confirmed by Toby Yull who says her mother told her it was a stock brokering offence – something that was strictly illegal, but done “by everyone.” The courts, according to Toby’s remembrance of what her mother said, “made an example of him.”

So I thought the case might have dated from when the family lived in Toronto in the late 1920s, possibly just after or before the stock market crash, and that authorities didn’t track him down or prosecute until sometime later, after he’d moved to London.

I also thought I had worked out when he was incarcerated by piecing together information from Vernon’s City Directory for London. Vernon published semi-official phone books for many Ontario cities. Issued annually, the directories listed residents by name and also by address, and gave occupations and employers of adult residents.

The first listing I found for Tom H Smith in London is in the 1931 edition. The family was living that year in a very big and, judging by what it looks like today, very posh house on Richmond St., across from the University gates. By 1933, the Smiths had moved to St. James St., still in a good neighbourhood, but in a smaller, less luxurious house.

1140 Richmond St., London today

335 St. James St., London today

All this time, Tom H is listed as manager of Motor Credits Limited, apparently a loan company, not a brokerage, although he may have been stock brokering on the side.

Then in the 1934 edition of Vernon’s, there is no listing for Tom H, although the house at 335 St. James is still listed in his name. In 1935, there is no Tom H, and no listing anymore for Motor Credits Limited either. In 1936, Jack and Betty appear at the St. James St. address (as chauffeur and stenographer at The London Free Press), and the next year, Kathleen (Kay) appears as well, listed as bookkeeper at J. A. Nelles & Son. No Tom H either year.

Then in 1937, a Thos H Smith appears, listed simply as salesman.

My conclusion from all this was that Tom (aka Thos) H went to jail in 1933 or 1934, and got out and rejoined the family in 1937. This would have put the court case sometime before 1934. And that might be exactly what happened – except, if it is, why didn’t my initial Archives of Ontario request turn up details of the case?

There is another possibility. The third youngest of Tom H’s children was also Tom, of course, also with middle initial H. So it could be young Tom in the 1937 listing, still a teenager, joining the workforce to help keep the family afloat. (Selling newspapers, perhaps?)

Or it could be the prodigal papa, and the Vernon pollsters simply changed Tom to Thomas because they couldn’t conceive anyone actually being christened Tom rather than Thomas.

By 1938, the family has apparently unravelled a little further. Edith (Tom H’s wife, our grandmother) now appears living in “rms” (I assume, “rooms” – in other words, rented rooms in a boarding house) at 598 Princess Ave. It’s a not very salubrious part of town today, and I’m guessing it wasn’t a great area then either as it’s only a few doors west of Adelaide St., the traditional demarcation line between refined middle-class and industrial working-class London.

598 Princess Ave., London today
Betty and Kathleen (now also a steno at LFP) are with their mother at the same address. And a Thos H is now living on Sarnia Rd. (Again, is this young Tom or old?) Jack L, the former chauffeur, has, as we know, high-tailed it to Timmins for a miner’s life, married Ollie and fathered Bobby.

The remaining Smith family moves pretty regularly over the next few years until they land at 2 Horn St. in 1942. It's apparently a single-family residence, although whether owned or rented by the family (more likely the latter) is not clear. The house is not far from the forks of the Thames in downtown London. It’s an area that is gentrifying today, but that particular address is pretty run-down.

2 Horn St., London today
But no Tom H or Thos H appears until 1946, when, confusingly, a Thomas H Smith is listed at 2 Horn St., as sales rep at Canadian Johns-Manville Co. Ltd., a maker of asbestos-based insulation. Edith appears in parenthesis after his name, indicating, presumably, that she was wife and home maker again, and no longer head of household. So they were back together?

As a side note, I recently received my mother’s military records. In her application to join the air force in 1943, she gives her father’s address as “unknown.”

So. Can anyone give me any other clues on when Tom H was convicted and went to prison? Or can anyone corroborate or contradict any of the facts (or supposed facts) I’ve presented here. Anything that would help narrow it down to a range of dates and a place would be helpful.

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