JOHN S. LABATT STROLLED CASUALLY PAST THE THRONGS OF REPORTERS OUTSIDE THE ROYAL YORK HOTEL. WHETHER IT WAS THE HEAT, THE SWARMING ACTIVITY, OR THE SHEER ABSURDITY OF THE SITUATION, NO ONE QUITE RECOGNIZED HIM. THIS WAS ODD, CONSIDERING HE WAS THE VERY REASON THEY’D GATHERED. AFTER ALL, LABATT WAS A CANADIAN ICON, REVERED BEER MOGUL, AND – MOST RELEVANT AT THAT MOMENT – THE VICTIM OF A HIGHLY PUBLIC KIDNAPPING.
Three days earlier, on a hot August day in 1934, Labatt left his summer home heading towards London, ON for a business meeting. Running late, he opted for a scarcely traveled shortcut. Labatt’s REO Sedan was the among the fastest of its day, which meant very little when a suspicious vehicle suddenly careened towards it on the narrow backcountry road. Within hours, Labatt found himself blindfolded and chained to a cabin bed. His captors held him at gunpoint and forced him to write a ransom note to his brother, Hugh Labatt. Led by a scrappy ringleader known as “Three Fingered Abe,” the criminals seemed unorganized, but their demands (and guns) were very real. Hugh was told to check in at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel and await further direction. The note warned – as ransom notes do – that if he wanted to see his brother alive again, he’d best not involve the authorities or the press. Nevertheless, rumors of the abduction swirled. Violent kidnappings for ransom are not a Canadian custom. In fact, a grand sum of zero are known to have occurred before this, so the buzz was substantial. The amateur kidnappers, neither equipped nor inclined to withstand the media firestorm, ditched their $150,000 demand ($2.5 million today). They drove Labatt to Toronto in a panic, dropping him off with cab fare and a halfhearted agreement to pay $25,000.
In the wake of the ordeal, Labatt became understandably reclusive, cautious about his family’s safety. However, his leadership qualities remained intact. He’d serve as company President until 1950, when he stepped down at the age of seventy. During this time, he shepherded the brewery through vast expansion, public offering, and World War II. To this day, Labatt is synonymous with quality and consistency in the art of brewing.
THREE FINGERED ABE NEVER RECEIVED HIS $25,000.