Denver Public Library
A staged train robbery such as this was a common practice for the James-Younger gang in the late 1800s.
The James and Younger families combined to create a dangerous games that specialized in bank robberies.
The James-Younger Gang crossed the state, robbing banks, and soon began the risky business of train robberies.
The gang included Frank and Jesse James, Arthur McCoy and two of the Younger brothers, along with additional members who participated in different robberies. “Jesse was probably credited with being the inventor of train robberies,” says Gary Chilcote, director of the Patee House Museum and Jesse James Home at St. Joseph. The gang robbed its first train in Adair, Iowa, in 1873. It went off without a hitch, and the gang returned to Missouri to raise havoc.
On January 31, 1874, at Gads Hill, just 120 miles south of St. Louis, the gang robbed its first Missouri train. In this robbery, gang members hid their faces with white masks with triangularcut eyeholes and also robbed the passengers since the baggage car only had a small amount of money. There is a marker in Gads Hill that commemorates the first Missouri train robbery.
After this robbery, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency was hired to catch the outlaws. John W. Whicher, who was investigating the James brothers, was found shot to death in March of 1874. The James brothers were the main suspects of this murder. Two other agents were shot six days later. One of the agents was able to kill John Younger before he was shot.
Two years later on July 7, 1876, the gang struck again in Otterville. The New York Times reported about seventy-five thousand dollars were stolen from the safe of this Missouri Pacific train. Three years later on October 8, 1879, the gang traveled to Glendale in Jackson County, fifteen miles east of Kansas City, to rob the Chicago and Alton Railroad, its third Missouri train.
The robbery in Winston, just ten miles north of Cameron, in July of 1881 was particularly significant because there were fatalities, Chilcote says. On the hot July night, seven members of the gang stopped the train. The engineer, William Westfall, and one passenger were killed during the robbery. The gang got away with less than two thousand dollars and rode off on horses. There is still evidence of this train robbery today. An old stone culvert can still be seen where it is said the gang waited before robbing the train. In Plattsburg, you can find William Westfall’s grave with an inscription reading: “Killed by train robbers July 1881.”
In July 1881, Missouri Gov. Tom Crittenden persuaded the railroads and express companies to sponsor a ten-thousand-dollar reward for the capture of each of the James brothers.
The gang’s last railroad robbery was at Blue Cut, just two miles west of Glendale, on September 7, 1881. The Pinkerton Detective Agency had still been unsuccessful in catching the outlaws. It wasn’t until a bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota, that they were finally captured. The entire gang was either killed or captured, except for Jesse and Frank James.
Jesse moved to St. Joseph to hide out with his family. Just nine months after the reward was offered for Jesse’s capture, he took the Ford brothers with him for a bank robbery in Platte City. When they got back home, Bob Ford shot Jesse in the back of the head while he was standing on a chair to adjust a picture frame on the wall. The Ford brothers tried to collect the ten-thousand-dollar reward but were charged with the murder of Jesse James instead. They were sentenced to hang, but Governor Crittenden pardoned them. Frank James went to trial for a bank robbery and the Winston train robbery but was found not guilty in both cases. Frank lived the rest of his life a free man.
There were many factors that made Missouri susceptible to train robberies, Chilcote says. “The James gang’s headquarters were in Missouri, and the mountainous Ozarks made it easy to stop a train.” Plus, the government shipped money through the railroads, which made it possible to make a lot of money with one robbery.
After the James-Younger gang’s era, there was an attempted train robbery in 1900. Five or six men, including Charlie Frederick, were caught when Frederick’s sister learned of the plan and alerted the authorities. Frederick got off with probation for his role, but the judge told him to always wear a black shirt to show for his sins. Even after the judge died, Frederick wore a black shirt every day for the rest of his life.