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Percy Pelch: Thief, daredevil and escape artist (4 photos)

Follow the police and Mary Harris as they chase down Percy Pelch in this week's Remember This?

From 1841 until the last prisoner was transferred out in 2001, a steady stream of characters and unfortunates came through the doors of the old Barrie Jail atop the Mulcaster Street hill. She sits there yet, a limestone castle filled with stories.

This is the tale of one of the rather colourful sorts who spent a little time as a guest of the Ontario justice system.

The Pelch name was well known in Collingwood a century ago, and not unfamiliar to the courtrooms of the county as well. Several family members had brushes with the law over the years but the most flamboyant of them all was most certainly Percy Pelch.

Percy Pelch first made a name for himself when he and a co-conspirator pulled off an audacious theft in late February 1911. The two young men brazenly helped themselves to the coats and personal items belonging to visitors to Collingwood’s Maple Street Methodist Church who were enjoying some entertainment in the Sunday school room there.

Bold and quick as they were, Pelch and company were almost immediately on the radar of the local constables after the theft was discovered. The law quickly descended on the room, near the market, known to be rented by Percy Pelch and the Northern Advance of March 2 described the scramble that followed.

“When the police entered the place, they say there was considerable excitement for a moment. Percy Pelch threw a mattress out of a window, following it very quickly, while Bert made himself scarce equally as quick. Since, neither have been seen.”

The hunt was on for the two light fingered fugitives who had dared to steal from folks under the roof of a church building. While no more mention of the mysterious Bert is made in the Barrie newspapers, it is clear that Percy Pelch was scooped up and incarcerated in the Barrie Jail in the weeks that followed.

Apparently, the living arrangements weren’t exactly suited to Percy’s taste because, on June 30, 1911, he saw his chance and bolted from the jail grounds while the jailer was distracted for a moment. What followed was a manhunt, a strange automobile ride, accusations of collusion within the jail, an investigation by the Inspector of Prisons and a new pile of charges.

Just after dinner, Percy had been brought outside to cut the grass on the grounds when visitors arrived at the jail. For some reason, Jailer Jonathan Sissons left Pelch unattended while he passed through his living quarters on the way to unlock the front door for the visitors. Within minutes, he heard shouting coming from the north side of the jail. A prisoner had just escaped!

Wiley Percy Pelch had escape on his mind for some time. Unnoticed until after his disappearance, the door frame of the jail wash house had been pried off and Pelch had retrieved his civilian clothes which he had been secretly wearing beneath his prison uniform for an unknown period of time. After getting clear of the jail, he discarded his jail garb and blended into the community.

The seemingly rather fit 24-year-old escapee sprinted to Midhurst where he caught a train.

Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us.


Mary Harris

About the Author: Mary Harris

Mary Harris is the Director of History and Research at the Barrie Historical Archive. The Barrie Historical Archive is a free, online archive that centralizes Barrie's historical content.
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