The evening of April 5 , 1938, was a dark and cold one. The winter of that year was reluctant to give way to the new life of spring, and wisps of snow still swirled in the dusky light thanks to consistently negative temperatures. Garritt Lammerse and his wife were beginning to close up their Britannia Village service station for the night, when a man entered the store and without warning, shot Garritt in the stomach before making off with the contents of the cash register.
Garritt and his wife, who is unnamed in the newspapers of the day, were both born in Amsterdam, Holland, where they were educated and married before immigrating to North America in 1908. They initially settled in Detroit, and then moved to Mimico where they lived for 18 years before moving to Britannia. Garritt was a painter by trade, but bought the service station in September 1937 in the hopes of earning a living through less exerting work. They had been proprietors of the service station for less than a year when he was shot for the contents of the till.
An especially chilling aspect of the crime is the fact that the bandit shot Garritt in the stomach without uttering so much as a warning or a statement of his intention to rob the couple’s business. “He just pulled the trigger and shot my husband through the stomach and then said, ‘Hand over that money’”, Mrs Lammerse was quoted as saying after the robbery. In cowardly fashion, he incapacitated both the Lammerses (he pushed Mrs. Lammerse to the ground, injuring her in the process) before making off with meagre fruits of his brutal crime. The full cost, it would later become clear, was far greater than the money residing within the cash drawer of the service station register.
Once the thug had departed, Mrs Lammerse was able to raise the alarm and get help for her wounded husband. Garritt was taken to Peel Memorial Hospital, and appeared to be responding to medical care. “He had improved so much on Friday and Saturday we thought he had a pretty good chance to get better,” said son-in-law P. McKenzie when he was interviewed by The Star. Despite being conscious and coherent while in hospital, he seemed to understand the fate that was closing in on him. While talking with a neighbor, one Mr. C.W. Johnston, from his hospital bed, Garritt told him “I don’t want to die, but I guess I’ll have to.”His final question: “Have they got the crook yet who shot me?” would be one to which he would never hear the desired answer, nor would his family or descendants to this day.
Garritt lapsed into unconsciousness at around noon for the final time after asking this question, and was pronounced dead at 5 o’clock pm on the tenth of April, 1938. He was 61 years old, and was survived by Mrs. Lammerse, their two daughters, and one son. His funeral was held two days after his death, and he was interred at Park Lawn Cemetery in Toronto.
Immediately after he passed away, Dr. Allan Noble performed an autopsy on Garritt’s body, and found the lethal bullet lodged in his stomach. The doctors had been unable to remove the bullet while the patient was alive for fear of causing further internal bleeding and resolved to give Garrett every possible chance to recuperate with bed rest. Once removed, the bullet was taken as evidence into the possession of the police by Provincial Constable T.H. Owens. The police kept the details of their investigation secret while it was ongoing, perhaps for fear of giving the assailant a better chance to avoid capture, or perhaps because they were making no headway in finding him and did not want to admit their shortcoming.
A province-wide manhunt was conducted to no avail, and although people were questioned in Paris and London, no one was arrested or held on suspicion of armed robbery and murder. Of the people questioned in relation with the robbery, only three made it into the papers of the day. A self-confessed robber, Albert Emerson of Kitchener was interviewed by police after he robbed a service station in Stratford and a butcher’s shop in Tavistock. He would not give up the name of his accomplice, and was put in a police lineup with 15 other men. Mrs. Lammerse came in to view the lineup but did not recognize any of the men, letting Emerson off the hook for that particular wrongdoing.
Two men arrested in Orillia were also questioned in relation with the killing. They were reportedly found to have burglary tools, a loaded .38 revolver, and dynamite in their car at the time of their apprehension. The arresting officer reported that upon his giving the order to freeze, one of the men began to reach into his jacket pocket. Had the officer not already had his gun drawn, the officer would likely have been shot with the revolver concealed in the man’s jacket.
In a statement discussing the few leads that the police did have, Inspector A.H. Palmer was quoted by The Star as saying “The description of a stranger seen in the vicinity of Britannia on the day of the shooting tallies closely enough with the murderer in one or two ways to warrant our assuming that it was he.” One would hope that this stranger was indeed the man they were looking for, and not a wild goose chase for the police.
The source of Inspector Palmer’s sketch of the assailant was the description of the stranger that the Lammerse’s neighbors gave after the robbery. They described him as being around the age of twenty five, with long brown hair and a fair complexion. He was clean shaven with ‘thin’ features, and a pointed chin. Dressed quite well in a brown suit and matching fedora, it was he estimated that he stood at five feet ten inches and weighed one hundred and seventy pounds. He reportedly spoke English well, with the pronunciation of someone with a decent level of education, and was also wearing a rudimentary mask, perhaps a scarf, tied across his face. However his mask was designed, it wasn’t very effective in its task, as it allowed Mrs. Lammerse and her neighbors to build a rather thorough description of his features.
Mrs. Lammerse also sustained injury during the raid, despite only Garritt being shot at. Although the newspapers of the day do not specify the extent of her injuries, or their location on her body, we know that she was pushed to the ground by the gunman and this is when she was injured. In addition to physical injury, she suffered severe shock at seeing her husband shot in the stomach and the service station that they had both worked so hard at being robbed.
A column published in The Star on October 30 , 1939, told of Mrs. Lammerse having succumbed to an untimely death, caused in no small part by the extreme shock and injury that she suffered at the hands of the service station bandit. She reportedly developed signs of the unnamed illness around seven months before her death, which occurred on Saturday October 28 , 1939, at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Toronto. Like Garritt, she was 61 years old at the time of her death. According to The Star, Mrs. Lammerse was “Quite active and was an ardent worker in Britannia United Church,” until the murder of her husband, but faded from church life as her condition steadily worsened. Perhaps she had no desire to remain in the world after her husband had left it, and succumbed to her illness more readily because of her longing for Garritt.
Her funeral was held on October 30 , 1939, and she was buried beside him in Park Lawn Cemetery. We can only hope that being reunited with him in death relieved her lonely soul.
The case was never solved, and the gunman was never brought to justice, despite the Toronto Township council offering a reward of $100 for information leading to his arrest. The reward was announced on April 11 , 1938, by Reeve E.D. Maguire, and was unanimously backed by all council members after a telephone canvas was conducted. A ‘blanket warrant’ (which is essentially a search warrant with no address written on it, allowing police to search anywhere that they believe the suspect may be in hiding) was issued by Crown Attorney A.C. Davis, but again to no avail.
We can take some meager comfort in the fact that Mrs. Lammerse didn’t live without Garrett for a long time after the robbery, as she would have ended her days, regardless of their number, knowing that her husband’s killer had never been caught and punished. We can only hope that the mysterious stranger mentioned by Inspector Palmer was indeed the bandit, and that the police were not wasting their time and allowing the real culprit to escape while they chased a false lead.
By James Walker
Published in Heritage Mississauga’s “Heritage News”