Jesse James and the Gads Hill Train Holdup
Jesse and the gang patted children on the head, bowed to ladies, kidded around, quoted Shakespeare, targeted rich Yankees and wrote their own account of the robbery for the newspapers -- in short, they created a legend.
By Ronald H. Beights
Five armed riders wearing U.S. Army overcoats stopped to have their horses shod at a village blacksmith shop on the Chalk Bluff Road in northeastern Arkansas on Tuesday, January 27, 1874. They were strangers to the area, and the bedrolls, extra clothing and other gear behind their saddles indicated they were traveling men. What's more, each man wore several Colt Navy revolvers, three carried double-barreled shotguns, and their horses, although of superior quality, were noticeably jaded from hard riding. The blacksmith asked no questions but went straight to work. When he finished shoeing the animals, the travelers paid him and rode on.
Only later would the smithy learn a shocking truth about his mysterious patrons. Newspapers reported that they were Missouri outlaws, former Confederate guerrillas, fresh from a stagecoach holdup committed January 15 near Hot Springs, Ark. Even more disturbing were their suspected identities. Calling them "the most daring band of robbers the country ever contained," the St. Louis Dispatch expressed "very little doubt" that they were members of the infamous James-Younger Gang, consisting that day of Frank and Jesse James, Arthur McCoy and two of the Younger brothers.
Soon after leaving the blacksmith shop, the "daring band" crossed the state line into Missouri and proceeded north along the St. Louis & Iron Mountain railroad tracks. Jesse James and his gang, it seems, had one more bit of illicit business to attend to before making the long ride back home to St. Clair and Clay counties. They were planning to rob a train -- something never done before in Missouri.
Gads Hill, according to one contemporary observer, was "a small place, of no account." Situated in the piney Ozark wilderness of southeastern Missouri, 120 rail miles south of St. Louis, the tiny settlement contained only about 15 people, three crude houses, a store/post office and a small railroad platform. Passing trains generally only slackened speed there to exchange mailbags, but today would be different. On this chilly Saturday afternoon, January 31, 1874, the southbound Little Rock Express was scheduled to stop and put down a passenger -- State Rep. L.M. Farris of adjoining Reynolds County. His 16-year-old son, Billy, had just arrived with team and wagon to meet him and was inside the store warming himself at the stove. Also present in the store were several men who had dropped by to chat with the storekeeper and station agent Tom Fitz. The village women were in their homes attending to chores, and their children were outside playing. The time was nearing 3 p.m., and all was well -- or so everyone thought.
As the children played by the roadside, the five armed riders approached from the southeast. The men's hats were pulled low, and their faces were hidden by white hoodlike masks with triangular-cut eyeholes. When young Ami Dean glanced up and saw these frightful-looking creatures, he ran for home, crying. "Don't be afraid, little boy," he later recalled one of them hollering. "We won't hurt you."
The gun-toting intruders quickly robbed the storekeeper of a fine rifle and a reported $700 or $800 he kept in his coat pockets. Fortunately they missed another $450 that had slipped down in the lining of his coat. After rousting all citizens from the store and houses, the outlaws helped them build a large bonfire to ward off the cold. One of the masked men then went to work prying open the railroad switches. Their plan was to force the expected train onto the sidetrack. After this was done, everyone -- men, women, children of the community and outlaws -- sat back for a long wait.
Finally, at 4:45 p.m., running about 40 minutes behind schedule, the little four-car train and its 25 passengers topped the grade and approached Gads Hill. Hearing the engineer whistle for "down brakes," conductor Chauncey Alford walked to a door between cars and looked forward over the side. What he saw chilled his bones. A man was standing on the station platform waving a red flag, a railroad signal for "danger ahead." Worse, the man was masked. Alford had the safety of his passengers to worry about, so he jumped off the slow-moving train and ran toward the flag-waver to find out what was going on. As he did, he noticed the train switch onto the sidetrack. At the same moment, three other masked men crawled from under the platform and a fifth emerged on the other side of the tracks. Seizing Alford by his collar, one of them shouted, "Stand still, or I'll blow the top of your damned head off!"
Young Billy Farris stood with the others at the bonfire until he saw his father appear in the doorway of one of the cars. Then, ignoring the armed guard, he ran to L.M. Farris, shouting that the train was being robbed and he should step off on the side where the villagers were. Farris did so, and he was not robbed.
As the train stopped, two of the outlaws ran forward and forced the engineer and fireman off the locomotive. Several curious passengers and trainmen stepped out on the platforms between cars, and others leaned out of windows. A masked man armed with a double-barreled shotgun shouted, "Take those heads back again, or you'll lose 'em!" Another, brandishing a revolver in each hand, ran along the opposite side of the train, warning that the conductor and engineer would be shot if anyone attempted to interfere.
The other three outlaws climbed aboard the combination mail-baggage-express car. They rifled the contents of the express safe and registered-mail packages; then two of them stepped off. The one remaining asked express agent Bill Wilson for his receipt book. Apparently he wanted to bring the records up to date. Opening the book and turning to a blank page, the thief mischievously wrote, "Robbed at Gads Hill."
The robbers forced Wilson to join his fellow crewmen on the platform. Then, some of the former guerrillas moved to the passenger cars. At first they announced they would only rob the "sons of bitches" who wore high silk hats (or "plug hats," as they called them), but they soon added they would also rob "Goddamned Yankees," regardless of their hat styles.
Capitalists -- men who came by their money easily -- were also on their hit list. "Workingmen" and ladies would be spared. The bandits began examining the palms of male passengers. Men with soft hands were robbed; men with calloused hands were not. A minister, who was passed by when he told them his profession, asked if the outlaws might stop a moment so he could pray for them. "We hain't time," the leader responded, but then added, "You pray for us tonight…that we may all get to the good country."
The passengers' fears were eased somewhat by the light-hearted behavior of their abductors. As the masked men walked the aisle, they made jokes, patted the heads of children and bowed politely to the ladies. One of them exchanged his battered slouch hat for the much finer hat of a well-dressed gentleman. When a rather intoxicated Irishman offered his flask and said, "Won't you have a drink, boys?" the leader answered with a chuckle, "No, sir, I'm afraid you might have it spiked." But it wasn't all fun and games. The robbers seemed to think that a famous Chicago detective was aboard and repeatedly asked, "Where's Mr. Pinkerton?" For 2 1/2 years, Allan Pinkerton and his Pinkerton National Detective Agency had been ardent pursuers of the James-Younger Gang, and the outlaws were apparently intent on doing him in. Several male passengers suspected of being the sleuth were threatened. One was even taken to a private compartment and strip-searched for a Pinkerton "secret mark." All proved their identities and lived to travel another day.
Just before stepping off the coach, the robber who had requested prayer from the preacher turned and spouted a few lines of William Shakespeare. Although it was never reported what lines he quoted, they may have been from King Henry IV. In that play, the bard used Gad's Hill, England, after which the Missouri village (without the apostrophe) was named, as a setting for a highway robbery pulled off by Sir John Falstaff and friends. It has been suggested that perhaps Frank James' love for that play, or Shakespeare in general, was a determining factor in the selection of Gads Hill, Mo., as the robbery site.