Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of Missouri, the Ozarks region, and surrounding area.

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I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written sixteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Wicked Women of Missouri, Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri, and Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Gads Hill Train Robbery

Gads Hill, Missouri, was named after Gads Hill, England, which served as the summer home of Charles Dickens and had earlier been immortalized by Shakespeare as the place where Falstaff committed a robbery in the opening scene of Henry IV. Ironically, the namesake American village was also the scene of a notorious holdup, the first train robbery in Missouri. Although it was not the same Gads Hill, the “Missouri cutthroats,” according to one account, “were quite as audacious” as the Shakespeare characters.
About 3:30 p.m. January 31, 1874, just two years after Gads Hill had been established along the Iron Mountain Railroad in northwest Wayne County, five desperadoes rode into the village and took over the place. Gads Hill consisted only of a general store, a sawmill, and a platform that served as the train depot. The gang robbed the storeowner and rounded up all the other people in the small community, amounting to about a dozen individuals. Each of the outlaws carried at least two Navy revolvers, and three had double-barreled shotguns. Flourishing their weapons, they compelled the captives to stand on the platform while they relieved them of their money. Meanwhile, one of the gang threw a switch on the railroad so that the next train would be shunted to a siding and have to stop.
The Little Rock Express from St. Louis was delayed, forcing the bandits and their hostages to wait more than an hour. To ward off the January chill, they huddled around a bonfire near the platform until the train finally came into sight about 4:45 p.m. One of the gang grabbed a red flag and started waving it as a signal for the train to stop. The train consisted of a combination express/baggage/mail car, two passenger coaches, a sleeper, and the locomotive. As the engineer slowed the train to a crawl, the conductor stepped onto the platform, and a large masked man immediately shoved a pistol in his face. One of the robbers took the conductor’s gold watch but handed it back upon orders from his “captain.”
Two outlaws jumped onto the locomotive and made the engineer and fireman get down, while two others hauled a brakeman and the baggage man out of the baggage car. Returning to the baggage car, a couple of the bandits rummaged through the mail, stealing registered letters. Then they turned their attention to the express messenger, forcing him at gunpoint to turn over his keys to the safe, from which they took over $1,000 in cash.
Next, the thieves went through the coaches accosting the passengers. They took all the money they could get but were more selective with the valuables they appropriated. Besides returning the conductor’s watch, the outlaws passed over another gold watch and several silver watches. The conductor later remarked that the bandits “didn’t seem to care for watches.”
After stealing all the money they could lay their hands on and all the valuables they took a fancy to, the outlaws mounted up and rode off toward the northwest. Initial reports put their total take anywhere from $2,000 to over $20,000. The best estimate seems to be somewhere around $3,000.
Reports also differed regarding the number of bandits. Some said seven, but most said five. The best evidence suggests the lower number is correct. The identity of the thieves was unknown at first as well, although within a day or two, a man named McCoy and two Younger brothers had been tentatively named as being with the gang. It has since been established that Frank and Jesse James, John Younger, and either Cole or Jim Younger composed four of the gang. The fifth member might have been the other Younger brother, Arthur McCoy, or one of several other men.
Pinkerton agents trailed the robbers to western Missouri, and one of the officers was found dead on March 11, just after visiting the James home in Clay County. On March 17, another Pinkerton agent and a local deputy were killed in St. Clair County by Jim and John Younger. The shootout also left John Younger dead.

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Anonymous Nancy Murdy Logsdon said...

Hi Larry, I enjoyed reading The Gads Hill Train Robbery. I have a picture of my great-great grandmother Charlton standing in her yard, which was next to the General Store in Gad's Hill. There is a tree in the background and she told her granddaughter that the James gang tied their horses to this tree while they robbed the store and then the train. I have never heard that the citizens were also rounded up and robbed. Makes me wonder if she was included. I was told that one of my male ancestors was on the train while it was robbed. He had to lie down on the floor, but was not robbed due to his rough, hard- working hands. LOL I have several pictures and post cards from Gads Hill and am in the process of writing our family story about Gads Hill and the area which includes the tornadoes of 1917 and 1925. My grandmother lived through both. I now live in Kentucky, but grew up in the Missouri Ozarks, a little place called Willow Springs. My dad was pastor of a church called Blue Buck in the Mark Twain National Forest. I published my first book, The Little Church on the Hill, two years ago. I am also a published songwriter and artist and my upbringing in the Ozarks is heard in my songs. God Bless, and keep up the good work. ~Nancy Logsdon

March 7, 2017 at 9:23 AM  
Blogger Larry Wood said...

Nancy, Thanks for your comments. It's always interesting to hear from those with personal ties to the historic events of the Ozarks. I'm from southwest Missouri; so I'm less familiar the Gad's Hill area than with some of the places farther west, but I definitely know about the 1925 tornado. I think it still stands as the deadliest tornado outbreak in U.S. history. I've passed through Willow Springs, or at least the edge of town, a number of times but not sure I've ever actually visited the place.

March 10, 2017 at 7:05 AM  
Blogger Cyrus Burns said...

Hi I'm Cyrus, I have a question. So a while back, my great-grandpa told me this story. He said that after Jesse James robbed the train, that he rode off on his horse, but as he was riding off the gold became too heavy for the horse to carry so he buried it somewhere not too far from the tracks. Here is my question. Is there anyway that the story could be true? Thanks in advance.

April 8, 2018 at 9:09 PM  
Blogger Larry Wood said...

Cyrus, it's always possible that Jesse and his gang buried part of their loot because it became too heavy. In many cases, there's at least a bit of truth to oral legends that get handed down, but the details are often misleading or downright wrong. I don't know of any firsthand documentation such as newspaper accounts that would confirm your great-grandma's story, but, as I say, it's possible.

April 9, 2018 at 3:50 PM  

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