Bert Coffey

Bert Coffey wasn’t the type to rob a bank. Easy going, friendly and quick to laugh, larceny did not fit his character. For all his innocent appearance though, Bert was a practical joker with a dry sense of humour. You could always get a good laugh out of his antics but there was a chance the joke might be on you.

Hold Ups & Cowboy Humour

Coffey and nearly 30 relatives had migrated to the Ribstone River area along the Alberta?/Saskatchewan border in 1905. They ran cattle on their homesteads and helped develop the towns of Czar, Hughenden and Provost. Busy ranching, the clash between Bert’s idea of a joke and the banking system didn’t begin until June 1919. World War I had been over for half a year and the ranchers decided to do something special to help the sagging economy. The cattlemen of the Neutral Hills country planned a rodeo and Wild West show called the Big Gap Stampede and the organizers placed Bert in charge of publicity. That decision gave rise to the events known as the Ribstone Bank Robberies.

Bert’s publicity stunt involved 10 cowboys?—?including his brother Earl?—?riding into Edmonton and robbing a bank. Bert figured that would draw some attention and after all, that is the purpose of publicity stunts. The manager at the Merchants Bank on Jasper Avenue agreed to the plan and set a date for the fake robbery. The Mounties supplied the horses from the Edmonton barracks and on the appointed day, the cowboys rode off to Jasper Avenue at an easy walk. Close to the bank they broke into a full gallop and fired blanks from their revolvers. Citizens unaware of the stunt scrambled for cover.

At the bank door, nine cowboys dismounted except for Bert who rode into the bank to add a little more “colour” to the show, causing the customers to stare in disbelief. Coffey fired off two shots and yelled,

The Coffey homestead; breaking a horse named Fantail. Bert Coffey is standing and Bentley Wade is in the foreground.

“This is a stick up! Hand over your money and don’t try any funny stuff!”

Only the teller and manager knew it was a prank and from that point on the situation deteriorated. The floor was marble and his horse’s shoes slipped on the surface like skates on ice, so Bert’s horse fell on him. A lady with her hands in the air fainted in front of Earl so he yelled to his brother,

“Bert, come here! The old girl’s fainted!”

Bert got out from under his horse, checked the fainted lady’s pulse and called for a glass of water as he placed the bills she had dropped upon her chest. Coming to, she fished the bills out of her blouse and scurried out of the bank.

Once the “robbery” was over, the cowboys galloped away and the horses were returned to the Mounties, but Bert had a sudden epiphany. If a little publicity was good, then more was better so the infamous 10 planned another bank hold up.

The “bank robbers” and other members of the Big Gap Stampede, ca. 1919. Bert Coffey is seated fourth from left. Earl Coffey is standing fourth from the right, behind the piper. Both are marked with “X”. If anyone knows the identity of anyone else in the photo, please contact the editor.
Photos courtesy Daryl Drew

The target institution was located on the outskirts of Edmonton towards Wainwright. The bank manager agreed, but the townsfolk remained happily unaware; especially an ex-Mountie who owned a creamery across from the bank. On the appointed day the silence in the streets ended abruptly with gunshots erupting as the cowboys burst into the bank. The ex-Mountie, aroused by the gunfire, dug out his service revolver and stepped into the street. By this time, Bert was running from the bank with fake bags of money. The retired officer began to shoot live rounds at him. Bert figured this was part of the show and so ran right out into the open towards the ex-Mountie who, while backing up, fell over some cream cans. By the time he reached the sprawling constable, Bert was laughing hysterically as the shocked citizen struggled to his feet.

Bert began explaining the situation but the policeman saw nothing funny about cowboy humour. He reminded Coffey that if his service revolver had been fully loaded, a tragic result could have occurred. Bert grew a little pale at the close call but chuckled with the realization that for once, the joke had been on him.

We can only speculate as to how much the robberies helped promote the event, but the Big Gap Stampede was a success. What we do know is that shootout in the street ended Bert Coffey’s foray into bank robbing and luckily, he left that activity with both his humour?—?and his hide?—?intact.