When Was the Heyday for Train Robberies?

Black Jack Ketchum

The 1890s saw an epidemic of train robberies with 261 in that decade alone with 88 people killed and 86 wounded.

In the Southwest, the first half-dozen train robberies on the Southern Pacific four took place in Arizona or New Mexico. According to experts there should not be less than five men to pull a successful train robbery. One to hold the horses and one on each side of the train to fire at any would-be-hero passenger who might interfere. Two outlaws would go into the express car.

Following a string of train robberies the New Mexico Territorial Legislature passed a law in 1889 making train robbery a capital offense. Highwaymen got around that by waiting for the trains to pass over into the Arizona Territory before making their heist. The rash of train robberies thrust upon them by their neighbors to the east brought a quick reaction from the politicos in Arizona and two years later they too made train robbery a hanging offense.

After the death penalty for train robbery became law in Arizona in 1891 juries were reluctant to find an outlaw guilty of train robbery if no one was killed. Only one man, Black Jack Ketchum was actually hanged.  He met his maker on April 25th, 1901, on the scaffold at Clayton, New Mexico.

Only a bunch of numbskulls would try to use the hot pursuit method of robbing a stagecoach. That’s Hollywood stuff and they do it because audiences wouldn’t have it any other way.

The best and most common way was to wait beside the road on a steep slope. The coach would be moving at a slow pace and it was relatively easy for a highwayman to step out in front and point a shotgun at the driver. He usually had an accomplice in the brush that had his weapon trained on the man sitting beside the driver.

When the railroads arrived, they used the same modus operandi. In flatland areas like the Plains they would catch the train when it was stopped to take on water.

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