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Shootout in St. Boniface — Manitoba government offered a $2,500 reward for the capture of James Buller
Oct 12, 2012

 

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
The greatest unsolved mystery of the shootings of the three Manitoba Provincial Police (MPP) morality officers at the Stockyards Hotel in St. Boniface on November 11, 1920, was the identity of the “other man.” None of the first-hand witnesses seemed to be able to shed additional light on the second gunman involved in the shootings of MPP Chief Morality Officer Alexander McCurdy, and MPP constables James Uttley and Jack Dineen.
It appears that the mystery man was among those who had been gathered in the hotel’s restaurant when it was being searched by MPP constables Fred Cawsey, A.W. Miller and Dineen for illegal alcohol as specified by the 1916 Manitoba Temperance Act, which established prohibition in the province. The one a.m. raid on the Stockyards Hotel resulted from information provided by a “spotter,” a government-paid informant, that the establishment was operating a “speakeasy.”
At the same time as the three MPP constables were downstairs in the restaurant, McCurdy and Uttley were conducting their own search upstairs. 
Cawsey said he had noticed a man on the edge of the group in the restaurant, who started upstairs before the shooting began. Miller followed, but returned downstairs when he noticed the man had a gun. Shortly afterward, the shooting started in Room 8, and then in the hallway when Cawsey and Dineen went upstairs to investigate the gunfire.
John Allen, Manitoba’s deputy attorney-general, tried to discover more about the “other man” when he questioned Christiana Johnson, the hotel chambermaid who had been called into Room 8 by the individual she only knew as James Brown, at the inquest into the death of McCurdy.
Uttley would also succumb to the wounds he received in the one-sided gunfight, as none of the morality squad members were armed. Among the three MPP officers shot, just Dineen survived.
Johnson was a difficult witness, who seemed more concerned about being accused of being in a state of undress in Brown’s bed than providing more clarification about what happened in the hotel room.
“What about the other big man who came in?” asked the attorney-general.
“I never took much notice of him,” answered Johnson.
She replied to other questioning that the police entered the room (McCurdy and Uttley) and told her she was under arrest.
When asked if she inquired about why she was being placed under arrest, Johnson said, “How had I the time to ask when the bullets were flying?”
That is another mystery of the shootings. Why had McCurdy and Uttley singled out Room 8 during their search for illegal liquor? Had they been tipped off by the “spotter?”
Under further questioning, Johnson said she had never seen the man named Brown before that evening.
Soon after the shootings, it was found that the occupant of Room 8 had registered at the hotel as “James Brown and wife,” and his name was the last of the hotel guests signing in the evening of November 10. 
Police eventually determined that James Brown was an alias used by James Bullard.
After bursting out of the hotel room and fleeing down the stairway, the two shooters escaped by holding a gun to the head of Joseph Biernes, the proprietor of the Stockyards Hotel. Biernes had the bad fortune of rushing up the stairs to investigate the shooting when he was confronted by the gunmen. The two men forced him into his vehicle, threatening to “blow his brains out” if he didn’t drive them away from the crime scene.
Biernes drove his car past the St. Boniface Hospital and then over the Provencher Bridge (the second bridge of that name), heading into Winnipeg. At the police inquest, Biernes said: ‘There was a freight train shunting in the (CN) yards (now the site of The Forks), and approaching this the two men jumped off, firing a shot as I turned, I suppose to intimidate me. I headed to the city police station and told the officer there all that I knew of the affair. It was at the foot of Main Street that I let the men off. I did not know the two men. I had seen the bigger man (Brown/Bullard) two days before.”
At first, Biernes was placed under arrest, as the police thought he may have been an accomplice, but was released when it was determined he was a victim of the two gunmen.
A Canadian National Railway (CNR) switchman, working near the bridge on the Thursday morning when the shootings occurred,  told police he saw the two gunmen in the “big car.” At the time, the switchman was unaware of the gunfight at the hotel, and there was nothing about the behaviour of the men in the car to indicate anything was wrong.
He said the two men got out of the car near the subway at Main Street (and York Avenue) and proceeded northward, disappearing from view between Notre Dame Avenue East (now William Stephenson Way) and Lombard Street.
In a bulletin sent to other police forces across Canada, Brown was described as 35 years old, 5-foot-11 to 6-feet tall, weighing 190 pounds, with a prominent nose, thick lips, clean shaven, possessing a clear complexion, hair tinged with grey, and wearing a light grey suit, dark overcoat with a fur collar and a fedora.
His yet-to-be-identified companion was described as 25 years old, 5-foot-8, dark complexioned, sporting a small moustache, and wearing a dark suit and a dark grey overcoat and tan boots.
Interestingly, the companion was said to have had “studied medicine for several years.” How this conclusion was reached was not revealed.
Just one day after the shooting, Col. J.G. Rattray, the MPP commissioner, reported that Brown was sighted in Calgary and an arrest was eminent. The message he received also stated that Brown was an assumed name, which turned out to the case.
On November 16, 1920, the Manitoba Free Press reported that the police were seeking James “Jim” Buller in connection with the murder of McCurdy. The provincial government subsequently offered a $2,500 reward for the arrest of “Jim Buller, alias Jim Bullard, alias Jim Kidd, alias Jim Grey, for the murder of Alexander McCurdy at the Stockyard Hotel.”
Buller was originally from Ridgetown and had left the Ontario town 10 or 11 years earlier for Western Canada. While residing in Moose Jaw and working for the Canadian Pacific Railway, he was known as “Cow Puncher” Jim Buller.
In Regina, Buller had been involved in a gunfight with the local police on June 14, 1914, during which 40 shots were said to have been exchanged. Buller was arrested only after he was badly wounded. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to five years in jail.
Detective David Dickie of the Winnipeg police, while previously serving as a constable with the Regina police force, had taken part in the gunfight with Buller. He came upon three men attempting to break into the Canadian Northern Railway freight sheds. Dickie was fired upon and exchanged shots with the would-be robbers. Two of the men escaped, but Buller was captured. When arrested, Buller was carrying two revolvers.
On January 31, 1919, Buller was arrested in Vancouver along with a man named Lewis and A.R. Wright for conspiring to rob several Alberta farmers in a fake stock scheme. Lewis jumped his $5,000 bail, while Wright was acquitted after producing an alibi. The Crown was unable to connect Buller to the crime, so he was also acquitted.
After seeing a picture of Buller in the Free Press, Portage la Prairie Police Chief McIntyre reported two men had come to the police station on November 10, wanting to know about selling furs in the community. They told the police chief that they had some furs they wanted to sell cheap.
McIntyre told the men he had received a report of stolen furs, so he had to see the furs to satisfy that they weren’t the items in question. He accompanied the men to the CPR depot where the two men opened a trunk and displayed what furs they had left. They also showed the police chief licences they had obtained in Moose Jaw, Saskatoon and Calgary to sell furs. McIntyre was then satisfied they were selling legitimate goods. They took out a licence at the town hall under the name of Williamson Brothers, but were unable to sell many furs, so they left for Winnipeg. It was speculated that once in St. Boniface, the two men went immediately to the Stockyards Hotel where the gunfight took place.
But the investigation in Winnipeg also produced information that the two men wanted for murder had been in the city for at least a week and stayed at other hotels before appearing at the Stockyards. It was further suspected by police that Buller had been involved in the Union Bank of Canada robbery in Winkler on October 13, 1920. The thieves got away with $19,000 in cash and still had not been apprehended when the shootings occurred in St. Boniface.
The fatal gunfight created an uproar of indignation in Winnipeg. Rev. Daniel McIver, the minister of the Norwood Presbyterian Church, in a statement said: “Something should be done in connection with the closing of the Stockyards Hotel.”
At another Norwood meeting, residents said they would approach the provincial licence inspector, J.N. McLean, urging him to cancel the hotel’s licence. If the licence wasn’t cancelled, they would “organize an armed party and raid the hotel” (Free Press, November 13).
In the wake of the shootings, the provincial government said it would not reopen the issue of prohibition in the province, but vowed to use  greater vigilance in its enforcement.
Meanwhile, on November 15, J.H. “Curley” O’Neil was identified as Buller’s partner and arrested in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. He was alleged to have just returned from Winnipeg when he was arrested. 
“‘Curley’ O’Neil submitted very quietly to arrest at Moose Jaw,” reported the November 19 Free Press. “Detective Chief Townshead and Detective Blundell were driving along the street when they saw O’Neil at the window of Russ McGirr’s livery barn. They stopped the car, went in, and arrested him. The accused, according to newspaper reports, had nothing to say, but appeared greatly surprised.”
There was a good reason for O’Neil to be “greatly surprised” by his arrest. After being brought to Winnipeg, O’Neil provided police with an iron-clad alibi, proving he had not been near the Stockyards Hotel on November 11. In fact, when a number of eye-witnesses were brought forward, they all claimed that he wasn’t Buller’s “companion” at the hotel nor had they seen O’Neil in the vicinity of the shootings. He was released from custody.
At the coroner’s inquest into Uttley’s death, O’Neil testified that he had indeed met Buller, although two days before the shootings.
According to a November 24, 1920, Free Press report of the inquest: “He (O’Neil) said he was a trainer of race horses. He was at the Stockyards Hotel Nov. 9. He had remained there just an hour and had not visited subsequently. One of the men with him on Nov. 9 was a big stout fellow weighing about 230 pounds and there were two other men. He had never seen them in the Stockyards Hotel before. One of the men was Buller, but Buller’s companion he did not know.”
O’Neil said he had been with Buller during the summer while training some of his horses.
He claimed to have met Buller at the Leland Hotel on November 9, but asserted, “I was not at the Stockyards Hotel on the morning of November 11 and I know nothing about this murder.”
The police later learned that Buller had allegedly been helped across the U.S. border by Patrick “Paddy” Joyce. It was suspected, though not proven, that Joyce was the second shooter at the Hotel.
For a year, Canadian detectives tried to track Buller down. They received reports that the fugitive was in Cuba and Mexico. A San Diego, California, “sportsman” reported to the MPP that he saw Buller in Tijuana, Mexico. He recognized the man from a $2,500 reward poster he observed while earlier travelling through Canada. 
The San Diego resident said Buller was a faro dealer at the Tijuana race track casino, and that he had seen him on November 25, 1920. He claimed to have talked to Buller, who then went by the name Kid Baker, on two or three occasions.
One distinguishing feature of Kid Baker was that he carried two revolvers in holsters under his armpits, according to the informant.
It was known to the MPP that Buller was in the habit of carrying two guns, as when one of his revolvers had been wrestled away by Uttley, he somehow managed to draw another.
Although Buller had allegedly been sighted in at least two more distant countries, he was confronted by police in Chicago while in the company of “Paddy” Joyce “a safe-blower and all-around criminal,” as well as Allen Hillman, alias Addison, who was called the “king of the safe-blowers.” The latter criminal had been known to police across North America for 25 years and was suspected of being the “brains” behind a Bank of Montreal robbery that netted a gang of thieves $572,000. 
Buller was described in the October 16, 1921, Chicago Tribune account of what occurred the previous day, as a “Canadian safe-blower, murderer and confidence man.”
When the three men were spotted by Detective Sargent Michael “Mike” Grady and Officer Ernie Daliage of the Chicago police at 4 p.m. on October 15, 1921, they were alleged to be in the process of robbing a laundry. At the time, the two officers had no idea that they were dealing with at least one man wanted in Manitoba for the murders of McCurdy and Uttley.
The two police officers saw the  men sitting in the back of a parked Ford on Prairie Avenue near East 24th Street in the Illinois city.
What happened next has become a matter of historical speculation. Some believe that the two Chicago policemen dealt  with Buller and Joyce swiftly and decisively. They asked no questions, but shot the would-be robbers at pointblank range as they sat in their car.
It has been speculated that Daliage and Grady were carrying out a gangland vendetta when they shot Buller and Joyce. In Prohibition-era Chicago, corruption was rife among  police and public officials, who took cuts in the profits made from trafficking alcohol. In particular, Grady was associated with the notorious North Side Gang led by Charles Dean O’Banion, who was Al Capone’s rival in the illicit beer and whiskey  trade. 
In 1924, Chicago police assisted the North Side Gang in robbing the Sibly Warehouse Storage Company, which was then under federal protection. Escorted by Grady, who then held the rank of a lieutenant, and four detective sergeants also on the take, North Siders looted the distillery in broad daylight, replacing 1,750 barrels of bonded whiskey with an equal number of barrels of water. The whiskey was worth approximately $1 million. Grady was arrested, indicted, tried and acquitted, despite the strong evidence implicating him in the robbery. Of course, judges and juries could easily be bought off. O’Banion was also indicted, but was killed by Capone’s South Side Gang before he could be brought to trial. 
Despite being associated with gangsters — or perhaps because of — Grady was soon after appointed a captain in the Chicago police force.
But initial reports in the Tribune said the three desperados were firing at Grady and Daliage with “magazine pistols,” and it seemed “marvellous that the officers escaped without a scratch.” If they had executed Buller and Joyce gangland-style, it’s no wonder they escaped unharmed.
The facts of the case are that Buller was shot in the head by Grady, while both policemen shot Joyce in the chest. The Chicago coroner said Buller and Joyce died of shock and hemorrhage as a result of gunshot wounds.
“From the evidence presented, we the jury believe the deceased Buller and Joyce were hiding for the purpose of doing an unlawful act and the Police Officers fired said shots in self-defence and believing their lives were in jeopardy, and while in the performance of their duty,” was the verdict of the coroner’s jury.
The other man, Hillman, was captured by police at the scene of the Chicago gunfight.
Interestingly, Buller was named as James Bullard in all the reports originating from Chicago. Even the Free Press referred to the murderer of McCurdy and Uttley as Bullard in an article published two days after the shoot-out in Chicago. In another article published a day after that, the Winnipeg newspaper was careful to refer to him as “Buller or Bullard” 
(Next week: part 3)