by Bruce Cherney (part 3 of 3)
James Buller, the fugitive sought since November 11, 1920, for the murders of Manitoba Provincial Police (MPP) Chief Morality Officer Alexander McCurdy and MPP Constable James Uttley at the Stockyards Hotel in St. Boniface, was killed nearly a year later in a shootout with Chicago police. At the time of exchange of gunfire with two Chicago police officers on October 15, 1921, Buller was in the company of Patrick “Paddy” Joyce and Allen Hillman, alias Addison.
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, they were alleged to be in the process of casing a laundry they wanted to rob. 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 spotted the would-be robbers sitting in the back seat of a parked Ford on Prairie Avenue near East 24th Street in the Illinois city. It was specified in newspaper accounts where Hillman, the “king of the safe-blowers” was when the alleged crime was about to be committed.
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 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 shootout in Chicago. In another article published a day after that, the Winnipeg newspaper was careful to refer to him as “Buller or Bullard”
In the October 19, 1921, article, Death Robs Manitoba Police of Their Prey, the Free Press outlined the trail taken by Buller before he was shot by the Chicago police officers, which was related to the newspaper by Col. J.G. Rattray, the commissioner of the MPP.
After he had jumped from Biernes’ car on November 11, 1920, Buller stealthy boarded a Grand Trunk Railway train headed for Ontario. As the train slowed down near the Toronto railway station, Buller jumped off, thus avoiding police who had been searching for him among the passengers of all trains arriving from Winnipeg. From there, he went to Sarnia and Mount Clements. Rattray said the latter was a favourite haunt of Buller’s, where he had underworld friends able to help him cross the border into Detroit.
Buller had a narrow escape in Detroit. Rattray notified the local police that Buller was on the way to their city, which resulted in the Detroit police raiding two underworld dives where the fugitive was suspected to be hiding. But Buller had been tipped off, eluded capture and proceeded to Chicago.
From Chicago, Buller made his way to Juarez, Mexico, across the Rio Grande River from El Paso, Texas. Rattray again received word of Buller’s whereabouts and notified a local agent by telegram to be on the look-out for the fugitive. Rattray was so confident that Buller would be found in Juarez that he was making arrangements to go to Washington, D.C., in order to enlist the aid of the U.S. Secret Service to help in the arrest and extradition of the wanted man. At the time, Canada didn’t have an extradition treaty with Mexico, but the U.S. had such a treaty with the country immediately to its south.
“Am on the track of the party, and believe will
locate,” was the return telegram to Rattray. But within two days, Buller had cleared out of Juarez.
It was claimed that the accounts committee of the Manitoba Legislature had been asking Rattray for financial information about the pursuit of Buller. As a result of the committee’s proceedings becoming publicly known, friends of the fugitive informed Buller that the MPP were on his trail in Juarez, which allowed him to once again slip away from the authorities.
The police then lost track of Buller for a period of time. In an attempt to relocate Buller, police began to attend race meets in the U.S., including the Kentucky Derby, expecting that as a known race horse owner and horse racing enthusiast, he would turn up at such major sporting events. But, “he was too shrewd a criminal for that ... he gave race tracks a wide berth, according to information that later came into the possession of authorities.”
In July 1920, he was alleged to be in Cuba, but nothing came of this tip. Buller’s trail was again picked up in September when he was reported to be in U.S. towns near the Mexican border. Rattray was informed that the new information would soon result in Buller’s arrest. But it wasn’t until he arrived in Chicago that Buller met his deadly fate.
The Chicago police department sent a telegram to Rattray confirming Bullard’s body had been identified by his sister.
“Though most people in Winnipeg had long ago forgotten about the crime and abandoned any idea of the murderer being brought to book,” reported the October 19, 1921, Free Press, “scarcely a day has passed without Col. Rattray having to write one or more letters in connection with the chase, and there were days when he momentarily expected news that Buller had been caught ...
“A mysterious feature is the threat which was made by Buller before the St. Boniface crime was committed to ‘get’ Col Rattray. In a letter sent to the commissioner of the provincial police, Buller was said to have made the following cryptic statement to a friend: ‘Sprackling shot my friend in his room and has got away with it, but if I run across him anywhere I will plug him if it is ten years from now ... Before long Col. Rattray will get his.’”
But Rattray didn’t “get his,” as it was Buller who was shot before he could be brought before a court to answer for the murders of McCurdy and Uttley.
The final act in the story of the gunfight at the Stockyards Hotel was paying the $2,500 reward offered by the Manitoba government.
Rattray didn’t want to give any of the reward to the Chicago police officers, Grady and Daliage, saying the reward was not earned as the poster stipulated that it only would be paid for “the arrest and conviction” of the murderer of McCurdy and Uttley. Rattray also said the two police officers were unaware of Buller’s identity when he was shot by them.
Rattray was also peeved that he had asked for and not received pictures and information about “Paddy” Joyce and Hillman in order to determine whether either one of them had been with Buller at the time of the St. Boniface shootings.
The two Chicago police officers eventually received $1,000 of the $2,500 reward.
In part, the order-in-council authorizing the payment of the reward expressed the general feelings of the day towards murderers, stating, “whereas it would appear that the work of the said Grady and Daliage saved the Province of Manitoba expensive legal proceedings and that same was otherwise beneficial to the Province of Manitoba, and whereas it would seem proper that the Province of Manitoba should make a payment” (Winnipeg Police Museum article, Murders in St. Boniface).
To this day, it’s still unknown who had been Buller’s partner in crime on November 11, 1920, at the Stockyard Hotel, although the MPP believed it was probably Joyce.
It is also unknown what promoted Buller to open fire when McCurdy and Uttley entered Room 8 for the second time. But Buller had a history of being prone to gunplay when confronted by police, as was the case in Regina, and the prospect of being placed under arrest — although neither McCurdy nor Uttley had time to specify for what charge — may have been enough of a reason for him to open fire on the unarmed morality officers.
As members of the MPP’s morality squad, McCurdy and Uttley had the authority to enforce the Manitoba Temperance Act, as well as laws against gambling and prostitution. After bursting into the room for the first time and surprising Johnson and Buller — apparently half undressed — did they believe Johnson was a “working lady?” Did they believe Buller was involved in the illegal liquor trade?
But since three officers were searching the downstairs restaurant for illegal liquor, it would appear that McCurdy and Uttley were performing the same task upstairs where the hotel’s rooms were located.
There remains the question of why the officers entered the room and declared its occupants were under arrest. On what charge? Johnson testified at an inquest that the officers didn’t announce a specific charge. Of course, they didn’t have time, as Buller began shooting as the two police officers entered the room on the second occasion.
No accounts clarify the reasoning behind the raid on Room 8 in the Stockyards Hotel. Even Uttley’s statement to the inquest, issued just prior to his death, fails to address what provoked the MPP officers’ entry into the room.
The Manitoba Temperance Act invoked prohibition in Manitoba, which was dividing the province into “wets” and “drys,” although the primary anti-prohibition group termed itself the Manitoba Moderation League. As in the U.S., Manitoba prohibition was a failed experiment, doomed to become an historical footnote. Prohibition ended in 1923 after Manitobans voted in a plebiscite against its continuation. It wasn’t until years later in 1933 that the U.S. repealed the Volstead Act that established prohibition in 1919, which led to widespread lawlessness personified by gangsters such as Al “Scarface” Capone.
It was during Manitoba’s prohibition era that it became necessary to create a new branch of the provincial police; that is, the morality squad. It’s rather simplistic to state, but if prohibition and the need for the new police department didn’t exist, McCurdy and Uttley would not have been killed at the Stockyards Hotel.
Actually, some members of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly, such as Conservative Party Leader J.T. Haig, continually urged Premier T.C. Norris’ Liberal government to cut funding to the MPP, citing as reasons that it was duplicating the work of other police forces and that funding for the morality squad was steady increasing beyond its merit. In 1921, the annual budget for the MPP was $178,310, of which $36,730 was earmarked for the morality squad.
As the provincial force charged with enforcing prohibition, the morality squad had jurisdiction across Manitoba, including in cities such as Brandon, St. Boniface and Winnipeg that had their own police forces.
Politically, the Conservatives had anti-prohibition since the days when Premier Rodmond Roblin had been in power (1900-15).
Haig argued in the legislature that he respected Rattray, but the MPP had failed to make an arrest in the Stockyards Hotel killings and the Winkler robbery after months of investigation (Free Press, April 9, 1921). The Conservative leader said he was being pressured by electors to call for a cut in MPP funding.
On the other hand, Manitoba Attorney-General Thomas H. Johnson said in the legislature that the provincial police force was no more responsible for the failure to apprehend the Stockyards Hotel killer and Winkler bank robbers than the Winnipeg or St. Boniface police forces.
In 1932, the MPP was disbanded after 61 years of existence, and the RCMP took over its duties as the provincial police force other than in jurisdictions that had their own police departments, eliminating the duplication used by Haig to make his earlier point in favour of cutbacks.
The last act of the St. Boniface murders was the issuance by the Manitoba government of an order-in-council directing that each widow of the two slain morality officers receive the equivalent of one year’s salary plus a lump sum payment of $3,000. Alex McCurdy had been receiving $140 a month as the MPP’s chief morality officer, while James Uttley was receiving $110 a month as an MPP constable. The province also paid the cost of probate for the Last Will of James Uttley, which was written on November 11, 1920, the day of the shooting, as his widow “is not left in affluent circumstances.”