By: Bob Lettenberger, National Railroad Museum education director
“Hand over ye gold!”
Whether speaking on the high seas or the high iron, this demand at gunpoint is the stuff of true crime and pure legend.
Pirates, marauders, robbers, gunmen, crooks, privateers—whatever you call them—have been and continued to plunder the shipping channels of the world be it aboard ships or trains. Yes, trains. We tend to associates pirates with ships; however, robbery is robbery, and the railroads are prime targets.
Train robberies are synonymous with the Wild West. Not necessarily so. True, the West, with its long stretches of isolated track, is a fertile criminal territory. The first recorded U.S. train robberies, however, took place east of the Mississippi River.
Reports in the Cincinnati Enquirer claim the first U.S. incident took place approximately 18 miles west of the Queen City between the stations of Gravel Pit and North Bend, Ohio on May 5, 1865. The ill-fated train was brought to a stop when the marauders yanked up the piece of track, derailing the locomotive. They robbed the 100 passengers of cash and jewelry; then boarded the Adams Express Co. car and hauled its safe off the train. After blowing it open, they made off with an additional $30,000 of government bonds.
A little over a year later, October 6, 1866, another train robbery around the small southern Indiana town of Seymour, is claimed by local newspapers there to be the first in the U.S. In this case, the Reno brothers, a local outlaw family, boarded an eastbound train on the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad. They emptied one safe on the train; then tossed a second off the train; blew it open and made off with the contents.
Interestingly, the largest U.S. train robbery also took place east of the Mississippi River. Rondout, Illinois today is on the edge of Chicago’s northern suburbs. On June 12, 1924, Rondout was right out in the Northern Illinois farm country. During the night, the Newton Boys, a gang of four Texas brothers, working on a tip from a bent postal inspector, dispatched two of their crew to board a northbound Milwaukee Road passenger train. Once aboard, the pirates, holding the engine crew at gunpoint, forced the train to stop at Rondout. Here, with the rest of the crew, they tossed bottles of noxious formaldehyde in the Railway Post Office cars. When the 17 postal clerks, gasping for air, surrendered, the Newtons moved in to load up over $3 million in cash and bonds. From here the capper went south. In the confused action, one gang member shot another, repeatedly. They were arrested shortly after that while seeking medical attention at a Chicago hospital.
Train robberies were not always spectacular affairs. In the 1850s and 60s young men called “news butchers” prowled the aisles of most U.S. passenger trains. In these days before the dining car came into existence, these opportunistic entrepreneurs peddled all forms of snacks, cigarettes, cigars, and newspapers. The “butches,” as they were sometimes called employed all forms of trickery to dupe passengers. Not only was the food poor quality, although presented as top rate, you also had to watch your change, as a little slight of hand on the part of the “butch” usually left the passenger on the short end.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and train robberies continue. Contemporary pirates are more into grabbing merchandise. Example: in the 1970s, thieves were found busting open boxcars to help themselves to the “beer that made Milwaukee famous.” It did not help that the bright white cars had big Schlitz logos on the outside.
Today federal, local and railroad law enforcement agencies continue to investigate and apprehend looters who break into freight cars, especially boxcars and intermodal containers. The pirates have been caught boosting everything from power tools and building supplies to the latest designer athletic shoes and the largest flat-screen TVs. Thefts have taken place while trains are stopped in remote locations and, even, in the midst of our nation’s largest cities.
Sadly, some of the nicked contemporary cargo has helped escalate violence in our streets. News outlets in both New York and Chicago have carried stories within the last year detailing how hundreds of firearms along with ammunition being shipped from the manufacturer to distributor were stolen from freight trains. A number of the guns were later found related to crimes; while dozens more are still missing.
Talk like a pirate or not, on water or land, we have not yet written the last chapter in this centuries-old crime spree.