Train Robberies

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TRAIN ROBBERIES were more frequent in the United States than anywhere else in the world in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Vast stretches of sparsely inhabited country permitted robbers to escape undetected; carelessness and lack of adequate security on trains also made robberies easier. The robbery of $700,000 from an Adams Express car on the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad, the first train robbery on record, occurred in 1866. That same year, the four Reno brothers stole $13,000 in their first train holdup. They went on to stage a number of bold bank and train robberies in southern Indiana and Illinois before the Pinkerton Detective Agency, just coming into prominence, tracked them down

in 1868. Vigilantes executed three of the four brothers before their cases came to trial. The Farringtons operated in 1870 in Kentucky and Tennessee. Jack Davis of Nevada, after an apprenticeship robbing stagecoaches in California, started operations at Truckee, California, by robbingan express car of $41,000.

Train robberies peaked in 1870. The colorful and daring Jesse James gangbegan to operate in 1873 near Council Bluffs, Iowa. No other robbers are so well known; legends and songs were written about their deeds. For nine years they terrorized the Midwest, and trainmen did not breathe freely until an accomplice shot Jesse, after which his brother Frank retired to run a Wild West show. Sam Bass in Texas, the Dalton boys in Oklahoma, and Sontagand Evans in California were other robbers with well-known records. After 1900 the number of holdups declined conspicuously.


DeNevi, Don. Western Train Robberies. Millbrae, Calif.: Celestial Arts, 1976.

Pinkerton, William Allan. Train Robberies, Train Robbers, and the "Holdup" Men. New York: Arno Press, 1974. The original edition was published in 1907.

Carl L.Cannon/c. w.