Skip to content

REMEMBER THIS: A break in the cold case of James Speers

Four years after column about local fugitive, writer learns of late-1800s fraudster's journey to Los Angeles

The writing was on the wall, and James Speers knew it.

In late 1878, the lawmen of Simcoe County had become aware Speers was the culprit behind a series of frauds and forgeries that had targeted a number of Barrie business owners, and it was clear to Speers his arrest was imminent.

Speers, a 30-year-old Essa Township wagon maker, married father of two small girls, disappeared into the wind and has not been seen in these parts for a century-and-a-half.

“Did James Speers leave the country and change his name, or was he sheltered nearby by friends and family? No report of a capture or trial has turned up in any of the local newspapers, none that I have found, but I have no doubt that some readers will be able to add to this tale.”

Four years have passed since I wrote these words for an earlier column for BarrieToday, and the answers have finally come.

Over a two-year period in the late 1870s, Speers went on a rather costly crime spree. He passed several forged promissory notes in the small town of Barrie, pocketed the money, and then vanished. His victims, mostly prominent and well-to-do businessmen, saw no compensation and would have eventually put the whole matter behind them.

Naturally, the trail of Speers has long gone very cold, but a note from a Nova Scotia man came to me this week after his cousin in Tasmania discovered some surprising family connections and revived the case.

James Speers was born July 12, 1847, at Ivy in Essa Township. He came from a large family who arrived from Northern Ireland in the mid-1830s. James’s father was Hugh Speers, a man who was described in his 1892 obituary as “one of the most trustworthy men of which Essa boasts, a man whose word was his bond.”

How Hugh’s son strayed so far from the path of honesty is unknown. Whatever the reason, by the autumn of 1878, the local authorities were getting nosy. This led James to begin writing phony letters of assurance to the swindled Barrie businessmen who had become uneasy and had started making inquiries.

Finally, one day, a police constable showed up at the Speers’s front door. James’s wife was sorry her husband wasn’t available to talk to them. He had just headed to Mono Centre, about 50 kilometres southwest of Ivy, she said. As the constable headed to Mono, James jumped on a train and made himself scarce.

The family circled around James’s wife and children. Of course they did. Mrs. Speers, Margaret Ann Edgar, had herself been a member of the extended Speers family from birth.

Margaret and the children made their last appearance on a Canadian record in 1881. After living with her parents for a time, Margaret took at least one of the girls on a long train ride to sunny California, where she joined her fugitive husband, James.

James had settled in Los Angeles and changed his surname to Rutledge, his mother’s maiden name. He altered little else, keeping his given name, birth date and birth place. Who would bother to come after him, if they could find him at all? Nobody, it would seem.

The little family moved into the oldest part of Los Angeles and, in 1900, James and Margaret were living on McGarry Street. James worked at a poultry plant and had been able to purchase his own home.

A decade later, James and Margaret purchased another house, this one about five kilometres away on South Main Street. With them were Elizabeth Higgins and Edgar Higgins, their daughter and grandson.

James Speers, a.k.a. Rutledge, died at his home on South Main Street on June 4, 1918, at the age of 70. From what little is known of the former fugitive’s years in California, it appears he lived a simple and law-abiding life.

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.

Reader Feedback

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.
Read more