Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Family Felon: Is that all there is?

The official government oracle has finally divulged hard information about our felonious forebear Tom H Smith's crimes and misdemeanours. You’re not going to like it.

First, let's recap. According to family legend, Tom H, grandpa to the baby boom generation, went to prison for some fraud-related crime in the 1930s or 1940s. According to stories the Yulls heard from their mother (Tom H’s second daughter, Kay), he was imprisoned at a federal penitentiary in Kingston, which suggests a serious crime.

Betty and her fraudster Dad (probably early 1940s)

Not much else is known. There was a story about Tom writing to tell Edith when he was getting out of gaol to say when his train would arrive in London. He is supposed to have told her that if she didn’t want him back, she could just stay away from the station and he’d keep going. She went to meet him, and the rest is family history. 

To me, this always sounded a little too suspiciously like the plot of the 1970s Tony Orlando and Dawn Hit, “Tie A Yellow Ribbon ‘Round The Old Oak Tree.” But it made a great story.

In earlier posts, I indulged in much useless speculation about when the blot upon our family's honour might have occurred. I tried to trace Tom H’s whereabouts during the 1930s and early 1940s using a few sources, but mainly Vernon’s London Directories. It is clear that the man lived apart from his family at various times, but it begins to appear that little of that time living apart actually had to do with being incarcerated.

A few weeks back I made a second application to the Archives of Ontario under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, asking for any criminal records related to Tom H Smith between 1934 and 1946. Today I received a thin sheaf of photocopied documents in response.

It transpires that on 19 November 1936, a complaint was brought against Tom H Smith and Eric W Chapman, alleging that earlier that month, the two had “by misrepresentation and fraud obtained from W. J. Manning, the sum of One Thousand Dollars ($1,000.00), contary to the Criminal Code, section 405.”

The wheels of justice, at least by modern standards, ground very quickly in this case, mainly because the defendants pled guilty. They were initially put on probation until a sentencing hearing, and had to report to the court every week. Then, after several adjournments, they were sentenced on 17 May 1937 to 60 days in “Common Jail” – where they would, according to the Conviction, be “kept to hard labor [sic].” The Archives of Ontario also sent a photocopy of a London Jail register, listing Tom H and giving bare details of his incarceration. 

And that's about it. No court transcripts, no police notes, no inmate records. Nothing juicy. 

Anti-climax? You could say.

It also leaves a few questions unanswered. For one thing, how exactly did Tom H and his henchman defraud poor Mr. Manning of his $1,000? The numbering of sections in the Criminal Code has apparently changed since the 1930s. The current section 405 (acknowledging instrument in false name) doesn’t seem to relate. And I’m not sure how I’d go about chasing down the section 405 that was in force in 1937.

And then there’s the question of how such a penny-ante crime and punishment got blown up in family mythology into detention in a federal penitentiary and high marital melodrama?

Of course, it’s just possible that old Tom was a recidivist, re-offended later and really did go to the Big House the next time. But then why wouldn’t that show up in the public records held by the Archives of Ontario?

I will check the London Free Press for the date of the conviction and sentencing, but it's hard to imagine a newspaper bothering to report such a case. And I will try to track down the Criminal Code section cited. But I think we have to face it, the Ballad of Tom H has just about been sung.

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