Train Robbery in the United States by aj

The First Episode

.The first peacetime robbery of a moving train occurred on October 6, 1866. As the Ohio-Mississippi passenger train began to pull out of Seymour, Indiana, two men wearing masks swung onto the small platform in front of the express car, which was the place where safes transporting money, gold, and other shiny stuff were kept. It had its own guard and was supposed to be the most secure part of the train. It wasn’t. Why? I’ll explain later.

The duo slid open the door (which the guard had carelessly left unlocked) and ordered him to open the safes at gunpoint. The guard, whose name was Elem Miller, did so, as he was neither brave nor stupid, and the outlaws, seeing his obedience, pulled the brake cord, which signaled the train to stop. Miller could only open one safe, however, as he did not have the key to the second one. Gathering up the money, the robbers slid the second safe off the express car, pulled the brake cord again, and jumped down. The train was signaled to go ahead, and as it picked up speed, the bandits were quickly left behind with about $15,000 in loot.

This new method of sticking up moving trains became a huge hit with criminals. Within two weeks of the first robbery (pulled off by the Reno brothers, a gang of neighborhood thugs), two trains were derailed (thrown off the tracks) and their safes robbed.

Stagecoaches were held up quite easily, so banks began to use the railroad. Who would have guessed that trains would also be robbed?

The Cause of the Crime

Between 1830 and 1850, over 30,000 miles of track were built all over the US. When the transcontinental (meaning “across a country”) railroad was finished in 1869, passengers and goods could now cross the entire country by train.

Of course you can’t talk about robbing things without talking about gold. In 1848, John Marshall discovered gold near Coloma, California. Wells-Fargo (yes, it’s been around for that long and yes, its logo is a stagecoach) sent gold to New York City banks by stagecoach (a large carriage pulled by horses). But, by 1869, the company began shipping its gold east by rail because bandits like Rattlesnake Dick, Tom Bell, and Black Bart were famous for robbing the strongboxes (a chest-like safe) carried by stagecoaches. Wells-Fargo thought that using faster trains would do away with the problem of holdups.

They were mistaken.

Try It Yourself: How to Rob A Train

Step 1: Stopping the Train

Signs like this are used today on railroads, but these were nonexistent in the 1800s.

Unlike it is portrayed in old westerns (and Toy Story), robbers did not ride up to the express car of a moving train on a horse, jump off onto the platform, and then jump off again afterward onto their horse, a huge bag of money in hand. In fact, outlaws did not rob a moving train at all: they always stopped the train before looting it. Or, they simply stuck up a train stopped at a station, although this was riskier.

But how to stop this beast of a machine? The answer was simple: Wreck the train! It could be done in three ways: a half-open switch (used to control which way trains go when two tracks merge/cross), a barricade on the track, or a loosened rail. A half-open switch was easiest, although they were often placed close to towns and/or stops. A barricade was the most effective, but it was very tough to master and took a long time to set up. Despite the fact that a loosened rail was the most common strategy, flying debris and the possibility of the valuables being damaged made it an incomplete victory.

Eventually, less destructive ways of stopping trains were concocted. In the early days of train robbery, bandits used “torpedo signals” to stop a train. Torpedo signals were tiny, harmless explosives placed on the track that made a sharp noise when a locomotive ran over them. They were signals of danger ahead on the tracks, and a good engineer (the driver of a train) always stopped the train when a torpedo signal went off. Red lanterns were also used to signal danger.

Step 2: Getting Into the Express Car

The express car, third car back, was the place where safes filled with money, gold and other shiny stuff was kept. It had its own guard and was supposed to be the most secure part of the train. It wasn't.

After stopping the train, robbers faced a second problem: getting into the express car. Remember when I said I’d explain later about why the express car did not keep the money as safe as it should be? Well, here is your explanation. The car had a small platform in front of the car that was known, in outlaw-speak, as the “blind baggage” platform. It was placed between the coal car (the place where coal for the engine was loaded) and the express car, and completely hid the robbers from sight by passengers and/or the crew. In this position, the bandits were in the perfect place to take over the express car and rob the safes unseen.

Messengers became more careful about locking their sliding doors after news of the first robberies arrived in the papers. This fact forced outlaws to do one of two things: force their way in, or talk their way in. To force their way in, robbers either burned the door down, sprayed it with bullets, put their shoulder to it and broke it in, or- most effectively- blew it up. This was easy because the car was made of wood, and there was the possibility of the messenger getting knocked out in the explosion. Before 1890, bandits tried black powder and nitroglycerin, but both could blow up unexpectedly. Dynamite was more stable, making it perfect for robbers blasting their way in.

As for talking your way in, well you had to be a pretty slick customer to do this efficiently. Sam Bass, who held up his first train in 1877 with a red lantern and got away with over $60,000, was the first outlaw to threaten to burn the express car if the messenger did not unlock the door. This threat became a common one for the next twenty years.

Outlaw Rube Burrows came up with a new twist to get into an express car. Burrows was an honest farm boy from Alabama before he held up his first train in 1866. Rube was the first train robber to threaten to shoot the train crew if the messenger did not unlock the door. His threat was also used for many years, although few bandits actually carried it out.

Step 3: Getting the Safes Open

This is a roll-around iron safe from the late 1800s. Safes like these were used onboard trains to house money, valuables and important papers.

You might be thinking, “It doesn’t get any harder, right?” Nope. Getting the safes open

was a nuisance, especially after express companies began experimenting with time-lock, variable-combination-lock, and double-lock safes. Express companies used those to hopefully convince robbers that a messenger could not just open a safe on demand. First, robbers tried training guns on the messenger and ordering him to open the safes. If that didn’t work, they would either blow their way in with more explosives, steal the key and open them themselves, or roll the safes out of the car. Using explosives was most effective, but loot was in danger of being damaged or destroyed. Stealing the key could be a good option, but messengers were often armed, and the fight could draw attention from passengers or crew. This was also very time-consuming. Rolling the safes out was easy, but how to open them later?

Step 4: Escaping

This is a scene of an outlaw escaping from a freshly robbed train in the 1903 silent film "The Great Train Robbery".

This was, believe it or not, the hardest of the 4 steps, especially in the last years of train robbery, when the capture rate for train robbers was 80% or higher. But they did have one advantage: until train robbery was made a crime in 1902, as soon as the robbers stepped off the property of the express companies, their peace officers and other police could not arrest them. The local police had to pick up the trail. By the time word reached an authorities office, the outlaws were far away. Plus, express companies were often spending ten times more money catching train robbers than what was lost in the holdups. Everyone agreed that this was too high a cost. There had to be a better solution to the problem.

The Solution

The number of train robberies peaked in the 1890s. Then, at the turn of the century, the number dropped drastically.

The number of train robberies reached its peak in the 1890s. In 1893, robbers struck three different railroads on the same night. In January 1894, holdups in Missouri occurred almost once a week.

Then, several changes happened to discourage train robbery. Suddenly, the holdups dropped to less than 10 per year. In 1898, “horse cars” were invented. These were special baggage cars pulled by fast trains and filled with posses- collections of police officers on horses. This, combined with the fact that even small prairie towns were connected by telegraph lines, allowed horse cars to reach the scene of a robbery quickly, robbing (ha!) the bandits of the time they needed to get away.

Finally, in 1902, Congress passed the National Train Robbery Act. It was now a crime to board a train with the intent to rob it.

Express companies had also started using “play” money, which included filling safes or mail bags (which had begun being shipped by rail) with blank slips of paper, while the real money was stored somewhere else!

Still, the robberies continued, though not nearly as often. Bill Carlisle robbed his first train with a toy pistol in 1916 and was captured three years later. Roy Gardner began robbing the mail in 1920 and was known as the “King of the Escape Artists”.


The last train robbery in the United States occurred in 1937 in Texas. The robbery itself was not successful. The culprits were forgettable men.

The incident occurred in the middle of the ride, when two young men decided to rob the passengers. But as they were gathering up the money, one passenger tripped the first gunman, and another man grabbed the other robber’s gun. The other passengers soon joined in the brawl, and the bandits were shoved, beaten, and kicked. Finally, they were hauled off to jail unconscious.

Police are still on the lookout for modern-day train robbers. But they hope that they will consider the words of ex-outlaw Emmett Dalton, who wrote:

The biggest fool on earth is the one that thinks he can beat the law, that crime can be made to pay.

Thanks for reading!


Created with images by FotoGuy 49057 - "Kalamazoo Stage Coach 1865" • Minarae - "Waiting for the train to stop"

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