Red Deer’s court house shown with a sprinkler truck which was used to control the heavy dust in the drought years of the Dirty Thirties. Photo via Red Deer Archives

Michael Dawe: The Violent Summer of 1935

By just about every measure, 2020 has been a very challenging and upsetting year. Now, on top of everything else, the community has been truly shocked by an incident of violent crime. The shock is compounded by the fact that while Red Deer has grappled with crime issues in recent years, violent crime, such as pre-mediated murder, is still rare.

For much of its 130-year history, Red Deer had a well-deserved reputation as a quiet, safe community. In 1917, only two people were incarcerated in the city’s police cells. Most cases involved by-law infractions and the occasional breach of the new prohibition laws against alcohol.

The onset of hard economic times is often blamed for an increase in crime. However, in 1931, after the start of the Great Depression, Red Deer’s police chief reported that there had not been a single major crime in more than a year.

Tragically, that long period of peacefulness across central Alberta suddenly came to an end in 1935.

The year started off quietly enough. There were four cases heard by the circuit court judge. The crimes were relatively mundane, such as shooting a neighbour’s hog and taking firewood from a farmer’s woodlot.

On April 17, 1935, the peace was shattered. A bachelor farmer from Drumheller fatally shot Cpl. Michael Moriarty in the back. The shooter was quickly killed by other police in a brief, but fierce, gun battle.

The incident was very unsettling. The consensus was that the farmer had gone insane, as the result of “shell shock,” or PTSD, incurred during the First World War. Nevertheless, a young officer had been killed in the line of duty.

With the onset of summer, businesses in Red Deer were hit with a wave of thefts. However, while the RCMP were out looking for a missing toddler using their new police dog, Dale of Cawsalta, they came across a suspicious car.

The vehicle was found to be full of the stolen merchandise. The dog quickly located the culprits hiding in a nearby field. The two men were convicted and jailed. Meanwhile, Dale of Cawsalta proceeded to find the lost little girl down by Innisfail.

As the summer progressed, conditions continued to deteriorate. The region was hit by huge dust storms caused by the prolonged drought. Murray Gardiner, a popular Red Deer umpire, was badly beaten during a baseball game in Calgary by an irate player. Gardiner had to undergo surgery due to his severe internal injuries.

In the fall, another crime spree hit local businesses, as well as a number of campers in what is now Rotary Park. One group of thieves in the campground tried to make their escape in a stolen car when they were discovered. However, they were unable to make it up the steep clay hill. They then took off on foot and escaped apprehension.

Shortly thereafter, a local teenage boy, from a farm east of Red Deer, was stabbed to death by a 16-year-old girl. A coroner’s inquest found that the girl had been defending herself from an assault. Consequently, no charges were laid against her.

In early October, police gave chase to a stolen car in downtown Red Deer. After the fugitive crashed the car into a tree, he high-tailed it on foot. While the police fired a number of shots in his direction, they missed and the culprit escaped.

Finally, on October 9, 1935, a gun battle erupted between the RCMP and three young criminals near the Banff Park gates. The young men were wanted for the fatal shooting of two policemen in Manitoba. Before long, two RCMP officers, Sergeant T.S. Wallace and Constable Scotty Harrison, were fatally wounded as was one of the murderers.

The other two young gunmen took off. Fortunately, a small posse, including members of the RCMP and aided by Dale of Cawsalta, finally spotted the wanted men. Park Warden William Neish was a crack shot and was able to fatally wound the two fugitives.

Although the tragedy at Banff occurred a long distance away from Red Deer, it still deeply upset the community. To many, it seemed that the city, and province as a whole, was descending into “lawless chaos.”

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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