"An Unsolved Mystery" - The Tale Of The Macdonald Bank Robbery

By Norman K Archer

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The first bank robbery in Victoria's history is still shrouded in mystery. The Macdonald Bank opened its doors on Yates Street in 1859 in the wake of the Gold Rush and was the first bank west of the Great Lakes. In 1863, it became the first bank to issue paper currency in British Columbia, examples of which can be seen in the British Columbia Provincial Museum. In 1864, it was the first bank in Western Canada to be robbed and, because of the robbery, was the first bank to close its doors, leaving thousands of investors penniless. But the circumstances surrounding the robbery are so convoluted people are left scratching their heads at the bizarre sequence of events.

The story begins with the arrival in Victoria of Alexander Davidson Macdonald from Scotland, to establish a local branch of an American freight company in 1858. Port Douglas, at the head of Harrison Lake on the Mainland, was a town that sprang up almost overnight, as a pit stop for miners on their way to the goldfields, and was an important base of operations for freight companies. Alexander Macdonald returned to Victoria from a visit to Port Douglas one day announcing that gold had been discovered in the nearby Bridge River area, a little further north from where the Fraser River deposits were being excavated. This marked the beginning of the trek northwards, climaxing at Barkerville. Macdonald carried with him 50 ounces of coarse gold, as good as any ever found in California. This provided the basis for the new bank he established on Yates Street. The bank was considered a safe place for successful miners to sell their nuggets and dust or to deposit their earnings. The Bank also bought and sold all other manner of merchandise, not normally today associated with banking, including saddles, cognac and mining equipment.

Alexander Macdonald's business prospered and he built himself a magnificent home on Michigan Street, close to Beacon Hill Park. Here, he and his wife entertained lavishly and their parties were among the best in town. One of Victoria's leading and most popular citizens, he was suave, debonair, a gracious host and remarkably handsome. But on September 22, 1864, the catastrophe happened.

Macdonald was away at one of his branches in the Cariboo at the time. He had left his most trusted employee, Bank Manager Waddell, in charge of the Yates Street offices. Waddell and two clerks, Smith and Barnett, were at work until 10 p.m. Barnett locked the vault and gave the key to Waddell. Waddell was about to put the key in his desk, but then had second thoughts and decided it would be safer to take it home with him. The three men left the premises together.

The next morning, the cleaner entered the building and saw that the vault was open and everything of value taken. The cleaner rushed to Waddell's home, and the Manager hurried to the scene to find the Bank stripped. It appears that entry had been made through a skylight and the vault door forced with the use of a small crowbar.

But then the puzzle began. First, the authorities seemed to be in no hurry to find the perpetrators. Police dragged their feet. Did they suspect an inside job? Barnett had been arrested, but soon released. Second, Macdonald did not seem worried either. Word was sent to him and he did not attempt to dash back to Victoria as everyone had expected. In fact, it was almost two months later, at the end of November before he made an appearance. Macdonald was obviously bankrupt because he had no insurance. The bank closed and creditors were pounding on the doors. A meeting of creditors was called for December 26, but Macdonald skipped town. He left a letter saying he had gone to California until the dust settled because he was afraid of violence. He never returned.

His house and property were sold in January to cover part of the huge financial obligations he left behind. Public pressure, especially from those who lost their investments, goaded the police into action and a $3,000 reward was offered for information that would lead to an arrest and a conviction. But not a word was heard from anyone.

That might have been the end of the story, were it not for an event that occurred three years later. In the fall of 1867, a schooner on Lake Huron was reported lost with all hands, except the captain. The captain's version of the accident did not ring true, but the insurance was paid and the captain was given command of another vessel. It seems this seaman's navigational skills left much to be desired, for there was a series of mishaps, including one that looked suspiciously like a deliberate scuttling of the vessel, but insurances were paid in every case. Some time later, the newspapers carried the story of a man who had been arrested in Owen Sound for having murdered his father. The man had taken his father, a Lake Huron sea captain, on board his own boat, then tied him up and threw him overboard. The motive for murder was so the man could get his hands on all the wealth his father had accumulated over the years through phony insurance claims. The father's name was Captain Waddell, who, said the newspaper report, had at one time been the manager of the Macdonald Bank in Victoria, British Columbia.

Macdonald had suspected Waddell all along. But was he right? Did Waddell get what he deserved or has he become the scapegoat for Macdonald's conniving - who never seemed to suffer any great loss in his own personal fortunes? The answer to these questions we will never know, for Victoria's first bank robbery remains unsolved.

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