Thursday, April 23, 2009

‘Canton Eddie’ — Turn-of-the-Century Safecracker

Mary Thill’s post about recent Adirondack bank robberies got me thinking about “Canton Eddie” (a.k.a. “Boston Shorty,” Edward Collins, Edward Burns, Harry Wilson and possibly Harry Berger and Eddie Kinsman) who real name is believed to have been Edward Wilson, a native of St. Lawrence County who was born in about 1876 in Canton. He was the perpetrator of a string of daring robberies in New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont, and probably elsewhere during his lengthy career. Using nitro-glycerin and “the rest of the safecracker’s outfit” he blew the safes of more than 30 post offices, including the Montpelier, Vermont Post Office at least twice in 1905 and in 1907. By the time he was arrested for the last time in 1916, he had already served a number of prison sentences totaling more than nine years.

Wilson turned up as part of a gang of burglars who called Rouses Point their home and roamed and robbed many post offices and stores in the Champlain valley in the early-1890s, including the Ticonderoga Post Office. Several were captured in late December 1894. In 1896 Wilson was sentenced to four years in Clinton Prison under the name Eddie Burns. After his release he served another year in the penitentiary in Columbus Ohio under the name Edward Wilson.

During the summer of 1907 Eddie was making camp at Rouses Point and using nitro-glycerin to rob local safes, including those at post offices in Hermon in St. Lawrence County ($800), at Montpelier, Vermont in June and at Sackets Harbor near Watertown in July 1907. In early November he hit the store of A. P. Boomhauer in Mooers Forks and the next day Napierville, Quebec., where Eddie and three accomplices roughed up a bank manager, blew the safe, and then escaped on a railroad hand-car with $2,000. On January 24, 1908 Canton Eddie was already known as a “notorious post office yegg man” when he was arrested in Lyons, New York, with his partner at the time, James Kelley. It’s believed that he was sentenced to four years in Auburn Prison.

By 1911, Canton Eddie was back at work robbing safes, mostly along the Black River Railroad and St. Lawrence River. On Friday May 19, 1911 he hit the Saranac Post Office located in the H.J. Bull general store. Three explosions blew the store windows out and completely destroyed the safe. Eddie was tracked to Cadyville, near Plattsburgh, but escaped. He hit the Trudeau Post Office in early 1911; by then he was being pursued by the New York Central Railroad Detective Joe McWade, who set up headquarters at various times in Saranac Lake. In June 1911 McWade caught Eddie with John Raymond in a Syracuse Hotel with “enough nitro-glycerin, fuses, and caps . . . to blow up an army.” Eddie was also in possession of a razor case with five small saws. Two other accomplices, including an unnamed chauffeur, escaped capture. McWade turned Eddie over to New York Central Police in Utica. According to press reports, prosecutors didn’t have enough evidence to convict him of robbery so he was released.

In May 1912 Eddie robbed the Post Office at Black River and on May 22, 1912 he was captured again near Utica. This time, giving the name Edward Burns, he was taken to Verona, near Rome, and handcuffed to a man named Frank Murray – he almost immediately broke the handcuffs and both men escaped. In September and October Eddie robbed the Norwood and Waddington post offices and took $1,800.

On June 7, 1912 he robbed the Lake Placid Post Office safe by driving to the south shore of Mirror Lake, taking a boat across the lake, sneaking to the Post Office and jimmying a window before going to work on the safe with his explosives. Heavy blankets were laid over the safe to deaden the sound of the explosion, and its said that a man sleeping just 35 feet away was not awakened. When he was finished he returned to the boat, rowed back across the lake, and drove out of town before sunrise with nearly $3,000. It was three hours before the crime was discovered.

In 1913 and 1914 Eddie was responsible for a number of robberies near the Canadian border, including a store in Standish and the Chazy Lake Delaware & Hudson Railroad Station. In April 1915 Canton Eddie Collins and an accomplice hit the Lisbon Post Office and several other area post offices. Despite his growing a beard to avoid being recognized, he was finally caught during the first week of May 1915 in Syracuse with his accomplice James Post, but again there was not enough evidence to convict him of the post office robberies. “The brainiest and nerviest of crooks,” as the Ticonderoga Sentinel called him, plead guilty to a lesser charge of possessing nitro-glycerin and was sentenced to just a year and eight months in Auburn prison.

Beginning around November 1916 thousands of dollars worth of cash started to turn up missing from mail cars traveling between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. In July 1917 Eddie was in fact back working with a two other men near Buffalo, robbing express freight cars at a watering stop at Wende, New York. They robbed the train station at Akron, New York, and the next night were captured as they returned to Wende to break into the Wende Station.

Joe McWade, the New York Central detective who made his headquarters at Saranac Lake during the first search for Canton Eddie, was a man of some adventure himself. In 1913, while on duty at Tupper Lake Junction, he shot two Canadians who were hopping the train when he ordered them off and they ran – one man later died. McWade was arrested and held in the Malone jail; later he was tried for first degree manslaughter, found guilty and fined $500. “The chagrin and remorse which he experienced from his trial and conviction were never forgotten by the detective,” one newspaper reported. “As soon as possible after the trial he sought a position in the southern part of the state where his duties would take him from away from the scene of the unfortunate shooting.”

McWade was once shot several times by a gang of train robbers and for several weeks was hospitalized in Buffalo and near death. After he recovered he went after the same gang and eventually captured them. On another occasion McWade took a job as a porter in a dive hotel where a gang of train robbers were believed to be staying. He got into their good graces and joined them in several robberies of freight cars, helping them bury their loot in a large hole near Lockport, New York. After a week he posted several detectives near the hole and set out with the gang to anther robbery. When they arrived at the hole to deposit their loot, they were all captured.

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