10 Great Train Robberies

iStock / Adam Calaitzis
iStock / Adam Calaitzis

1. The First Train Robbery in the West

Although Jesse James popularly gets credit for committing the first train robbery, the following robbery actually predates his: On November 5, 1870, just west of Reno, NV, a Central Pacific passenger train was overtaken by a gang of robbers who'd been tipped off that the train was carrying gold worth $60,000. The conductor was forced to apply the brakes and separate the engine, tender, baggage and express cars from the rest of the train. The engineer was then taken to the express car to request admittance. When the door opened, the expressman was greeted three sawed off shotguns. By prying open boxes in the express car, the gang was able to uncover $41,000 in gold coins. The spoils weighed over 150 lbs. However, the robbers inadvertently left behind $8,000 in silver, $15,000 in hidden gold bars, and piles of bank drafts. (Keep in mind that an acre of land cost about $5 at the time.) All of the robbers were apprehended or killed before being able to enjoy their bounty.

2. Jesse James’ first Train Robbery

The notorious gang leader, Jesse James, is a Wild West legend. He and his colleagues the James-Younger gang, had already established a local reputation for crime before the legendary robbery. Former confederate guerillas, the gang dressed in KKK garb. They then loosened part of the track and attached a rope to it near the Adair, Iowa station. As the Rock Island train approached the station on July 21, 1873, the engineer saw the rope tied to the rail. He attempted to back the train up to avoid the hazard, but was unsuccessful. The engine, tender, and baggage cars were derailed and the engineer killed. Jesse and his brother Frank, approached the expressman with cocked 44’s. The James-Younger gang rode off with nearly $3,000—worth about $51,000 today.

3. Gads Hill Missouri Great Train Robbery

Jesse James may not have been the first to rob a train in the West, but he was the first to rob one in Missouri. On January 31, 1874, the James-Younger gang rode into the small town of Gads Hill, population 15. They were again dressed in KKK masks and sent shock waves through the small community. They lit a bonfire within sight of the station platform and had one member to the gang stand on the platform holding a red signal lamp. The train did not normally stop at the Gads Hill station but was scheduled to do so that day in order for State Rep. L.M. Farris to meet up with his son. As the train neared the station, the conductor jumped off the train to see what was going on, he was seized and the train was switched to a siding. The gang members boarded the train, raided the express/mail car and then systematically relieved the passengers of their jewelry and currency.

_flossy fact: They spared any man who had calloused hands, because they didn't wish to steal from the working class. All except one woman, who had $400 in gold coins, were also spared.

4. The Wilcox Robbery

The Wild Bunch, with infamous members Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, went out with a bang for their final train robbery. On June 2, 1899 around 2:30 AM, the Union Pacific Overland Flyer No. 1 was flagged down by two men with warning lights. The men overtook the first engine and made the engineer disconnect the second part of the train, which had its own engine. Then they blew up a small wooden bridge after the first engine had passed over, to prevent anyone in the second section from following. Forcing the trainmen over to the mail car to begin their raid, three of the bandits blew the door off of the car with dynamite. Not satisfied with what they found, the gang continued on to the express car. There they found the express car messenger. When he refused to open the door for the robbers, they opened it themselves with more dynamite. The blast left the messenger stunned and unable to relay the combination, so they blew the safe open with more dynamite, using such an excessive amount of the “giant powder” that the entire car was destroyed. They escaped on horses they had hidden nearby with over $50,000 in loot.

5. The Largest Train Robbery in the United States

On June 14, 1924, the Newton gang stole the largest sum ever from a United States train. The Newton boys, all brothers, were known for never killing anyone. They also never stole from women and children. Still, they were still the most successful bank robbers in the United States. For this big heist, they recruited postal inspector William J. Fahy, one of the best investigators at the time, to help them plan it. Also in their employ were several local gangsters. Instead of horses, the Newton gang boasted fast cars. Taking hold of a mail train in Roundout, IL, just outside of Chicago, using homemade tear gas bombs of formaldehyde, the gang rounded up $3 million dollars in cash, jewelry and securities. One of the gang members accidentally shot Dock Newton during the heist. This slip up led to the capture of the gang members. Within 7 months of the heist, all suspects were apprehended and sentenced.

6. The Great Gold Robbery

The Wild West was not the only stage for train robberies. In 1855, a train carrying gold bars from London to Paris was the victim of an “invisible” robbery. The gold was stored sealed, bound by iron bars, and secured in double key safes. The highly guarded bars were weighed after completing its traverse of the English Channel via boat, but two of the safes weighed slightly more and one slightly less than the original weight. In Paris, it was discovered that the gold had been replaced by lead shots. Masterminds William Pierce and Edward Agar, with the help of a railway clerk, had boarded the train with carpet bags and shoulder satchels full of lead shots. They disembarked in Dover with £12,000 worth of gold. That would be worth approximately $1,253,962 today. All were quickly caught and jailed.

7. Another Great Train Robbery?

On the evening of August 7, 1963, the Traveling Post Office “Up Special’ train left Glasgow for London. It consisted of 12 carriages where postal workers sorted, picked up, and dropped off mail along the trip. The second carriage behind the engine was known as the HVP (High Value Package) and it was carrying a record £2.6 million due to a bank holiday in Scotland—worth more than $62 million in today's currency. Just after 3am, the driver brought the train to a stop at a tampered, red signal. When he tried to call for more information, he found the lines cut. The train was then boarded by a 15 member gang who took the train to an overpass bridge where they loaded the loot of used £1, £5 and £10 notes into their ex-army dropside truck. The gang had cut all phone lines in the vicinity, but authorities where still hot on their trails. Fingerprints had been left all over the crime scene and the culprits were quickly identified.

8. The Bezdany Raid

This was no normal train robbery! No, this was an attempt to free Poland from Russian and Austro-Hungarian occupation. In 1908, Józef Pi?sudski organized and trained a group he called Bojówki, 20 revolutionaries—16 men and four women that included Pilsudski’s future wife, three future prime ministers and other notable members of the future Second Republic. The plan was to overtake a train and station at Bezdany. After a short firefight, where one Russian solider was killed and five injured, the gang blew open the mail car, gathered the money into bags and fled. They ran off with 400,000 rubbles—equivalent to more than $4 million in today's currency. The money was used to fund the revolutionary’s cause and free Poland!

9. The Great Train Robbery of British Columbia

Bill Miner, a notorious outlaw who was upstaged only by Jesse James, moved to British Columbia after being released from a California prison. Three years later, he stopped a Canadian Pacific Railway train in Mission, B.C., about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver. He managed to walk away with $10,000. Miner was known as “a gentleman and a bandit.” He was always polite and well liked within the community and never forgot to bid his victims, “Good day.” He is credited with being the first outlaw to use the phrase, “Hands up!” Two years after his first CPR robbery he stopped another train but wasn’t so lucky. His mask was accidentally knocked off and the train was only carrying $15. He was captured and sentenced to life at the British Columbian Penitentiary, but managed to tunnel out and was never seen again!!

10. Gold Special

In the 1920s, train robberies had started to decline in the United States due to tighter security and the advent of traveler’s checks from American Express. People no longer had to carry gold with them when they traveled. However, in 1923 the D’Autremont brothers attempted to pull off a large scale train robbery in a get rich quick scheme. The brothers planned to board the Southern Pacific “Gold Special” at Tunnel No. 13 in Ashland, OR. Once aboard, the brothers set off dynamite to open up the mail car. However, they wound up using too much dynamite and succeeded only in killing the mail clerk and destroying anything of value. hey then shot and killed the brakeman, fireman, and engineer in the confusion that followed. The ensuing investigation was one of the most elaborate in United States history and laid the foundation for modern criminal forensics.

14 Famous People Who Survived the 1918 Flu Pandemic

National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Over a century ago, a deadly flu pandemic swept across the globe. The first cases of the so-called Spanish Flu—named because that’s where early news reports of the disease originated, though research has put its actual origin anywhere from China to Kansas to France—are traditionally dated to Kansas in March 1918. The disease ultimately infected some 500 million people, and estimates put the death toll anywhere from 20 to 50 million. The people on this list contracted the deadly flu and lived to tell the tale.

1. Walt Disney

Walt Disney sitting in a chair.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

If Walt Disney hadn’t contracted the flu, we might never have had Mickey Mouse. Even though he was only 16 at the time, Disney lied about his birth year to sign up for the Red Cross Ambulance Corps at the tail end of WWI. Then he got sick. By the time he was ready to ship out, the war was over.

2. Mary Pickford

A close-up photo of silent film star Mary Pickford smiling.
General Photographic Agency // Getty Images

The silent film star was at the height of her fame when she fell ill; thankfully, Pickford’s bout with the flu was uneventful, but as the disease spread, many movie theaters were forced to close. Irritated theater owners in Los Angeles, claiming they had been singled out, petitioned for all other places that people gathered together (except for grocery stores, meat markets, and drug stores) to be forced to close as well. While stores were not forced to close, schools were and public gatherings were banned.

3. David Lloyd George

David Lloyd George sitting outside with his dog and reading a newspaper.
Ernest H. Mills // Getty Images

Weeks before the end of World War I, Lloyd, Prime Minister of the UK at the time, came very close to dying of the flu. He was confined to his bed for nine days, had to wear a respirator, and was accompanied by a doctor for over a month. Because it was thought that news of the Prime Minister’s illness would hurt the morale of the British people and “encourage the enemy,” his condition was kept mostly hidden from the press.

4. Franklin D. Roosevelt

Portrait of a young Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

In 1918, Franklin D. Roosevelt was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and had been in Europe for two months before contracting the flu on the boat home. The New York Times described his illness as “a slight attack of pneumonia caused by Spanish influenza.” Roosevelt convalesced at his mother’s New York City home until he was well enough to head back to Washington, D.C.

5. Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson circa 1912.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

Considering Woodrow Wilson was president of the United States and he was dealing with the end of WWI, early 1919 was a seriously inconvenient time to get sick. Not only did he get the flu, but he fell ill so violently and so quickly that his doctors were sure he had been poisoned. When Wilson was well enough to rejoin the “Big Three” negotiations a few days later, people commented on how weak and out of it he seemed.

6. Wilhelm II

Wilhelm II in his uniform.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

While the German Kaiser was undoubtedly upset to get sick himself, he had reason to be happy about the flu epidemic, or so he thought. One of his military generals insisted—despite the fact that the surgeon general disagreed—that the illness would decimate the French troops, while leaving the Germans mostly unharmed. Since Germany needed a miracle to win the war, the flu must have seemed like a godsend. In the end, it ravaged all armies pretty much equally, and Germany surrendered.

7. John J. Pershing

John J. Pershing in uniform sitting on a horse.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

While the great American general got sick himself, the flu gave him a much larger problem. His troops were dying at a faster rate from illness than from bullets. Soon there were more than 16,000 cases among U.S. troops in Europe alone. Pershing was forced to ask the government for more than 30 mobile hospitals and 1500 nurses in just over a week.

8. Haile Selassie I

Haile Selassie sitting in a chair drinking tea.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The future emperor of Ethiopia was one of the first Ethiopians to contract the disease. His country was woefully unprepared for the epidemic: There were only four doctors in the capital available to treat patients. Selassie survived, but it's unknown how many people the flu killed in Ethiopia; it killed 7 percent of the population of neighboring British Somaliland.

9. Leo Szilard

A black and white photo of Leo Szilard in a suit and tie.
Department of Energy, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

You may not have heard of him, but the atomic scientist Leo Szilard might have saved the world. While he survived the flu during WWI (he was supposedly cured by spending time in a humid room, the standard treatment for respiratory illness at the time), what he should be remembered for is his foresight before WWII. When he and other physicists were discovering different aspects of nuclear fission, he persuaded his colleagues to keep quiet about it, so that the Nazis wouldn’t get any closer to making an atomic bomb.

10. Katherine Anne Porter

Author Katherine Anne Porter sitting in a chair wearing a hat with a bow on it.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

The author turned her experience with sickness in 1918 into a short novel called Pale Horse, Pale Rider. The story is told by a woman with the flu who is tended to by a young soldier. While she recovers, he contracts the disease and dies.

11. Alfonso XIII

The King of Spain working at his desk.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Alfonso was the King of Spain when the “Spanish” flu hit, and he was not immune to its outbreak. The flu was no worse in Spain than anywhere else, but unlike most journalists in other countries—who were under wartime censorship—the Spanish media actually covered the pandemic, leading to an unfair association that persists to this day.

12. Edvard Munch

A portrait of Edvard Munch standing in the snow.
Nasjonalbiblioteket, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Munch, the artist behind The Scream, had an apparent obsession with sickness and death long before he came down with the flu—he painted many works on the subject. But the flu obviously affected him especially: He painted a few self-portraits of both his illness and shortly after his recovery.

13. Lillian Gish

A portrait of Lillian Gish.
General Photographic Agency // Getty Images

The silent film star started feeling sick during a costume fitting and collapsed with a 104-degree fever when she got home. Fortunately, she could afford a doctor and two nurses to attend to her around the clock. While she recovered, it wasn’t all good news. Gish complained later, “The only disagreeable thing was that it left me with flannel nightgowns—have to wear them all winter—horrible things.”

14. Clementine Churchill

Clementine Churchill speaks at a microphone.
Arthur Tanner/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

While Winston was in France in 1919, the Churchill household—including his wife Clementine and their nanny Isabelle, who was looking after their young daughter Marigold—contracted the flu. According to Churchill’s daughter Mary Soames, Isabelle grew delirious and took Marigold from her cot despite being sick herself. Clementine grabbed the child and was anxious for days about Marigold’s condition. Isabelle died of the flu, but Clementine and Marigold survived. (Sadly, Marigold would die from a bacterial infection that developed into sepsis in 1921.)

During World War II, Clementine served as a close adviser to Winston. She was also the “Chairman” of the Red Cross Aid to Russia Fund, which raised 8 million pounds during WWII and resulted in her being awarded the Soviet Order of the Red Banner of Labor, being made a Dame, and being given a 19th century glass fruit bowl from Stalin. Churchill’s Chief Staff Officer, General Hastings “Pug” Ismay, would later comment that without Clementine the “history of Winston Churchill and of the world would have been a very different story.”

In the 1800s, Drinking Too Much Tea Could Get a Woman Sent to an Insane Asylum

The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

If you were a woman in the 19th century, virtually anything could get you committed to an insane asylum—including drinking too much tea.

NHS Grampian Archives, which covers the region around Scotland’s Grampian mountains, dug up an admissions record from the Aberdeen Lunatic Asylum while looking into the institution’s annual reports from the 1840s. The table contains data on causes of admissions categorized by sex. In addition to those admitted to the asylum for “prolonged nursing,” “poverty,” or “disappointment in love” (one man and one woman admitted for that one!), one woman arrived at the asylum only to have her issues blamed on “sedentary life—abuse of tea.”

Intrigued by the diagnosis, someone at the archives tracked down more details on the patient and posted the case notes on Facebook. Naturally, her condition involved more than just a little too much Earl Grey. Elizabeth Collie, a 34-year-old factory worker, was admitted in November 1848 after suffering from delusions, specifically delusions about machines.

Her files state that “she imagines that some species of machinery has been employed by her neighbors in the house she has been living in, which had the effect of causing pain and disorder in her head, bowels, and other parts of the body.”

Asylum employees noted that ”no cause [for her condition] can be assigned, except perhaps the excessive use of tea, to which she has always been much addicted.” She was released in June 1849.

A letter to the editors of The British Medical Journal in 1886 suggests that the suspicion of women’s tea-drinking habits was not unique to Aberdeen mental health institutions. One doctor, J. Muir Howie—who once served as a regional president for the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh, so we can assume he was relatively respectable—wrote to the publication:

Would you kindly allow me to draw attention to the fact that, among women at least, the abuse of tea frequently leads to the abuse of alcohol! My experience in connection with a home for inebriate women has led me to this conclusion. Many of the inmates, indeed, almost all of them, were enormous tea-drinkers before they became victims to alcoholic dipsomania. During their indulgence in alcohol, they rarely drink much tea; but, as soon as the former cut off, they return to the latter. In many instances, alcohol was first used to relieve the nervous symptoms produced by excessive tea drinking.

Ah, women. So susceptible to mania and vice. It's a miracle any of us stay out of the madhouse.

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