Hard-riding hombres of the Old West laughed in decision on hearing the strange news. Two pistol-fading gents who never forked a bronc had succeeded the Renos, the Daltons, the Youngers and the James boys in the train-robbing business. This pair looted the steam cars and made their getaway on bicycles. It sounded funny.
But Big Jim Browning and his small partner, Jade Brady, were not characters to be laughed at. This fact Connie Stagg learned a split second too late. Connie happened to be a tough guy himself. His last mistake was thinking that the stickup of his roadhouse at Ingleside, near San Francisco, on the dark foggy night of May 5, 1895, was a practical joke.
Connie sat at a little table in his barroom playing poker with Adolf Huber. All the other customers had gone home. Oil lamps shed a dim light over the wall clock that was just about to clasp its hands in midnight embrace. Beneath a cruddy painted “Venus at the Bath,” the bartender slowly polished his schooners, killing time until the boss wanted to close. A waiter had just begun to sweep out. There was nobody else around.
The door opened. Big Jim and his pal entered with a swirl of fog. Both were masked. They carried wicked-looking six-shooters leveled for action. The tall man barked:
“Hands up, everybody!”
Three pair of hands reached for the ceiling. Connie grinned and slapped a card on the table.
“Hello, boys! This ain’t masquerade night. But go ahead and have your fun!”
Browning snarled: “I said hands up!”
The roadhouse owner was still smiling pleasantly. “It’s not safe to play with them things. They might be loaded.”
“For the last time — “
“All right,” beamed Connie, “I’ll play too.”
His right hand reached jestingly under the table. Two six shooters spat vicious flame. Connie’s smile faded. He clutched the table, wobbled crazily, and fell to the floor. Browning bent over him.
“Dead as a mackerel!”
While the short man was rifling the pockets of the late proprietor and the others. Big Jim ransacked the cash drawer. They stuffed the money, two watches and a diamond stickpin into their own pockets. Big Tim croaked a warning as they backed to the door:
“See that clock? Don’t move till it says ten after twelve! Anyone who does’ll get a dose of lead.”
There was no doubt that the tall man meant what he said. The three murder witnesses waited tensely till twelve-fifteen. Then they phoned the police. By the time the hands reached twelve-thirty, bluecoats and enraged neighbors were scouring the town of Ingleside and its vicinity. But the killers had vanished into thick white fog, silently pedaling away on bicycles. How they escaped was not learned till weeks afterward.
The clue came with an epidemic of armed robberies in the gas-lit streets, stores and homes of San Francisco. The crime wave lasted more than two months. People feared to venture outdoors after dark. Most of the holdups during that period ran true to pattern: a tall man, a short man, both masked, armed and riding bikes. It was easy for the police to connect this reign of terror with the roadhouse murder.
San Francisco’s detective force was concentrated on this case. Every night a hundred sleuths in plain clothes roamed the streets, hoping the cyclists would try to rob them. Police were told, “Shoot to kill!” On two or three occasions the, bandits were sighted pedaling away, but fled unscathed after an interchange of bullets.
Newspapers printed a police notice: “All men are warned not to ride bicycles in pairs at night, lest they be mistaken for the two robbers and shot oil sight.” Another notice advised people who traveled the streets after dark to carry little or no money with them.
In July of that year, detectives learned the names of the bicycle bandits and checked up on their records. Both had served prison terms in San Quentin for grand larceny, were released in 1892, and subsequently worked as ranch hands in various parts of California. Shortly after these facts came out, the two men ceased to operate in San Francisco.
The city had become too hot for them. Besides, they aimed at bigger stakes. They knew that the express cars of through trains carried safes filled with money. One lucky haul could give them a life on Easy Street.
They studied Southern Pacific timetables. The southbound Oregon Express, thundering through the night from Portland to Oakland, looked like a perfect setup. It crossed the Sacramento River at the California state capital under cover of darkness. The opposite side of the river was pretty much deserted. They cruised around the spot on bicycles, noting every detail.
“Good place to bury the loot,” said Brady, nodding toward a clump of bushes.
His partner rolled a cigarette and lit it.
“Couldn’t be better. We’ll hide our bikes an’ a shovel near the river bank an’ meet the train on the bridge when she’s goin’ slow.”
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The Oregon Express
Came the night of August 25th — less than four months after the roadhouse murder. A bright moon. The Oregon Express rumbled hollowly across the bridge and was just about to pick up speed when two masked figures darted out of the shadows and swiftly climbed onto the tender. Each had a burlap bag sticking out of his left pocket.
Drawing revolvers, Browning and Brady worked their way down the dark shifting coal pile and stepped across the gangway into the lighted engine cab. Engineer and fireman whirled around.
“Robbers!” gasped the engineer.
Big Jim stood with feet apart to brace himself in the swaying cab. There was a hard grin on his face and his eyes glittered as wickedly as a rattlesnake’s.
“See these guns? I’m givin’ the orders. Now stop this train damn quick!’’
With a deft movement of each hand, the engineer shut his throttle and set the air brakes. The Oregon Express jerked violently to a stop. Wheels ceased rolling on the far side of the bridge, about a mile from the village of Washington. Following their pre-arranged plans, Brady kept the engine crew covered while Browning uncoupled the first car, the Wells Fargo express, from the other cars.
Then, to the engineer: “Pull ahead a few hundred yards! … Okay, stop here! … You two get off an’ walk back to the train! An’ don’t look around!”
Browning and Brady then turned their attention to the treasure car. In each of their burlap bags was wrapped a stick of dynamite. One stick shattered a car door that the express messenger refused to open. The bandits climbed in. Big Jim pointed to the safe with his pistol.
“I can’t,” protested the Wells Fargo man. “That’s a through safe. The company locks it in Portland and doesn’t open it till we get to Oakland. I don’t even know what’s inside.”
“The hell you don’t!”
Jim’s pistol butt swung down on the messenger’s head. Dazed and bleeding, the man stuck to his story. Browning hit him again. At last he was satisfied that the messenger was telling the truth. He turned to Brady.
“Okay, Jack, we’ll use your dynamite now.”
The wrecked safe yielded a fortune. There were fabulous piles of large-denomination bank notes, crisp and neatly wrapped, as well as small white sacks stenciled Wills Fargo Express Co. Each sack was bulging with shiny gold coins. Expert fingers counted the booty — about fifty thousand dollars! The bandits gloated as they dumped it into the bags.
These they lugged over to the bushes, glancing back at the dismembered train to see if they were being watched. Then they buried the treasure by moonlight, patting down the black earth with care.
Finally, mounting their bikes, they rode away. Neither suspected that a stranger, peering through the shadowy march tules at the river’s edge, had witnessed the burial with greedy eyes.
Meanwhile, telegraph and telephone wires were carrying news of the crime all over the state. Trainmen and passengers had run from the stranded cars to Washington village and spread the alarm. Even before Browning and Brady left the express car, posses were being sworn in at the state capital, Sacramento, just across the river, to track them down.
At first the law officers were mystified at the getaway, for nobody had seen horses or heard the thud of hoofs. When the Wells Fargo man described his assailants as “one tall, the other short,” law officers quickly connected them with the cyclists who had terrorized San Francisco during the summer. But no hint of this conclusion was allowed to reach the newspapers.
As one sleuth put it:
“We mustn’t tip ‘em off that we think they robbed the express. If they abandon their wheels they’ll be harder to catch.”
And so, lulled into false security, Browning and Brady pedaled back to the river one day to dig up the fortune. Their spirits were high. As they rode along that day in early September, 1895, they talked of plans they had already made to travel abroad.
But at the burial spot a rude shock awaited them. The money was gone! Someone else had gotten there first. Frantically they searched, turning up the black soil. No luck!
“Don’t look at me that way!” croaked Big Jim. “You know I didn’t take it an’ I know you didn’t.”
“Then who did?” the short man demanded.
“How in hell should I know? Mebbe some lousy gumshoe. But I ain’t bawlin’ over spilled milk. It’s gone now an’ we’re almost flat busted. We gotta pull another job.”
A few days later the partners in crime went to Yuba City, California. After hiding their bikes under a bridge, they hired a farmer to drive them in his buggy to the Davisville station of the S. P. There they bought tickets, boarded a late afternoon train, and sat in a day coach.
They did not expect to find valuable express cargo on this train, but they did know that its Pullmans usually carried a lot of miners and farmers who had just collected money in San Francisco. Their plan was quite simple. Pull the bell cord near Yuba City to stop the train. Walk through the Pullmans with guns drawn and collect from the passengers. Escape as usual on bicycles.
One detail they overlooked. Further down the aisle in their day coach sat a former convict who had known Browning and Brady at San Quentin. He recognized them, but they did not see him. Walking casually into the car behind, he found the conductor.
“Do you remember the Connie Stagg murder case?” he asked in a low tone.
“Yes, what about it?” replied the trainman.
“The killers are on this train. I know them both. A tall guy and a short one, sitting together near the front of the car ahead.”
The conductor took a good look at them. Then, at the next stop, he sent a telegram asking Sheriff Bogard of Yuba County to meet the train at Marysville. He knew that the two suspects had bought tickets for a point further on.
When the train ground to a stop at Marysville, the sheriff and a posse climbed aboard. The conductor pointed out that two cyclists. Bogard covered them with a Colt .45.
“You’re under arrest!”
Those were his last words. With a lightning draw, Big Jim drilled him through the heart. But the dying sheriff fired also, and Browning toppled over dead. Before the other passengers could guess what was happening, the deputies had overpowered Jack Brady.
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Galloped Away on Bicycles
After that the frightened little man talked. He spilled details of the Ingleside case, the San Francisco holdups, and the Oregon Express robbery. For his part in these crimes Brady was given a life term. On November 27, 1895, the great iron door of Folsom state pen clanked grimly behind him. But what had become of the fifty thousand dollars?
Brady felt so sure that a detective had discovered the money that he stubbornly refused to go into details about it. All he would say was, “ I guess you fellows know where to find it.”
In prison, however, he took a liking to the warden and told him what he knew. The warden arranged for Brady to be taken to the Sacramento River, under guard, and the prisoner pointed out where the fortune had been buried. Officers dug feverishly. They found nothing but an empty Wells Fargo sack.
“Do you think Browning doublecrossed you?” a detective asked.
Brady shook his head.
“He couldn’t. We never left each other’s sight.”
“Do you think some farmer living near here may have come upon the hiding place by chance?”
“Mebbe. Who knows?”
For months, detectives shadowed all the farmers in that vicinity. They checked up on bank balances, mortgages, house improvements, and the like, but found no evidence of sudden wealth. Finally Wells Fargo gave up the search and charged off the fifty thousand as dead loss.
Then came an amazing sequence to the case of the bicycle bandits. Some time in 1896 a man who described himself as Baron von Hofen, a German nobleman, arrived in San Francisco on a liner from the Orient. He had letters of credit for large sums, opened checking accounts at several banks, lived in the Palace Hotel, and spent money like a drunken sailor. Reports said he bathed in champagne. Sometimes he paid in gold.
Women fawned on him. Blondes, brunettes, redheads. For one chorus girl, Mary Williams, he was said to have bought three thousand dollar’s worth of jewelry. And while he was guzzling champagne, he disclosed a very important secret. Later, he regretted very much having told her.
The baron’s downfall came when police recognized among his expensively dressed friends a man whom they had known but a short time before as a ragged hobo. They arrested and grilled him.
“I don’t know where the baron got his money,” said the prisoner. “I don’t know nothin’.”
Mary was then pulled in for questioning. Her regal gems were just too dazzling for a lady of the chorus. Mary lost her nerve and told everything. The lavish spender was not a baron at all but a former tramp known as “Dutchy.”
He had watched two men hide the Wells Fargo loot. As soon as they left, he had dug it up and started on a global tour that cost him forty-five thousand dollars. All he had left was a measly five thousand. This he turned over to the cops.
“After all that excitement you need a change,” said the judge. “Five years in jail at hard labor!”
Thus ends the strange true story of Western bandits who robbed the Oregon Express and “galloped away” on bicycles.
~ The End ~