How a daring prison break led to the ‘greatest manhunt in Ontario history’

Sixty-eight years ago, the notorious Boyd Gang broke out of the Don Jail for the second time — and humiliated authorities wanted to find the men fast
By Nate Hendley - Published on Sep 08, 2020
Edwin Alonzo Boyd was arrested in bed in Toronto on March 15, 1952. Boyd is escorted by sergeant of detectives Adolphus Payne (left) and detective Jack Kenneth. (CP)

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At 6:55 a.m. on September 8, 1952, George Hutchison, a guard at Toronto’s notorious Don Jail, went on duty. Entering No. 9 Hospital, a former medical wing turned cellblock, Hutchison immediately noticed something amiss. Four iron bars on a corridor window were gone — and so were four prisoners.

These weren’t any ordinary inmates; the quartet formed the core of the so-called Boyd Gang, a group of desperados who conducted daring bank robberies across Toronto. The escapees were Edwin Alonzo Boyd, presumptive leader of the gang; Lennie Jackson; Willie Jackson (no relation); and Steve Suchan. All had been charged with armed robbery, and Lennie Jackson and Suchan were about to go on trial for murdering a Toronto police officer.   

Hutchison raised the alarm and what the Globe and Mail called the “greatest manhunt in Ontario history” commenced.

Newspapers nationwide ran hysterical front-page headlines about the breakout. By coincidence, the CBC, in Toronto, had begun regular television programming the night of the jailbreak. Speaking in ominous tones, CBC announcer Lorne Greene (of later movie and TV fame) described the massive manhunt to locate the prisoners. Unprecedented in scale, the search involved swarms of police and $26,000 in reward money (worth roughly 10 times as much today).

“The metropolitan area was transformed into a series of mantraps, with every law enforcement officer in the city and country ready to shoot on sight,” the Globe reported breathlessly. “The taverns and slum districts received a methodical going over at the hands of heavily-armed officers.”

If the response seemed over the top, law enforcement had good reason to be rattled. This was the second time in under a year that Boyd Gang members had escaped from the Don Jail. An embarrassed Mayor Allan Lamport said the breakout was “the most shameful thing that has occurred in the city,” wrote the Toronto Daily Star on September 8.

Humiliated authorities wanted to find the men fast. 

After leaving prison, the four inmates headed to the largely undeveloped Don Valley and made their way north. Lennie Jackson had a particularly tough time, as he suffered from asthma and was missing a foot (it had been amputated years earlier after he had tried, unsuccessfully, to hop a train). Prison guards wouldn’t let him use a prosthesis, so he had to make do with a tin cup lined with a sock.

The four men found a deserted farm in the Township of North York and decided to hide there. They slept in the barn (even by escaped-prisoner standards, the farmhouse was too rundown to stay in), scrounged fruit and vegetables from neighbouring farms, and contemplated their next move. 

Willie Jackson, Lennie Jackson, and Suchan were hardened criminals with violent histories. Handsome Edwin Boyd, who got the lion’s share of media attention, was the son of a Toronto police officer. A vagabond and repeat criminal in the 1930s, Boyd had joined the Canadian Army during World War Two and been posted to England. There, he met and married a woman named Dorreen Thompson, who moved to Toronto with her three kids (twins from Boyd and a child from a previous relationship) in late 1944. Following demobilization, Boyd joined them and took a job driving a streetcar. Bored, he quit and returned to a life of crime. 

Boyd pulled off a string of armed robberies in Toronto, beginning with a heist at a Bank of Montreal branch on September 9, 1949. He used a German military pistol, acquired during the war, to terrorize bank staff during these hold-ups. In the fall of 1951, Boyd was caught and thrown into Toronto’s dreaded Don Jail.

Open since the 1860s, the Don Jail was overcrowded and unpleasant, with tiny cells that lacked toilets (buckets in the corridor were used for personal hygiene). The Don was also a place of execution: “An estimated 34 men died at the Don’s gallows before capital punishment was abolished in 1976,” noted an April 13, 2013, National Post article.

In the Don, Boyd teamed up with cellmates Willie and Lennie Jackson, who were planning to break out. The trio used a smuggled hacksaw blade to saw through some window bars and escaped on November 4, 1951. On the outside, they connected with fellow criminal Val Lesso (a.k.a., Steve Suchan) and began robbing banks. 

Two weeks after the jailbreak, the bandits hit the Bank of Toronto for $4,300. On November 30, 1951, they netted more than $46,000 in a robbery at the Royal Bank of Canada in Leaside — the  “biggest bank hold-up in [the] history of Toronto,” according to the Toronto Daily Star.

Staid, uptight Toronto had never seen anything like it. The city’s main newspapers — the Telegram, the Toronto Daily Star, and the Globe and Mail — competed for scoops about the brazen bank robbers.

The Star dubbed the group the “Boyd Gang,” and the name stuck, to the great annoyance of Lennie Jackson, who regarded himself as the true leader. In addition to his good looks, Boyd possessed a dramatic flair: he leaped on bank counters, pistol in hand, which made for good newspaper copy.

On March 6, 1952, Lennie and Suchan shot Sergeant of Detectives Edmund Tong and his partner, Detective Sergeant Roy Perry, after their car was pulled over. Tong died 17 days later, and police redoubled their efforts to round up the gang.

Willie Jackson was already behind bars (he had been arrested in a Montreal nightclub in late 1951). Lennie and Suchan were picked up after separate violent altercations with police. Boyd was caught, fast asleep with his wife, when police raided his Toronto hideout.

With the gang in custody, authorities made an epically unwise move. One by one, Boyd, the Jacksons, and Suchan were placed in No. 9 Hospital, the medical-ward-turned-cellblock, at the Don Jail. Prison officials figured it would be easier to monitor the men if they were all in the same place. While the bank robbers could freely mingle during the daytime, they were locked in their cells at night. A ceiling microphone allowed authorities to eavesdrop on conversations.

The cellblock was supposed to be secure, but the Boyd Gang discovered that no one patrolled the area between 5 and 7 a.m. (the prison was short-staffed). If they could get out of their locked cells during this time, maybe they could saw through the bars on the corridor window, as they’d done before.

One evening, Willie Jackson, who had a reputation as an amiable goof, grabbed the cell-door key hanging on a guard’s belt. The guard assumed Willie was fooling around and thought nothing of it. Willie used the impression on his palm to draw an outline of the key on his cell wall. With a file and bit of steel (smuggled into the cellblock by persons unknown), Boyd carved a key according to these crude blueprints.

Key in hand, the men could now unlock their cell doors. During the unguarded morning period, they sawed at the corridor-window bars with a smuggled hacksaw blade. The bars were old and made from “a soft type of steel,” as a Royal Commission later noted, but, nevertheless, it took a month to cut through them. Cuts were concealed with melted soap and dirt, and a pillow was placed over the screen housing the ceiling microphone to cover the sawing noises.

The day of their escape, the Boyd Gang removed the bars around 5 a.m., tiptoed along a boundary wall, then leaped from the outside prison wall and raced to the nearby Don Valley.

After the breakout, North York police began receiving complaints about homeless people living on an abandoned farm. On September 16, Detective Sergeant Maurice Richardson and Detective Bert Trotter investigated. The road to the deserted property was blocked by construction equipment, so the policemen parked their car and walked. The cops stumbled on the Boyd Gang, who hadn’t heard the police approach and surrendered without a fight.

As word of the recapture spread, crowds descended on the farm and on the police station where the gang was taken.  

“Teen-age girls, screaming and clapping their hands, gathered near the North York station and chanted, ‘we want Boyd,’” reported the Globe a day after the recapture.

Boyd, the Jacksons, and Suchan were imprisoned once again in the Don Jail but kept under around-the-clock supervision. Stronger bars were installed in prison windows. There was no escaping this time, and the Boyd Gang (plus various associates) went on trial that fall. 

Willie Jackson got 20 years on top of an existing seven-year sentence. He served his time, then worked as a janitor upon release.

Boyd received a life sentence but was paroled in 1966. He headed west, got a job driving a van for adults with disabilities, divorced Dorreen, and then remarried. The leading light of the Boyd Gang died of pneumonia May 17, 2002, in British Columbia. He was 88 years old. 

Suchan and Lennie Jackson faced a far less peaceful end. Convicted of murder, both men were hanged on December 16, 1952. The sentence was carried out in the Don Jail — the same institution the Boyd Gang had twice escaped from, capturing the attention of the police, the press, and the public across the country.    

Sources: Edwin Alonzo Boyd: The Life and Crimes of Canada’s Master Bank Robber by Nate Hendley (Altitude Publishing, 2003); Edwin Alonzo Boyd: The Story of the Notorious Boyd Gang by Brian Vallée (Doubleday Canada Limited, 1997); the May 21, 2002, September 9, 1952, September 12, 1952, September 17, 1952, October 9, 1952, October 17, 1952, November 5, 1952, November 8, 1952, and November 19, 1952, editions of the Globe and Mail; the April 13, 2013, edition of the National Post; Royal Commission Appointed to Enquire into Conditions at the Don Jail, Toronto by Judge Ian Macdonell (presented December 5, 1952); the March 17, 1952, September 8, 1952, September 17, 1952, November 20, 1951, and November 30, 1951, editions of the Toronto Daily Star. ​​​​​​​

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