Momma’s Boys

May Bannister and Baby Betty

In early 1936 20-month-old Jackie Lake, son of a poor Canadian trapper and his common-law wife, died because he was too old.
 
His parents, Phil and Bertha Lake died because they also happened to have a 4-month-old daughter, Betty, whom a neighbor, May Bannister, needed for a bizarre blackmail scheme.
 
The Bannister family — May, the 43-year-old matriarch of the clan, her sons Daniel, 20, and Arthur, 19, and daughters Frances, 15, and Marie, 13 — lived in serious privation in a small house near a New Brunswick, Canada, town called Berry Mills. The father of the family had long since left for better climes.
 
May Bannister and her daughters eked out a living in this small town along the Trans-Canada Highway near Moncton by picking blueberries, while the two sons cut and sold firewood and trapped whatever animals they could find for food and fur.
 
“Often, they wandered the streets of Moncton looking for day-old bread,” wrote crime historian Max Haines in a 1996 column for the Letheridge (Alberta) Herald. “None could read or write. Both boys were of below average intelligence.”
 
The Lake family was not much better off. Haines reports that they lived in nearby Pacific Junction in a 260-square-foot home near a Canadian National railroad track and while Bertha cared for the two children, Phil worked in the woods and as a trapper.
 
On the morning of January 6, Otto Blakeny was out chopping firewood and, as was the custom of this trapper, he headed over to the Lakes’ shanty for some lunchtime conversation. Instead, Blakeny came across a scene that remains one of Canada’s most brutal and cold-blooded crimes.
 
There was nothing left of the two-room shack but its chimney; everything else had been destroyed by a fire. An overnight snowstorm had covered the smoldering ruins in a thick layer of fluffy snow, leaving a scene of eerie stillness.
 
Blakeny quickly discovered Phil’s snow-covered and badly burned body. His head and torso remained, but the heat of the blaze apparently had incinerated his limbs. Blakeny identified his friend from a pair of prominent gold teeth that had not been destroyed by the conflagration. The woodsman later said he was shocked to find that Phil, a brawny Canadian trapper, had been killed in the fire, as the house was so small. Rolling his friend over, Blakeny discovered what really killed his friend: a gunshot to the head.
 
“He scurried down the railway track toward the CNR office,” Haines wrote. “Tiny droplets of blood were clearly visible in the fresh snow. Every hundred yards or so there were larger blood smears, as if someone had fallen and risen, only to fall again.”
 
The trapper summoned the Royal Canadian Mounted Police from Mocton. Sgt. B.G. Peters of the Mounties took over the investigation, which was immediately concerned with finding the missing wife and children. Soon the bodies of Bertha and Jackie were found more than a quarter-mile away, nearly naked. Bertha had been killed by a blow to the head and Jackie was left to freeze to death.
 
“The snow beside the body was thrashed, giving mute evidence that, after dropping her son and falling herself, Bertha had made vain attempts to rise before dying alone in the snow,” Haines wrote.
 
Little Betty was nowhere to be found and the initial suspicion was that her body was completely consumed in the blaze.
 
There appeared to be no motive for the crime. The Lakes were not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination and there was little worth stealing from their shack. They had no known enemies and investigators were not sure this was a case of kidnapping. After all, kidnappers normally steal children for the ransom — at least that’s what the authorities in rural New Brunswick thought in the 1930s.
 
However, this was not a normal case.
 
Emerson, Essays, CompensationAlthough a blizzard had come through and seemingly destroyed any trace evidence, a January thaw soon after the crime melted the top layer of fresh snow, revealing footprints frozen into the ice atop the older snow. The two sets of footprints were tracked through the thick woods, eventually discovering a mitten that was quickly traced to Daniel Bannister.
 
When railroad workers told the Mounties they saw the two Bannister boys walking on the railroad tracks near the crime scene, investigators hurried to the Bannisters’ shack to ask some questions.
 
Daniel, Arthur and Frances, the oldest girl, all admitted being near the Lake homestead the night of the murders. The Bannister family alibied each other and told the Mounties that they never talked to the Lakes that night because they saw two strangers arguing with Phil.
 
“The police jumped at that,” reads an anonymous piece on the crime in a contemporary newspaper. “If the three were lying it was a stupid and reckless lie, because strangers…were almost unheard of and would attract about as much notice as an elephant walking through a city.”
 
Police scoured the area to find two strange men, not because the Mounties believed the Bannisters, but because it was an opportunity to set a trap for the family — at this point the Bannisters were all considered suspects. Cops quickly cleared the two strangers thanks to air-tight alibis, but brought Daniel, Arthur and Frances to see if they could identify the men.arthur_daniel_bannister
 
“Police the world over usually make such identifications as difficult as possible by lining the suspects up with a lot of other persons,” according to the news report. “This time they made it suspiciously easy by exhibiting the two men alone.”
 
The siblings identified the men as the ones seen arguing with Lake and headed home, “confident that they had pinned the crime on the two luckless strangers.” They were surprised to be met by the Mounties who had made a beeline to the Bannister home after catching the family in a lie. There they found a .22 caliber rifle.
 
Along with the gun the Mounties found a baby girl, just a few months old.
 
May Bannister gave an attempt to explain the baby, saying her name was “Thyra” and that she was delivered at home. May did not get a birth certificate for “Thyra,” she said, because the girl’s father was unknown.
 
Authorities managed to find several people who knew May and said she had appeared in Moncton before with a baby in a carriage, but they were unable to locate anyone who could admit getting a good look at the child. This, combined with the notion that it was ludicrous for May, a woman so poor her family had to scrounge for day-old bread, to kidnap a child simply to add another mouth to feed, raised suspicions. However, suspicion does not equal evidence.
 
Investigators did find one odd clue to the mystery while searching the Bannister shack: “A large and expensive ‘mama’ doll, which had been bought at Moncton around Christmas time and was supposed to be a present for Marie.” The doll had been deliberately rendered inoperable so as to make no noise.
 
It was not until ballistics matched the .22 rifle to the bullet that killed Phil that the Crown was confident enough to order arrests.
 
“Police were satisfied that the whole Bannister family was involved in kidnapping and murder but for a motive that seemed undiscoverable, and until they knew that motive, it was hopeless to bring them to trial,” an article in the American Weekly magazine reported at the time.
 
Questioned by police, Arthur had a ready explanation about the crime: Phil apparently made an improper advance toward 15-year-old Frances, prompting a fight that ended with Phil accidentally striking his wife with a piece of firewood and Daniel then crushing Phil’s skull with another piece. At the same time, an oil lamp was knocked to the floor, starting the fire.
 
“In a general way, Frances and Daniel backed up their brother’s story,” Haines wrote. “Daniel was taken into custody and charged with murder. Frances was held as a material witness.”
 
In the end it all boiled down to lust and greed. Still in search of that elusive motive, the Mounties questioned anyone who was connected in any way to the Bannisters, eventually finding two men who were intimately connected to May.
 
A Salvation Army worker named Milton Trites had been partially supporting the Bannisters since May’s husband left. In return for a little sex and some housekeeping chores, May received a monthly stipend from Trites. At the same time, May was doing the same for a railroad worker named Albert Powell, whom Haines describes as a part-time Sunday School teacher.
 
Not satisfied with the money she was making by selling herself, May created a plot to blackmail both Trites and Powell by telling each of them she was pregnant with his child.
 
“On the strength of these assertions,” reads a contemporary account, “each had given her contributions of money until after the baby was supposed to have been born.”
 
According to testimony at her trial, May’s plan began to unravel when the men asked to see the child. That’s where the expensive “mama” doll came in.
 
“Mrs. Bannister had obligingly pushed a baby carriage past their places of business,” according to one report, “permitting them a peep from the window at a tiny face almost hidden in blankets.”
 
That satisfied the men for a short time, but eventually both wanted more contact with the baby. May enlisted her children to kidnap Betty, which meant killing the rest of the family. The boys happily complied.
 
Frances Bannister was the star witness at the trial of her brothers and mother, having turned state’s evidence. She said they knocked at the door of the Lake house and Arthur went into the house. Lake was working on his traps, while Bertha and the children slept in the other room. Arthur placed the muzzle of his rifle against the back of Lake’s head and pulled the trigger, prompting Bertha to grab Jackie and run. One of the boys caught her and crushed her skull with the rifle. They left Jackie to die and returned to the house, taking Betty with them after starting a fire with kerosene.
 
Arthur and Daniel were convicted of murder and kidnapping and sentenced to hang, which happened for the pair on September 23, 1936. The brains behind the scheme, May, was just charged with harboring a stolen child and was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison. Frances was kept in the juvenile court system until her 18th birthday.
 
May did her time and, Haines reports, “returned to Berry Mills, where she was a rather feared curiosity until 1971, when she died of natural causes.”