They make train robberies look so easy in the movies, don't they? You jump on to a train with guns a-blazin' and a bandana covering your face, rob the safe and jump off, never to be caught. But in real life, the gangs who robbed trains were almost always caught and brought to justice. Here are a few of their stories.
Jesse James' First Train Robbery
On July 21, 1873, Jesse James and the James-Younger Gang robbed their first train in Adair, Iowa, of all places. They managed to derail the Rock Island train, turning the train on its side, killing the engineer and injuring a lot of its passengers. But that wasn't enough terror for the passengers - the James-Younger Gang, clad in Ku Klux Klan garb, went up and down the length of the overturned train confronting them and demanding their watches and valuables (although some reports say they stole only from the men). They threw it all in bags along with the money from the train's safe and ended up getting about $3,000. This was a bit unusual for Jesse James and his crew; after that they mostly stuck to robbing the express safe in the baggage car and left the passengers alone. Even though the gang killed the engineer of the train and wounded several passengers, Adair doesn't hold it against him - every July, they have "Jesse James Days," where they reenact the train robbery and celebrate with a parade and other festivities. Photo from History of the James-Younger Gang
The Great Gold Robbery of 1855
One of the biggest train robberies of all time took place not in the American Old West, but in London, England. On May 15, 1855, three boxes of gold were put on a car on a South Eastern Railway train headed from England to Boulogne, France. The boxes were sealed, shut with iron bars, and locked with locks which had keys held by only a few trusted people. The problem? When the boxes reached their destination, one of them was a lot lighter than it should have been. Upon closer inspection, it was discovered that somehow, someone had substituted lead shot for gold. Police had no clue what had happened and a two-month investigation ensued. Hundreds of people were questioned without any hope of a lead, but by August, suspicion fell on Edward Agar. Agar was sent to prison for passing a fake check, but wanted to make sure that the mother of his child had money to provide for the young one. He informed her that she would be receiving £7,000 from a colleague of his, and when the money didn't show, he blew the whistle on the whole operation. He and the colleague, William Pierce, had hatched a complicated plot to steal the gold years earlier. They involved a clerk in the railway office when they found out that he briefly had possession of the keys that locked the boxes the gold was sealed in; the clerk was able to get the keys to Agar who made an impression of them in wax and later had the keys replicated. There was a second key to the safes that wasn't quite as easy to get. Agar ended up sending a £200 box of bullion on the same route (under an assumed name, of course), then showed up to collect it and watched the clerk carefully to see where he got the second key to the safe. Turned out it wasn't quite as complicated as they thought - the key was simply stored in a cupboard that wasn't very well guarded at all. When the time came, Agar and Pierce strolled right into the office when it was unoccupied and made a quick wax imprint of the key. They brought the lead shot onto the train in carpet bags; Pierce got into a first class carriage and Agar boarded with the train's guard, James Burgess, who was in on the whole thing. Agar took the iron bars off with a mallet and chisel, replaced the gold bars with lead shot, replaced the iron bars and stuck a new wax seal on the box to make it look like it had never been tampered with. When Agar turned Pierce in, police recovered about £2,000 of the £12,000 worth of gold stolen. Michael Crichton later based his novel The Great Train Robbery on the incident, which was turned into a movie starring Sean Connery as William Pierce. (pictured) Photo from MGMHD.
The First Known Train Robbery in the U.S.
On October 6, 1866, the Reno brothers jumped onto an Ohio and Mississippi Railway train in Indiana and emptied one of the safes. They tossed another one out the window so they could take it with them, and then they jumped off of the train, completing the first train robbery in the United States. It was definitely a catching trend - in the two weeks following the Reno brothers' first moving holdup, two more trains were robbed. A passenger testified that he saw the faces of two of the robbers from the first holdup, but after he was shot and killed, other passengers clammed up and none of the burglars were charged. At least, not at that time. After their fifth robbery a couple of years later, the Pinkertons finally caught up with the Reno brothers. Ten agents were waiting on the train to bust the boys, and although most of them escaped, they were arrested the next day. Some members of the gang were hanged, but a lynch mob got to the others before official justice could be served.
The Great Train Robbery of 1963
The '60s in England - you think of the Beatles and Twiggy, not train robberies, right? But one of the biggest train robberies in the history of the U.K. actually took place on August 8, 1963. A gang consisting of 15 guys hijacked the Royal Mail train going from Glasgow to London and stole the contents of the High Value Package - a carriage containing registered mail with cash contents. The robbers planned this carefully; normally the HVP carriage only carried about £300,000, but since there had been a bank holiday and this was the first shipment following it, the amount was much more than usual - about £2.3 million. They did so with no weapons other than an iron bar, which was used to hit the driver of the train on the head. They didn't pull it off, though - the gang left the train rife with fingerprints, and left all kinds of evidence littered about the farmhouse they took refuge in for five days in Buckinghamshire. Not only were fingerprints found, they were allegedly found on a Monopoly board that the robbers had used to amuse themselves with while they were holed up. They used real money, of course. 13 of the gang members were eventually caught (that's a few of them in the picture), although at least one of them didn't stay caught for long. Ronnie Biggs escaped about 15 months into his prison sentence and moved to Paris, where he had plastic surgery. Then he moved to Australia and lived under the radar for quite a few years, until his identity was exposed, forcing him to move to Brazil. He lived there until 2001, when a series of strokes made him want to return to England to buy a proper pint before he died, although most people suspect he wanted the healthcare. He was returned to jail to finish out his sentence and is still there - Biggs was just denied parole on July 2 because the Justice Secretary felt that "Mr. Biggs is wholly unrepentant." Photo from HowStuffWorks
The Train Robbery that Brought Down George Parrot
Big Nose George Parrot sounds like a character on Sesame Street or something, but he was the furthest thing from it. Big Nose George was a train robber who didn't mind killing to get what he wanted. He had done just that in 1878 - after a botched train robbery, Parrot and his gang killed two men - a Union Pacific detective and the Wyoming deputy sheriff. The gang then robbed the corpses of their two victims, including one of their horses, and took off. Word of the double murders got around fast and a $20,000 reward was offered for apprehending the killers. They were, indeed, apprehended. Big Nose George Parrot was supposed to be hanged, but after he tried to escape, a lynch mob hunted him down and strung him up themselves. "It's a lynch mob," you might be thinking, "They're prone to extreme behavior." But the doctors weren't any better - Parrot's skull cap was sawed off and given to the doctor's 15-year-old assistant, Lilian Heath. Throughout her life she used it as a pen holder, a doorstop and an ashtray. The doctor made a pair of shoes and a medical bag out of Parrot's skin and he allegedly wore the shoes to his inaugural ball a year later when he was elected the first Democratic Governor of Wyoming. You can still see the shoes - they're on display at the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins, Wyoming. Photo from Sunderland Echo.