First Train Robbery in U.S. History?

Daring train robberies by gangs of desperadoes are an integral part of America’s legendary “Wild West” era, especially the exploits of Jesse James and the James-Younger Gang, as well as Butch Cassidy, Sundance Kid and the Wild Bunch. Because of this popular perception, most people today do not realize that the first train robbery in American history did not occur out West. Historians say the first train robbery occurred in Indiana on 6 October 1866, carried out by the Reno Gang.

Photo: Rock Island locomotive #627, c. 1880
Photo: Rock Island locomotive #627, c. 1880. Credit: William Edward Hook; Wikimedia Commons.

That may well be true. However, were they still alive today, a gang of about 20 ruffians would pull out their revolvers, look you straight in the eye, and indignantly claim that the distinction of America’s first train robbery belongs to them – and it happened in Ohio on 5 May 1865.

The reason history has overlooked this train robbery is because it occurred during the dying days of the Civil War, the robbers came from Kentucky and were assumed to be Confederate guerrillas, and their attack has been classified a military action. Although Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered nearly a month earlier, Southern forces were still fighting when the 5 May 1865 train robbery occurred, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis was not captured until five days after the robbery. While almost all the 20 robbers wore civilian clothing, one reportedly wore some semblance of a uniform, and witnesses reported one of the robbers was called “lieutenant” and another “captain” by the other gang members.

So perhaps they were Confederate guerrillas, and their robbery really was a military action. Press accounts of the time certainly thought so, consistently referring to the robbers as guerrillas. A closer look at the details of the attack, however, indicates otherwise.

The target of the attack was a westbound Ohio & Mississippi Railroad train travelling from Cincinnati to St. Louis, consisting of a locomotive, four passenger coaches, and two baggage cars – one of which was the “express” car carrying three safes. Shortly after the train pulled out of Cincinnati at 8:00 on a Friday night, between two stations called Gravel Pit and North Bend in Hamilton County, Ohio, the thieves struck. Two important details about how they carried out the attack cast doubt on the assertion that this was a military operation.

First, the men were only armed with revolvers. Surely if they were part of or associated with the Confederate military they would have carried some rifles, especially for such a dangerous mission in Northern territory.

Second, they derailed the train by removing one rail. Their object was just to stop the train and rob it. If they were Confederate guerrillas bent on striking a blow against the Union, they would have damaged the track far more extensively. But it appears their purpose was not to damage the North – it was simply to enrich themselves. It was a train robbery, pure and simple.

None of the robbers was ever caught, so history has no confessions or courtroom testimony to base a judgment upon – just the public imagination, and articles from old newspapers such as the following three reports.

This brief report of the train robbery was flashed across the wires and printed by numerous newspapers immediately after the robbery, such as this example.

article about a train robbery, Albany Evening Journal newspaper article 6 May 1865
Albany Evening Journal (Albany, New York), 6 May 1865, page 3

Because this robbery occurred not long after the train left Cincinnati, that city’s press covered the story extensively. Here is a detailed account of the robbery, published by the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer.

article about a train robbery, Cincinnati Daily Enquirer newspaper article 8 May 1865
Cincinnati Daily Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio), 8 May 1865, page 2

Here is a transcript of this article:

Guerrillas near North Bend—The Ohio and Mississippi Train Attacked—Passengers and Adams Express Safe Robbed

Our city yesterday morning was thrown into a state of excitement by the announcement that during Friday night a party of guerrillas from Kentucky had crossed the Ohio River and made a raid on the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad, near North Bend.

The regular 8 P.M. express train on the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad left the depot in this city at the usual hour, bound for St. Louis. It was composed of four passenger coaches, a baggage car, and the Adams express car. The train was heavily loaded with passengers, quite a number of them being ladies. About seventeen miles and a half from Cincinnati, and between the stations known as Gravel Pit and North Bend, the locomotive ran from the track, and tipped over on one side, the cars following in a promiscuous smash up. The Adams express car and the baggage care were capsized with the engine, and both badly damaged. The first passenger coach stove through the end of the baggage car, producing considerable havoc. The remainder of the train was not severely injured and kept the track. The first shock of the crash of course awakened in the minds of the passengers the idea that it was an ordinary railroad accident, but the volley of firearms, and the shouts outside, which followed immediately after, undeceived them, and the nature and cause of the mishap became palpably evident when two desperadoes made their appearance at each car, and backed by two more who kept guard outside, commenced pillaging the passengers.

Subsequent developments have revealed the plan pursued by the guerrillas in capturing the train, and show that considerable skill was manifested in its design. The band, numbering about twenty, crossed in skiffs from the Kentucky shore, sometime during the day, and made their arrangements to attack the night express train to St. Louis, probably as being the one which might best repay them, robbery being their only object.

They selected a spot where the track of the road runs in close proximity to the river, and simply displaced one of the rails, not tearing up ten or a dozen as one of our morning contemporaries has it. The advancing train, when it reached the place, was, as we have seen, thrown violently from the track; and as soon as the first crash was over, the guerrillas, who were armed with navy revolvers, fired a volley over the cars, and with oaths, warned the passengers not to make any demonstrations or they would have their brains blown out.

While everything was wild with confusion in the passenger coaches, the desperadoes entered, and with the vilest oaths, demanded the money and valuables of the passengers. One of the party delivered himself of the following chivalrous sentence as he entered one of the cars: “Rob every d___d man, but don’t hurt the ladies.” The plundering was very general and thorough. Few, save the coolest, succeeded in saving anything in the line of money and valuables. Gold watches, pocketbooks, diamond pins, and money packages changed hands in remarkably quick time. One soldier returning home was robbed of three hundred dollars; and although he begged hard to be permitted to retain a portion of the money, the villains took all. Another individual was relieved of a gold watch, and five hundred dollars in greenbacks. Still another lost two hundred dollars, besides a watch and valuable breastpin. The conductor, Mr. Shephard, had forty dollars taken from him; but, by cutting the lining of his coat pocket and allowing the contents to drop into the skirt, succeeded in saving $320. The engineer likewise lost a valuable watch. We are unable to give any statement of the aggregate loss of passengers, but it was heavy.

While the work of robbing was going on in the passenger coaches, five of the villains plundered the express car. This car, as we have stated, was capsized and badly smashed up, and in such a way as to completely imprison the messenger, Mr. Pierce, who, after the accident thrusting out his head from a small opening, to see what was going on outside, was greeted by a loud oath from a desperado standing near, who threatened to blow off the top of his head if he did not get back. The party, with the aid of an ax, soon cut their way into the car, and drew out the money safes, three in number. They demanded the keys from the messenger, under pain of death, but two of the safes being through from Cincinnati to St. Louis, he was only able to open for them the local safe. The others they blew open with gunpowder, having vainly endeavored to force the doors with the ax. The amount lost by the Express cannot be accurately stated, but it was not very large. There is known to have been some seven-thirty bonds and other valuables. The mail and baggage, we understand, were not molested, and are consequently safe.

The guerrillas were all, save one, dressed in citizens clothes, and were remarkably villainous in bearing and action. One of the party they addressed as Lieutenant, and another as Captain. They carried no arms but revolvers, and these they were constantly flourishing around in the most threatening manner.

One of the desperadoes shot at the Conductor, who showed signs of resistance, but fortunately missed him. They also fired at the Baggage Master, who attempted to escape up the bank after the train had been thrown from the track. All of them seemed anxious to get through the business as soon as possible.

After pillaging the train, the party made for the river, and it is supposed crossed immediately to the Kentucky side.

The next day, the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer ran a follow-up story, providing more details of the robbery.

article about a train robbery, Cincinnati Daily Enquirer newspaper article 9 May 1865
Cincinnati Daily Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio), 9 May 1865, page 2

Here is a transcript of this article:

More about the Guerrilla Attack upon the Cars at North Bend—Some of the Incidents Thereto Appertaining Not before Related

While the robbery was going on, one apparently more genteel and orderly than the rest, entered the sleeping car, and coolly invited the passengers to “hand over their ticket for equivalent.” Having been advised of the condition of affairs, disposition had been made of many articles of value. Ladies were invited to secrete watches and wallets in their skirts, and not infrequently valuable prizes dropped down into their bosoms.

One poor fellow, not over sagacious, took great care to place a watch of small value in the leg of his drawers, but forgot two thousand dollars in his side pocket—one was saved, but of course the other lost, which he declared, in agonizing tones, was all he had in the world.

A gentleman and his wife sat in their berth, cogitating upon the best mode of saving their valuables. Finally the lady hit upon an idea which proved successful. She unrolled her hair, placed her fine gold watch, two diamond rings, earrings, and $2,000 therein, rolled the hair up again, and replaced the coal-scuttle where it ought to be, when expecting company. The “conductor” came around, and all that could be found was a few dollars in small change.

A lumberman, named Paul B. Clark, from Allegheny County, N.Y., came to Cincinnati on a raft, and having a little surplus change, started on a trip westward, had his hip dislocated in the wreck, and crawled out just in time to be discovered, and was relieved of seventy dollars.

A young officer, ranking as Captain, upon the staff of General Canby, had several ribs broken. The “conductor” coming along, inquired if he was much injured, to which an affirmative answer was given. He was then asked how much money he had in his possession, to which he answered six or seven dollars. This he was permitted to retain, with the approving suggestion, that “he might need it all.”

J. W. Gaff, of Aurora, was relieved of a valuable gold watch, and but a few dollars in money.

Fred Pfiester, of this city, was slightly injured, and lost a watch and a small amount of money.

There was a company of soldiers on board, belonging to the 8th Regulars, who were not in the least disturbed or insulted. They were not armed, and consequently powerless.

In the train were two baggage or express cars and five passenger coaches. The forward car, and three coaches behind, were but slightly damaged—the others were badly smashed up. The engine, “Kate Jackson,” one of the best on the road, sustained but little injury.

One passenger coach, by some misunderstanding, escaped search, at which the passengers were greatly pleased, and disposed to commiserate with those who had been more unfortunate.

Inquiry was made of one of the guerrillas why they wrecked the train, and endangered the lives of so many persons. Mr. “Johnny” replied that they had an important task to perform, and knew not how else to do it.

No person was seriously injured, and none worth mentioning, other than the above, which is miraculous.

The number engaged in this diabolical deed is not definitely known, but certainly not less than fifteen. They were well armed with fine silver-mounted navy revolvers, several having as many as four pieces each. After occupying about an hour in the plunder of the train, they quietly withdrew, crossing the river to the Kentucky shore in four skiffs.

The indignant passengers, with great unanimity, passed sentence of death at the stake, by burning, should they be caught and recognized. The report that several of them were recognized as prominent citizens of Boone County, Ky., is without knowledge, so far as our extended observation reached. The express agent, and probably one other person, was heard to say that he would recognize the person, who paid so much attention to him, if he should meet him a “thousand years hence.”

Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers. Were any of your ancestors ever involved in a train robbery? Please share your stories with us in the comments.

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