Jan. 31, 2022

Jesse James Pulls off a Train Heist

Jesse James Pulls off a Train Heist

January 31, 1874. The outlaw Jesse James and his gang pull off one of the most infamous crimes in the American Old West with the Gads Hill Train Robbery.

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Cold Open

It’s a cold afternoon on January 15th, 1874.

A stagecoach driver grips the reins and guides his horses along the route from Malvern to Hot Springs, Arkansas. It’s a long, 20-mile journey and so far, it’s been uneventful. The driver is grateful for that, and so are his passengers. One of them is a man named G.R. Crump, a former Confederate soldier.

The US Civil War between the North and South has been over for nearly a decade. But now, the country faces another crisis, an economic depression. Hundreds of banks have closed and countless Americans are out of work. So Crump is grateful to be employed at all, working as a representative of a cigar and tobacco company.

Most of the other passengers are asleep, but Crump’s eyes are wide open. He knows trips like these are dangerous and he won’t rest easy till he reaches his destination.

Just then, the driver pulls up the reins and the coach comes to a sudden stop. Crump nearly falls out of his seat as the rest of the passengers wake with a start. There is a commotion outside. When Crump lifts the window curtain to have a look, a bandit points a revolver in his face. The highwayman wears a long blue coat; with his hat pulled down low over his eyes and his face covered with a handkerchief. The masked man orders Crump and the other passengers to get out of the coach with their hands in the air.

When Crump steps outside, there are four more bandits waiting. They order the passengers to hand over all their valuables. Crump’s hands tremble as he gives them his wallet and watch. The bandits then rummage through the interior of the coach where they find a package belonging to a shipping outfit called the Southern Express company. Inside, are stacks of cash.

After the loot is secure, one of the bandits steps forward and says, “If there is anyone here who has served the Confederacy, he’ll get his possessions returned.” Nervous, Crump raises his hand and says, “I was a Confederate.”

After Crump gives his name and rank, the bandit immediately hands his belongings back. “We don’t rob Southern Veterans”, he explains. “Northern men drove us to outlawry and we intend to make them pay for it.” With that, the bandits mount their horses and ride off to the wooded hills with as much as $2,000, the equivalent of nearly $50,000 today.

After arriving in Hot Springs, Crump and the other passengers relay what happened to the townsfolk who quickly form a posse and ride out after the criminals. But they will never find them, and their identities will never be confirmed. Still, many think they already know who’s responsible: the James-Younger Gang and its notorious leader, outlaw Jesse James. And soon, Jesse will build upon his already growing legend when he and his gang commit one of the most infamous crimes in the history of the American Old West on January 31st, 1874.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast – every day – we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is January 31st: Jesse James Pulls off the Gads Hill Train Robbery.

Act One: Aftermath of Battle

It’s January 15th, 1874, moments after the Hot Springs Stagecoach heist.

As Jesse James and his gang flee the scene, their immediate goal is to get as far away as they can, as fast as they can. Jesse leads his gang off the main road, and north into the woods bound for Missouri.

Jesse is no stranger to the life of an outlaw. At the age of just 17, he left his home in Missouri to fight as a confederate in the Civil War. After the South lost the conflict, he came back home to Missouri where he helped found one of the most notorious gangs in the American Old West.

The James-Younger gang is mostly made up of former Confederate soldiers; men like Frank James, Jesse’s older brother; and Cole Younger, and several of his brothers. In the years that followed, Jesse and his gang committed multiple crimes.

But they didn’t gain much notoriety until about five years ago, in December of 1869, when Jesse robbed a bank in Missouri and shot and killed the cashier. The news of that murder was the first time Jesse’s name appeared in the papers. Since then, Jesse’s crime spree has continued, mainly with more of bank heists. But recently, Jesse and his gang have been trying their hand at stagecoach robberies, like the one they just pulled off.

In the two weeks after the Hot Springs heist, Jesse and his gang continue their long journey North and eventually cross state lines back into Missouri. On the afternoon of January 30th, they arrive in the small lumber town of Mill Spring to rest and purchase supplies. While there, they visit McFadden’s, a notorious gambling joint filled with shady and violent characters. But Jesse and his gang keep a low profile and stay out of trouble. They’ve traveled nearly 300 miles since the stagecoach robbery. Jesse doesn’t want to risk a run-in with the law now; not when they’re so close to their final destination.

Jesse and his gang are headed for a little hamlet called Gads Hill, Missouri. It’s a small place of no account in the wooded Ozark wilderness of southeastern Missouri. There’s little there but a few houses, a general store, and an old abandoned sawmill. But Jesse is headed to Gads Hill because it’s also home to a small railroad platform where Jesse plans to stage yet another heist.

But they're not there yet. Back at MccFadden's, Jesse and the gang keep their heads down. They finish their meal, purchase provisions and ride out of town. They continue North for another ten miles or so before running out of daylight. So they decide to stop for the night at the home of a widow just outside Piedmont, Missouri.

When the widow hears a knock at the door, she’s surprised to see Jesse and his band of rugged, road-weary travelers standing on her porch. When Jesse asks if they can stay the night, she says ‘yes' against her better judgment. With “Christian Charity” in her heart, she puts her fears aside and invites the men inside. When they remove their overcoats though, she notices their revolvers and double-barrelled shotguns. She’s terrified but doesn’t ask questions. She gives them a hot meal and a warm bed, but she herself doesn't sleep much that night. But bright and early the next morning, Jesse and his gang are readying to go. Jesse pays the widow for her trouble, and the men gallop off toward Gads Hill.

This is not the only time Jesse has supposedly stopped for shelter at the home of a widow. On another occasion, Jesse and his gang were reported to spend the night at a house in Tennessee. Over supper, Jesse noticed that the widow was distraught. When he asked her what was wrong, she broke down sobbing and told her rent was due the next day; her husband was dead; she didn’t have the money to pay it. Her landlord was not a generous man, the woman explained, and she was certain he would evict her and her children.

When Jesse asked her how much she owed, the woman told him, “$1500”, an enormous sum. But hearing this, Jesse fetched his money bag and gave the woman what she needed. After Jesse and his gang departed, they waited in the woods till the landlord came for the money, to make sure he didn’t try to take advantage of her.

It was stories like these that earned Jesse a reputation as a ‘Robin Hood’ of the Wild West; a noble villain who robs from the rich and gives to the poor. But not everyone agrees with this characterization of the notorious outlaw; many see him as just a bitter Confederate who refuses to accept that the South lost the war; one who takes out his anger on honest, hard-working Americans.

What is certain is that on the morning of January 31st, 1874, as Jesse and his gang ride for Gads Hill, Jesse isn’t thinking about giving to the poor, just robbing the rich. His mind is fixed on the daring heist he’s about to pull off; an infamous crime that will help make Jesse James a legend.

Act Two: Crafting the speech

It’s January 31st, 1874 on a cold, quiet afternoon in Gads Hill, Missouri.

Inside the local general store, a young sixteen-year-old boy named Billy Farris warms his hands by the stove. He’s waiting for his father to come to town on the Little Rock Express train which is set to arrive this afternoon.

Gads Hill is home to only a dozen or so people. A few of the men of the town chat with Billy at the General Store. Their wives are at home while their children - bundled up - play in the streets.

At around 3 o’clock, one of the children looks up to find five men on horseback riding into town. They're wearing white hoods over their heads with holes cut out for their mouths and eyes. The children run away in terror, and quickly, the bandits descend on the general store. When they bust inside with their guns drawn, Billy and the townsmen put their hands in the air.

The bandits take the shopkeeper's rifle and as much as $800 in cash. Next, they round up the boy, Billy, the shopkeeper, and the rest of the townspeople, including the women and children, and corral them near the train platform. There, the bandits order the men to build a bonfire to keep everyone warm while they wait for the train to arrive.


At a little before 5:00 PM, the Little Rock Express, a small, steam locomotive, closes in on Gads Hill, guided by its conductor: Mr. Chauncey Alford. Under Chauncey’s charge is a dozen crewmembers and roughly 25 passengers. In the distance, Chauncey sees a man standing on the tracks holding a red flag. He knows exactly what that means: danger ahead. So Chauncey hits the brakes, bringing the train to a slow crawl before it eventually stops.

As Chauncy hops off the train, he notices the man on the tracks is wearing a white hood. Before he can react, four other hooded bandits appear with guns drawn. One of them grabs Chauncy by the collar, points a revolver in his face, and barks, “Stand still, or I’ll blow the top of your head off!”. Crew members and concerned passengers alike poke their heads out of windows to see what’s going on. The lead bandit shouts, “If a shot is fired out of the train, I will kill the conductor.”

Immediately, the other bandits spring into action. They round up conductor and crew and lead them to the train platform. One bandit stands nearby guiding them, the remaining two hop on board. 

Before making it to the passenger cars in the rear, the bandits find a locked safe, guarded by a young man who works for a shipping company. One of the bandits points a shotgun at his chest and says, “Give me your pistol you son of a bitch”. Without blinking, the young man hands over his revolver and the key to the safe. Inside, the bandits find just over $1,000.

Next, the bandits make their way to the passenger cars. The bandit leader calls out to the riders, “is there anyone on this train named ‘Pinkerton?’"

He is referring to the famous detective: Allan Pinkerton. Back during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln hired Pinkerton to run a network of Union spies. After the South surrendered, Pinkerton started his own private detective force: the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. But the leader knows Allan Pinkerton is not on board the train. He’s making a joke. But for outlaws like him, Allan Pinkerton is no laughing matter. The Pinkerton National Detective Agency has put an end to many in outlaw's career. There is no doubt this bandit, given the chance, would shoot Pinkerton dead. 

The bandits make orderly work going up and down the train's aisles, looting each passenger. They gather purses, wallets, watches, anything of value at all. Then the bandits return to the train platform where the train's crew is being held at gunpoint. They take everything from them as well, including the conductor Chauncey, who is forced to hand over $50 and a gold watch. Then the bandits climb on their horses and ride off into the sunset.

By some accounts, the bandits' total take is as much as $12,000, nearly $300,000 today. No one was hurt and no shots were fired. Conductor Chauncey Alford fires up the Little Rock Express and gets the passengers to their destination without further incident.

As Jesse and his gang escape on horseback, they took off their white hoods. But it's unclear why they even needed them. Back at the train, Jesse James clearly wanted this robbery to be known as his handy work. Before leaving, he handed one of the passengers a pre-written press release that will later appear in newspapers across the region. The press release was titled: “The Most Daring Robbery on Record.”

The Gads Hill Robbery was indeed daring and will attract attention but not just from the media. Allan Pinkerton will learn about Jesse James' criminal activities too and he'll put his Pinkerton Detective Agency on the case; later writing, ​​”I hear that the Jameses and Youngers are desperate men and that when we meet it must be the death of one or both of us. There is no use talking, they must die.”

Act Three: Wrap-up

It’s a cold January evening, about one year after the Gads Hill Train Robbery.

Around midnight, agents of the Pinkerton Detective Agency swarm around a farmhouse in Clay County, Missouri. This is the place that Jesse and Frank grew up, and these agents have reason to believe the infamous outlaws are inside. 

Ever since the Gads Hill Train Robbery, Allan Pinkerton has been hot on Jesse’s trail. In the months that followed, a series of violent encounters left one of Jesse’s gang members, John Younger, dead. It left more than a few Pinkerton Detectives killed as well. As a result, Allan Pinkerton vowed vengeance on Jesse. And now, these agents are here to extract their bosses' revenge.

Carefully, one of the detectives approaches the farmhouse and throws a firebomb inside. Within minutes, the house is ablaze. 

Jesse and Frank are not home as the detectives hope, but other members of the James family are. Jesse’s nine-year-old half-brother will die in the fire. His mother will survive, but her arm will be so badly injured in the fire, it will need amputation. 

News of the death of the boy and injury to Jesse’s mother spreads, growing popular sympathy for Jesse James and his gang, burnishing his Robin Hood reputation, and making villains out of the Pinkertons.

But there is no doubt why many law enforcement officials wanted to see Jesse and his gang behind bars. By some estimates, over the course of their 15-year crime spree, the James-Younger gang will steal over $200,000, nearly 4.9 million today; they will kill at least 17 men. In the end, Jesse will pay for his crimes, but not at the hands of Allan Pinkerton. In April 1882, Jesse will be shot in the back by Robert Ford, a fellow gang member who betrayed him for reward money.   

The first train heist in the state of Missouri was one of Jesse James’ most infamous crimes; it added to his fame and fortune just as he intended, but the heist, which took place on January 31st, 1874, also set in motion a bloody chain of events that would lead to his downfall.


Next on History Daily. February 1st, 2009, Icelandic politician Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir is sworn in as the country's prime minister, becoming the first woman to hold that post in Iceland and the world's first openly gay head of government.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Mischa Stanton. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Steven Walters.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.