Friday, August 5, 2016

Want to Know How to Rob A Train? Ask an Expert. The Dalton Method of Train Robbery

Emmett Dalton
(from The Last Raid of the Dalton Gang, 1892)
Any fool could rob a train, banks posed a bigger challenge.

Banks were located in the center of a city. Sheriffs and marshals were usually always nearby, a posse could be formed quickly, and one never knew about the townspeople—some were braver than they were smart.

Trains could be hit out in the open country at a remote and isolated spot. It could take hours, even days to raise a posse, and get them armed and on the road. By the time it took to get a posse started, the gang could make a clean getaway.

Another thing about trains was robbers knew exactly which cars to target—the goodies were always locked up in the express car, or sometimes in the mail car. Another bonus was few trains carried a squadron of armed guards. And, the express car wasn’t normally well protected. Against a gang of determined robbers armed with Winchesters, dynamite, and helpless hostages—an express man had little chance to defend his precious cargo.

He could pull a gun, but the consequences were most often fatal. He could stall for time, and try to hide some of the valuables before the inevitable stick of dynamite slid under the door and blew it open. Most often, though, the best move was to give it up and open the door. That way no one got hurt.

From the start, the Dalton’s had developed their own method of train robbery. Towards the end of their career, one paper said the Daltons perfected “the most effective system of train robbery ever.”[1]

Emmett later explained, “Our method was simple and always the same. When the train stopped at a small and lonely station after dark one of us would ride up on each side of the engine and, pointing our revolvers at the engineer and fireman, order them to ‘hold her up.’

“Each of us carried two revolvers and a rifle.

“The next step in the game was to march the engineer off to the express car, and order him to tell the messenger to open the door.”

As Emmett and the paper said, it was “simple and effective.” Whether Bob knew it at the time, or
Bob Dalton
(from the Last Raid of the Daltons, 1892)
not, he was on to something.

“We neither blew up the safe or carried it away,” explained Emmett, trying to remember back to his glory days. “Why should we—when the messenger would open it for us—under persuasion from the small end of a revolver.

“On one train were fifteen United States Marshals, and they were the easiest thing we ever met. It was like taking candy from a baby.”[2] Emmett was referring to the Adair robbery here. J. J. Kinney, chief of railroad detectives, and Captain J. H. LeFlore, chief of the Indian police, were on board with six other men—hoping to catch the Dalton gang red-handed—instead, they were forced to take cover in their car, and wait for the robbers to make their getaway.

In the latter part of 1892, after the Dalton gang was exterminated, Frank Murray, superintendent of detectives with the Pinkerton Detective Agency, critiqued the Dalton gang and their modus operandi. It bears some discussion before we jump into the meat and bones of the Dalton’s train robberies.

Murray said the Daltons boys seemed to have places in every part of Indian Territory where they could remain protected for any length of time. He said, “it was one of their favorite amusements to ride into one of the border towns of Texas, Denison or Gainesville, and raise a furor. They would dash up the streets on their horses—and, they always had good ones—and frighten the citizens nearly to death, by shooting at signs and window panes.”

He said, “This was particularly true of Bob, who seemed to be the ruffian of the gang.”

So far, most of what Murray had to say was a bunch of horse hockey. A gaggle of drunken cowboys might ride into town—shooting, and whoop it up, but the Dalton gang, no matter how many friends they had nearby—would have preferred to melt into town after dark. The last thing they would want is to draw attention to themselves.

Grat Dalton
(from the San Francisco Call, September 29, 1891)
Then came the good stuff. Murray talked about the gang and the methods they employed to rob trains.

His opinion was the Dalton’s were “the best organized of any band of train-wreckers in the country.” The three brothers—Bob, Emmett, and Grat were the main players in the robberies. The other gang members came and went as they were needed.

The Dalton method made it easy for a group of as few as four men to rob a train.

A Dalton robbery consisted of eight easy steps.

1.  Pick a spot.
2.  Position two men at the spot you want to stop and rob the train.
3.  Have two men board the train, and conceal themselves between the front end of the baggage car and the tender.
4.  At the right moment, the concealed men climb over the tender, cover the fireman and engineer with their pistols and Winchesters, and make them stop the train.
5.  Begin the robbery. Subdue the brakeman and conductor. Terrorize the passengers—by swearing, threatening, and carelessly firing weapons.
6. Drag the fireman with his pick ax to the express car door. If the express man gets brave and decides to hold out or fire his pistol, the fireman explains the danger that poses to him and the rest of the crew. In most cases, that’s enough to make the express man open the door.
7. Work quickly. Most train jobs took about ten minutes. The Dalton’s averaged eighteen minutes.
8. Of course, if all other methods failed, the Dalton’s were experts with dynamite. They could blow the door—or the safe.

In the end, Murray summed it up, saying “It is a good thing that those fellows were killed, for they bade fair to become the most successful train robbers who ever worked in this country.”[3] 

[1] The Caldwell Tribune. September 15, 1892.
[2] The Evening World. July 26, 1918.
[3] The Caldwell Tribune. October 15, 1892. Murray was dead on when he talked about the gang’s methods. Form the first job they pulled, Bob Dalton developed a system of train robbery and stuck with it.


An excerpt from my upcoming book, Fast Ride to Hell: When the Dalton Boys Rode in Kansas.

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