May 5th, 1865 – The First Train Robbery!

Today-In-History

Train robberies were more common in the past than today, when the speed of trains was slower, and often occurred in the American Old West. Trains carrying payroll shipments were a major target. These shipments would be guarded by an expressman whose duty it was to protect the cargo of the “express car“. Expressmen, conductors, and other personnel took enormous pride in their duty and had no problem with risking their lives for a shipment.

The very first train robbery in the United States is recorded as being in North Bend, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, on May 5th, 1865.

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Bandits would rely on the expressman to open the safe and provide the goods. Without the combination required for the combination lock, it was almost impossible to break into the safes. However, the invention of dynamite made it much easier to break into safes and rob the train. If the outlaw was unsatisfied with the goods, passengers of the train‘s carriages, who were generally unarmed, would be held at gunpoint and forced to hand over any valuables they were carrying, usually in the form of jewelry or currency.

Contrary to the method romanticized by Hollywood, outlaws were never known to jump from horseback onto a moving train. Usually, they would either board the train normally and wait for a good time to initiate the heist, or they would stop or derail the train and then begin the holdup.

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Famous train robbers include Bill Miner, Jesse James, and Butch Cassidy. Jesse James is mistakenly thought to have completed the first successful train robbery in the American West when on July 21st, 1873 the James-Younger Gang took US $3,000 from a Rock Island Railroad train after derailing it southwest of the town of Adair, Iowa. However, the first peacetime train robbery in the United States actually occurred on October 6th, 1866, when robbers boarded the Ohio & Mississippi train shortly after it left Seymour, Indiana. They broke into one safe and tipped the other off the train before jumping off. The Pinkerton National Detective Agency later traced the crime to the Reno Gang. There was one earlier train robbery in May 1865, but because it was committed by armed guerrillas and occurred shortly after the end of the Civil War, it is not considered to be the first peacetime train robbery in the United States. Some sources say that the May 1865 robbery took place at a water siding while the train was stopped taking on water.


 

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