During the American Civil War, railroad transportation began to come of age. The federal government was a prime mover in this area, if you’ll pardon the expression, with the needs of the military taxing the system in the east.

However, out west it was a slightly different story. Not only were people interested in the trains in the western part of the nation at the time, thoughts naturally turned to another first — the first train robbery.

On this date in 1865, what is generally accepted as the first train robbery in American history took place, in the town of North Bend, Ohio.

It was a chaotic time. Abraham Lincoln has been assassinated three weeks before and the eyes of the nation were riveted upon the procession that carried his casket home to burial in Springfield, Illinois just the day before.

So it was that when about a dozen men cut the track of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad, stopping the 8 pm train scheduled for St. Louis, it didn’t gain much national attention. The locomotive took the brunt of the planned derailment, tipping over on one side with the following cars making what the local newspaper called a “promiscuous smash up.”

However, the idea that this was an ordinary train accident was quickly disabused by men armed with Navy revolvers entering each car to relieve the men — and only the men — of their money and valuables.

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.

One poor soldier returning home was robbed of three hundred dollars; and although he begged hard to be permitted to retain a portion of the money, the villains took all. Another individual was relieved of a gold watch, and five hundred dollars in greenbacks. Still another lost two hundred dollars, besides a watch and valuable breast pin. The conductor, Mr. Shephard, had forty dollars taken from him; but by cutting the lining of his coat-pocket and allowing the contents to drop into the skirt, succeeded in saving $320. The engineer likewise lost a valuable watch. We are unable to give any estimate of the aggregate loss of passengers, but it was heavy.”

Speculation raged as to whether the robbers were Confederate guerillas. They were reportedly dressed in civilian clothing with the robbers referring to one man as “Lieutenant” and another as “Captain.”

The robbers reportedly escaped into nearby Kentucky where parties of armed men were reportedly unable to locate them. It is believed they were never caught — leading us to start singing the old Steve Miller Band hit in reading about the event (or at least the chorus, anyway).

However, it wouldn’t be history unless someone else laid claim to the first train robbery. A counterclaim exists in Seymour, Indiana, which claims the first such robbery happened there in 1866.

That day, three of the Reno brothers — Frank, William and Simeon — robbed a train of $10,000, wounding a guard in the process. This time though, the culprits were captured, but it took two years. In the interim, a fourth Reno brother was captured after a separate robbery, and the story goes that the brothers were all imprisoned together when the guard shot in the 1866 holdup died.

The outrage among the public was so palpable that townspeople dragged the Reno brothers out of jail and lynched them on the spot. As a result, an area just outside of Seymour is known as “hangman crossing”. In fact, no fewer than ten members of the Reno brothers gang met similar fates at the hands of vigilantes in 1868 alone, leading an Indiana newspaper to remark that “Jackson County contains more cutthroats to the square inch than Botany Bay.”

Reportedly, others including Jesse James were inspired by the exploits of the Reno brothers (though, it is safe to say, not their end.)

So it appears as though in the early days of train robbery, the first such case showed that crime could indeed pay, while the second showed that it also most certainly could not.

Happy Sunday and enjoy today’s open thread!