10 Great Train Robberies

iStock / Adam Calaitzis
iStock / Adam Calaitzis

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.

7 Ways Victorian Fashion Could Kill You

An 1862 engraving showing a skeleton gentleman at a ball asking a skeleton lady to dance, meant to represent the effect of arsenic dyes and pigments in clothing and accessories.
An 1862 engraving showing a skeleton gentleman at a ball asking a skeleton lady to dance, meant to represent the effect of arsenic dyes and pigments in clothing and accessories.

While getting dressed in the morning can seem like a hassle (pajamas are so much more comfortable), few of us worry about our clothes leading to our death. That wasn’t the case during the Victorian era, when fashionable fabrics and accessories sometimes came at great price for both makers and wearers. In Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, Alison Matthews David, a professor in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto, outlines the many toxic, flammable, and otherwise highly hazardous components of high style during the 19th century. Here are a few of the worst offenders.

1. Poisonous Dyes

A drawing of Victorian fashions likely made with arsenic dyes
A drawing of Victorian fashions likely made with arsenic dyes
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

Before the 1780s, green was a tricky color to create on clothes, and dressmakers depended on a combination of yellow and blue dyes to produce the hue. But in the late 1770s a Swedish/German chemist named Carl Wilhelm Scheele invented a new green pigment by mixing potassium and white arsenic on a solution of copper vitriol. The pigment was dubbed Scheele’s Green, and later Paris Green, among other names, and it became a huge sensation, used to color walls, paintings, and fabrics as well as candles, candies, food wrappers, and even children’s toys. Not surprisingly, it also caused sores, scabs, and damaged tissue, as well as nausea, colic, diarrhea, and constant headaches.

Although fashionable women wore arsenic-dyed fabrics—even Queen Victoria was depicted in one—its health effects were worst among the textile and other workers who created the clothes and often labored in warm, arsenic-impregnated rooms day after day. (Some scholars have even theorized that Napoleon might have been poisoned by the arsenic-laced wallpaper hung in his St. Helena home.)

Arsenical dyes were also a popular addition to artificial flowers and leaves, which meant they were frequently pinned to clothes or fastened on heads. In the 1860s, a report commissioned by the Ladies’ Sanitary Association found that the average headdress contained enough arsenic to poison 20 people. The British Medical Journal wrote of the green-clad Victorian woman: “She actually carries in her skirts poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet with in half a dozen ball-rooms.” Despite repeated warnings in the press, and from doctors and scientists, the Victorians seemed in love with emerald green arsenic dyes; ironically, they acted like a reminder of the nature then swiftly being lost to industrialization, David says.

2. Pestilential Fabrics

Soldiers of the Victorian era (and earlier) were plagued by lice and other body parasites that carried deadly diseases such as typhus and trench fever. But soldiers weren’t the only victims of disease carried via fabric—even the wealthy sometimes wore clothing that was made or cleaned by the sick in sweatshops or tenements, and which spread disease as a result. According to David, the daughter of Victorian Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel died after her riding habit, given to her by her father as a gift, was finished in the house of a poor seamstress who had used it to cover her sick husband as he lay shivering with typhus-induced chills. Peel’s daughter contracted typhus after wearing the garment, and died on the eve of her wedding.

Women also worried about their skirts sweeping through the muck and excrement of city streets, where bacteria was rife, and some wore special skirt-fasteners to keep them up from the gunk. The poor, who often wore secondhand clothes, suffered from smallpox and other diseases spread by fabric that was recycled without being properly washed.

3. Flowing Skirts

Giant, ruffled, crinoline-supported skirts may have been fine for ladies of leisure, but they weren’t a great combination with industrial machinery. According to David, one mill in Lancashire posted a sign in 1860 forbidding the “present ugly fashion of HOOPS, or CRINOLINE, as it is called” as being “quite unfitted for the work of our Factories.” The warning was a wise one: In at least one printing office, a girl was caught by her crinoline and dragged under the mechanical printing press. The girl was reportedly “very slim” and escaped unharmed, but the foreman banned the skirts anyway. Long, large, or draped skirts were also an unfortunate combination with carriages and animals.

4. Flammable Fabrics

A woman with her crinoline on fire
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

The flowing white cotton so popular in the late 18th and 19th centuries had dangers to both maker and wearer: It was produced with often-brutal slave labor on plantations, and it was also more flammable than the heavy silks and wool favored by the wealthy in the previous centuries. One type of cotton lace was particularly problematic: In 1809 John Heathcoat patented a machine that made the first machine-woven silk and cotton pillow “lace” or bobbinet, now better known as tulle, which could catch fire in an instant. The tulle was frequently layered, to add volume and compensate for its sheerness, and stiffened with highly combustible starch. Ballerinas were particularly at risk: British ballerina Clara Webster died in 1844 when her dress caught fire at London’s Drury Lane theatre after her skirt came too close to sunken lights onstage.

But performers weren’t the only ones in peril: Even the average woman wearing the then-popular voluminous crinolines was at risk of setting herself ablaze. And the “flannelette” (plain cotton brushed to create a nap and resemble wool flannel) so popular for nightshirts and undergarments was particularly combustible if hit with a stray spark or the flame of a household candle. So many children burned in household accidents that one company came out with a specially treated flannelette called Non-Flam, advertised as being “strong’y recommended by Coroners.”

5. Arsenic-Ridden Taxidermy

Dead birds were a popular addition to ladies’ hats in the 19th century. According to David, “fashions in millinery killed millions of small songbirds and introduced dangers that may still make some historic women’s hats harmful to humans today.”

But it wasn’t the birds that were the problem—it was the arsenic used on them. Taxidermists of the day used arsenic-laced soaps and other products to preserve birds and other creatures. In some cases, entire birds—one or several—were mounted on hats. Some Victorian fashion commentators decried the practice, though not because of the arsenic involved. One Mrs. Haweis, a writer on dress and beauty, began an 1887 diatribe against “smashed birds” with the sentence: “A corpse is never a really pleasant ornament.”

6. Mercury

No upper-class man of the Victorian era was complete without his hat, but many of those hats were made with mercury. As David explains, “Although its noxious effects were known, it was the cheapest and most efficient way to turn stiff, low-grade fur from rabbits and hares into malleable felt.” Mercury gave animal fur its smooth, glossy, matted texture, but that velvety look came at a high cost—mercury is an extremely dangerous substance.

Mercury can rapidly enter the body through the skin or the air, and causes a range of horrible health effects. Hatters were known to suffer from convulsions, abdominal cramps, trembling, paralysis, reproductive problems, and more. (A chemistry professor studying toxic exposure at Dartmouth College, Karen Wetterhahn, died in 1996 after spilling just a few drops of a supertoxic type of mercury on her glove.) To make matters worse, hatters who drank while they worked (not an uncommon practice) only hastened mercury’s effects by hampering the liver’s ability to eliminate it. While scholars still debate whether Lewis Carroll’s “mad hatter” was meant to show the effects of mercury poisoning, his trembling limbs and wacky speech seem to fit the bill.

7. Lead

A Victorian facial cream containing lead
A Victorian facial cream containing lead
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

Pallor was definitely in during the Victorian era, and a face spackled with lead white paint was long favored by fashionable women. Lead had been a popular ingredient in cosmetics for centuries, David writes, because it “made colors even and opaque and created a desirable ‘whiteness’ that bespoke both freedom from hard outdoor labor and racial purity.” One of the most popular lead-laced cosmetic products was called Laird’s Bloom of Youth; in 1869, one of the founders of the American Medical Association treated three young women who had been using the product and temporarily lost full use of their hands and wrists as a result. (The doctor described the condition as “lead palsy,” although today we call it wrist drop or radial nerve palsy, which can be caused by lead poisoning.) One of the women’s hands was said to be “wasted to a skeleton.”

This article was republished in 2019.

Neil Armstrong’s Spacesuit Will Go Back on Display for Apollo 11's 50th Anniversary

Phil Plait, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
Phil Plait, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Neil Armstrong made history when he became the first person to walk on the Moon 50 years ago. Space exploration has changed since then, but the white space suit with the American flag patch that Armstrong wore on that first walk is still what many people think of when they picture an astronaut. Now, after sitting in storage for a decade, that iconic suit is ready to go on display, according to Smithsonian.

NASA donated Neil Armstrong's suit to the Smithsonian shortly after the Apollo 11 mission. For about 30 years, it was displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Then, in 2006, the museum moved the artifact to storage to minimize damage.

Even away from the exhibit halls, the suit was deteriorating, and the Smithsonian knew it would need to be better preserved if it was to be shown to the public again. In 2015, the institution launched its first-ever Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $700,000 for conservation efforts.

After a multi-year preservation project, the suit will finally return to the museum floor on July 16, 2019—the date that marks 50 years since Apollo 11 launched. This time around, the suit will be displayed on a structure that was custom built to support its interior, protecting it from the weight of gravity. Climate-controlled air will flow through the gear to recreate the stable environment of a storage unit.

Even if you can't make it to the National Air and Space Museum to see Armstrong's space suit in person, soon you'll be able to appreciate it from home in a whole new way. The museum used various scanning techniques to create an intricate 3D model of the artifact. Once the scans are reconfigured for home computers, the Smithsonian's digitization team plans to make an interactive version of the digital model freely available on its website.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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