Train Robberies

Are train robberies an extinct crime? The Wikipedia page for the topic does not list one later than 1999.

Here's one from early in the 20th century that I found interesting.

Two booking cards from Spokane, WA police. One is for Charles McDonald, who is listed as a "miner," age 27, 5 ft. 9.5 in. and weighing 151 lbs. Arrested Oct. 25, 1907 for the crime of train robbery. Includes Bertillon Measurements for more detailed identification. Plus tattoos, scars, moles, etc.

Second card is for Ed Smith, alias Geo. Frankhauser. Also listed as a "miner," age 30, 5 ft. 5 3/4 in., 135 lbs. Arrested the same day as his compatriot. Same Spokane police card.

Frankhauser and McDonald pulled off one of the most daring train robberies, truly worthy of the "Wild, Wild West," although they accomplished their heist in the 20th century. The pair took up residence near Rexford, along the Northern Pacific line that the Oriental Limited regularly traveled. They surveyed the line, and decided on their spot. September 9, 1907, when the engineer and fireman took over the engine, two men came out of the darkness and ordered them at gunpoint to follow directions and they would not be hurt. They ordered the train to proceed at 40 mph until they reached a pre-selected location. The train was ordered to stop, while Frankhauser went to a cache and took out a small black bag. They had the fireman knock on the baggage car door and ask to come in. When the door was opened, the baggageman was ordered out, and the dynamite from the bag was used to blow the safe - and half of the car. They found nothing, so they decided to try the mail. Here, purely by accident, they stumbled on four small packages in a mail bag. They were addressed to the Old National Bank of Spokane and contained an estimated $40,000. But their mistake of tampering with the mail brought down the wrath of the postal inspectors, who would not let them get away with the robbery.

While the train was ordered to stay for 10 minutes, the pair escaped into darkness. They partied throughout the Northwest, posing as mining promoters. They sometimes "bought out" a bar for the night and had private parties for selected "friends," including "working" women. Eventually, a man by the name of Jesse Howe became suspicious, and alerted the Spokane police, who were waiting at the end of another party.

They obtained saws in the Kalispell jail, according to Frankhauser, and hid them in strapped to their ankles. When they were transferred to Helena, the guards found McDonald's saw, but Frankhauser managed to hang on to his. They spent two months sawing the bars on the windows. When they finally made their break March 21, they got over the wall by piling the bloodhound's doghouses on top of each other.

They were spotted by two women while coming over the wall, but managed to get ahead of the searchers. The two remained on the run for months, following the Missouri River north. They lived by taking what they needed from farmhouses and cabins (some occupied, others not). When the sheriff spotted them in Fargo, they split up. Frankhauser took a job for the Northern Pacific, but was arrested while going to a friend's house for Thanksgiving. He claimed he never saw his friend again. He was tried in Helena and sentenced to life in prison at Leavenworth, KS.

According to some newspaper reports, he escaped from Leavenworth. Others say he died there. One report indicates that another train robbery occurred in Benecia, CA that looked a lot like the work of this pair. This time they reportedly caught up with McDonald, but his buddy was still on the run.

Whatever the truth, it has the "feel" of another Butch and Sundance story. [See also "The Criminal Record: Stories of Crime and Misadventure from a Century Ago," Vol. 5, Issue 4 (April 2010).]

     Posted By: Paul - Sun Feb 07, 2021
     Category: Crime | Scary Criminals | Twentieth Century | Trains

We probably don't see train robberies today because many truly valuable cargoes are small packages and are sent via air freight or couriers flying among the other passengers. Keep in mind that financial instruments today are actually electronically transferred. Currency is not shipped in the amounts that it was some fifty years ago.
Posted by KDP on 02/07/21 at 11:34 AM
A modern currency shipment:

I never wanted to rob a train, but over the years, I have come up with a decent plan for stealing one. Imagine the scrap value of all that iron! As for the cargo -- I once counted 114 containers on one train, very few bearing a company name (often meaning they're general freight). With that kind of mixture, instead of a fence, you'd have to open a chain of thrift shops to sell it all.
Posted by Phideaux on 02/07/21 at 07:51 PM
I'll throw in with you, Phideaux, if you need an engineer to drive the train during the getaway.
Posted by Virtual in Carnate on 02/08/21 at 09:38 AM
@Virtual -- All that's needed in that department is someone to drive a rigged pick-up down the tracks to give the system the impression the train is still moving on the mainline and to carry the transmitters which mimic the GPS locators on the containers. Afraid it's not a glamourous job and only pays a tiny share.
Posted by Phideaux on 02/08/21 at 01:05 PM
Hmmm. I was hoping it would be some gigantic piece of machinery.
Posted by Virtual in Carnate on 02/09/21 at 10:00 AM
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