10 Great Train Robberies

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1. The First Train Robbery in the West

Although Jesse James popularly gets credit for committing the first train robbery, the following robbery actually predates his: On November 5, 1870, just west of Reno, NV, a Central Pacific passenger train was overtaken by a gang of robbers who'd been tipped off that the train was carrying gold worth $60,000. The conductor was forced to apply the brakes and separate the engine, tender, baggage and express cars from the rest of the train. The engineer was then taken to the express car to request admittance. When the door opened, the expressman was greeted three sawed off shotguns. By prying open boxes in the express car, the gang was able to uncover $41,000 in gold coins. The spoils weighed over 150 lbs. However, the robbers inadvertently left behind $8,000 in silver, $15,000 in hidden gold bars, and piles of bank drafts. (Keep in mind that an acre of land cost about $5 at the time.) All of the robbers were apprehended or killed before being able to enjoy their bounty.

2. Jesse James’ first Train Robbery

The notorious gang leader, Jesse James, is a Wild West legend. He and his colleagues the James-Younger gang, had already established a local reputation for crime before the legendary robbery. Former confederate guerillas, the gang dressed in KKK garb. They then loosened part of the track and attached a rope to it near the Adair, Iowa station. As the Rock Island train approached the station on July 21, 1873, the engineer saw the rope tied to the rail. He attempted to back the train up to avoid the hazard, but was unsuccessful. The engine, tender, and baggage cars were derailed and the engineer killed. Jesse and his brother Frank, approached the expressman with cocked 44’s. The James-Younger gang rode off with nearly $3,000—worth about $51,000 today.

3. Gads Hill Missouri Great Train Robbery

Jesse James may not have been the first to rob a train in the West, but he was the first to rob one in Missouri. On January 31, 1874, the James-Younger gang rode into the small town of Gads Hill, population 15. They were again dressed in KKK masks and sent shock waves through the small community. They lit a bonfire within sight of the station platform and had one member to the gang stand on the platform holding a red signal lamp. The train did not normally stop at the Gads Hill station but was scheduled to do so that day in order for State Rep. L.M. Farris to meet up with his son. As the train neared the station, the conductor jumped off the train to see what was going on, he was seized and the train was switched to a siding. The gang members boarded the train, raided the express/mail car and then systematically relieved the passengers of their jewelry and currency.

_flossy fact: They spared any man who had calloused hands, because they didn't wish to steal from the working class. All except one woman, who had $400 in gold coins, were also spared.

4. The Wilcox Robbery

The Wild Bunch, with infamous members Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, went out with a bang for their final train robbery. On June 2, 1899 around 2:30 AM, the Union Pacific Overland Flyer No. 1 was flagged down by two men with warning lights. The men overtook the first engine and made the engineer disconnect the second part of the train, which had its own engine. Then they blew up a small wooden bridge after the first engine had passed over, to prevent anyone in the second section from following. Forcing the trainmen over to the mail car to begin their raid, three of the bandits blew the door off of the car with dynamite. Not satisfied with what they found, the gang continued on to the express car. There they found the express car messenger. When he refused to open the door for the robbers, they opened it themselves with more dynamite. The blast left the messenger stunned and unable to relay the combination, so they blew the safe open with more dynamite, using such an excessive amount of the “giant powder” that the entire car was destroyed. They escaped on horses they had hidden nearby with over $50,000 in loot.

5. The Largest Train Robbery in the United States

On June 14, 1924, the Newton gang stole the largest sum ever from a United States train. The Newton boys, all brothers, were known for never killing anyone. They also never stole from women and children. Still, they were still the most successful bank robbers in the United States. For this big heist, they recruited postal inspector William J. Fahy, one of the best investigators at the time, to help them plan it. Also in their employ were several local gangsters. Instead of horses, the Newton gang boasted fast cars. Taking hold of a mail train in Roundout, IL, just outside of Chicago, using homemade tear gas bombs of formaldehyde, the gang rounded up $3 million dollars in cash, jewelry and securities. One of the gang members accidentally shot Dock Newton during the heist. This slip up led to the capture of the gang members. Within 7 months of the heist, all suspects were apprehended and sentenced.

6. The Great Gold Robbery

The Wild West was not the only stage for train robberies. In 1855, a train carrying gold bars from London to Paris was the victim of an “invisible” robbery. The gold was stored sealed, bound by iron bars, and secured in double key safes. The highly guarded bars were weighed after completing its traverse of the English Channel via boat, but two of the safes weighed slightly more and one slightly less than the original weight. In Paris, it was discovered that the gold had been replaced by lead shots. Masterminds William Pierce and Edward Agar, with the help of a railway clerk, had boarded the train with carpet bags and shoulder satchels full of lead shots. They disembarked in Dover with £12,000 worth of gold. That would be worth approximately $1,253,962 today. All were quickly caught and jailed.

7. Another Great Train Robbery?

On the evening of August 7, 1963, the Traveling Post Office “Up Special’ train left Glasgow for London. It consisted of 12 carriages where postal workers sorted, picked up, and dropped off mail along the trip. The second carriage behind the engine was known as the HVP (High Value Package) and it was carrying a record £2.6 million due to a bank holiday in Scotland—worth more than $62 million in today's currency. Just after 3am, the driver brought the train to a stop at a tampered, red signal. When he tried to call for more information, he found the lines cut. The train was then boarded by a 15 member gang who took the train to an overpass bridge where they loaded the loot of used £1, £5 and £10 notes into their ex-army dropside truck. The gang had cut all phone lines in the vicinity, but authorities where still hot on their trails. Fingerprints had been left all over the crime scene and the culprits were quickly identified.

8. The Bezdany Raid

This was no normal train robbery! No, this was an attempt to free Poland from Russian and Austro-Hungarian occupation. In 1908, Józef Pi?sudski organized and trained a group he called Bojówki, 20 revolutionaries—16 men and four women that included Pilsudski’s future wife, three future prime ministers and other notable members of the future Second Republic. The plan was to overtake a train and station at Bezdany. After a short firefight, where one Russian solider was killed and five injured, the gang blew open the mail car, gathered the money into bags and fled. They ran off with 400,000 rubbles—equivalent to more than $4 million in today's currency. The money was used to fund the revolutionary’s cause and free Poland!

9. The Great Train Robbery of British Columbia

Bill Miner, a notorious outlaw who was upstaged only by Jesse James, moved to British Columbia after being released from a California prison. Three years later, he stopped a Canadian Pacific Railway train in Mission, B.C., about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver. He managed to walk away with $10,000. Miner was known as “a gentleman and a bandit.” He was always polite and well liked within the community and never forgot to bid his victims, “Good day.” He is credited with being the first outlaw to use the phrase, “Hands up!” Two years after his first CPR robbery he stopped another train but wasn’t so lucky. His mask was accidentally knocked off and the train was only carrying $15. He was captured and sentenced to life at the British Columbian Penitentiary, but managed to tunnel out and was never seen again!!

10. Gold Special

In the 1920s, train robberies had started to decline in the United States due to tighter security and the advent of traveler’s checks from American Express. People no longer had to carry gold with them when they traveled. However, in 1923 the D’Autremont brothers attempted to pull off a large scale train robbery in a get rich quick scheme. The brothers planned to board the Southern Pacific “Gold Special” at Tunnel No. 13 in Ashland, OR. Once aboard, the brothers set off dynamite to open up the mail car. However, they wound up using too much dynamite and succeeded only in killing the mail clerk and destroying anything of value. hey then shot and killed the brakeman, fireman, and engineer in the confusion that followed. The ensuing investigation was one of the most elaborate in United States history and laid the foundation for modern criminal forensics.

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September 20, 2010 - 4:28am
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