Today in History

Today in History: October 6

Of Rails and Robbers

High bridge near Buena Vista
High Bridge Near Buena Vista, Colorado,
William Henry Jackson, photographer, between 1880 and 1897.
Touring Turn-of-the Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

On October 6, 1866, thieves boarded an eastbound Ohio & Mississippi Railroad passenger train near Seymour, Indiana, and entered an Adams Express Company car. Pointing guns at Adams Express employee Elem Miller, the masked bandits demanded keys to the safes. Miller held keys for the local safe only, so the robbers emptied that safe and tossed the other off the train intending to open it later. Signaling the engineer to stop the train, the robbers, later identified as the infamous Reno brothers, made an easy get away. Unaware of what had happened, the engineer sped off into the night while the thieves congratulated themselves on a job well done.

Considered the first train robbery, the incident at Seymour was preceded by a similar train burglary exactly nine months before. In early 1866, bandits entered an Adams Express car en route to Boston from New York and stole over half a million dollars from safes on the unoccupied car. As in the Seymour case, detectives from the Pinkerton National Detective Agency quickly identified the criminals.

A wave of train robberies followed the Seymour incident. Within weeks, two trains were derailed and their payroll cars robbed. In 1868, an Adams Express car was attacked again at Seymour. This time the expressman was tossed out the door before the safes were cleared of over $40,000.

Train robberies became frequent in the 1870s and peaked in the 1890s. Specialists in this form of crime included the Reno brothers, who operated in southern Indiana; the Farringtons, whose escapades took them into Kentucky and Tennessee; and the Jesse James gang, who wreaked havoc upon rails in the Midwest. Hired by railroad companies anxious to protect themselves, Pinkerton detectives were seldom far behind the robberies.

In the late 1930s, a Federal Writers' Project worker recorded a conversation that documents a New Mexico train robbery. "The Early Days in Silver City" provides an eyewitness account of the famous Stein's Pass robbery of the late 1880s:

I happened to be riding that train. I had gone overland to Safford and Solemisvelle prospecting. I decided to come home Thanksgiving to be with my family at Silver City. I boarded the train at Wilcox. There was a large shipment of gold on the train. Just out of Steins Pass we could see a large bon-fire. One of the trainmen remarked, 'Wonder what the big fire is, I hope we don't run into any trouble.' The bon-fire we discovered to our sorrow was on the R. R. Then as today curiosity got the best of some of us so we had to find out why the train came to an abrupt stop, and what the bon-fire was put on the track. We found ourselves looking into the barrel of guns.

"The Early Days in Silver City,"
Mrs. Frances E. Totty, interviewer, August 18, 1937.
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

The Great Train Robbery
The Great Train Robbery,
Thomas A. Edison, Inc., 1903.
Inventing Entertainment: the Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies

Although train robberies were rare by the turn of the century, they remained a staple of popular entertainment. The Great Train Robbery, a production of the Edison Manufacturing Co., was one of the first successful dramatic films. Described in the Edison Films 1904 catalog as "a sensational and highly tragic subject," The Great Train Robbery was billed as a "faithful duplication of the genuine 'Hold Ups' made famous by various outlaw bands in the far West."

Map showing the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fé Railroad system. With its connections.
Map Showing the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fé Railroad System, with Its Connections,
Railroad Maps, 1828-1900

Learn more about the history of railroads and railroading in American Memory.