The last major American train robbery was attempted on November 25, 1937, on a Southern Pacific Railroad’s westbound Apache Limited out of El Paso, Texas. The crime was committed by two young men named Henry (Lorenz) Loftus, age 22, and Harry (Dwyer) Donaldson, age 27.
Henry Lorenz was born in 1915 to German immigrants in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. When Henry was six years old, his mother passed away, and his father remarried within a year. Unfortunately, his stepmother was ill-tempered and abusive. As a teenager, Henry loved reading dime novels about western adventures and outlaws, something his parents referred to as his “Wild West complex” and assumed he would outgrow it. Henry was arrested for burglary in his late teens, but a sympathetic judge placed him on probation.
In 1936, the family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where Conrad Lorenz’s father purchased a shoe store. However, 21-year-old Henry was restless, and after just a few months, he made his way to Brooklyn, New York. He soon found work in a factory, where he met a Canadian man named Harry Dwyer Donaldson, who shared his interest in the American West. As the pair dreamed of riding the range, gunfights, and rescuing fair damsels in distress, they soon decided to make their dream a reality. After saving nearly $200, Lorenz announced that he was going west “to seek fame and fortune in the wide-open spaces.” Both Lorenz and Donaldson then boarded a Santa Fe train for the border town of El Paso.
When they arrived, they were disappointed to see that El Paso had long since left behind its frontier past and had become a modern city with paved streets, automobiles, neon signs, and very few horses. But they were determined to live the “west” and purchased cowboy clothes, including fringed chaps, Mexican boots, and black sombreros. They looked like “drug-store cowboys,” and the locals laughed at their ridiculous outfits.
But, the men were determined, and after purchasing two horses, saddles, and other necessary gear, they rode northwest toward Deming, New Mexico. After two days on the trail, they were again disappointed when they found another modern town. Concluding that the Wild West they had read so much about no longer existed, they returned to El Paso. Still wanting a taste of the Old West, they made another plan. After selling their horses and gear, they purchased two old-fashioned six-shooters, hand-tooled holsters, and two train tickets.
On November 24, 1937, they boarded Southern Pacific Railroad’s westbound Apache Limited out of El Paso at 11:20 p.m. About 30 miles west of El Paso, near Mt. Riley in Dona Ana County, New Mexico, Loftus drew his pistol on conductor W.M. Holloway. The conductor would later say that he thought the young man was drunk and didn’t really think it was a holdup. However, he was afraid that the gun might go off because Loftus’ hands were shaking. In the meantime, Donaldson, also pointing a six-shooter, was moving through the train demanding cash and valuables from the passengers.
“These two fellows got on the train at El Paso with tickets for Hermanos, New Mexico. They were in the first day coach. We were about 40 miles out when they pulled out their guns and ordered everyone to put up their hands. Everyone did.” — Jim Velsir, railroad brakeman
When one nervous passenger Jose A. Rodriguez made a sudden move, Donaldson panicked and shot the man. However, the bullet hit Rodriguez’s pocket watch, saving his life. Hearing the shot, Loftus ran back to help his partner and was tackled by an off-duty brakeman, W.L. Smith, who was traveling as a passenger. As the two were wrestling on the floor, Loftus shot Smith. At this point, 20 passengers attacked both men, “punching and kicking them in a frenzy.” The beating resulted in a broken nose to Donaldson and left Lorenz’s left eye hanging out of its socket, and his jaw was swollen twice its size.
“If it hadn’t been that we had women passengers on the coach, these robbers would have been beaten to death.” — Doyle L. Ziler, train passenger who witnessed the event
The would-be train robbers were then tied to the seats, and the passengers tended to the mortally wounded Smith. Unfortunately, brakeman W.L. Smith died in Arizona three hours after being shot. The robbers received only small change and a few watches for their efforts.
The train continued westward to Hachita, New Mexico, where the bandits were taken off and transported to Deming. Loftus and Donaldson were arrested and charged with train robbery and murder upon their arrival. The pair were then sent to Las Cruces, New Mexico, to stand trial.
Loftus’ father, Conrad, and sister, Margaret, traveled by train from Chicago on December 1, believing the arraignment to be equivalent to trial. At that time, Margaret told the press that Loftus “does not seem to grasp the meaning of the charges against him.” Though the visitors did not have money to help the outlaw, they promised to return for the trial if they could. Donaldson’s mother, Mrs. Joseph Thibault, also traveled from Concession, Nova Scotia.
In court, if the two men were found guilty at trial, they faced the death penalty. Instead, the outlaws pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and were sentenced to serve 50-75 years in prison on February 21, 1938. They were then transported to the New Mexico Penitentiary in Santa Fe.
The failed train robbery received national attention, and the press called it “the last major train robbery in the United States.”
On February 6, 1945, Henry Lorenz and Harry Dwyer Donaldson were granted conditional releases by Governor John J. Dempsey. Afterward, nothing is known of either man.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated December 2021.
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Jameson, W.C.; Rocky Mountain Train Robberies, TwoDot, 2019
Kidnapping, Murder & Mayhem