The case of the defaulting bank accountant, conclusion

Would jurors "brand as a felon, a man who [has] enjoyed an unblemished character for honour and integrity in his business transactions? -D.B. Ring, defence counsel.

At the beginning of his trial for the theft of $5,000 in gold coin from his employer, the Bank of British Columbia, the bulk of the testimony has dealt with

George Cruickshank’s sanity at the time of the alleged theft and, later, when he’d signed a second confession.

The combined testimony of Doctors Trimble, Davie, Powell and Helmcken, that of his servant and the two men who’d watched over him, certainly painted a portrait of a man who’d had a nervous breakdown. Or monomania, as Dr. Trimble termed it.

The real issue for Att.-Gen. George Cary was that a crime had been committed and Cruickshank’s sanity at that time, not in the year and a-half following. Defence counsel D.B. Ring had done his best to show that his client was mentally unbalanced when he was alleged to have taken the gold and when he’d made two confessions, the latter before a Notary Public.

There are so many inconsistencies.

Manager Walker first testified that only he and Cruickshank, as the bank’s accountant, had access to the safe which had two locked compartments, one containing the daily cash, the other holding the longer term deposits such as the gold pieces. Each had a key and the safe also required two combinations to open both compartments. But, as it turned out, once unlocked in the morning, the safe was fully accessible to all bank employees throughout the day. And, during Walker’s two-week absence, he’d given his key to Cruickshank who in turn gave his to a cashier so as to maintain the doublesecurity system. Although Cruickshank had known both combinations, once the safe was opened any other staff member could have taken the coin. In subsequent testimony, Walker even admitted that there were duplicate keys in existence.

Furthermore, all the testimony relating to Cruickshank’s apparent breakdown was post-robbery.

Walker had had no reason to suspect his sanity at the time of his employment with the bank nor when he initially discovered the theft. Readers are reminded that there was a timelag between because the coins were bagged and when balancing the books, short of a quarterly audit, the bags, as many as 20, weren’t examined for their exact contents. In fact, he explained, the practice in most banks was to weigh, not count, the coins, but the Victoria branch lacked a scale big enough so counting was the rule. He also had to concede that the bank had once accredited $1,000 to the wrong party, the mistake only being discovered when the recipient issued a receipt for the money.

He confirmed that he hadn’t suspected Cruickshank upon discovering that $5,000 was missing, and had taken statements from all employees as the starting point of an investigation. Curiously, this signed statement was never produced at the preliminary hearing nor at the trial, having been sent to the bank’s head office in London, Eng. He denied ever having accessed the safe "alone under any circumstances" and, for the first time, he declared that he’d previously had to suspend his accountant for drunkenness.

Cashier Henry Rushton described his accessing the safe in the morning when he

had one of the keys, and upon locking up at day’s end: "It was only the cashier’s money that was [placed in the vault]… When I was cashier I handled the cashier’s money for which I was answerable, but never touched the reserve. I had no power to interfere with [Cruickshank] and did not watch him as that would imply suspicion. Had the reserve and the cashier’s money been mixed, I should probably have noticed it. I never knew both combinations. I never lent my key to Mr. Cruickshank while I was entrusted with it, and he could not therefore open the safe without another key."

Mr. Ring began his closing address by describing the Crown’s case as "a heap of probabilities upon probabilities".

Would jurors "upon simple probabilities brand as a felon, a man who until this alleged charge was brought [had] enjoyed an unblemished character for honour and integrity in his business transactions? Would they cause a hereditary blot to rest upon his child to descend to future generations?" He reminded the jury that the cashiers (one of whom had since left town) had had access to the safe and dismissed his client’s "confession" as that of a man who’d suffered a mental breakdown. In fact, he said, Manager Walker hadn’t even been able to prove the exact amount of missing coin.

Chief Justice Cameron briefly explained the nature of embezzlement and larceny as charged in the indictment without mentioning the sanity issue and the jury filed out to begin deliberation. Five minutes later, they were back: Not Guilty.

Did George Cruickshank steal the gold? Who knows? Did he suffer a mental breakdown? Most certainly. His trial is unique for its time for its emphasis on the mental state of an accused both when the crime was committed and when he "confessed." That said, however, it’s likely that his rapid acquittal was prompted by the manager’s conflicting testimony and what seems to have been a sloppy security system.

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