The Sontag Brothers, born and raised in Mankato, Minnesota, would grow up to become train robbers in California.
John was born on May 27, 1861, and his brother George came along on April 10, 1864. George began a life of crime when he was just 15 years old by stealing cigars from his employer and was sent to the state reform school in St. Paul. After he was released, he headed to Nebraska, where he went to work as a grocery store clerk. However, when he was caught embezzling money from his employer, he was arrested again and sent to the Nebraska State Prison. He was released in 1887.
In the meantime, John had moved to Los Angeles, California, in 1878 and gone to work for the railroad, where he was severely injured in an industrial accident. After he recovered, he went to work with a farmer by the name of Chris Evans. Harboring a deep resentment against the railroad, John and Chris Evans began to rob trains.
When George Sontag joined his brother in California in 1889, he joined them in their outlaw endeavors. On August 1, 1892, the trio robbed a train in Fresno, making off with three stacks of money. Actively pursued by the Pinkertons, George was arrested, but John and Chris managed to escape. Convicted, George was given a life sentence at Folsom Prison.
The two other fugitives remained at large for almost a year until they were finally caught up with on June 11, 1893. In the ultimate shoot-out, John was so severely injured the posse waited until morning when more help could arrive to move him. Taken to Fresno, John lived for another month before he died of tetanus. Chris Evans, who had also been wounded during the capture, survived to be convicted and sent to prison at Folsom.
After serving 15 years behind bars, George Sontag was released on March 21, 1908, and wrote the book – A Pardoned Lifer, which was later made into a movie in 1914. It is unknown how or when George died. Chris Evans remained in prison until 1911 and was banished from California upon his release. He spent the rest of his life in Oregon.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated January 2023.
Adventures in the American West