The Incredible True Story of the 1930 Transcona Bank Robbery (that Ended in an Axe Murder)

Updated: Feb 7


Chapter 1 - The Robbery

Thursday, 16 October 1930, at 10:15 AM just after the Transcona Bank of Toronto had opened for the day. A blue sedan parked on Bond Street beside the bank, three men got out leaving a fourth at the driver's wheel of the car. The three men entered the bank. Inside, bank manager J.B. Simpson was in his office going through the mail, and four customers were already at the teller counter. Two men entered the bank with handkerchiefs over their faces, while the third did not bother to cover his face. Two of the men approached the customers, while the third entered the bank manager's office and gave everyone instructions to do as they were told and they would not be harmed. Simpson was backed out of the office at gunpoint into the main area of the bank where the other gunmen were, one herding the others towards the back of the bank and into the vault, and the other taking up a watch post at the door.

While the gunman at the door was later reported to be incredibly nervous, the tallest gunman was much calmer. Once everyone was in the vault, the tall gunman told them the lights would stay on and tossed them a screwdriver to let themselves out. Although, the gunmen did issue a warning that they shouldn't be too quick about getting themselves out of the vault. Before the gunmen closed the door, the people in the vault saw the robbers pull out a brown bag and filled it with the money stored in the teller's drawers. This caused some confusion later on because most of the money on hand was in the vault, however, the gunmen never touched this. They did, however, hit the bank just after payday at the Transcona Shops, when there was more cash on hand and got away with approximately $12,000(approximately $177,782.61 in today's money).


Edna Niel, a clerk in the post office across Bond Street from the bank, later said she had seen the three men enter the bank, then when they hurried out a few minutes later they got into their blue sedan and sped west down Regent Avenue.


Later reports would theorize that from Regent/Narin Avenue, they could have only gone north towards the town of Birds Hill where they would have been noticed, or more likely gone straight on into Winnipeg.


Chapter 2 - The Search is On


By the evening of the robbery, the Winnipeg police Chief of Detectives George Smith had issued a statement saying they were working with the Transcona police but had found few clues at the scene. Though based on the circumstances of the robbery they believed, "the bank hold-up and the Canada Malting robbery look like the work of the same gang. We are going on the theory that a gang of robbers is working in Winnipeg and vicinity and are leaving no stone unturned to try and track them down". The McPhillips Street office of the Canada Malting Company had been robbed 17 hours before the bank hold-up, the robbers getting away with $2,400 (approximately $35,556.52 in today's money). However, by December of 1930 George "Fennell" Scott and William Watkins had been arrested, charged. They were sentenced to seven years and three years in prison, respectively, for the Canada Malting Company robbery.


The police spread a huge dragnet in search of the robbers, according to a quote from The Manitoba Free Press, "Dives, pool rooms, hotels and rooming houses in Winnipeg are being subject to visitations of detectives. All roads leading out of the city are being watched by provincial police, and suburban authorities are maintaining a similar vigilance". Telegraphs and long-distance telephone calls were being sent out to towns in Southern Manitoba and American towns along the border to be on the lookout for anyone who might fit the descriptions of the robbers. Border patrol officers were also being instructed to keep a lookout, for fear of the robbers heading for the border. There was also a reward offered by the Canadian Bankers Association for any information leading to an arrest and charges being laid.


As a result of this search effort by the end of the day on 17 October 1930, the police had questioned over 200 possible suspects and had arrested three of the men responsible for the robbery, as well as the wife of one of the men, who was held as a material witness.



Chapter 3 - The Suspects


The next day, 18 October 1930, the three suspects were charged in the Bank of Toronto Transcona hold-up. The three suspects were:

  • Harry Herman, of the Herman Raw Fur Co. located at 288 Princess Street. Herman was arrested at his residence at 571 Alfred Avenue. Born in Russia in 1891, he immigrated to Canada with his parents in 1913. According to the 1926 census, he and his wife Rachel (also born in Russia) were living with their 5 children in Winnipeg.

  • Joe (Joseph) Wyrozub, also known as Houston. It was reported in the newspapers that he had been born in New York and had immigrated to Canada when he was very young, however, his obituary in 1970 said that he was from Ukraine and had immigrated around 1914. He was arrested at a rooming house on MacDonald Avenue with his wife Doris Wyrozub, who was also being held as a material witness. According to a 26 November 1930 Winnipeg Tribune article, Wyrozub had previously spent 8 years in jail on charges ranging from vagrancy to robbery. He had also been previously held on charges in July 1930 for a robbery of Rex Cafe in Dauphin but had been released from lack of evidence.

  • Lester Gwynn/Leslie V Gwinn, who currently remains a mystery. Gwynn was described in the newspapers at the time as "a transient, residing on Higgins, come from the US, recently arriving in Winnipeg from The Pas and Flin Flon". He made a full confession when he was arrested and claimed that Herman had been the mastermind behind the robbery. He was identified as one of the robbers by J.B. Simpson, the bank manager, so he was likely the gunman who had entered the bank manager's office during the robbery and backed the manager out of the office at gunpoint.



Chapter 4 - The Plan and the Fallout


According to Herman's testimony, towards the end of September 1930, Wyrozub and Herman had gone to the house of John Pawuk, a fellow gambler who supplied the guns for the robbery. They were joined by the fourth man involved in the robbery, known only to Herman as 'Mike' or 'Shorty', and they drove to Transcona to observe the bank before the robbery. While they were driving past the bank they noticed a police officer across the street and headed back to the city.


About 10 days later, Herman met up with Wyrozub and Pawuk again, introducing him to Wyrozub's friend from the United States who was 'experienced', Lester Gwynn. While discussing details, Gwynn suggested stealing a car. Gwynn stole a car off Higgins Avenue and replaced the plates with ones he had rented under a different name. The next morning, Herman met up with Wyrozub, Gwynn, and 'Mike/Shorty' and drove out to Transcona, but finding the bank too busy they aborted the plan and decided they would try again tomorrow. The day of the robbery they met again and drove back out to Transcona, with Herman claiming he was forced to go into the bank and get the money while the others herded the customers and employees into the vault.


After the robbery, the four drove to Elmwood and separated there, with two of them taking the streetcar and the other two driving. They met again at the Sanderson Block where they used an acquaintance's apartment to divide the money. Afterwards, Wyrozub and Gwynn went to a Garry Street beer parlour, Herman went home, and 'Mike/Shorty' vanished. Sometime after the money was divided, the bag was supposedly thrown off the Norwood Bridge into the Red River.


A taxi driver later testified that he had picked up Gwynn and Wyrozub at the beer parlour and had driven them to Selkirk/East Selkirk, where they had several drinks until late into the evening.


Chapter 5 - The Trial


20 October 1930

Charges were laid against all three suspects for armed robbery and theft of $11,318.50.


22 October 1930

Police dragging operation on the Red River was underway for the bag that was rumoured to have been thrown off the Norwood Bridge after the robbery. The bag was thought to contain some of the stolen money, as well as the masks, overalls, and guns used in the robbery.


23 October 1930

After getting a lawyer, Harry Herman made a full confession and turned King's Evidence. Wyrozub and Gwynn both elected to stand for a jury trial.


29 October 1930

Herman was sentenced to three years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary for his part in the robbery and in court took the stand against the others, providing a narrative for the robbery and aftermath. According to Herman, he had built up several large gambling debts which he could not pay back, leading to his role in the robbery. A resident at the rooming house where Wyrozub and his wife were staying had found some of the money in the bathroom of the house. A cashier at the Hudson's Bay Co. also testified that the day of the robbery, Herman had come into the store to pay his account, with new Bank of Toronto bills.


The trial was touted as being one of the largest robbery trials in Winnipeg history, with over 30 witnesses and many people wanting to watch the trial.


26 November 1930

Pawuk, who had provided the guns for the robbery, was sentenced. Gwynn and Wyrozub had pled guilty and were being held for sentencing. Gwynn had made a full confession and claimed that Herman was, in fact, the brains behind the robbery plans and confirmed that Herman had been the one filling the bag with money.


29 November 1930

Wyrozub was sentenced to 15 years in prison and ten lashes for his part in the robbery. Gwynn was sentenced to 5 years in prison and ten lashes.


Chapter 6 - An Escape Attempt

In early December 1930, Doris Wyrozub was arrested for attempting to aid her husband Joe's escape by smuggling a set of 5 hacksaw blades into a jar of jam. Doris was arrested and charged, but on 22 January 1931 was acquitted of the charges after claiming she did not know the saw blades were in the jam. The jam had been given to her by an 'unknown stranger', who had told her he was a friend of her husband's and that she should give him the jam.




Chapter 7 - The Fourth Man


On 19 November 1930, an arrest warrant was put out for a Frank Bodnar in connection with the bank robbery. Also known as Frank Banner, 'Shorty' or 'Mike', the man's real name was thought to be Mike Kostiuk. He had a previous arrest record for robbery and vagrancy. He was never caught, but his whereabouts were later revealed. After taking his share of the money, Mike had hidden in the north end of Winnipeg for several days before travelling to Riverton, Manitoba. He travelled further west, eventually making his way to the United States. After he was identified by police, circulars with his description and fingerprints were sent all over Canada and the United States.


A year later on the night of 19 June 1931, a railway patrol officer in Cedar Rapids, Michigan came across four men sleeping in a boxcar. When he ordered them to get out of the car, one of the men pulled a gun. After a short shoot-out, three of the men fled and the man who had pulled the gun lay dead with two bullet wounds. An immigration card found on the body read Lukas Roman Pucholski of Michigan, but his prints were sent to the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. for confirmation. The fingerprints revealed that he was, in fact, Frank Bodnar, the fourth man wanted for the robbery of the Bank of Toronto in Transcona.


Frank Bodnar/Banner had previously been arrested in Winnipeg in 1922, for shop breaking and theft. He was 24 at the time, and served two years in prison for the robbery. He was arrested along with John Pawuk, who would later supply the guns for the Transcona bank robbery, as well as a Nick Gach/Gotch who he seemed to be rooming with at the time of their arrest. See images of the Winnipeg Police Arrest Record Book, Courtesy of the Winnipeg Police Museum.


A close up of the police arrest book from Frank Bodnar's 1922 arrest, showing the time he was arrested, the name of the arresting officer, his name, his occupation, and his cultural heritage. Courtesy of the Winnipeg Police Museum.

A close up of the other page in the police arrest book from Frank Bodnar's 1922 arrest, showing his age, place of residence, and charge he was arrested on. Courtesy of the Winnipeg Police Museum.


Chapter 8 - The Fate of the Other Three


Lester Gwynn/Gwinn is as much of a mystery following the robbery as he was before. Based on comments that the judge is reported to have made during the trial, Gwynn was deported back to the United States after his release.


Joe Wyrozub (Houston), continued his troubles with the law after he was released. He and his wife Doris divorced in 1943. In 1944 he was shot by one of his fellow conspirators attempting to rob another bank in Winnipeg; he survived his injuries. He was arrested in 1945 for theft of government bonds. In 1965 at the age of 66, he was again arrested for theft. According to a 26 March 1965 article in the Winnipeg Evening Tribune, he had a criminal record going back to 1916 (two years after he had arrived in Canada from Ukraine). Joe died on 2 January 1970 at the age of 70 at the Winnipeg General Hospital and is buried at All Saints Cemetery. According to his obituary, he was survived by one son living in Winnipeg, a sister in Ukraine, and a brother in Alberta.


Harry Herman moved with his family to Regina, where he left them. He moved to Vancouver and worked in the fur business until his death in 1964 of a blood clot. His wife Rachel and their oldest son John returned to Winnipeg. Unfortunately, Rachel was murdered on 20 May 1946 after being found by her son, bleeding-out from axe wounds received by an Abraham Goodman, a local baker. She had been rejecting his advances and proposals of marriage. Harry and Rachel are both buried in Bnay Abraham Cemetery in West St. Paul.


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The Transcona Museum gratefully acknowledges the City of Winnipeg for their ongoing support of museum operations and facility maintenance.

We would like to acknowledge that we reside on Treaty One territory, the traditional territory of Anishinaabe, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene peoples, as well as the homeland of the Métis Nation.

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