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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The No-So-Great Train Robbery

By 1910, the Wild West wasn't so wild anymore. There were no more Indian raids, cities were growing, and outlaws were becoming a thing of the past.

Not everyone realized this, though. That year two teenage brothers in the Arizona Territory, Oscar and Ernie Woodson, perhaps inspired by the silent Western films that were all the rage at the time, decided to rob a train.

There hadn't been a train robbery in the territory for years. The land was filling up and law had taken hold, but that didn't deter the two youths. One fine May evening they boarded the commuter shuttle between Maricopa and Phoenix. They had left their getaway horses tethered along the route. Once they approached the spot, they whipped out thier pistols and ordered the conductor to signal a halt.

They then took about $300 from the passengers. What they didn't know was that among their victims were several members of the territorial legislature and the Gila County sheriff. It's never a good idea to rob the rich and powerful, especially if they represent the local law.

The robbers then leapt onto their horses and galloped away, headed for the border.

Pursuit wasn't far behind. The sheriff of Maricopa County, Carl Hayden, rounded up a posse to go after them. Hayden himself grabbed a friend who owned an automobile the two set out in that. It wasn't long before the pair had left the rest of the posse in the dust. They stopped to picks up some of the lawmen as backup and continued through the desert.

Hayden and his friends soon caught up with the Woodson brothers as they rested their horses in the desert. It was a brutally hot day and they'd run out of water. When the Woodsons saw the plume of dust from the car, they thought they were miners and ran out, waving their arms in the hope of getting some water. Instead they got several rifled pointed at them. The two young outlaws had no choice but to surrender.

It was one of the last train robberies of the Wild West and the first to be foiled by use of an automobile. The press labeled the Woodson brothers the "beardless boy bandits." They did some time in prison and then disappeared from history. Sheriff Hayden went on to become a senator. I'll talk more about him in my next post.

This is the famous last shot of The Great Train Robbery, a groundbreaking silent Western from 1903. It ran a whole 12 minutes, far longer than most films of the time, and told a complete story rather than showing a simple vignette. When the bandit fired straight at the camera it's said the audience, for whom movies were still new, ducked and screamed. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Hahaha sounds like they're the first of America's Dumest Criminals as well. :-P

  2. Not the sharpest knives in the drawer.
    I've seen that short film. Very effective for its time.

  3. It's always better to inform yourself of the advantages and disadvantages of an idea. They didn't do their research, did they?

    I felt the same way (about new technology) when I was in the Terminator show years ago, at Universal in Florida, and the 3D came right at my nose, I flinched, even though I knew what to expect.


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