1873 C.,R.I and P. Train Robbery

The following is a chapter from a book that was published a month after Jesse James was killed in 1882. Although the first post Civil War train robbery actually occurred in 1866, Frank and Jesse James were the prime suspects in this 1873 robbery.

Chapter XIX of

The Life, Times, and

Treacherous Death of Jesse James (1882)

by Frank Triplett

Frank and Jesse James The novelty of robbing banks had, by 1873, pretty well worn off. There was but little excitement for the public to take up its morning paper and learn that a bank had been entered in broad day-light, its cashier frightened or killed, its funds packed in a convenient canvas sack, and that the robbers had dashed out of town, rode swiftly until night, separated and disappeared. The papers, unless very scarce of readable items, did not give to such occurrences the flaming headlines that they used to when this mode of robbing was new.

But the time had come when they were to be treated to a really genuine sensation. The knights of the road in "Merrie England" used often to "hold up" the coach bound from London to the provincial towns. This was a gigantic feat for that day, but it was reserved for the Missouri freebooters to originate, develop and put into execution the idea of holding up a railroad train.

The time for this novel operation had matured, and about the middle of July, 1873, it was carried out. After canvassing the various localities which were feasible and convenient, they at last selected a place on the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific road, about a dozen miles out of Council Bluff, Iowa. Here there was a curve and a cut, and it was thought that the ditching of a train might be accomplished without the loss of human life, for some of the members of this gang were opposed to the useless destruction of human life, not only because it was impolitic, but also that it was not their desire to kill any save a detective or militiaman.

This cut, then, having been selected, the bandits repaired here in ones and twos, reaching the place at night about nine o'clock. Having a late time table of the road, they know just when the train, for which they were on the look out, would reach the cut, so allowing all the other trains to pass they tore up two of the rails, taking out the spikes, but leaving the rails in position, as they knew that the jar of the train would be sufficient to throw them out of place, and consequently they made no further provision for misplacing them on the approach of the train. Said one of them: "If she goes over safely we'll take it as an omen and let 'em go." "Yes," said another, "but she'll never go over." His prediction was verified. Promptly on time came their train thundering along from the West, like some mighty monster groaning beneath a terrible burden. It strikes the further bend of the curve, and at this point a danger signal that had been placed in the cut by the robbers caught the engineer's eye. As quick as a flash he turned on the air brake, checking the momentum of the train, but not soon enough to avoid the fatal wrecking place. With speed but little abated the locomotive strikes the misplaced rails; a shiver, a slipping of the rails, and staggering wildly she plunges into the cut. a loud, unearthly sigh escapes, as the pent-up steam rushes from the rent boiler, and this noise is rendered more demoniacal by savage yells and the sharp, quick explosions of revolvers.

Train robbery scene. "What can it be?" ask the passengers; "what on earth can it be?"

Lost in wonder and amazement, they are soon to be relieved of their suspense--that is, if it be a relief to have a horrible conjecture turned into the actual fright.

At the door of each passenger coach now appears a terrible figure--armed, desperate, determined. A light breaks in upon the minds of the passengers. It is robbery with all of its terrors. It is a wreck for this purpose. But to these men what if there may be danger to the passengers--some young and weak, some old and infirm; to the bandits it means the certainty of gain. Gain, it is true, accompanied with dangers to them as well as the to the wrecked, but then they are inured to danger. They know the penalty if caught, but they are willing to risk the catching.

The cars are first thoroughly searched and the the passengers despoiled of their money and jewelry, and then the attention of the outlaws is directed to the express and mail cars. Here they are doomed to disappointment. Expecting an immense amount of treasure, they find, instead, but small booty; and so the freebooters, like those who follow more honest, if less lucrative and dangerous avocations, are destined to see their great expectations dwindle away into a rather small certainty.

The engineer of the train lay near his cab dead; the fireman was badly bruised, and also a few passengers. The spoils could not have amounted to over a few thousand dollars.

Mounting their horses, they halted, after a few hours gallop, divided their spoils and separated into twos to meet again that night. A rapid pursuit was made after them by various officials, but it ended just as such pursuits always ended.

The bandits fled towards Missouri; the friendly shadows of the night mantled them; they separated, and singly or in twos rode to their hiding places.

Frank and Jesse James Reward Poster This separation after a robbery was a peculiarity of these outlaws, and it proved their safety in every instance. With all other robbers, fear of the outraged law and the fierce pursuit held them banded together--an object easily trailed and identified. Seven men rob a railway train; seven men, riding jaded but fine horses, are seen a long distance off, it is true, but still they are an object of suspicion, but the very fact that they are seven, if from no other. Thus, all other bands have sooner or later been captured or destroyed. But now look upon this picture: Seven men rob a train in Iowa to-day, and to-morrow two travelers are seen sixty or eighty miles away, their steeds jaded, but the men jovial and jogging along the road in a quiet, orderly manner--why, Vidocq himself would never connect these two with the other seven. They fully realized the truth of the old adage that "in union there is strength," but they had also learned that in division there was safety.

Who were present at this robbery is so well known that is useless here to dispute it, still it is a fact that Frank James and Cole Younger were innocent of it.

Chapter XIII of Life and Times of Jesse and Frank James (1882)

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