Edwin Boyd died in 2002, but he would be smiling to see his name in headlines once again. Toronto’s most infamous criminal always wanted to be the centre of attention, a Hollywood star like James Cagney. Edwin Boyd: Citizen Gangster is a beautifully shot period piece with terrific performances from Scott Speedman, Kevin Durand, Kelly Reilly, Charlotte Sullivan, Brian Cox and Beach resident Melanie Scrofano. A wintry Sault Ste. Marie stands in for post-war Toronto. The film won the Best First Canadian Feature prize at TIFF for director Nathan Morlando.
Boyd helped Morlando write the script, which may explain the sympathetic portrayal of a charming ‘gentleman’ bank robber. The real Edwin Boyd was a much more disturbing character. Late in life he made the chilling confession, “I did a few things that could have got me hung.” For the full story read Brian Vallee’s book, Edwin Alonzo Boyd: the Story of the Notorious Boyd Gang (1997).
In the summer of 1928, 14-year-old Ed decided to run off and join the French Foreign Legion. His parents would need to believe that he was dead. He rode an old bicycle down to the beach at the foot of Woodbine Avenue and piled some clothes and a pair of running shoes on the sand. In a shirt pocket Ed left a paper with his name on it. His plan was to walk east on Kingston Road to Oshawa the first day. He got as far as Whitby. Police dragged the lake for hours looking for his body. Glover Boyd couldn’t have been pleased – Eddie’s father was a Toronto constable, walking the beat for 25 years.
Ed had the bad luck to be born in 1914, not long before his dad went overseas to fight in World War One. When Glover Boyd returned home in 1919, the young boy was replaced in his mother’s arms by a man he didn’t know. His stern and religious father became a policeman at Number 10 Station on Main Street, now Community Centre 55. It was a short walk over the bridge from the family home on Harris Avenue near the Danforth.
The Boyds moved to Chisholm Avenue and Glebemount Avenue with Ed attending Gledhill, Secord and Earl Beatty Schools. He excelled at sports and music, but had no interest in the three ‘Rs’ and especially didn’t like to follow rules. With a policeman for a father, Ed impressed his friends by getting into trouble. He never made it to high school.
His mom’s death had a devastating effect on Ed at 15. He soon quit school and left home. By 1930 he was a drifter out west, riding the rails, surviving the Depression by conning women, odd jobs and petty theft. At 22, ‘Eddie’ Boyd robbed a gas station and spent two and a half years in a penitentiary.
When the Second World War came along in 1939, hobos became heroes. Eddie served in France, but didn’t like army rules and became a military policeman of all things.
Citizen Gangster picks up the story with Eddie returning home from overseas, a British war bride and three kids in tow. He got a good job as a TTC streetcar motorman on the Yonge Street line (not a bus driver as in the movie). More rules! Boyd was soon bored with routine civilian life. (Maybe he got tired of waiting for the Yonge subway to be finished in 1954). Between 1949 and 1952, Boyd committed at least 11 bank robberies and escaped from the Don Jail twice, sparking a media frenzy and the largest manhunt in Canadian history. The very first CBC Toronto television newscast shows Lorne Greene (the ‘Voice of Canada’ and later the patriarch on Bonanza) reporting on the dramatic events. Ironically, Boyd wanted to attend Greene’s Academy of Radio Arts under the delusion that a 35-year-old ex-con could become a Hollywood star by flashing his smile.
Two members of the Boyd Gang were hanged in 1952 for the murder of Sergeant of Detectives Edmund Tong. Boyd was paroled out of prison in 1966 and moved to B.C. Author Brian Vallee alleges that Boyd was responsible for the 1947 robbery/murder of a couple in High Park. Their strangled bodies were found in the trunk of a car. A CBC documentary Unmasking the Myth: The Life and Times of Edwin Alonzo Boyd (2002) concluded that “the new revelations unmask Boyd as an ego-driven psychopath whose own words connect him to unsolved crimes committed half a century ago.” Boyd figured, “if it’s so easy to rob a bank, what the hell am I working for?…I just enjoyed the money.”
After conversations with Boyd, director Morlando “realized that he had suffered an immense amount of loss. He had lost his family. It was a tragic love story.” Also, “He had the courage to reach for an extraordinary life.” How much ‘courage’ and ‘charm’ does it take to put a gun in a female bank teller’s face? Our city was terrorized by a ruthless gang. Bullets flew in bank holdups and shootouts with lawmen. Two policemen were shot in the line of duty.
Even from the grave, the con man is fooling people.
Some reviewers have fallen for the ‘decent family man’ myth, even writing about Boyd working as a film extra or actor. Film and TV production was non-existent in the 1940s in Toronto.
NOW magazine called Boyd “a failed actor” (he never even tried), “dismayed by public indifference towards war veterans” (an ex-con with a grade seven education given a good TTC job and throwing it away), and a “family man and impoverished war veteran” (between the war, on the run and in prison, he must have spent about five minutes with his kids. His own father helped him financially).
Boyd robbed the Bank of Toronto at 1436 Kingston Rd. near Warden of $10,000 in June 1952, one of what critic Rex Reed calls “friendly, nonviolent attempts to relieve banks of a few piles of small bills.” He engaged in shootouts with armed bank managers. Boyd was arrested with five guns by his bedside.
Do we glorify violence and glamorize criminals? The movies have always loved gangsters, making folk heroes of thugs like Bonnie and Clyde. It’s exciting to see that rarest of films, one about a part of Toronto history. Just know that Edwin Boyd was no hero and anything but a ‘model citizen’.
There won’t be any movies made about popular detective Eddie Tong. Now there was a hero.