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.

Why We Eat What We Eat On Thanksgiving

monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images
monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images

When Americans sit down with their families for Thanksgiving dinner, most of them will probably gorge themselves on the same traditional Thanksgiving menu, with turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and pumpkin pie taking up the most real estate on the plates. How did these dishes become the national "what you eat on Thanksgiving" options, though?

Why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving?

It's not necessarily because the pilgrims did it. Turkey may not have been on the menu at the 1621 celebration by the Pilgrims of Plymouth that is considered the first Thanksgiving (though some historians and fans of Virginia's Berkeley Plantation might quibble with the "first" part). There were definitely wild turkeys in the Plymouth area, though, as colonist William Bradford noted in his book Of Plymouth Plantation.

However, the best existing account of the Pilgrims' harvest feast comes from colonist Edward Winslow, the primary author of Mourt's Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Winslow's first-hand account of the first Thanksgiving included no explicit mention of turkey. He does, however, mention the Pilgrims gathering wild fowl for the meal, although that could just as likely have meant ducks or geese.

When it comes to why we eat turkey on Thanksgiving today, it helps to know a bit about the history of the holiday. While the idea of giving thanks and celebrating the harvest was popular in certain parts of the country, it was by no means an annual national holiday until the 19th century. Presidents would occasionally declare a Thanksgiving Day celebration, but the holiday hadn't completely caught on nationwide. Many of these early celebrations included turkey; Alexander Hamilton once remarked, "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day."

When Bradford's journals were reprinted in 1856 after being lost for at least half a century, they found a receptive audience with advocates who wanted Thanksgiving turned into a national holiday. Since Bradford wrote of how the colonists had hunted wild turkeys during the autumn of 1621 and since turkey is a uniquely North American (and scrumptious) bird, it gained traction as the Thanksgiving meal of choice for Americans after Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.

Moreover, there were pragmatic reasons for eating turkey rather than, say, chicken at a feast like Thanksgiving. The birds are large enough that they can feed a table full of hungry family members, and unlike chickens or cows, they don't serve an additional purpose like laying eggs or making milk. Unlike pork, turkey wasn't so common that it seemed like an unsuitable choice for a special occasion, either.

Did the pilgrims have cranberry sauce?

While the cranberries the Pilgrims needed were probably easy to come by, making cranberry sauce requires sugar. Sugar was a rare luxury at the time of the first Thanksgiving, so while revelers may have eaten cranberries, it's unlikely that the feast featured the tasty sauce. What's more, it's not even entirely clear that cranberry sauce had been invented yet. It's not until 1663 that visitors to the area started commenting on a sweet sauce made of boiled cranberries that accompanied meat.

There's the same problem with potatoes. Neither sweet potatoes nor white potatoes were available to the colonists in 1621, so the Pilgrims definitely didn't feast on everyone's favorite tubers.

How about pumpkin pie?

It may be the flagship dessert at modern Thanksgiving dinners, but pumpkin pie didn't make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims probably lacked the butter and flour needed to make a pie crust, and it's not clear that they even had an oven in which they could have baked a pumpkin pie. That doesn't mean pumpkins weren't available for the meal, though; they were probably served after being baked in the coals of a fire or stewed. Pumpkin pie became a popular dish on 17th-century American tables, though, and it might have shown up for Thanksgiving as early as the 1623 celebration of the holiday.

This article originally appeared in 2008.

15 Colorful Facts About Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe’s enchanting floral still life paintings are now a deeply ingrained part of American culture—so much so that they often eclipse her other colorful accomplishments. For a more complete portrait of the artist, who was born on November 15, 1887, brush up on these 15 little-known facts about her.

1. Flower paintings make up a small percentage of Georgia O'Keeffe's body of work.

Though Georgia O'Keeffe is most famous for her lovingly rendered close-ups of flowers—like Black Iris and Oriental Poppies—these make up just about 200 of her 2000-plus paintings. The rest primarily depict landscapes, leaves, rocks, shells, and bones.

2. Georgia O'Keeffe rejected sexual interpretations of her paintings.

For decades, critics assumed that O'Keeffe's flowers were intended as homages—or at the very least, allusions—to the female form. But in 1943, she insisted that they had it all wrong, saying, “Well—I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flowers you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower—and I don’t.” So there.

3. Georgia O'Keeffe was not a native of the American Southwest.


Joe Raedle/Getty Images

O'Keeffe was actually born on a Wisconsin dairy farm. She'd go on to live in Chicago; New York City; New York’s Lake George; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Amarillo, Texas. She first visited New Mexico in 1917, and as she grew older, her trips there became more and more frequent. Following the death of her husband in 1946, she moved to New Mexico permanently.

4. Georgia O'Keeffe’s favorite studio was the backseat of a Model-A Ford.

In an interview with C-SPAN, Carolyn Kastner, former curator of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, explained how the artist customized her car for this use: "She would remove the driver's seat. Then she would unbolt the passenger car, turn it around to face the back seat. Then she would lay the canvas on the back seat as an easel and paint inside her Model-A Ford."

Painting inside the car allowed O'Keeffe to stay out of the unrelenting desert sun, where she painted many of her later works. The Model-A also provided a barrier from the bees that would gather as the day wore on.

5. Georgia O'Keeffe also painted skyscrapers.

While nature was O'Keeffe's main source of inspiration, the time she spent in 1920s Manhattan spurred the creation of surreal efforts like New York With Moon, City Night, and The Shelton with Sunspots.

6. Georgia O'Keeffe immersed herself in nature.

While in New Mexico, O’Keeffe spent summers and falls at her Ghost Ranch, putting up with the region's hottest, most stifling days in order to capture its most vivid colors. (The rest of the year she stayed at her second home, located in the small town of Abiquiu.) When she wasn't painting in her Model-A, O'Keeffe often camped out in the harsh surrounding terrain, to keep close to the landscapes that inspired her.

7. Not even bad weather could keep Georgia O'Keeffe away from her work.

The artist would rig up tents from tarps, contend with unrelenting downpours, and paint with gloves on when it got too cold. She went camping well into her 70s and enjoyed a well-documented rafting trip with photographer Todd Webb at age 74. Her camping equipment is occasionally exhibited at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.

8. Georgia O'Keeffe married the man behind her first gallery show.

"At last, a woman on paper!" That’s what modernist photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz cried when he first saw O'Keeffe's abstract charcoal drawings. He was so enthusiastic about this series of sketches that he put them on display—before consulting their creator.

When O'Keeffe arrived at his gallery, she wasn't pleased, and brusquely introduced herself: "I am Georgia O'Keeffe and you will have to take these pictures down." Despite their rocky beginnings, Stieglitz and O'Keeffe quickly made amends, and went on to become partners in art and in life.

9. Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz wrote 25,000 pages of love letters to each other.

When the pair met in 1916, Stieglitz was famous and married; she was unknown and 23 years his junior. All the same, they began writing to each other often (sometimes two or three times a day) and at length (as many as 40 pages at a time). These preserved writings chart the progression of their romance—from flirtation to affair to their marriage in 1924—and even document their marital struggles.

10. Georgia O'Keeffe served as a muse to other artists.

Thanks in part to Stieglitz, O'Keeffe was one of the most photographed women of the 20th century. Stieglitz made O'Keeffe the subject of a long-term series of portraits meant to capture individuals as they aged, and she made for a striking model. Though he died in 1946, the project lived on as other photographers sought out O'Keeffe in order to capture the beloved artist against the harsh New Mexican landscapes she loved so dearly.

O'Keeffe later wrote:

"When I look over the photographs Stieglitz took of me—some of them more than 60 years ago—I wonder who that person is. It is as if in my one life I have lived many lives. If the person in the photographs were living in this world today, she would be quite a different person—but it doesn't matter—Stieglitz photographed her then."

11. Georgia O'Keeffe quit painting—three times.

The first break spanned several years (the exact number is a matter of debate), when O'Keeffe took on more stable jobs to help her family through financial troubles. In the early 1930s, a nervous breakdown led to her hospitalization, and caused her to set aside her brushes for more than a year.

In the years leading up to her death in 1986, failing eyesight forced O'Keeffe to give up painting entirely. Until then, she fought hard to keep working, enlisting assistants to prepare her canvas and mix her oil paints for pieces like 1977's Sky Above Clouds/Yellow Horizon and Clouds. She managed to use watercolors until she was 95.

12. After going blind, Georgia O'Keeffe turned to sculpting.


By Alfred Stieglitz - Phillips, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Although her vision eventually made painting impossible, O'Keeffe's desire to create was not squelched. She memorably declared, "I can see what I want to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there.” O'Keeffe began experimenting with clay sculpting in her late 80s, and continued with it into her 96th year.

13. Georgia O'Keeffe is the mother of American Modernism.

Searching for what she called “the Great American Thing,” O'Keeffe was part of the Stieglitz Circle, which included such lauded early modernists as Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Paul Strand, and Edward Steichen. By the mid-1920s, she had become the first female painter to gain acclaim alongside her male contemporaries in New York's cutthroat art world. Her distinctive way of rendering nature in shapes and forms that made them seem simultaneously familiar and new earned her a reputation as a pioneer of the form.

14. Georgia O'Keeffe blazed new trails for female artists.

In 1946, O’Keeffe became the first woman to earn a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Twenty-four years later, a Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective exhibit introduced her work to a new generation. Fifteen years after that, O'Keeffe was included in the inaugural slate of artists chosen to receive the newly founded National Medal of Arts for her contribution to American culture.

15. Georgia O'Keeffe wasn't fearless, but she rejected fear.

O'Keeffe was purported to have said, "I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do."

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