Jesse James' First Train Robbery

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

With nothing more than some rope, some guns and a whole lot of gumption, Jesse James committed the first train robbery in the west 138 years ago today.

James’ posse, the James and Younger gang, plotted to overtake a Rock Island Railroad train passing through Adair, Iowa, loaded with a cargo of gold. The plan they executed was pretty simple: they pried one of the rails loose with tools they had stolen, then tied a length of rope to the rail and pulled it out of place as the train rounded a blind curve. When the train predictably wrecked, killing engineer John Rafferty, the gang easily ransacked it.

Unfortunately for them, it wasn’t the payday they expected. When two of the robbers (believed to be Jesse and Frank James, pictured) forced guard John Burgess to open the safe, they found a mere $2,000 inside – nowhere near the estimated $100,000 they were expecting to pocket. It turned out that the shipment had been delayed. To try to recoup some of it, the gang robbed passengers on the train as well – one of the only times they did so. Their efforts netted them an extra $1,000. In case you were starting to feel sorry for the gang, don't: what they ended up with is the equivalent of more then $50,000 today.

Though the train robbery was highly publicized, it wasn’t the first of its kind in the U.S.

The original, committed by the Reno brothers in Indiana in 1866, cost the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad $13,000.

Side note: If you guys have been reading my mental_floss articles for any amount of time, you know I'm obsessed with weird roadside attractions and cemeteries (which are sometimes one and the same). That's why I couldn't pass up stopping to see Jesse James' gravesite when I was driving from Topeka to Des Moines earlier this year. It's quite low key and right in the middle of a pretty modern cemetery just off of a very busy street in Kearney, Missouri. Silly me was picturing Boot Hill, I guess.