Edwin Alonzo Boyd, the famous Toronto bank robber of the late 1940s, was summarily expelled from the warmth of his mother's bed at the age of four. Until that year, 1918, his father had been serving in World War I. The day the elder Boyd returned home, the little boy, who had developed a deep attachment to his mother, had a bed made up for him on a hard packing case, and so things remained. With parents who had withdrawn into an exclusive world of private affection, it could only get worse when new children came along. Having scarcely known his father, Edwin must have felt like a false start. Then his mother, who remained the sole and enduring object of his affection, died when he was a teenager. When his father, Glover Boyd, remarried and produced two more children, it must have seemed to the boy that he had never been born. Perhaps it's not so ironic, then, that the father of the future bank robber was a policeman.
For Edwin, paternal-filial intimacy reached no farther than corporal punishment. After his father reneged on an offer to pay for his son's training in a technical school, Edwin rightly guessed he wasn't wanted. With hardly any education and the Great Depression in full swing, he became a hobo, rode the rails out west, and there did his first crime, a break-in that got him three years in a Saskatchewan penitentiary.
Brian Vallee's biography effortlessly evokes the tragedy of a man we can't help liking. Made to feel as if he were thrown into the world, a human discard, Boyd had abandoned school and a budding talent in music. Instead he became a prank-playing, name-calling attention-seeker.
Throughout, Boyd hid his sense of solitude and unworthiness with adventurousness and charm. But the clues kept returning. His renowned "Hollywood good looks" never made up for his lack of confidence and his early experiences with women were frustrating. While stationed in Quebec during the war, he bought a girl six milkshakes because he didn't know what else to do. Attached to an army motorcycle contingent, he would go away on leave and, every time he returned, find that no-one had missed him. Indeed, Edwin Alonzo Boyd appears to have had no friends. He was a ghost with flesh and blood.
Boyd served in England and France and finally brought back Doreen, a British war bride. Inability to appease a considerable intelligence in a series of dead-end jobs made bank robbery seem smart and easy. He did it to support his family. In a perverse way, it's to Vallee's credit that he has us rooting for Boyd, wishing him final success and recognition even though it's in crime.
Boyd's gang was formed in jail-as gangs always are. Smooth, mild-mannered Lennie Jackson and blandly immoral Steve Suchan were denizens of a musty Spadina Avenue underworld that congregated in the dim glamour of the Horseshoe Tavern. And there were the women: adventuresses and models from the Spadina rag trade. This gang had knocked over a few banks when they landed in cells in the Don Jail, right next to Boyd, who had been nabbed for a string of sensationally publicized robberies, a number of them solo. The Star and the Telegram were already engaged in a heated headline war (Vallee interweaves it with consummate skill) of which Boyd the lonely attention-seeker was the beneficiary; it gained him instant authority among his new prison mates.
The rest is an underworld story whose demon seed is Steve Suchan: greedy, calculating, luxury-loving, trigger-happy, and two-timing his pregnant wife with another woman. It was Suchan who brought the gang to their doom. Even Lennie Jackson shared a certain amount of charm with Boyd. He was controlled, gentlemanly, clean-living, and, like Boyd, loyal to his woman; and for that he shares some honour; for he too was tragic, another ne'er-do-well, hobbled by a prosthetic foot, having fallen under a train while riding the rails.
The story of the gang-even as it really occurred-is cinematic. In the face of the wariest prison authorities, Boyd and the boys worked out prison escapes that equalled the cleverest and most daring in the movies. And the second escape occurs in the wake of a climax that arrives as punctually as any turning-point in a well-made screenplay: Steve Suchan and Len Jackson, "hot" from a few of the gang's bank robberies, are tailed by the stellar Toronto detective Ed Tong. Tong gets out of his car, Suchan fires from his, Tong dies, and Len Jackson, drawing his gun in the confusion, is implicated in first-degree murder.
On the lam in Montreal, the two were multiply wounded in shoot-outs with police. Recovering from wounds, they made their final break-out with Boyd. In the end, while Boyd was undergoing a regimen of iron, self-imposed discipline to reform himself in Kingston Penitentiary and nobly eschew the hero-worship of other prisoners, his two companions were hanged in the Don Jail in December, 1952.
If Vallee deals with the myth, he does not quite deal with the mystery behind the Boyd gang. As to the myth, it has to do with the extent of Boyd's authority. He remained a loner and oddball even when at the head of his own gang-if, indeed, he was head of any gang at all. Here Vallee brings together the man and the legend. Edwin Alonzo Boyd, alive and well at the age of eighty-four, is one of Vallee's sources and gives the lie to the legend: "I was a guy who trusted people. I thought if you were a crook-like in the James Cagney pictures-the guys backed each other up. But they didn't do that in Toronto. They always stuck with their own group. I wasn't really pulled into their company. Whenever a bank robbery was over, they were away with their buddies and their women. They never came near me. The only time they came near me was when they wanted help with a bank robbery."
As to the mystery, Vallee has left us with a link missing. In the Toronto underworld of the '50s, indeed in any such world, there must have been a well of darkness and violence. Perhaps those were more innocent times than ours: the childhoods were broken, but not as commonly or extremely as in our own times; drugs were there but not as much; and there was a hope and illusion of respectability that seems to have faded in the dull pervasiveness of crime in contemporary consciousness. This is what has made the '50s seem so innocent. But there were other criminals in Toronto then, other bank robberies; indeed, there seems to have been a crime wave. But Vallee touches only briefly upon the alcoholism and violent abuse in the subsequent lives of the gang's women. Indeed, a warning Boyd wrote to police suggests a darkness not entirely plumbed: "Death has always been a friend to me and I will meet it face to face.... Death means nothing to me when I am fighting for my family.... Start seeing me in your every shadow...for I am no longer a respecter of persons." In this compelling work of crime biography, Vallee has given us subterranean glimmerings of a little-known world, but a world he never entirely penetrates. He might have done well to turn over the rock of Toronto the not-so-good a little more thoroughly.
Hugh Graham is a Toronto writer, for print, radio, and film .