COLUMN: Sarnia was the scene of the first Canadian kidnapping

London beer baron John Labatt was staying with his family in Bright’s Grove when he was abducted on Aug. 14, 1934. Photo Credit: UWO, Archives and Special Collections

The crime known to police of the day as the “snatch racket” first unfolded in Canada right here in Sarnia – at what was then known as Sarnia Beach: today, Bright’s Grove.

Before the kidnapping of brewery magnate John Sackville Labatt, abducting people of wealth for ransom was considered an American crime. Two years earlier, the snatching of aviation hero Charles Lindbergh’s son was called the “Crime of the Century.”

During U.S. Prohibition, Canadian distillers and brewers made lots of money making “wet goods” smuggled to a thirsty U.S. market. So their owners were attractive targets for criminals.

Labatt and his family were summering at Faethorne House (today, the Bright’s Grove Library) when gunmen abducted him on Egremont Road near Camlachie. One of the four kidnappers took Labatt’s black REO sedan, drove it to London, and left it with a ransom note for Labatt’s brother, Hugh.

Other gunmen drove the blindfolded and terrified Labatt to Bracebridge, in the Muskoka District. He was taken to a rented cabin and chained to a bed.

Hugh Labatt was ordered not to involve police, but they were contacted immediately. The result was the largest police manhunt Ontario had ever seen. Premier Mitch Hepburn cancelled police holidays across the province and every available resource went into searching for the beer tycoon.

The story of Labatt’s kidnapping was a national news story in newspapers and radio broadcasts for three days.

Police suspected American perpetrators. The St. Clair River waterfront and border crossings at Sarnia and Windsor were meticulously searched for possible hideouts, as were The Pinery and Kettle Point.

Brother Hugh Labatt was instructed to take a room at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto and await further instructions for delivering the $150,000 ransom ($2.5 million in today’s money).

Police and a small army of reporters followed Hugh Labatt to the Royal York hotel and camped out in the lobby.

When instructions finally came to deliver the money to the Humber River vicinity, and to come alone, Hugh Labatt asked the kidnappers how on earth he was to accomplish the request – reporters were following his every move.

Exasperated, the stymied kidnappers finally released John Labatt in north Toronto, after making him promise to send them $25,000 after his release.

As if …

The failed Labatt kidnapping illustrated the problem facing every kidnapper – how to collect the ransom without getting caught.

The Labatt kidnappers were rounded up. Three were sentenced to 15-years prison terms and the fourth killed in the U.S., but kidnapping as a Canadian crime first happened here in Sarnia.

Phil Egan is editor-in-chief of the Sarnia Historical Society. Got an interesting tale? Contact him at philegan@cogeco.ca

Editor’s Note: For more on this and other notorious local crimes watch for Phil Egan’s new book, Keeping the Peace, due out in March.