Generally, train robberies were a distinctively American crime, seldom occurring in other nations. Although several robberies took place in Canada, Mexico, and South America, most of these crimes were thought to be perpetrated by American offenders. After the initial wave of post-Civil War robberies, they quickly escalated to their peak in 1893-1894. Robberies continued at a slower rate afterward but had almost disappeared by 1930.
During the years after the Civil War, much of the nation suffered a period of unemployment and lawlessness, spawning several notorious desperadoes and outlaw gangs. During this time, the Reno Gang from Indiana began to terrorize the Midwest.
On October 6, 1866, one of the first train robberies in America occurred when the Reno brothers boarded an eastbound Ohio & Mississippi Railroad passenger train near Seymour, Indiana, and entered an Adams Express Company car. Then, wearing masks and toting guns, they emptied one safe and tossed another out the window before jumping off the train and making an easy getaway.
The Pinkerton National Detective Agency quickly identified the criminals, but this robbery unleashed a long and deadly era of train robberies in the United States. A wave of train robberies followed the Seymour incident. Within weeks, two trains were derailed, and their payroll cars were robbed. In 1868, an Adams Express car was attacked again at Seymour. This time the expressman was tossed out the door before the safes were cleared of over $40,000.
At that time, express cars owned by Wells Fargo and the American Express Company carried financial instruments, currency, precious metals, and other desirable goods targeted by criminals. Further, newspapers sensationalized these offenses and, in some cases, exaggerated the amounts of funds stolen, the ease of committing these offenses, and the boldness of the robbers. This appealed to many of the hardened outlaws as the railroad pushed its way westward in the following decades. As a result, many highwaymen who had once robbed stagecoaches and horse-drawn wagons turned to robbing trains. Now, rather than robbing just a few people, armed gunmen could rob 200-300 people, vastly expanding their profits.
Railroads carrying cash and precious minerals became prime targets, especially in wide-open spaces where bandits could set up roadblocks for the trains and easily slip into hiding. Some of the most famous criminals included the likes of the Farrington Brothers in Kentucky and Tennessee, Jesse James in the Midwest, and Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch in Wyoming.
Contrary to the method romanticized by Hollywood, outlaws were never known to jump from horseback onto a moving train. Usually, they boarded the train along with other passengers and waited for a good time to initiate the heist, or they would stop or derail the train and then begin the holdup. Trains carrying payroll shipments were a major target, even though an expressman guarded these shipments. Bandits often overtook this guard by gunpoint and forced him to open the safe. If he did not have the combination, dynamite was used to blow it up.
But over time, the railroads wised up. Many added massive, unmovable safes to their trains and often hired armed guards. Some even added cars with armed men and horses who could be deployed to chase down any bandits who robbed the train. By the turn of the 20th century, most of the famous train robbers, including Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and the other members of the Wild Bunch gang, had been captured, killed, or were no longer operating in the United States.
Train robberies resulted in considerable loss of life and property, disrupted public transportation, and hindered the movement of people and goods across the United States. Human injury and death rates were sometimes high because many trains were derailed as part of the robbery, or cars were sometimes dynamited. Successfully eliminating these offenses not only stabilized rail transportation but also, in part, signaled the taming of the “Wild West.”
Though train robbery is nearly obsolete today, the railroads still employ full-time law enforcement personnel to protect their interests. From the beginning, the railroad special agents’ responsibilities have been similar to those of public law enforcement—the protection of society (both life and property) and the prevention and detection of crime. As a result, the railroad special agent of today is educated and well trained, and equipped.
Agent responsibilities include the protection of personnel, cargo, and property. Investigations relating to thefts of cargo, burglaries of company property, and acts of vandalism occupy most of the agent’s time. However, railroad special agents also investigate train derailments, extortion attempts, crimes of violence, and many other felony and misdemeanor crimes that involve railroad interests.