The Wilcox Train Robbery
|Tom Horn was discharged
from civilian service in the army (he had served with distinction
in the Spanish-American War) in the early fall of 1898. A period
of recuperation from the “Cuban fever” no doubt followed.
Tom Horn at left, sleeping
under a rail car in Cuba (courtesy Larry D. Ball)
As he healed, in the meantime he developed an interest in a major
event to the extent that he was used as an investigator.
It was the Wilcox train robbery of June 2, 1899.
At the time of the robbery, the Union Pacific Rail Road’s tracks ran north
and east of present-day Rock River, Wyoming. (In 1900 the railroad embarked on
a track-shortening project that moved the line to its present location. The location
of the robbery today is on privately owned land.)
It was known that the railroad moved large shipments of currency, gold and silver,
and other valuables on specific trains, the identity of which were supposedly
well guarded secrets. However, information leaked out that high-value cargo,
including unsigned bank notes and silver would leave the UP’s headquarters
at Omaha to points west. One theory was that “Elzy” Lay, one of Butch
Cassidy’s associates, arrived in Medicine Bow the day before the 2:00 a.m.
robbery with word for his confederates that the evening train would be carrying
loot in the express car.
Three robbers (some accounts, not well verified, pointed to six men) stopped
the train just east of a bridge on the rainy morning of June 2. After uncoupling
the passenger cars behind the locomotive, tender, mail car and express car, they
ordered Engineer Jones to pull past the bridge for a moment. They then dynamited
the bridge with charges they had already put in place in order to block the second
section of the train from following them.
The train pulled ahead about two miles. They first ordered the mail car opened,
after which they learned that any valuables on board were in the locked express
car. When the expressman, Charles T. Woodcock, refused to open the express car,
they blasted the door open. Woodcock was dazed from the explosion, and either
could not remember the combination to the safe or pretended he could not. At
that the robbers blew the safe, using such an excessive amount of the “giant
powder” that the entire car was destroyed. They escaped on horses they
had hidden nearby with over $50,000 in loot.
Left, the Union
Pacific Depot in Cheyenne.
Right, the UPRR express car after the dynamiting. (WY State Archives, American
|They headed north toward Casper, secretly
crossed the North Platte River and continued north toward the
Big Horn Mountains. Stopping to rest overnight, they killed Douglas
Sheriff Josiah Hazen when his posse discovered their horses and
where they were. In the shootout that followed, they escaped
on foot and reached the Big Horns. There they acquired fresh
horses from “Black Billy” Hill, a local rancher known
to be sympathetic to rustlers and others of their ilk.
Billy Hill (Jim Gatchell
Museum, Buffalo WY)
|Another posse, that included railroad
officials, U.S. Marshal Frank A. Hadsell and others followed
the robbers but lost them west of the Big Horns and south of
Thermopolis. Investigations by subsequent groups failed to learn
who the robbers were and where they headed.
It has been learned that Tom Horn quietly investigated the robbery.
He may have been working in some capacity for the Pinkertons
as well as the UPRR simply because of the agency’s relationship
with the railroad.
Joe LeFors, who later plotted Tom Horn’s downfall, was
a member of the Wilcox posse, and was himself a Pinkerton operative
with the cipher (code name) of “Pulet.” Other prominent
figures in turn-of-the-century annals who were Pinkerton operatives
were assigned various ciphers. A few were Frank A. Hadsell, U.S.
Marshal, who was assigned “Log;” Peter Swanson, Rock
Springs sheriff, was “Stone;” Creede McDaniels, sheriff
in Rawlins, was “Hamper;” Thomas Horton, also a sheriff
in Rawlins, was “Muff;” R. D. Meldrum, deputy sheriff
in Dixon, was “Cigar;” and Charles Ayres, stock association
inspector, Dixon, was “Stamp.” There is no record
of Horn’s cipher.
At some time after the robbery Horn embarked on his investigation.
He generated a report to the division superintendent of the Union
Pacific in Cheyenne on the identity of the three robbers who
had headed north from Wilcox into the Big Horn Mountains:
told him that he had some information that I wanted and
he must give it
or I would kill him and be done with him.”
Iron Mountain, Wyo.
January 15th, 1900
E. C. Harris, Esq.
I have this to report in regard to my investigation in Johnson
On January second I went to the house of old Bill Speck, and stayed all night
with him. In the morning it was snowing and I stayed all day.
Occasionally I would bring up the train robbery, and he never wanted to talk
about it, so on the morning of the fourth when I was going to leave I told him
that he had some information that I wanted and he must give it to me, or I would
kill him and be done with him. Well, that was just Speck was looking for, and
he commenced to cry and said the rest of the rustlers would kill him if he told.
I told him I was worse than they, because I would surely kill then and there
if he did not tell me, as no man was within eight miles of us.
Bill Speck (Courtesy Hoofprints of the
Past Museum, Kaycee WY)
blow Christ off the Cross with dynamite”
Speck asked my protection from the rest of the rustlers, which of course
I offered him, and then he told me as follows:
The morning of the killing of Joe Hazen, George Currie came to Billy Hill's
ranch on Red Fork of Powder River about one o’clock in the morning, and
wanted to get some of his own horses that were at Hill’s ranch in charge
of Alec Ghent. Currie had four horses there, but there were only two of them
in the pasture, the rest being out on the range. Ghent had been looking for
these other two horses for three weeks, but could not find them. Currie got
his own two horses, and Hill gave him two. Currie told Hill, Speck and Ghent
of the robbery, and said it was himself, Harve Ray and a stranger in Powder
River country [who had committed it], but Currie would not give his name, saying
only that the stranger came from the British possessions and that he could
blow Christ off the Cross with dynamite….