In January 1970, six local businesses came together to form a vigilante group. No, this really happened.
Once upon a time, Fredericton’s north side had the reputation of being the wrong side of town. With its train yards and its many industrial buildings (RIP to both), calling the north side of the Wolastoq River “the wrong side of the tracks” back in the 70’s or earlier would have been acceptable, or at least somewhat accurate. Thankfully (?) for those of us who make our home on the North Side, that reputation has lessened because, let’s face it, crimes of all shapes and sizes have now been spread neatly across all areas of the city. But that’s another story.
This week’s history lesson deals with one particular point in time when a group of businesses along Union Street were subject to repeated acts of vandalism. And from their perspective, no one was doing anything about it. Things actually got so bad that a group of six business owners, fed up with the inability of the city’s government to aid in the protection of their property, decided to take the law into their own hands. The year was 1970. The month was January. And for this group of businesses, starting up a posse to protect their livelihoods seemed like the right thing to do.
On January 15, 1970, a group of Union Street business owners announced their intention to form what they called a Vigilante Steering Committee. The purpose of this new community group was to protect each other’s property and to, “enlist the assistance of others to protect their property from vandalism.”
The group’s full membership was never made public and members only spoke to the media if their anonymity was assured. In an article that ran in the local paper at the time, an anonymous spokesperson for the group said, “We are very dissatisfied with the direction the police are getting from the top. And when we say this we mean the safety committee. We feel that the way the committees are set up in council at present, they are not working satisfactorily. We fail to see any reason to have a police commission if it is so ineffective in this city.”
The anonymous spokesperson went on to say they felt the police department budget was inadequate and wished it could be more flexible. They noted that when a heavy snowfall blankets the city, more “men and equipment” are made available. So their argument was simple: why couldn’t something similar be done with policing?
“We don’t want anyone who will go off half-cocked. We will work closely with the police department,” they said.
Part of the concern behind the group had to do with the local government’s policing policy, but another point of contention was with the court system. The members of the Vigilante Steering Committee felt the court system was too lenient on offenders. They wanted stiffer punishment for vandals and crooks of all crimes.
Their concern was shared by Arthur Abernathy, owner of Union Motors. Abernathy claimed roaming gangs of youth were throwing rocks, swinging clubs and causing extensive damage to his business and those nearby. He claimed to have witnessed these gangs drag fallen trees across new vehicles on his lot and wrestle on the hoods of others. Multiple windows of his business were repeatedly smashed with rocks and antennas torn from new cars.
Around the same time, other nearby business owners had also gone public with claims of damage including broken windows and machinery as well as break, enter and thefts.
Ervine Johnstone of the Red and White Grocery on Union Street was quoted saying, “It’s terrible. They never stop. It keeps me busy repairing damages.”
So perhaps a vigilante group was a justified response? Mayor Bird disagreed.
“As serious as the matter of vandalism is, I would nevertheless be strongly opposed to any group attempting to take the law into their own hands,” he said.
A meeting between the mayor, the city safety committee, and the police commission was publicly announced just days after the vigilantes announced their formation.
The vigilante group’s only documented action was offering a $100 reward for information that would lead to the arrest of those involved in a violent attack that took place on Montgomery Street on the city’s south side. The attack put a man in hospital for several days. When the award was announced in the local paper, the vigilante group was referred to as, “the soon-to-be-disbanded Fredericton Vigilante Committee.”
In the months that followed, public reports of vandalism and stories related to the local posse no longer appeared in the paper. No unlawful action on the part of the vigilantes was ever reported. It is presumed none was ever taken. Perhaps simply going public was enough to gain a larger police presence in their neighbourhood and put to rest the wave of crime these entrepreneurs had endured for months prior.