Ride Ohio’s rails with some of the bravest trainmen and most vicious killers and robbers to ever roll down the tracks. The West may have had Jesse James and Butch Cassidy, but Ohio had its own brand of train robbers. Discover how Alvin Karpis knocked off an Erie Railroad train and escaped with $34,000. Learn about the first peacetime train holdup that took place in North Bend when thieves derailed the Kate Jackson, robbed its passengers and blew the Adam’s Express safe. Make no mistake—railroading was a dangerous job in bygone days.
“Ohio was plagued by train bandits, too, and some of them were shockingly violent. Journalist Jane Ann Turzillo has researched 10 interesting cases for her book.” —Akron Beacon Journal
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ROB EVERY DAMNED MAN
Rob every damned man, but don't hurt the ladies," growled one of the gun-wielding robbers who boarded the westbound Ohio & Mississippi train after derailing it.
Sometime during the day of May 5, 1865, a gang of thieves floated their skiffs across the Ohio River from the Kentucky side to a spot where the train track ran close to the water between Gravel Pit, the site of old Fort Finney, and North Bend, Ohio. They displaced only one rail, knowing that was enough to stop the train. Then they lay in wait for the calamity to happen.
The train pulled away from the Cincinnati depot bound for St. Louis at eight o'clock that night, right on time. The steam engine, called the Kate Jackson, pulled four passenger coaches with a full load of riders, including a company of Eighth Regulars, a baggage car and an Adams Express car carrying three money safes. About seventeen and a half miles out, it ran into the gang's trap. The Kate Jackson was thrown from the tracks and overturned onto its side, pulling the express and baggage cars over with it. All three were badly damaged. The passenger cars remained upright, but one drove through the end of the baggage car.
The passengers were thrown into chaos. During the turmoil, they heard gunfire arcing over the wreck. Suddenly, the gun-wielding cutthroats filled the doorways of the coaches.
Each of the thieves brandished "fine silver-mounted navy revolvers," according to one of the passengers. No rifles were in evidence, but some of the desperados were armed with as many as four weapons.
The exact number of robbers was lost during the confusion, but newspaper reports placed the count between fifteen and twenty. All but one wore civilian clothing. That exception was dressed in something resembling a uniform, but no one said whether it was Union or Confederate. One of the desperados answered to lieutenant and one to captain. They were remarkably villainous in bearing and action, according to an article in the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer. They barked orders at the passengers to surrender their valuables. One stood guard at each door while others walked through the train collecting watches, diamond stickpins and money.
None of the soldiers in the Eighth Regulars was armed, so they were powerless to defend the train. The ruffians passed by them but stopped by one soldier who was returning home from the war.
"Empty your pockets — now," one of the thieves snarled at the soldier.
The soldier's hands shook as he dug into his pockets and came out with $300. "Let me keep part of my money. Please," he begged. "I'll need it when I get home."
The robber leveled his gun at the young man's forehead. "Hand it over!"
The conductor, Mr. Shepard, tried to resist, so one of the robbers shot at him but missed either purposely or because he was a bad shot. Shepard wound up handing over $40 but saved $320 by dropping it through a hole in his coat pocket. One fellow lost $500 in greenbacks, while another lost $200, his watch and a valuable breast pin. The engineer relinquished a valuable watch.
Paul B. Clark was on his way out west. A lumberman by trade, hailing from Allegheny County, New York, Clark had floated down the river on a raft to Cincinnati. He dislocated his hip during the derailment, but the robbers showed no pity and took what cash he had — about $70.
The thieves were more generous to a young army captain who suffered several broken ribs during the wreck.
"How bad are you hurt?" the robber asked in a softer tone.
"I think it's bad," the captain cried, holding his one side.
"You got any money?"
"Six, maybe seven dollars is all."
The bandit stood looking at him for a minute as if assessing him and then said, "Keep it. You'll likely need it."
Passengers in the sleeping coach had time to hide their valuables before the bandits got around to that car. Ladies dropped their jewelry down the front of their bodices or hid their money in their skirts. One shrewd woman unrolled her elaborate hairdo and rerolled it with her diamond rings and earrings along with $2,000 in cash and her husband's gold watch tucked neatly inside. Just so the thieves would not be suspicious at their lack of valuables, she and her husband left a few dollars out.
Another bumbling gentleman had the wherewithal to hide a watch of little value down his pant leg but didn't think about the $2,000 in his coat pocket. He lost his money but kept the cheap watch.
While the majority of the gang was collecting valuables from the passengers — or their "ticket equivalent," as one of the robbers called it — five others went to the express car. It had tipped over on its side, trapping the messenger, Mr. Pierce. When Pierce poked his head out to see what all the commotion was, one of the robbers greeted him with the threat to "blow the top of your head off if you don't get back inside."
The robbers used an axe to hack their way into the car, where they demanded the keys to the three safes. Pierce explained that he had only one set and that was for the local safe. The other two safes on board were "through" safes from Cincinnati to St. Louis, and he had no way of getting into them. Undaunted by the lack of keys, the thieves first tried to hack the safes open with the axe but fell back on gunpowder to blast them open.
The whole derailment and robbery took about an hour. The ensuing investigation turned up a fisherman who saw the entire thing from a hut near the river. He witnessed the ruffians come across the river on four skiffs from the Kentucky side during the day. After the holdup, the fisherman saw the robbers steal away with their plunder on their skiffs back to the Kentucky side.
Before daylight, a sixty-man military detachment from Lawrenceburg, Indiana, rode out to hunt down the robbers. On the Kentucky shore near Covington, they found a farmer who presumed two of his missing horses were taken by the thieves. The military tracked the robbers farther south to Verona, Kentucky. Authorities were told of a dozen men seen carousing and spending wildly, but no one was giving names.
The next day, Adams Express posted a $500 reward "for each and every person arrested and convicted" in connection with the robbery of the passengers and express and the derailing of the Ohio and Mississippi train.
The company released what it had lost during the robbery. Among other securities and valuables stolen were twenty U.S. 7-30 coupon bonds of $500 each and ten U.S. 7-30 coupon bonds of $1,000 denomination each. These numbered bonds were property of the U.S. Treasury Department, and the public bankers and brokers were especially warned against purchasing them.
Military authorities suspected it was the work of Rebel guerrillas who refused to give up the Confederate cause. The country was still reeling from a war that had torn it apart. Jefferson Davis was still on the run, and Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated. Historians do not always agree on whether the North Bend holdup was the first peacetime train robbery in the United States, in part because it happened a mere month after the close of the Civil War.
Today, researchers contend that if the ruffians were indeed Confederates, they would have pulled out several rails on the track in an effort to destroy the train. As it was, they did just enough to get the train stopped. And even though two of them were referred to by military rank, only one was dressed in a uniform. The rest wore civilian clothing. Their choice of weapons suggested they were criminals rather than guerrillas. If they were Confederate holdouts, they would have had rifles as well as handguns.
Occasionally, the title of first train robbery is given to the botched attempt at Seymour, Indiana, but the Reno brothers pulled that holdup more than a year after the North Bend job.
On May 8, 1865, one paragraph ran in the Cincinnati Daily Commercial claiming that two men, named Porter and Ellis, were arrested and held by military authorities on suspicion of being part of the gang that robbed the train. Whether these two were involved has been swallowed in history, and so has the gang that pulled the robbery. That same day, the Cincinnati Daily Gazette urged employees on a railroad train to arm themselves. The article claimed that if the employees of the Ohio & Mississippi train had been armed, fifteen men would not have been able to overcome one hundred armed men. The writer did say that no one could have foreseen the train being derailed. The article called on the military to "adopt severe measures, and by a vigorous policy exterminate the outlaws." The writer finished with some rather coldblooded words: "A full course of killing is the only efficient remedy."CHAPTER 2
A MAN OF NERVE
The thought of becoming a hero was the furthest thing from George H. Price's mind as the Pacific Express pulled out of Lima station, where it had stopped for water a little before two o'clock on Friday morning, May 7, 1875. Barreling along on the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago road, the train was headed east, nonstop for Forest, Ohio.
Price, the thirty-two-year-old Adams Express messenger, was alone and securely locked in the express car. The first thing he did after the train got underway was to fill the stove with coal so he could relax for the 160-mile trip to Pittsburgh. In his care, according to the Chicago Post and Mail, were a safe containing money and valuable papers and several packages filled with jewelry, diamonds and other costly wares such as silk. The Cleveland Leader put the total value at an amazing $300,000. There was never any confirmation of this amount.
A short distance outside Lima, near Lafayette, Price suddenly heard a gruff voice bark out the command, "Surrender!" Taken by complete surprise, he looked up, and there stood a man with a mask made of black cloth covering his head and half his body. The car was well lit with candles, so Price saw two eyes shining from behind the eyeholes in the mask. He could clearly see that the man was pointing a gun straight at him. "Give me your keys!"
Price told his hometown newspaper, the Courier-Journal of Louisville, that the holdup man was between him and his Smith & Wesson. "I dodged down behind him and reached for my pistol. As I did so, the fellow fired at me." As Price swooped down for his gun, he was struck with a bullet to the shoulder. He was a tall man, strong and fully proportioned at 198 pounds, so the shot did not knock him over.
"We stood within one foot of each other. I grabbed my pistol with my left hand and immediately changed it to my other, raising the hammer as I sprang into the rear part of the car," Price said.
"As I turned to face him, I saw the flash of his pistol again." The messenger said he threw up his left arm. The bullet hit just above his wrist, glanced off and struck him in the left cheek near his chin. It was life or death, and Price acted instinctively.
"By this time I had my pistol leveled at him, and knowing that unless I fired he might again shoot and perhaps kill me, I pulled the trigger." The barrel of his gun flashed, and a loud report filled the car. The robber fell, uttering no sound. "I then cocked my pistol again and waited a second or two, but seeing he did not move, went forward and examined his body." He was dead. The whole incident had taken less than a minute.
Price pulled the bell rope and stopped the train. The brakeman came back to the car, and Price let him in. "I told him to look there and see what I had done, designating the corpse as I spoke."
The brakeman called for the conductor. After the conductor entered the car, they began to investigate how the robber had gained entrance. They found he had sawed a panel out of the door at the back of the car. The hole was hidden from view by some corn bags that had been pushed up against the door. The train noises prevented Price from hearing the sound of the sawing. The express car should have been immediately behind the engine, but a refrigerator car was in between, and a baggage car followed the express car.
They later learned that the man had taken a train from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and gotten off at Lima, where he boarded Price's train. He most likely crawled over the baggage car to the rear platform of the express car, where he had access to the back panel.
The conductor pulled the mask off the robber's face and body. In addition to the eyeholes, it had a hole cut for breathing. It was an unusual length, fastened around the neck with a rubber band and secured to his body with string. It was made from a lightweight woven linen or cotton material and looked similar to a Ku Klux Klan garment.
"We did not recognize his face," Price said. "We let the body remain where it had fallen, and the train proceeded on to Forrest, Ohio." Price did not have to ride the rest of the way alone with the body, however. The brakeman stayed in the express car with him.
When the train arrived in Forrest, Price sent dispatches to his route agents in Mansfield and Crestline. He asked for one of those agents to take the rest of his route. Because of his wounds and maybe his mental state, he did not think he was capable of completing his route. At Crestline, an agent was waiting to relieve him.
The would-be robber's body was taken off the train. Some of the trainmen at the station recognized him as Homer C. Binkley even though he had shaved his familiar beard. He had been a conductor who was discharged from the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago Railroad two weeks before the incident. He had worked for the railroad for some time. Before becoming a conductor, he was a brakeman. On his last job, he had been running the accommodation train between Lima and Fort Wayne.
Binkley's actions astonished those who had known him for a long time. He was well liked and was a member of the Conductor's Brotherhood and the Order of Red Men, an organization that traced its routes to the Sons of Liberty and with rituals modeled after those of American Indians. Several stories surfaced as to why he was let go from the railroad. The trainmen at Crestline heard Binkley had associated with some bad people, while others said he had "bad habits." There was speculation that he had gambling debts. A rumor surfaced that he had purchased a diamond saw before the incident. He told a number of people that he needed money badly and must have it no matter what. Whatever his reasons were for purchasing the saw and needing money, he left his home in Fort Wayne on Thursday night, May 6, and he was seen at Lima before the train pulled out.
As a former railroad man, Binkley knew there would be a large amount of money on this train. He also knew the best way to get into the express car. He picked the west-end door and waited to begin using his saw on the end panel until the train was underway and the locomotive noises would cover any sounds his saw might make.
The Pittsburgh papers reported that curiosity seekers flocked to look at the car in Crestline. A large number of those were officers and employees of the railroad and express companies. The papers said there was a large amount of blood on the floor in the center of the car, indicating where the shootout had occurred.
Price went to Mansfield, where the railroad surgeon took the slug out of his shoulder. It was determined that the other injuries were flesh wounds that would heal up within a few days. The bullet that hit him in the chin had glanced off and was probably lodged in the wall of the express car.
After Price was patched up, he and the Adams Express route agent, W.H. Damsel, Esquire, went back to Crestline. The Crawford County authorities refused to hold an inquest into the killing because the incident had occurred in Allen County, so the corpse was sent back to Lima. Price learned during the inquest that he had shot Binkley directly over his right eye. The bullet was extracted from the back of the robber's head and found to be slightly flattened, probably from hitting bone. The shooting was eventually ruled justifiable by reason of self-defense.
Once the inquest was complete, Price went home to recuperate in Louisville and be with his wife, Josephine; his two daughters, seven-year- old Lillie and one-year-old Maude; and his son, four-year-old Henry. Josephine had been kept aware of what was happening through telegrams and no doubt was anxiously awaiting his arrival. Louisville had been Price's home for approximately ten years, and he was well liked there by his neighbors and acquaintances. Everyone who knew him was horrified at the ordeal and hailed him as a hero. He was formerly the editor of the journal Our Expressman when it was published in Louisville. After a few days at home, he left for Cincinnati for a meeting with the Adams Express directors.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder & Mayhem on Ohio's Rails"
Copyright © 2014 Jane Ann Turzillo.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Rob Every Damned Man,
2. A Man of Nerve,
3. Wanted! For the Murder of Detective Hulligan,
4. Shot Down in Cold Blood,
5. The Dynamite-Proof Safe,
6. A Fusillade of Bullets,
7. Messenger Threatened, Bound Hand and Foot,
8. He Did It for Love,
9. Loot Sold Cheap,
10. Public Enemy Number One Executes Last Great Train Robbery,
About the Author,