I: ROCKY CUT
"They were no common thieves or vulgar robbers, but had an ambition to make themselves famous, in, as they termed it, 'a fair, square and honorable' way of doing such things."
Kansas City Weekly Journal of Commerce
Friday, July 7, 1876, two months to the day before the Northfield Raid. Henry Lewis Chouteau, the bridge watchman for the Missouri Pacific Railroad, sat smoking on a bench outside the pump-house on the bank of the Lamine River. It was approximately 9 P.M. In about one hour, the whistle of express train No. 4 would sound down the tracks to the west. A baggage car, an express-baggage car, three coaches, and two sleepers trailed behind the train's puffing locomotive. In the express car stood two locked safes, the property of the Adams Express Company and the United States Express Company. Inside those safes was enough hard cash to operate a small bank.
The watchman waited alone; the closest town, Otterville, was a good mile away. And it was hot. At that time of evening, in the middle of a typical Missouri summer, the river bottom's sticky stillness made a man's sweat come easily. Suddenly, Chouteau tensed and focused his gaze across the bridge. Four men walked along the tracks toward him. Chouteau, a 46-year-old native of Switzerland, had only been on the job two weeks, and although he would not be surprised to see a fisherman near the bridge, these four men were suspicious. The moon shone brightly that night, and as the strangers neared, he could see that they were well dressed, their pants tucked into heavy, high-topped boots. An unmistakable clinking sound told him they wore spurs. Three of the men sat down next to him without saying a word. The fourth, a tall man, stopped in front of Chouteau.
"What are you doing here?" the man said.
"I am here watching the bridge," Chouteau answered.
The stranger then asked Chouteau how he halted the train if there was danger. The watchman, puzzled at this line of questioning, nevertheless explained that in case of danger, he would stand on the tracks with his red-glass lantern. If all was safe with the bridge, he would walk out on it with his white lantern.
The tall man turned to one of his companions on the bench. "What time is it?"
The one spoken to reached into his trousers and pulled out a pocket watch. He tilted the watch's face into the moonlight. "Ten minutes after nine."
"It is about time," the tall man said.
Another man on the bench stood up and asked Chouteau where he could get a drink of water. Chouteau told him there was a good, clear spring nearby, and he got up and walked with the stranger to where they could see it. Then Chouteau went to retrieve a drinking cup from the pump-house. The man's three companions were nowhere to be seen, but as the watchman stepped inside the small building, the three jumped him, grabbing his arms and pointing a shiny, nickel-plated revolver at his chest. Chouteau stared at the pistol, trembling and speechless. He watched as the three strangers pulled masks from their pockets and put them on their faces.
"Old man, come along with us," one of the men ordered. "We have work for you to do."
Chouteau pleaded with the men, saying that the Missouri Pacific would fire him if he left his post. "They laughed at me," the watchman later recalled, "and said the company would not mind that, as I had to go."
The men instructed Chouteau to hammer a large nail into the west side of the bridge, from which he was to hang the lit white lantern. Thus, the lantern would be clearly visible to train No. 4's engineer, and the train would proceed across the bridge at normal speed. The men next walked Chouteau to the pump-house to retrieve the red lantern, after which they blindfolded him. With a man holding on to each side of the watchman, the party crossed the bridge and followed the rails east for three-quarters of a mile. Along the way, they were joined by more men; Chouteau could hear them speaking to one another in whispers. They eventually halted where the rails entered a long, deep cut through the side of a limestone bluff. Here the watchman was made to sit down off to the side of the tracks.
"You ain't going to hurt me?" asked Chouteau.
"What do we want to hurt you for?" a man said. "We want that money. That is all we care for."
One of the bandits set to work digging a hole between the wooden ties of the railroad bed so that a post or other obstruction could be sunk in the ground. But the warm, muggy stillness quickly made the digging tiresome, and as there were several railroad ties stacked nearby, it was decided to simply pile the heavy timbers directly upon the tracks.
Chouteau, still guarded by two men, heard the robbers' groans as they lifted and stacked the ties. "The mosquitoes were thick there," the watchman recalled, "and every time I would brush them from my face with my hand, [the robbers] would put their hands on me and say, 'Hands off your face.'"
Once finished with the ties, the robbers grilled Chouteau about those on the train: the express men, conductors, and engineer. They particularly wanted to know if any of those men would be carrying firearms. Chouteau had no way of knowing that and told them so.
Rocky Cut, as that remote place was known, was on one end of a long, broad curve in the Missouri Pacific line, which meant the robbers would hear the train before they saw it. A few minutes after 10, right on schedule, the clear blast of the locomotive's steam whistle from across the river bottom told the robbers the train had reached the bridge. Someone lit the watchman's red lantern, handed it to him, and then led him to the middle of the tracks, some 20 feet behind the stack of ties. Finally, in the distance, the beam from the locomotive's oil lamp came into view, throwing a traveling glow upon the leaves of the nearby cottonwoods and sycamores and the brush and vines growing near the rail bed. The robbers sharply ordered the watchman to flag the train, a task he embraced with a passion, swinging his lantern in big arcs from side to side.
The full moon cast a greenish hue upon the scene, and it was in fact bright enough that the engineer in the locomotive's cab had trouble at first making out the red light of the lantern, but he soon recognized the warning signal ahead and immediately grabbed the lever of the air brake, at the same time reversing his engine. The piercing squeal of metal on metal cut the bottom's silence as the engineer did his best to halt the train. But the distance was too short. Chouteau, still blindfolded, prayed like never before as the locomotive's cowcatcher hit the stacked ties and slid up on top of them before finally coming to a stop. Pistol shots and triumphant whoops from the robbers erupted on both sides of the train, some of the desperadoes having stationed themselves on the bluff overlooking the cut. The locomotive's own weight caused it to ease backwards and down again upon the rails, a burst of steam hissing from the engine as if angry at the rudeness of the affair. An emotionally spent Chouteau was led away from the tracks and warned to stay put.
Two robbers clambered up into the locomotive's cab and leveled their revolvers at the engineer and fireman, saying, "Better keep quiet, you know." At the back of the train, their confederates threw ties and anything else that was handy upon the rails to prevent an attempt to back out of the cut.
At the sound of the first gunshots, the 27-year-old express messenger, John B. Bushnell, who had charge of the key to one of the safes, fled the express car for the rear of the train. As Bushnell rushed down the aisle of one of the coaches, a passenger asked him what was the matter. Without stopping, a visibly distressed Bushnell blurted out, "The train is being robbed, that's what's the matter!"
Bushnell's words electrified the passengers, who franticly began looking for hiding places for their valuables. Gold watches, breastpins and greenbacks were shoved down boot tops and socks. Diamond rings were slid under the carpet. Some found ready hiding places in the cars' dirty coal bins. One traveler climbed up and pushed his wallet through the ventilator in the ceiling so that it rested unseen on the roof of the car. All the while, gunshots and yelling continued outside, causing more than a few terrified passengers to drop down and curl up beneath their seats. When a woman began to cry, one man exclaimed, for the entire car to hear, "Madam, I'll protect you at the risk of my life." This prompted another to say, "Why, then, don't you go and fight those fellows in the front?" Not another word came from the gallant passenger.
The Reverend Jonathan S. Holmes of Bedford, New York, began to sing the hymn "I'm Going Home (to die no more)." He was interrupted by a wag who told him he should forego the camp meeting and look to hiding his money. But the minister finished the song in a quavering voice, after which he stood up and testified before his fellow passengers. He said that "if he was doomed to be murdered, he wanted his remains forwarded to his family...and to write them that he had died true to his faith and in the hope of glorious resurrection."
Express messenger Bushnell made his way to the rear sleeper, where he approached a brakeman and pressed the key into his hand, telling the man to hide it in his shoe quick, which the brakeman did. Bushnell then moved back to the nearest coach and took a seat, hopeful that he would be mistaken for a passenger.
Left alone in the express car was the 21-year-old baggage master, Pete Conklin. The front and rear doors of the car were closed and locked, but the sliding side doors were open so that the occupants could get some relief from the summer heat. As the train came to a stop, three of the robbers climbed up on the shoulders of their companions and entered the side of the car. They immediately spotted the safes — and Conklin. Pointing their revolvers at the young man, they demanded the express keys. Conklin told them he did not have the keys, whereupon the outlaws let loose with curses and threats. They roughly felt over his body, searching for the hiding place. Conklin could see only that part of their faces above their bandanas, but he could not miss the fierce, blue eyes of the tall man whom he guessed to be the leader, eyes that blinked more than normal. Failing to find the keys, this man shoved his six-shooter into Conklin's rib cage and suggested strongly that he tell who had them.
"I suppose the messenger has 'em." Conklin said.
"Where's the express messenger, then?"
"He's back in the train somewhere."
"Come with me and find him."
With Conklin leading the way, the outlaw chief and one confederate started for the rear of the train. As the group worked its way through the cars, the passengers not quivering beneath their seats sat completely still and looking straight ahead, scared that any movement might single them out for some act of violence.
It did not take long for Conklin to find Bushnell and point him out to the robbers.
"You're the man I want," said the leader. "Come forward now and unlock that safe without any nonsense."
Conklin told him he had no key to the safe.
"You want to find it damned quick," the leader said, raising the barrel of his pistol level with Conklin's face, "or I will kill you."
Conklin required no more convincing. He led the robbers into the sleeper car and straight to the brakeman.
"Give us the keys, my Christian friend, and be damned quick about it," said the outlaw, whereupon the brakeman took off his shoe and handed over the key.
The robbers now started back for the express car with Bushnell and Conklin. In the smoking car, a lanky traveler from Indiana could not squeeze his entire frame beneath his seat, with the result that one of his boots protruded slightly into the aisle. The robber leader tripped over the boot and, after catching his balance, turned and looked down to see the cause.
"Oh, Mister!" screamed the Hoosier, "please don't shoot me! I didn't mean to trip you up, Mister! I swear I didn't! I wouldn't a did it for anything! I beg ten thousand pardons, Mister!"
The outlaw laughed and walked on.
After the robbers and their captives had passed through the coaches, the passengers chattered excitedly back and forth. Someone suggested that this was surely the work of the James boys. Of much more concern than the robbers' identities, though, was word that a freight train was expected very soon, and, if not flagged down, it would ram full speed into the rear of the train. There were few calamities in the nineteenth century as feared as any railroad disaster. In a violent crash, jagged wooden splinters, glass, and bone-crunching steel spelled certain and gruesome death, not to mention the danger of fire and scalding steam from a ruptured locomotive boiler. Unbeknownst to the passengers, however, the robbers had sent a man down the track with a lantern to halt the freighter.
The firing and yelling outside was kept up continuously. This was intended to intimidate the passengers and prevent any thought of fighting back. Anyone who was brave enough to poke a head out a window or door was met with a pointed gun and "Pull in your head you son of a bitch!" or "Go back you son of a bitch!" The passengers and crew did as they were told — except for one. Louis Bales, a 22-year-old black newsboy from St. Louis, carried a pocket-sized, small-caliber pistol that perhaps could hurt someone, if that someone happened to be standing directly in front of the gun's muzzle when it went off. Bales and another gentleman were out on the platform of one of the coaches when Bales spotted the figure of a man on the bluff. He pointed his little weapon at the bandit and squeezed the trigger. The pistol made a pop like a cap gun.
Several robbers erupted into guffaws. "Hear that little son of a bitch bark!" one of them roared. A return shot that struck between Bales and the passenger sent the two scurrying for the safety of the car's interior. Bales "was game," recalled Pete Conklin years later, but he "probably had more courage than discretion."
Waiting in the express car now were the engineer and fireman, who had been escorted there from the locomotive. As soon as the robbers entered with the baggage master and messenger, they put a gun to the latter's head and ordered him to open the safe. Bushnell slid the key that had been the source of all the hullabaloo into the United States Express Company safe and pulled open the heavy door. The robbers produced a long wheat sack and began filling it with the contents of the safe, all except the waybills. But one of the robbers seemed disappointed. "Where are the remittances from the Kansas City, Sedalia and Atchison railroad?" he asked Bushnell. The messenger said he did not know, but he supposed they were on the earlier train. That was true, and although this was turning out to be an extremely good haul for the outlaws, the previous train would have been carrying as much as four times the funds as train No. 4.
After cleaning out the first safe, the robbers ordered Bushnell to open the safe of the Adams Express Company, but Bushnell nervously informed the bandits that the Adams safe was a "through safe," and there was no key on board that would open it. A long string of profanity and threats followed this bit of unwelcome news, and the robbers insisted on trying several keys in the lock, their frustration mounting as each key failed to open the safe. Bushnell explained as best and quickly as he could that the through safe had been sealed and loaded in Sedalia, 15 miles back, where one key was kept. The other key was waiting in St. Louis, 170 miles down the tracks to the east. To Bushnell's great relief, the robbers accepted his story, but there was no way in hell they were going to leave without the safe's contents. One of the robbers went forward to the engine tender and came back with a coal pick. First he slammed the pick's pointed end against the safe's hinges, several times, but they held fast. Then he furiously swung the pick against the door itself. Nothing.
Another outlaw, this one a brawny fellow with a "fist like a ham," stepped forward and took the pick from his cohort's hands. Everyone gave the man plenty of room as he reared back and delivered a mighty blow against one of the safe's panels, which was only a single thickness of iron. After a dozen or so such swings, the robber succeeded in busting a small hole in the safe, but when he forced his large hand through the ragged opening, a good bit of his skin was taken off, and he was unable pull out any of the safe's contents. He winced in pain as he withdrew his hand, cursing the safe as he did so. The leader could only laugh.
"Let me get at it," he said. "I wear a number seven glove, and both my hands will go where one of your mauleys won't."
He reached in nearly to his shoulder and grabbed hold of a big leather pouch, but the pouch was too large for the breach, so he took a knife and slit the pouch open and then proceeded to bring the money out, a fistful at a time, and drop it into the wheat sack, which was expanding to an impressive size.
The outlaws scavenged about the car for more booty, breaking into the newsboy's chest, which was loaded with candies, apples, even homemade pies and cakes. The robbers gorged themselves on the delicacies as if they were a bunch of unsupervised seven-year-olds. The big outlaw who had conquered the safe brought forth peals of laughter from his comrades by acting as if he were in a pie-eating contest, making a crescent of his pie "at two bites, and smearing his face till he looked ridiculous." The men also broke open the car's letter box, carelessly scattering letters and documents all over the floor but finding nothing of obvious value.
The robber giving the orders outside the train, which included a lot of shouting about blowing the heads off nosey passengers and uncooperative express messengers, had become hoarse and thirsty. He asked his confederates in the express car if there was any water to be had. Conklin pointed to the water bucket and its communal drinking cup, but while the leader had thought nothing of partaking of the goodies in the locked newsboy's chest, he was suspicious of the open pail. He asked if anyone had put anything in the water (as if the crew had a stock of robber poison on hand for just such a situation). Conklin denied anyone having tampered with the water, but the outlaw would hear none of it, deciding that someone should sample it before his men did.
"Here, you son of a bitch," he said to Conklin, "take a drink out of that. I don't propose to run any chances in any of this water business."
Conklin gladly swallowed two big gulps of the cool liquid, for his mouth had gone bone dry almost an hour before when the first big revolvers had been leveled at him. With Conklin exhibiting no ill effects, the robbers took turns dipping the cup in the bucket. After all those inside the car had quenched their thirsts, they handed the cup, filled to the brim, to the man outside who had requested it in the first place. He drank it quickly, water dripping from the corners of his mouth and down his neck as he did so. He then flung the cup into the bushes.
The leader asked Conklin what was in the other baggage car. The baggage master answered that he did not know, as that car had been added at Sedalia. Naturally, the outlaw insisted that Conklin unlock it, which he did, but a quick look inside confirmed there was nothing worth bothering with, certainly nothing high dollar. The leader then asked a curious question. He wanted to know if there were any detectives on board — he was not asking out of caution or concern; it was too late in the robbery for that. The crew was aware of no detectives. The leader's deep blue eyes became even more intense, and what he volunteered next seemed particularly cold blooded. If there had been any detectives on the train, he told them, he would have made "the train men point them out, and it would be goodbye for the detectives."
Their work completed in the express car, one of the robbers suggested they hold up the passengers in the coaches and sleepers, as he wanted to get a nice pocket watch. The outlaw chief harshly vetoed the idea. "We've been an hour here already," he said, "and can't waste any more time, as trains are coming up. Must get away." The leader then turned to Conductor Frank Tibbetts and said, "Now Cap, you can take your damned old machine and go ahead." The outlaw next spoke to Conklin and told him that it would be wise to gather some men and go to the back of the train and remove the ties from the tracks; otherwise the next train would be derailed. Then, with a "Goodbye, boys," the robbers jumped to the ground at the side of the car. As they disappeared down the tracks, one of them fired a parting shot in the air, and Conklin heard the leader shout back, "Tell Allan Pinkerton and all his detectives to look for us in hell!"
The engineer and fireman hurried to their locomotive. Conklin wasted no time enlisting volunteers to accompany him to the rear of the train. They easily spotted the obstruction in the moonlight and in a short time succeeded in removing it. With all the noise and commotion now passed, Conklin and the others could plainly hear the jubilant robbers laughing and talking as they rode over a hill a half mile away.
The engineer engaged the locomotive's throttle, and a slight jolt from the engine pulling ahead caused passengers and crew to look out the windows and see, to their immense joy, that the train was beginning to move. Those passengers who had been hiding from the outlaws crawled back into their seats. Money and valuables were retrieved and placed back where they belonged. And everyone was abuzz, a combination of excitement, relief, and stunned disbelief. Many thanked God they had not been shot or otherwise harmed. All had a story they would tell and retell for the rest of their lives.
The robbery had consumed approximately one hour and ten minutes. It would be another half an hour, though, before the outside world would receive the news of what had happened at Rocky Cut. When No. 4 pulled into the station at Tipton, Conductor Tibbetts fairly leaped off the train and roused the telegraph operator. First to be alerted was Missouri Pacific headquarters in St. Louis, and from there messages and orders burned up the lines for the next several hours. By 4:00 A.M. the following morning, the first posse had taken to the woods in search of the bandits.
Excerpted from Shot All To Hell by Mark Lee Gardner. Copyright 2013 by Mark Lee Gardner. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow.