The Trade of Train Robbery
by CHARLES MICHELSON
THE HIGHWAYMAN OF THE RAILROAD HAS TAKEN THE PLACE OF THE OLD
TIME FOOTPAD. IN CRIMINAL SOCIETY HE IS DEEMED A LEADER, A MAN
WORTHY OF THE RESPECT OF HIS FELLOWS. HIS CALLING IS THE MOST
DANGEROUS OF ALL ILLEGAL PROFESSIONS. HOUNDED BY SHERIFFS' POSSES
AND VIGILANCE COMMITTEES, HE STILL LIVESA MENACE TO ALL
TRAIN robbery has been a recognized branch of criminal industry
for nearly forty years, yet the advance in it has been far less
than might be expected of a pursuit that has, at one time or another,
attracted the shrewdest as well as the most daring and enterprising
of the criminals of America. The gross receipts by train robbery
have averaged not far from one hundred and fifty thousand dollars
a year, and, as not more than twenty thieves ordinarily share
this booty, it is not difficult to understand why men follow it
in spite of its dangers. The large proportion of the best exponents
of the craft are dead or in penitentiaries, but the train robber
is a lord in the kingdom of crime. In all the penitentiaries of
the West he rules the common run of law breakers.
The flashiest burglar in stripes, even if he has the red device
of murder on his coat of arms, is glad to maneuver to become cell
mate to the man who is there because he held up a train. For him
the caged thieves and thugs fetch and carry and offer their tribute
of tobacco and contraband comforts, and to him is offered the
captaincy of projected jail break. But the industry is appallingly
In forty years there has been only one conspicuous advance.
It has not kept pace with the progress of related arts. For this
reason, it has become the most hazardous of crimesnot in
the commission, that is astonishingly easy; but in the getting
away. In a country cobwebbed with telegraph lines and honeycombed
with detective agencies, with their disheartening outposts of
stool pigeons and informers, escape is yearly getting more difficult.
The one advance is the use of dynamite for the forcing of the
express cars. What may be obtained from passengers is merely a
by product, and is ignored by many distinguished bandits as involving
more trouble and risk than the probable yield justifies. It has
come to be the practice merely to fire a perfunctory volley along
the train side to warn the passengers to stay inside and mind
their own business, and then to devote whatever there is of time
to the treasure cars.
THE FIRST TRAIN ROBBERY
Except for the dynamite, the first train robbery might have
been one that took place a week ago, so far as method is concerned.
It happened on the Ohio & Mississippi road at Brownstown,
about ninety miles from Cincinnati. Two men appeared on the tender
of the locomotive and covered the engineer and fireman with revolvers.
They made the engineer stop and uncouple the express car, then
haul it five miles down the road. They forced the messenger to
open the safe, and they realized twelve thousand dollars by the
new method of depredation. This was in 1866. Credit for the robbery
was given to a family named Reno, but the express company failed
to prove aught against them. It made little difference, however,
for the Renos were caught robbing trains soon after and were lynched
by a mob at New Albany, Indiana. This was before the guerrillas
left without employment by the end of the Civil War took to train
robbery and made it popular.
The first train robberies caused a panic all through the country.
The advent of the railroad in the place of the stage coach had,
it was confidently announced, eliminated the road agent from the
perils of travel, and here was the old thing in an aggravated
form. In the midst of all the excitement, there was another hold
up, one which remains unique in the history of train robbery.
Two boys of Brownstown were the robbers. They carried out the
program so well illustrated by the Renos and captured the treasurethree
thousand dollarsbut their parents learned of their exploit,
and delivered them to the police with the treasure. A sound thrashing
by the fathers of the two boys was the punishment the authorities
thought fitting, and it was administered. One of these boys went
to Congress a long time afterwards, and the other became mayor
of a neighboring city.
THE TRAIN ROBBER TRUST
For a few months the Renos had a monopoly of the train robbing
business. There were four brothers of them, Frank, Jesse, Sim,
and Jack, and they took in a relative named Anderson as partner.
Their greatest exploit was the capture of an Indianapolis, Madison
& Jefferson train near Seymour, from which they gleaned one
hundred and thirty five thousand dollars. Carrying their great
plunder, they got away to Canada, where they were finally caught.
With all this money, they were able to put up a strong legal fight,
and for a long time it looked as if they would not be extradited.
The lynchings took the zest out of train robbery for several
years, but when it was resumed it was in a form that doubled the
terror the early seizures had caused. It was in 1870 that train
wrecking as a means of train robbery came into vogue. Eight men
tore up the track of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific road
near Council Bluffs and waited for the overland. It came, crashed
over the break, killed the engineer, and injured a score of passengers.
As the train went over, the robbers sprang from their hiding
places and went to plundering the wounded. They were successful
in robbing the passengers and in addition got six thousand dollars
from the express car. Thirty-thousand dollars reward was offered
for the capture dead or alive of these robbers, but nothing came
of it. The enormity of the crime forbade that any of those who
took part in it should ever disclose his participation even to
other criminals, and nothing was ever learned.
This horror stopped train robbing for five years; there were
no criminals desperate enough to work in the face of the storm
caused by it. Except for one desperate failure in 1870, when a
Vandalia engineer was shot and killed, the country heard nothing
of train robbers until the James and Younger boys began their
long course of crime.
The glamour of the fugitive guerrilla was theirs, and the Robin
Hood reputation they built up stood them in good stead. They were
wholesale outlaws, and there is no room in a magazine article
for a circumstantial account of their wonderful career. They realized
at least one hundred and fifty thousand dollars from half a dozen
train robberies, not counting the considerable sums they took
from passengers. The passengers they killed when they failed to
Yet they had the countryside so surely with them, that rewards
aggregating seventy thousand dollars went unclaimed until one
of their own number turned traitor and shot Jesse James in the
Bob Ford had seen men killed in train wreckings, and could
not understand why he should not realize a comfortable fortune
by the equally simple method of killing his outlaw chief. So he
It was with this same spirit the law officers had to contend
in California, when, later, it became the happy hunting ground
of train robbers. A long time ago the Southern Pacific Railroad
had trouble with squatters on some land to which it obtained title
through the courts. The settlers were expelled. If they resisted,
they were shot. Since that time, through all of that section the
name Mussel Slough is sufficient reply before a jury to the most
rousing eloquence and the most convincing evidence the railroad
In this country a small farmer worked a little patch of ground,
and hired out as a harvest hand when his own little plot did not
require his attention. He was a middle aged, red bearded man,
with a large family. With them in the cramped farmhouse lived
two young men, John and George Sontag, as industrious and commonplace
as their host, whose name, by the way, was Christopher Evans.
The whole outfit was about as inconspicuous as any in Visalia,
itself a remote town that fell asleep when the railroad left it
eight or ten miles off the line in punishment for having failed
to give all that was asked in the way of depot sites. In time
Visalia got a branch line, but that did not avail to wipe out
the past sins of the Southern Pacific Railroad. For a dozen years,
train robberies on the line occurred with frequency, and the perpetrators
Much of the robbery was credited to the Dalton gang, but the
Daltons cleared out for Missouri and Oklahoma and the robberies
did not cease. Once or twice an inquisitive passenger who could
not keep his head inside the car window while the robbers were
blowing open the express car was killed, but as a rule the travelers
were not molested. Finally a train was robbed in the usual fashion
at the usual place. The mail and express cars were looted, the
messenger was half killed by the explosion of a great charge of
dynamite against the door of his car, the fireman was forced at
the pistol's point to climb through the ragged hole and to open
what was left of the door. When it was all over the bandits went
off in a cart.
THE EVANS GANG
Among the passengers who came into
Visalia from the held up train was George Sontag. Him the sheriff
interviewed as a witness before starting out on the man hunt.
He told a vivid story of the affair, furnished a description of
one of the robbers, and then went home to the Evans house.
It happened that the conductor of the train knew George Sontag,
and had not observed him among his passengers until after the
hold up. Then the Wells Fargo men came in with the news that they
had followed the tracks of the bandits' cart to near the Evans
ranch. The identity of the robbers who had done so much to make
travel on California railroads exciting was revealed in a flash.
A fine trap was immediately laid. A messenger was sent to ask
George Sontag to come to the sheriff's office to identify a suspect.
He went and was promptly locked up.
A strong force then went to the Evans place to get Chris Evans
and John Sontag, but the clever thief takers at the sheriff's
office had left out of the calculation the feeling of the community.
Word of George Sontag's arrest reached the Evans house before
the posse did, and while the officers were surrounding the place
the door of the Evans barn flew open, two shotguns poured out
buckshot, and the posse recoiled in disorder. When the shattered
attacking line reformed it was to find Chris Evans and John Sontag
gone, and the best deputy in Southern California lying with his
hands full of turf in the Evans dooryard. Others of the posse
were wounded as well, but neither Evans nor Sontag was hurt.
THE ROBBER FUGITIVES
Then began the second stage of the train robbers' lifethat
of the fugitive. For a year the pair dodged about the mountains,
and the rewards for their apprehension steadily mounted until
they were worth ten thousand dollars to anybody who would betray
them; yet during all that time they were being harbored by men
to whom ten thousand dollars represented more of wealth than they
expected to garner in a lifetime.
I save stood with a posse in a cabin while a detective was
bargaining with its toil worn proprietor to lure the two hunted
desperadoes to their undoing, when all the time Evans and Sontag
lay under the hay in the barn not a dozen yards from the cabin
door. I have listened to womanas bad and as hard a woman
as ever preyed on a drunken lumbermanpromise to send word
as soon as the men made their appearance at the mountain den where
she and others of her kind faired. I have seen her beg a pittance
of the price of her perfidy on account, when all the time she
knew the two lay asleep in the very building.
I even remember a man, a gaunt old criminal, one who had murdered
a Chinese laborer to save the wages he owed him, undertaking to
earn the reward by guiding the posse to where the outlaws were
hiding, admitting as he did so that but a day or two before then
had been his guests in his ranch house. He guided the officer;
to a camp that had been abandoned by Evans and Sontag. The way
was by a trail beneath a big bluff, were the hunted men crouched
in safety, eagerly inspecting the personnel of the posse the old
rascal had promised to show them.
Neither he nor any of the people of the hills would stretch
forth a hand to grasp the reward offered them.
Occasionally the pursuers came up with the pursued. Once this
happened at a cabin where there was no reason to suspect their
presence. As the posse came up, a hill roustabout stepped from
the hut and without a word walked to the spring for a bucket of
water, giving no warning. A moment after, Evans and Sontag jumped
out, their guns at the shoulder. When the remnants of the posse
came back, Vic Wilson, professional bad man hunter imported from
Arizona, and Andy McGinnis, a man hunter of equal local fame,
had been left dead on the door step. The fugitives were away again.
It was not that the rest of the posse were unfit for their
workthere were good men among thembut the attack had
been so swift and the surprise so complete that fear, which comes
before courage, got such a start that the nobler quality was unable
to overtake it. They never found any wounded after Evans and Sontag
had been left in possession of a field. They always put a gun
to the ear of a prostrate foe, when there was time, and blew his
The next ambush in this long chase was on the other side. The
sheriff's men hid for three days in a cabin at the foot of a hill,
and on the fourth morning were rewarded by the appearance of their
long sought quarry. The outlaws, however, saw the trap in time
to drop behind a heap of manure that made an admirable fort. They
had the up hill of their foes, and were able to fight an all day
battle. As each of, the robbers carried a rifle, a shotgun, and
two big revolvers, there was no lack of shooting.
The law officers had excellent
cover, and the end of a long day found them all alive, though
one had a ball shattered leg, while the two outlaws behind the
stack were variously shot up. At dusk, Evans staggered away through
a storm of bullets, and the posse let the other alone till the
chill of morning should stiffen his wounds. Then they gathered
him in. He was John Sontag, and ultimately died rather than have
his limb amputated.
Evans was rounded up at the home of a relative, and, barring
the loss of an eye and a hand, was as good a man as ever when
the surgeons got through with him. He charmed the waiter who brought
him his meals from the outside, with stories of outlaw life, persuaded
him that he was of the brood of bad men, and, with his help and
the influence of certain revolvers brought in under the napkin,
succeeded in getting clear away.
Winter's cold and his newly healed wounds were too much, however,
even for Evans, and they rounded him up. All the glory the waiter
got out of it was the privilege of sharing his penitentiary life
with the train robber. With all the murders the law could prove
on Chris Evans, it could not hang him, and he is still in the
prison at Folsom, a life prisoner, with George Sontag, who, after
an unsuccessful attempt at breaking jail, finally went on the
witness stand and testified against his former partner in crime.
THE DALTON GANG
It was never quite settled whether the Evans-Sontag gang and
the Daltons worked together, though in all probability they did.
They both worked about Tulare, California, though after a time
the Daltons moved away to the middle West. There they roamed until
the band came to an end which was more fitting and more thoroughly
complete than that of any other outlaw gang on record.
Bill Dalton the oldest of the brothers, was perhaps the handiest
man with a .44 Winchester that ever pulled trigger. He never raised
his rifle to his shoulder, but let go, pistol fashion, from the
hip, and so true was the relationship between eye and hand that,
in his peaceable hours, they used to bar him from turkey shoots,
because at two hundred yards he tumbled the birds as fast as they
were released. His record showed that Bill Dalton could shoot
men as well as turkeys, which is not altogether a common thing
even in Indian Territory, where no close season for either, is
A HISTORIC HOLD UP
The hold up of a train near Adair,
in which all three of the Dalton brothers took part, was enough
to give any gang a reputation. Hold ups had been so frequent that
the trains were carrying guards, and on this particular train
there were twenty armed men charged with protecting passengers
and express. But the Daltons swooped down on the train when and
where they were least expected, and kept a streak of rifle fire
going along the sides of the cars that made it absolutely impossible
for a man to show his head and keep that head on. The dead and
wounded demonstrated that. The robbers cleaned out the express
car as usual.
Their adventures and exploits after this make a long story.
They killed many people, and stole hundreds of thousands of dollar,
but it was all evened up at Coffeyville, Kansas. An effort to
raid the bank, and incidentally to fight the whole town, reduced
the number of Dalton brothers from three to one, and messed this
onethe redoubtable Billup so that he was slow on the
draw in his next difficulty and joined his brothers on the other
side of the great divide. The Coffeyville affair was the greatest
clean up of train robbers the country ever had: nearly every one
who fell before the Winchesters and shotguns of the citizens had
achieved eminence in this line.
It is only two years since the "Black Jack" band
that terrorized trainmen in the Southwest was rounded up. Black
Jack's real name was Tom Ketchum. He operated for four years before
they got him. His undoing was the result of avarice.
So long as he worked with his gang, Black Jack kept clear of
the law, but one day he found it was possible to hold up a train
single handed and so to avoid any division of the proceeds. He
was trying this on the Texas Express when a conductor jumped off
the rear of the train and filled him with buckshot. The gang did
not long outlast the chief's misadventure.
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