Almanac: The first train robbery in the U.S.

A 19th century illustration of a train robber plundering his victims.

(CBS News) And now a page from our "Sunday Morning" Almanac ... May 5th, 1865, 148 years ago today, the day law and order went off the rails.

For it was on a rail line west of Cincinnati that day that a train was robbed by an armed gang . . . possibly diehard Confederate guerrillas unbowed by the South's recent surrender.

"While everything was wild with confusion," one newspaper reported, "the desperadoes entered, and with the vilest oaths, demanded the money and valuables of the passengers."

The first train robbery in the United States, by some reckonings.

It was hardly the last.

Over the next few decades, lawmen scrambled to capture a succession of notorious robbers, such as the notorious Jesse James, even as the gunmen's daring deeds were capturing the public imagination.

The crime wave inspired the landmark 1903 film "The Great Train Robbery," while many years later, in 1969, Paul Newman and Robert Redford portrayed the exploits of the robbers known as "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

Though the days of armed passenger train robberies are behind us, freight train theft remains a problem.

In 1995 Scott Pelley showed us nightscope footage of thieves at work in the deserts of the Southwest. And just last fall, Atlanta police investigated the theft of roughly 100 guns from a parked freight car.

An FBI estimate puts cargo and freight thefts from ports, trucking and rail at as much as $30 BILLION a year.

And though a figure strictly for freight train theft is hard to come by, Jesse James' descendants are no doubt getting their share.

An account of the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad robbery from the Cincinnati Times, as reprinted in the Cleveland Leader, May 10, 1865:

The Cleveland Leader of May 10, 1865. Library of Congress

Attack on the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad -- Train Stopped and Passengers Robbed -- Incidents &c.


The regular 8 P.M. train on the Ohio and Mississippi railroad left the depot in this city at the usual hoar, bound for St. Louis. It was composed of four passenger coaches, a baggage car, and the Adam's express car.

The train was heavily loaded with passengers, quite a number of them being ladies.

About seventeen miles and a half from Cincinnati, and between the stations known as Gravel Pit and North Bend, the locomotive ran from the track, and tipped over on one tide, the cars following in a promiscuous smash up. The Adams Express car and the baggage car were capsized with the engine, and both badly damaged. The first passenger coach stove through the end of the baggage car, producing considerable havoc. The remainder of the train was not severely injured, and kept the track.

The first shock of the crash of course awakened in the minds of the passengers the idea that it was an ordinary railroad accident, but the volley of firearms and the shouts outside which followed immediately after undeceived them, and the nature and cause of the mishap became palpably evident when two desperadoes made their appearance at each car, and backed by two more who kept guard outside, commenced pillaging the passengers.


Subsequent developments have revealed the plan pursued by the guerrillas in capturing the train, and show that considerable skill was manifested in its design. The band, numbering about twenty, crossed in skiffs from the Kentucky shore sometime during the day, and made their arrangements to attack the night express train to St. Louis, probably as being the one which might repay them, robbery being their only object.

They selected a spot where the track of the road runs in close proximity to the river, and simply displaced one of the rails, not tearing up ten or a dozen, as one of our morning cotemporaries [sic] has it. The advancing train, when it reached the place, was, as we have seen, thrown violently from the track. As soon as the first crash was over the guerrillas, who were armed with navy revolvers, fired a volley over the cars, and with oaths warned the passengers not to make any demonstrations or they would have their brains blowed out.


While everything was wild with confusion in the passenger coaches the desperadoes entered, and with the vilest oaths demanded the money and valuables of the passengers. One of the party delivered himself of the following chivalrous sentence as he entered one of the cars: "Rob every d----d man, but don't hurt the ladies."

The plundering was very general and thorough. Few, save the coolest, succeeded in saving anything in the line of money and valuables. Gold watches, pocketbooks, diamond pins and money package changed hands in remarkable quick time.