by Phil Egan
(2015) He left a trail of chaos and human misery in his wake, yet he was a “charming rogue” who managed to fool almost everyone he ever met. Norman J. “Red” Ryan and his companions swathed a trail of criminal activities from Montreal to Minneapolis, but it ended on a Victoria Weekend Saturday in Sarnia. Before that day in 1936 concluded, however, Red Ryan had destroyed the life of a brave young Sarnia police officer and left a family in ruins.
The son of Irish immigrants, Ryan was born in 1895 in Toronto one year after his family had relocated from Chicago. By the age of 10 he had developed into the leader of a gang of rowdy hooligans running the streets of the city. Ryan was committed to reform school at the tender age of 10 for truancy and vagrancy, and was regularly charged and convicted of theft from the ages of 12 to 14. A telling description of the boy from that time sums it up succinctly, calling Ryan “a malicious little bastard who was always fidgety, always up to something, always trying to get something started.”
By age 17, Ryan had been convicted of three counts of burglary and, worse, “shooting with intent to maim.” The young gangster had discovered guns, and from this time forward he would fire almost indiscriminately at anyone who got in his way. A judge decided that Ryan needed to be taught a lesson, and sentenced him to 3-1/2 years at hard labour on the rock pile at Kingston Penitentiary. He would spend his time smashing rocks into gravel at Canada’s toughest prison in the days before penal reform.
Released from Kingston two years later, Ryan almost immediately committed his first armed robbery at age 19, and continued with additional burglaries, bank robberies and shootings until finally apprehended once again by police. He was returned to Kingston Penitentiary for what was expected to be a long sentence.
With the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, the killing fields of France and Belgium had begun to bleed the life force of a young generation of Canadian men, and by March of 1918, the army needed men and was becoming substantially less choosy about where they came from. Ryan was released from prison and shipped overseas. Upon arriving in England, he promptly deserted and initiated a brand new string of robberies and burglaries, which netted him time in both military and civilian jails.
A general amnesty in the days following the Armistice brought him back to Canada, but his behaviour was only about to get worse. Ryan committed multiple armed bank robberies from Hamilton to Montreal in 1921. Before he was apprehended for these latest crimes, he managed to charm and marry a “wholesome girl” from the ironically-named small town of Heart’s Content, Newfoundland. Elsie Sharpe quickly realized that she had married a scoundrel when her new husband abandoned her in a Winnipeg hotel on her honeymoon. Days later, Ryan was captured after robbing a bank in Montreal. Needless to say, the marriage didn’t last.
Sentenced to 25 years in prison in 1922 for three counts of armed robbery and shooting with intent to maim, Red Ryan was soon back behind bars in Kingston Penitentiary. He quickly befriended some of the most dangerous of his fellow convicts as his new companions.
Ryan, a dangerous thug named Edward McMullen and others escaped from Kingston prison the following year in what has been described as “the most daring and desperate prison break in Canadian history.” The escape was made amidst a hail of gunfire from prison guards and police, but Ryan wasn’t captured. A young Toronto Star reporter named Ernest Hemingway wrote a melodramatic (and partly fictional) account of the escape in what would become the first in many years of coverage of the newly-christened “Red” Ryan in the Toronto Star. Ryan promptly robbed a bank in Toronto, after which he made his way west. A rumrunner’s boat from Sombra smuggled him across the St. Clair River and into the United States.
Red Ryan and his gang continued their life of crime in America, robbing banks at gunpoint in Detroit and Chicago. They used their ill-gotten gains to enjoy the high life in the American Midwest, staying in top hotels and spending lavishly on clothes, jewellery, and a new automobile powerful enough to outrun pursuing police vehicles. Captured in Minneapolis after firing at police in a bungled attempt to pick up mail, Ryan was returned to Canada, hauled before the courts, and sentenced to life in Kingston Penitentiary in 1924.
It was over the next few years that Red Ryan pulled his most audacious con job. Determined to win for himself a rare Ticket-of-Leave at a time when life in prison literally meant life in prison, Ryan adopted the pose of a model prisoner. He wrote a book titled, “The Futility of Crime,” declaring that he had made a monstrous waste of his life. Befriending the prison chaplain, Father Wilfred Kingsley, he spent hours molding clay statues of the Virgin Mary, and claimed to have thrown off his life of crime “like filthy rags.”
In 1930, meanwhile, the Conservatives under Richard Bedford Bennett replaced the government of Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. A riot at Kingston Penitentiary in 1932, in which Red Ryan took no part, began to shift the focus of attention in Ontario on the need for prison reform, a cause loudly championed by Grey County Member of Parliament Agnes Macphail.
In the midst of these cries for prison reform, Father Kingsley began campaigning for Ryan’s release as a “reformed” prisoner. The Toronto Star soon began to similarly champion Ryan’s release, detailing Ryan’s miraculous transformation in prison in a series of articles. The Star also published letters from prominent citizens arguing for Ryan’s release.
Continued unrest in Canadian prisons over the next few years captured the attention of the Ontario electorate, indicating an interest for Ontario voters in the federal election looming in 1935.
Determined to see conditions in the prison for himself, Prime Minister Bennett and Justice Minister Hugh Guthrie showed up at Kingston Penitentiary unannounced one day shortly before election campaigning began. In the course of touring the prison, the distinguished visitors met Red Ryan, then working in the prison hospital, considered a “cushy” job for model prisoners. Bennett had a 45-minute chat with Ryan, who impressed him with his rueful admission of a squandered life.
In May of 1935, the Toronto Star ramped up its campaign to gain Ryan’s release from Kingston with a spate of new stories, suggesting that Bennett had “promised” Ryan an early release. Bennett subsequently arranged for a “leave of absence” for Ryan when his sister died in Toronto; an act described as “totally without precedent in the history of Canadian penology.” This proved to be a mere prelude to the end of Ryan’s captivity, and on July 23, 1935, Red Ryan was released from Kingston Penitentiary with his politically hard-won Ticket-of-Leave. Within the next year, the decision to release Ryan would have dire results and leave more than one family in anguish.
The Toronto Star, which had petitioned continuously for Ryan’s release, ran stories about him every day for a week following his arrival back in Toronto. He was feted at various events, treated like a celebrity, and photographed with judges, crown attorneys and even hosted at the Police Games. Job offers flooded in, and he was even given his own show on radio station CFRB, where he continued to lament the waste that was a life of crime.
It was all a hoax.
Three months after his release from Kingston, in October of 1935, Ryan began a new wave of robberies and safecrackings across Southern Ontario. He was believed to have fired a shot at Sarnia Police Constable Walter Lademar late on the night of January 13, 1936 while burglarizing the National Grocers building in an alley behind Christina Street.
Early in 1936 he had begun robbing banks again, all the while leading a public life in Toronto and visiting police headquarters regularly as part of his conditions of parole.
On February 29, 1936, the mayhem escalated. The Red Ryan gang killed a man in Markham, badly wounded his son, and fired on police while attempting to steal a high-powered new automobile for escaping the scene of future bank robberies. Before long, rumours began to circulate through the streets of Toronto that implicated Ryan in the Markham murder, but police had no proof and they were wary of Ryan’s new celebrity status. But Ryan began to feel the heat closing in on him. He and his gang decided to pull a final series of heists to raise money for a flight to the west.
On March 28, Ryan and a companion attempted to rob a bank in St. Thomas as part of this new strategy. On April 13, Ryan fired on police in Collingwood while robbing National Grocers, a favourite target. The following day, he and his gang were in Quebec, robbing a Bank of Nova Scotia in LaChute.
The final scene in the Saga of Red Ryan was destined to unfold on a Victoria Day long weekend in Sarnia.
Everything about Red Ryan’s last day of life was hurried and ill-planned.
Ryan and gang member Harry Checkley didn’t leave Toronto until after 1:00 pm to travel to Sarnia, a journey that, in the days before the 401 and 402 highways, could take as much as 4-1/2 hours. Their target was a liquor store located on the second floor of 140 N. Christina Street, on the northeast corner of Christina at Cromwell, later the site of Taylor’s Furniture Store.
The bandits arrived in Sarnia but then had to drive around town for some time trying to find a place to park. They were wearing railroad clothing in order to avoid attracting notice – railroad workers in a railroad town.
It was the Saturday of a long weekend, and Liquor Store #46, as it was known to the LCBO, was crowded with customers picking up a bottle for the long weekend. The store was due to close at 6:00 pm.
The liquor store had an “In” entrance on the north side of the building, and an “Out” exit on the south side. Long-time Sarnia residents knew that the “Out” door didn’t always close properly until locked. If you were exiting and realized that you’d forgotten something, you could always pry open the Out door. The faulty door would doom Red Ryan on that spring day.
Ryan and Checkley arrived inside the liquor store roughly ten minutes before six. Once inside the “In” door, there was a small flight of stairs, then a landing prior to a turn into the main area of the store itself. Ryan’s plan was to wait until the store was empty at six, then to ascend to the main floor to rob the store. Checkley locked the “In” door to keep others from discovering them while they waited for closing time.
Sarnia was a small town in those days. Everybody knew almost everybody. Inside the store, a patron named Austin (Cap) Glass had just realized that he was 25 cents short of the amount he needed for his weekend bottle. He peeked around the corner leading to the “In” door to see whether anyone might be coming that he could hit for a loan. As he did, he caught sight of the two “railroad men” adjusting their masks in preparation for the robbery.
“Stick ‘em up!” Checkley shrieked, as the two bandits stormed up the stairs to point their guns at about 20 customers still in the store. “This is a robbery! Hands in the air!” they hollered as they herded the frightened customers to the east side of the room.
It was about five minutes to six.
Outside the store, two patrons hurried to the liquor store before the six o’clock closing time. To their surprise, they found the “In” door locked. Realizing that it was not yet six, they hurried to the other side of the building, pried open the “Out” door, and started to climb the stairs. Seeing customers with their hands in the air, they realized that a robbery was in progress, crept quietly back down the stairs, and hurried across Christina Street to Welch’s Taxi Stand to report the crime.
Shortly before Ryan and Checkley entered the liquor store, 33-year-old Police Constable John (Jack) Lewis, a 7-year veteran of the force, had left his home at 315 Nelson Street to begin his shift, which began at 6:00 pm. The Police Station was in the basement of City Hall and Lewis, married with two children and earning a salary of $4/day, was one of only 13 officers protecting the city which, in 1936, had a population of 18,000.
In the Sarnia police station, it was shift change, so a number of officers were on hand, either leaving or preparing to begin work. The robbery report came in at 5:58 pm. Four officers immediately responded to the call: Detective Frank McGirr, Police Constable William Simpkins, Sergeant George Smith, and Jack Lewis, who had literally just walked through the door to report for duty.
In 1936, the Sarnia Police owned no bulletproof vests. Each officer carried only a light .32calibre revolver.
Three officers rushed in through the “Out” door and began climbing the stairs. Hearing the commotion, Red Ryan hurried to the stairs and fired at P.C. Jack Lewis, who was in the lead. Lewis fell, struck in the chest. A violent gun battle erupted in the liquor store as customers scrambled for cover. The noise attracted a crowd outside the store. Checkley was hit several times, and lay near death.
Ryan ran for the north side and the “In” door, which he found unexpectedly locked. Police fire poured down the stairwell, hitting Ryan several times. It was over.
The mortally wounded Jack Lewis was carried through a crowd of 100 to a police car.. Ambulances arrived from J.A. Robb’s and H.N. Phillips Funeral Homes. Harry Checkley was Dead On Arrival at Sarnia General Hospital.
Vera Lewis, Jack’s wife, was rushed to the hospital to her husband’s side, but both new the end was near. Forty-five minutes after reporting for work, Constable Lewis was dead, the first officer killed in the line of duty in the history of Sarnia Police. Ryan died at 7:50 of a bullet wound to the right temple. Nobody realized that the dying bandit was the notorious Red Ryan until Detective McGirr began searching his clothing about 6:30 pm.
The following day, in what must be considered a bizarre form of crime prevention lesson, Ryan’s and Checkley’s bodies were put on public display at Phillips Funeral Home on Victoria Street. This writer remembers his father, then a 14-year-old boy, describing how he lined up for hours to see the victims, naked, lying on a table covered to the waist with a sheet. In all, an estimated 6,000 people viewed the bodies, until an appalled Crown Attorney, Hector Cowan, stopped the spectacle in late afternoon.
Jack Lewis’ funeral took place the following Monday at Parker Street United Church. There were 150 cars in the funeral procession. An estimated 2,500 people lined the streets. The funeral has been described as “the greatest manifestation of grief that Sarnia had seen in its 100-year history. Nearly 80 years later, that description may yet hold true. Constable Lewis was buried in the Blackwell United Church Cemetery.
Red Ryan’s body was returned to a shocked Toronto by train. The Toronto Star was silent about its deadly gaffe. Toronto Archbishop James McGuigan refused Ryan the last rites of the Catholic Church. His body was interred at Mount Hope Cemetery on Erskine Avenue.
The City of Sarnia carried an insurance policy on its policemen and firefighters. It paid Vera Lewis $7,500. A further $2,000 came from a policy the city held on its 99 civic workers. Nearly $500 more came to the widow from the Ontario Police Association. It wasn’t enough. Vera Lewis worked in a factory for the rest of her life to support her two fatherless children.
Few Sarnians know the full story of Norman J. (Red) Ryan. Even fewer know the tragedy of John Lewis. Ryan’s story should be forgotten. Lewis’ story should not.
The reality is that a courageous police offer rushed into danger and died at the peak of his life defending Sarnia. He died running up a flight of stairs to protect citizens of this city and their property. Today he is remembered by later generations of family, by grateful Sarnians, and by his brothers in blue, who will always remember.