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Bluffing bandit no match for carving knife Blog of the week: West End Dumplings

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Often I will see an old photo or ad and spend some time digging into the backstory. Sometimes I find a great story, sometimes not. Either way, I learn a few things about the city's history.

This photograph of Harry Spottiswood appeared in the Feb. 14, 1939 edition of the Winnipeg Tribune with the caption "Called Bandit's Bluff." He is holding up the carving knife he used to ward off an armed robber at his grocery store at 501 Ellice Ave.

Since 1950, the convenience store at Ellice Avenue and Spence Street has been called Y-Not Foods, but in the 1930s it was known simply as Ellice Grocery. From 1934 to about 1947, it was run by Harry and Phoebe Spottiswood, who lived in the suite at the back of the store. There, they raised their daughters, Margaret and Evelyn. (There were three other suites upstairs that were rented out to tenants.)

At 10:30 p.m. on Feb. 13, 1939, a man entered the store and asked for a nickel worth of apples. When Harry opened the till to make change for a quarter, the man pulled a gun and asked for all the money. Before he could come closer, Harry pulled out a carving knife and, according to one newspaper report, told the robber to "come and take it, then."

Instead of challenging Harry, the robber fled the store -- but not before turning and firing a shot towards him. The round turned out to be a blank and nobody was injured. (Harry came out five cents ahead on the deal as the man left his apples behind.)

February 1939 was a particularly violent one in Winnipeg and its surrounding municipalities. In the 48-hour period between the night of Feb. 11 and Harry's incident, there were seven armed robberies in Winnipeg and St. Boniface. Over the next couple of weeks, there were other clusters of armed robberies, armed home invasions, violent muggings and safecrackings. The only person who appears to have been seriously injured was a man shot in the shoulder during a home invasion in the RM of East Kildonan.

The situation was bad enough that Winnipeg's police chief was given the authority to get more police cruisers on the road ASAP, even if that meant temporarily renting vehicles until the tenders for purchase could be prepared.

On Feb. 23, police arrested Theodore Fred Leitchman in a downtown hotel. Soon after, three other men were also picked up, including Leitchman's brother, Stephen. The four, sometimes individually and sometimes in pairs, were believed responsible for many of the recent robberies.

There was no word on what led police to Leitchman, but he had been living it up in one of the city's best hotels, eating gourmet meals and tipping staff generously.

Theodore Fred Leitchman was a career criminal and well-known to police. His first stint in captivity was at the Portage la Prairie youth reformatory when he was just 14. In fact, seven of his 23 years had been spent behind bars.

In May 1939, Leitchman pleaded guilty to attempted robbery and "shooting with intent" in the Ellice Grocery case, plus another charge of robbery and garage-breaking at other sites. He was sentenced to a total of seven years in prison.

This didn't put an end to Leitchman's life of crime. No sooner had he been released (early) in February 1945, than he went on another robbery rampage. He was captured in a dramatic car chase involving police and a taxicab he hijacked.

In March, Leitchman was in court facing nine charges. Most were robbery-related, but there was a charge of attempted murder for again firing his gun at a clerk. He was found guilty of four charges and sentenced to 10 years in Stony Mountain. He later pleaded guilty to four more and was sentenced to another 10 years, to be served concurrently. (The Crown reduced the attempted-murder charge to shooting with intent.)

Leitchman was released from Stony Mountain in April 1954. On May 31, he was found dead in a single-vehicle car accident on the highway just outside Foam Lake, Sask. He had stolen the car from the village. A loaded nine-millimetre automatic pistol was found in the wreckage.

As for Harry Spottiswood, he didn't live to see Leitchman's later crime sprees. He died Aug. 6, 1940 in St. Boniface Hospital after a lengthy illness. He was just 53 years old. Phoebe Spottiswood continued to live on-site and run the store until around 1947. She died on Jan. 10, 1971 at the age of 86 while visiting her daughter in Los Angeles.

The store then spent a year or two as Gibson's Foodland, run by Albert L. Gibson.

The Y-Not name came in 1950.

Benjamin Katz ran Y-Not Lunch (sometimes referred to as Y-Not Confectionery) one block east of Ellice Grocery at 469 Ellice Ave. In 1949, Katz and neighbouring businesses were informed their building would be demolished to revamp the Ellice and Balmoral intersection.

Katz bought 501 Ellice and relocated his business there.


Christian Cassidy writes about local history at his blog, West End Dumplings

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2014 A10

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