jesse james and the great era of train robberies -- 9/19/17

Today's selection -- from The Great Railroad Revolution by Christian Wolmar. Part of the detritus of war are rootless returning soldiers who turn to crime. From these came the great era of train robberies in the American West:

"Apart from accidents, railroad passengers faced a rather more mundane risk, but one that was all too common: robbery. Although exaggerated in films and popular culture, this was a genuine danger in the last decades of the nineteenth century. According to the Encyclopedia of North American Railroads, train robberies 'grew into a uniquely American phenomenon' that plagued the railroads for a half century. Numerous figures emerged, many of whom have been mythologized in westerns: Sam Bass and the Reno brothers from Indiana, the Younger and James brothers from Mis­souri who formed a joint gang, and the Daltons from Kansas. Initially, most robberies were in the Midwest, but as the railroads expanded in the West, so did the number and location of attacks. ...

"The white robber gangs ... remained a problem for the railroad companies right until the end of the century and even, occasionally, beyond. The many armed and rootless men left by the Civil War were for the most part the perpetrators of these audacious crimes.

"Most of the attacks followed the same modus operandi. At a remote stop, the robbers would climb on the baggage car, where they could not be seen by either the locomotive men or the train crew, and would clamber over the roofs of the coaches to the tender, where they forced the driver to stop the train. There were, in truth, probably not as many attacks as suggested by the sensationalist publicity they attracted, but the robberies certainly had an impact on the railroad companies. Anxious to maintain the image of being a safe form of transportation, they strengthened their mail cars and improved their security. Most controversially, they employed security guards from the Pinkerton Agency to act as a kind of private army not only to protect the trains but also to pursue actively the perpetrators. The Pinkertons, whose uncompromising methods came to the fore in strikebreaking to­ward the end of the century, almost matched the rob­bers in their ruthlessness. The most famous of the train robbers was the James-Younger gang led by Jesse James and his brother Frank, former Confederate guerrillas in the Civil War who turned to a life of banditry.

"Having robbed various banks and become outlaws, in July 1873 the gang turned to train robbery on the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad near Adair, Iowa. Their method -- simply removing a rail -- lacked subtlety and caused the death of the driver, who was crushed under the locomotive when it keeled over, but that did not stop them from raiding the safe and grabbing valuables from the passengers. Several more robberies ensued, and the Pinkerton men were soon on the case. After a shoot-out in March 1874, in which one gang member and two Pinkerton agents were killed, it was, strangely, the Pinkertons who attracted the wrath of the public by committing a crass public-relations blunder through an unlawful attack on the James home in Missouri early the following year. Unbelievably, the Pinkerton men used the rather unsubtle method of simply shoving a hefty bomb through a window, killing a half brother and injuring the mother of the James boys, who, contrary to their information, were not in the house at the time. The resulting press onslaught against the Pinkertons' methods did much to make the James brothers, ruthless murderers though they were, almost respectable. Their image was helped by the fact that when robbing trains, they usually left the passengers alone while they robbed the safe and took the mail. Most of the gang were eventually captured or killed in a bank raid in Northfield, Minnesota, in September 1876, though Jesse survived until April 1882, when he was shot in the back by a bounty hunter who had infiltrated the gang.

"Although passengers were rarely targeted in these robberies, one attack did have catastrophic results. In December 1896, a gang dislodged a rail on a bridge on a branch of the Louisville & Nashville, sending a local train plunging into the Cahaba River near Birmingham, Alabama. The death toll was twenty-seven, and the robbers compounded their calumny by go­ing through the cars to steal from the dead and injured before help could arrive.

"An attack such as this was, however, very much the exception, which explains, perhaps, why the public attitude toward these attacks was surpris­ingly sympathetic. The James gang, in particular, attracted favorable pub­licity, thanks to the support of the founder of the anti-Republican Kansas City Times, John Newman Edwards, who saw Jesse James as a potential leader of a revived Confederate insurgency and published a series of letters from him proclaiming his innocence. The action of the gangs, too, re­flected, albeit in extreme form, the growing public dislike of the railroads as corrupt and domineering organizations that had become too powerful. In­deed, Stewart H. Holbrook suggests the James gang was able to continue operating for so long because 'the public attitude towards the railroads in the 1870s ... was one of fear and hatred combined.' The robbers were per­ceived as Robin Hood figures, with the wealthy railroad companies and the more affluent travelers as their target -- even though in truth for the most part the robbers were intent only on getting their hands on large amounts of cash. ... 'Many people had no sympathy for the rail­road and saw train robbers as democratic heroes rather than villains.' Countless songs and poems were composed in honor of the thieves, often recounting highly sanitized versions of their actions in which they stopped a train, restricting themselves to robbing the rich and raiding the safe, and then rode off on horseback into the desert. It was part of a folklore that was both born of the growing antipathy toward the railroads and also further stimulated it."



Christian Wolmar


The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America




Copyright 2012 by Christian Wolmar


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment