Nate Hendley’s The Beatle Bandit: A Serial Bank Robber’s Deadly Heist, A Cross Country Manhunt, and the Insanity Plea that Shook the Nation (Dundurn Press, 2021) is a sad and shocking tale about Matthew Kerry Smith, a twenty-four year old man who robbed a bank in North York, Ontario in 1964 while wearing a Beatle wig. During his mad dash from the bank, Smith was confronted by bank patron Jack Blanc. The two exchanged fire and Blanc was killed. This murder and robbery prompted the largest manhunt in Toronto Metropolitan Police history.
Hendley’s text does an excellent job of not only outlining Smith’s case, trial, and the aftereffects of both, but also does a great job of giving his reader a sense of what life was like in 1960s Toronto. At the beginning of his text, he outlines what life was like in Canada both socially and politically. I really appreciated these passages because it gave me a sense as a reader of what the important issues of the day were. This in turn helped me to understand how this crime would have been received when it occurred. Hendley also provides a detailed account of the fatal robbery, and additionally outlines one of the strangest historical details I’ve ever heard about Canada: that banks usually kept a loaded gun on the premises and “expected staff to use these weapons in case they were robbed” (14). That there was an accessible gun on the premises ends up having fatal consequences in this case. As Hendley explains:
“The pistol[ ]… had six chambers, but for safety reasons [the bank employee] kept only four loaded. The cylinders were positioned so the hammer would hit an empty chamber if one of the revolvers should fall to the floor” (14).
This detail becomes important when later, as Blanc chases Smith with this gun in hand (accounts differ from how Blanc obtained the gun, some say he was given it by a bank employee, and some say he took it) he eventually runs out of bullets because “he didn’t know the pistol wasn’t kept fully loaded. After four shots, the revolver was empty, and Blanc didn’t have any replacement cartridges or another weapon” (18). This detail was chilling to read, especially because it is Blanc’s inability to fire back that eventually leads to Smith killing him. A small and strange historical detail about guns being kept in banks in the 1960s becomes instead an inciting event in Hendley’s text as he draws a thread between this policy and Blanc’s death. I appreciated this attention to detail.
The other aspects of this text that are crucial are Hendley’s depiction of Smith’s early life and decent into mental illness. Hendley documents in detail Smith’s childhood, the mental illness of Smith’s mother, his short stint in the navy and his diagnosis of schizophrenia prior to the North York burglary. Hendley also summarizes the additional bank burglaries that Smith committed prior to the North York incident. Hendley explains these details in such a way that you can see Smith’s descent into illness corresponding with his descent into criminal activity, and I found this strategy astute and timely, especially considering the lack of mental health care that Smith received while making his way through the Canadian justice system. If true crime is to move into a new era where the prison and justice systems are critiqued and assessed, more texts need to draw the kinds of correlations that Hendley’s text does—Smith’s erratic behaviour prior to the North York burglary indicated serious mental illness and should have been addressed. The result of that negligence is the crime Smith committed where a person’s life was lost. As a reader, I appreciated that Hendley did not allow me to lose sight of that fact.
Hendley’s text also touches on a piece of Canadian history that most Canadians would rather overlook: capital punishment. Hendley explains that
Historically, Canadian courts had shown little mercy to people convicted of serious offences like murder. From the time of Canada’s semi-independence until the early 1960s, anyone convicted of murder automatically received a death sentence. Such sentence as could be commuted, but for the most part politicians and the public were content to see harsh justice done. A total of 710 people were executed in this period, all by hanging (134).
Hendley goes onto explain when these laws were changed and how the effected Smith’s case, but I appreciated the attention he brought to this often glossed-over aspect of Canada’s history. Hendley discusses Smith’s trial, his sentence, and the lack of mental health care given to Smith, with disastrous results. Overall, Hendley’s text brings forth serious questions about the nature of incarceration, the lack of mental health care in and out of the prison system, and the injustice that is imbedded within the Canadian justice system. This book is a must read for anyone looking for contentious and responsible true crime.
About the Writer:
Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature. Her work on women in twenty-first century true crime is forthcoming from Crime Fiction Studies.