THE COTTAGE INDUSTRY OF TIMMINS, ONT.STEALING GOLD
DAVID LEWIS STEIN
DAVID LEWIS STEIN reports from a city full of respectable thieves, where “high-grading” is as much sport as crime, and very, very popular
ON A BITTERLY COLD night just a few weeks ago, I gave a man in a hotel in Timmins, Ont., twenty dollars for a small package of gold. This was illegal, of course, but it was also surprisingly easy. At the time, the heat was supposed to he on the Timmins' high-graders, the men who steal, refine and sell gold from the local mines. In the Toronto papers, Timmins sounded like Juneau. Alaska, in wildest days of Soapy Smith. Arnold Peters, the New Democratic MP from nearby Timiskaming. had just sent a wire asking Ontario's attorney general to investigate the suicide of a miner named Roland Garceau. Peters claimed the suicide was really a murder connected with high-grading. Muido Martin. Peters' running mate and the New Democratic MP from Timmins, had demanded in newspapers and on television that the government do something about the big shots in the high-grading. Martin claimed that everybody in town knew at least four men who were getting rich on illegal gold. And like Peters, Martin had blamed a local murder on high-graders. People in Timmins were expecting
a crackdown and a major scandal to take place at any moment. It should have been the worst possible time to try and buy gold in town and if I had been a complete stranger. 1 might have had some trouble. But I had a friendly local guide and after two days spent mostly drinking draft beer, he was able to arrange for me to make my purchase.
High-grading is sometimes called Timmins' “second major industry.” The town's first major industry is making gold legally. There are ten mines in the fabulously rich Porcupine gold field that adjoins Timmins and all of them are plagued with high-graders. After only one week in town. I could sec why they probably always will be. Timmins' high-graders are Canada's friendliest and most respectable thieves.
To find out just how the\ get their illegal gold out of the ground. I went to Peter B. McCrodan, the
tough-talking, table-pounding manager of the McIntyre Porcupine mine. Mining gold, he explained, is not as romantic a business as finding it. His mine gets only about a third of an ounce of gold from every ton of ore brought up from underground and the only time most of his workers see any gold is when it has been poured into bricks, ready to go to the mint in Ottawa. Sometimes though, because of what McCrodan calls “those weirdo fluctuations" in the way gold is spread through rock, miners will come across a pocket of highgrade ore containing streaks of gold they can actually see. On rare occasions. after a dynamite blast, this visible gold falls out of the rock in pure nuggets. If the miners are honest, they send for the shift boss and the security guards. Then everybody watches everybody else while they fill a canvas sack wdth the high-grade and take it straight
to the refinery. If the miners are dishonest, they hide the high-grade and start scheming to get it out of the mine. McCrodan feels "personally insulted” by the high-graders. “They arc trying to make a sucker out of me,” he says.
McCrodan’s righteous indignation is unusual. Most mining executives I talked to seemed resigned to having the high-graders with them always. One told me, “We're here to mine gold, not preach to people about ethics.” Except for McCrodan and Harry Pyke, the manager of the Broulan Reef mine, who does periodically lecture his men about morality, the mine managers seemed to regard the highgraders as one of these unavoidable obstacles to making money—something like the union. McCrodan however, cursed them fluently and bitterly. I.ike just about every other mining executive I met, he uses language 1 haven't heard since public school. “Some of these guys have been getting away with it for so damned long they think they can go on forever,” he said. “But we're smartening them up a little now."
McCrodan has been at the Mc-
conlinued on pape 28
TIMMINS’ GOLD STEALERS
coniinlied from pape 18
Intyre only three years. By the end of his first year he realized the highgraders were stealing him blind and he arranged a special meeting in Timmins with Kelso Roberts, then Ontario’s attorney general. At the time, the local newspaper said about $1,250,()()() worth of gold was being stolen from the Porcupine mines every year. But McCrodan now says that no one really knows how much the highgraders get away with because they steal it before anyone can count it. The meeting with the attorney general has yet to produce any notable results hut McCrodan has made his own mine a model of security. He introduced me to Harry Strickland, the elderly chief of McIntyre’s security force. Strickland was to take me on a tour of the property and show me howhe wages his “continual battle of wits’’ with the high-graders.
We went first to the “dry,” where the men strip naked and pass into another barn-sized room where their mining clothes are hanging on hooks. As we went up the ramp to the lockers we passed a sign saying, "High-grading is stealing and punishable under the criminal code of Canada.” When the miners come off shift, they strip, hang up their mining clothes and show'er. They send their lunch boxes and any mining clothes they want to have cleaned along a conveyor belt into a locked room where security guards inspect them. In order to get to their street clothes after their shower, the men have to pass another “High-grading is stealing ...” sign and a security guard. The guard makes them open their hands, raise their arms and pass their towels over a lighted table that shows dark shadows if any high-grade has been sewn into the towel’s hem. Periodically, the guards give everyone a new cake of soap, confiscate the soap they arc carrying, and inspect it for high-grade. When Strickland suspects a miner is carrying gold internally, he hauls the man out of line and has him X-rayed. “We're not out to fill up the jails,” he told me. "We just want to make the security so tight that no one will even think of trying to high-grade."
Strickland's appearance is deceptive. He is fifty-nine, gap-toothed and losing his hair, hut he moves with the deliberate grace of an alley cat and his eyes see everything. He has a force of nine men who come !:■ at odd hours and never know until they report for work where it' the mine they will he working that day. Besides inspecting lunch boxes, bundles of dirty laundry and naked miners, they roam all over the property, from the surface to the lowest level underground. They have authority to stop and frisk any-
one — visitors, McCrodan himself, each other. Strickland explained that this system is his own protection. Even if a high-grader could bribe him, Strickland couldn't guarantee that the man could get off the property without being stopped and searched. The system seemed unbeatable to me, hut Strickland disagreed. "I'd be a damned fool,” he said, “if I thought they weren’t getting the stuff out of here somehow.”
In the streets, stores and hotel beverage rooms of Timmins, 1 found that everybody I talked to had something to tell me about high-grading. And they all had the same reason for asking me not to use their names. "We have to live here,” they said. But from what these people told me, I was able to piece together a picture of what happens to the high-grade after the miner picks it up, and about how the townspeople feel about high-grading in general.
Most miners mill their high-grade underground. They grind small pieces of ore in crude pestles made of pipe and then wash away the dross, much as sourdoughs panned for gold in the Yukon. They can sell their almost pure gold underground to well-known high-graders for about five dollars an ounce, but if they want to risk taking it out themselves, they can get much more for it. In Timmins, buyers balance the gold against pennies and pay two dollars a pennyweight. This works out to about twenty dollars an ounce. The buyers melt down the crumbs of crude gold and pour it either into brick or button molds. The buttons are roughly the size, shape and color of grapefruit halves. The buyers sell their gold to a small clique of “big shots” who never touch the stuff themselves but who arrange for runners to drive the bricks and buttons to Montreal, Windsor and Niagara Falls.
At this level, high-grading ceases to be a cottage industry and becomes somewhat sinister. Illegal gold from Timmins winds up eventually on black markets around the world. But no one in Timmins seems to care much about what happens to the high-grade after it leaves town. There is a kind of Robin-Hood-On-The-Old-Fronticr romance about Timmins’ high-grading and some people even see the highgraders as public spirited citizens doing their bit to keep Timmins' businessmen in business. Last year the town celebrated its fiftieth anniversary hut people still speak of it as a mining camp. The miners still think of themselves as prospectors. I must have heard from at least two dozen people this little litany: “The good Lord put the gold in the ground and it belongs to whoever finds it first."
Mining is brutally hard work. Except for the handful of actual miners who get incentive pay. the wages ol the other underground workers and the men who work on the surface are generally low' and in most mines there is no pension plan. When I was in Timmins. Murdo Martin was running for re-election as the miners’ candidate against the mines. But he was in trouble. His statements about highgrading had angered some people who felt that Martin was turning on his own strongest supporters. To defend himself, Martin blamed mining companies themselves for the high-grad-
ing. “These men have a fifty-year history of grievances against the mines,” he told me. his voice rising in Biblical wrath. "Wages in the mines around here are just about half what they are in Sudbury. Elliot Lake and other mining towns in the north. The men who work underground are picked men. If they have the least thing wrong with their lungs, or even if they have the wrong chest structure, the mines won't take them on. It's just like the army. And working underground can burn a man out in twenty-five years. Then the mines loss him aside like an old shoe. Is it any wonder that some men help themselves to a little gold now and then?"
Some people told me that highgrading is more than just a matter of making a little extra money, they believe that it is a highly organized racket connected to the Mafia in the U. S. and Europe. According to these Mafia theorists, the miners are the terrified serfs of the buyer who will bring in a killer from Montreal il anyone ever dares to squeal. I hese people hint darkly of beatings anil murders but when I asked for names they stopped talking, loo dangerous to talk, they told me. But when I cheeked with local police, they told me that there has been only one murder in any way connected with high-grading. That was several years ago. and the police now think that the murdered man. a suspected high-grade buyer, was really killed by robbers who were after the money he had in the house. And Arnold Peters' sinister murder case turned out to be just what the police had said it was all along — a case of suicide. A special inquest held after Peters’ telegram to the attorney general ruled that Roland Ciarceau had indeed committed suicide and the judge publicly rebuked Peters for acting as a public mischief.
Nevertheless, it was plain even to an outsider that there were a lot of local people involved in high-grading and a lot of illegal money floating around the town. But I was puzzled by the lack of illegal things to spend it on. Logically. Timmins should be a wide-open sort of place. But I was told by the taxi drivers and other people who should know that the town has only a handful of bootleggers. two brothels, one high-class and one not so high-class, and one organized gambling room. The highgraders. most of them solid family men. prefer to put their money into houses, new cars, outboard motors and beer. The hotels obviously get their share. Timmins has twenty-four licenced hotels for twenty-nine thousand people, which is probably a pubper-capita record for the whole of Canada. Many people told me that there is hardly a miner in the camp who hasn't at one time or another high-graded enough to pay for a round or two of beer at his favorite neighborhood taproom. In fact "beer high-grade" is a common term for money spent in the hotels.
To many people, the high-graders are civic benefactors. Look at it this way. I was told. The money the highgraders get stays in Timmins hut the money the mines make all goes to the coupon clippers in Toronto and New York. People pointed with pride to hotels and businesses that were sup-
posed to have been started with highgrade money. It seemed as though anyone who had done well in Timmins must have started his career stealing gold. Everyone I talked to boasted of knowing who the biggest high-graders today were and how they operated. Some even gave me names but warned me not to print them. They' had no real proof; they just knew. Everybody in town knew. But nobody in town would think of telling the police what they knew. People told me they would turn in a crook, or even a bootlegger if he w'ere making a lol of noise and keeping his neighbors awake at nights, but the high-graders are a different breed of lawbreaker. What the high-graders do is respectable: it they arc especially bold, it is even admirable. The highgraders are local folk heroes almost equal in stature to Sandy McIntyre and the other prospectors who first discovered the gold fifty years ago. An elderly doctor, who has lived in Timmins since the early Thirties and probably knows the town as well as anyone, summed up the local attitude just about perfectly when he told me, "It an artist wanted to depict the essence of the gold mining industry in Canada, he wouldn't paint a head frame or a mining shaft but a miner cooking high-grade in his cellar.”
Two against the gold thieves
The high-graders are more than romantic swashbucklers to the local provincial police high-grade squad. I hey 're thieves and the cops have to catch them. This is almost incredibly hard to do. judging by the high-grade squad's results over the years. There were only two plain-clothes constables, Barry Powell and Ken McLeod, on the squad when I was there. The third man w ho had been working with them hail recently been transferred and Powell and McLeod w'ere waiting anxiously for his replacement. Meanwhile. they were the only two policemen in the Porcupine who spent all their time looking for gold thieves. The local police help as much as they can. but it is up to Powell and McLeod to do the real detective work.
To convict a high-grader they have to catch him with gold in his possession. They sometimes arrest as many as three men in one week, but in an average year, they charge only about half a dozen. Only about half the men they charge eventually go to jail. On one occasion though, two years ago, Powell and McLeod scored big. They got a tip on a buyer and caught him at home with close to one thousand dollars worth of gold buttons. They sat in the buyer's house for the next twenty-four hours and arrested twelve high-graders. "After a while, it got to be embarrassing." Powell recalls. "So many men we had thought were honest came to the door to sell gold."
One night. I went on patrol with Powell and McLeod in their black police car. To be really effective, they estimate they would need enough men to mount a twenty-four-hour patrol. As it is. they work as many hours as they humanly can and sometimes go around the clock when they are on to something they think will produce results. The patrol I was on was just
a routine look around town. But someone had been calling McLeod’s house and hanging up as soon as his wife answered the phone. "We know who the high-graders arc and they know who we are," McLeod said. “They spend three quarters of their time watching us."
We cruised past several houses whose owners McLeod and Powell suspect of high-grading. At one, we found the lights out and the car gone from the driveway. We drove immediately to a hotel in the neighboring town of Schumacher where we found the suspect sitting alone at a table in the men's beverage room. It was almost closing time and the hotel was practically empty, hut we sat watching him for a while and he sat watching us. He was a tired looking, elderly gentleman who sipped his glass of draft with philosophical slowness. He didn't look much like a crook to me. Powell and McLeod told me he probably isn’t any more. About a year ago. they had been raiding his house almost every week and although they never caught him with gold, they figure they scared him right out of business. But they still like to keep an eye on him. He was basically a pretty good fellow, Powell told me. Most of the high-graders they know are. After a raid, and if they haven't found enough evidence to make an arrest, the high-graders will usually offer them a cup of coffee or a bottle of beer. Once, they were searching the upstairs of a man’s house while his wife was cooking them a snack on the first floor. Even the men they arrest bear them no malice.
After the hotel closed, we went out for coffee. It had been another fruitless night and Powell and McLeod were visibly depressed. They explained to me how difficult their job really is. High-grading is stealing, but the mines
seldom know when someone is taking gold so they can't report the theft the way another citizen might report a burglary or the theft of a car. Powelland McLeod can never be sure when* a big load of high-grade is loose in the town. Even when they have a lead and swoop down to make an arrest, their man usually throws away whatever he is carrying as soon as he sees them coming. Then it is up to the police to connect the gold lying on the ground with the man they have arrested. And northern jurymen, just like other people who live in the mining towns, are notoriously tolerant of high-graders. "Sometimes we miss a man by seconds,” Powell told me dourly. “Just as we get there, he throws the gold away. There arc some great ballplayers in this business."
When high-graders do get caught, their favorite lawyer is Gregory T. Evans. Since opening his office in 1939, Evans, a twinkling sparrow of a man, has taken close to two hundred high-grading cases and won most of them. He is a master at planting a reasonable doubt in the minds of jurymen. The month before I arrived, Powell and McLeod had caught a miner with gold in his lunch pail, his mining clothes and in his parents' home where he happened to be staying at the time. Evans pointed out to the jury that anyone could have put the gold in the miner's clothes and that he could have picked up the wrong lunch pail since there were so many on the rack that looked just like his. Evans managed to cast so much doubt on the police evidence that the jury let the miner go. "Most of the highgraders I know are basically honest men,” Evans told me. “You could leave a hundred dollars on this table and they wouldn't touch it. But they have this curious moral lapse when it comes to taking gold." ★