“They were clueless”
The last Wild West-style train robbery in America cost the lives of four men, the liberty of three more and launched a manhunt on a scale never before seen in the United States.
It began with Southern Pacific Railroad’s Train 13 from Seattle on its way to San Francisco, at Tunnel 13 just south of Ashland, under the Siskiyou Mountains that straddle the Oregon-California border. As the train entered the tunnel, two grease-faced, armed men jumped aboard the tender. At gunpoint, they ordered engineer Sydney Bates, 51, and fireman Marvin Seng, 23, to stop the train, leaving the engine, tender and mail car clear of the tunnel and all the other passenger-filled coaches inside.
A third gang member attached and detonated dynamite to the side of the mail car but he miscalculated the explosion and destroyed the mail car and incinerated the mail clerk Edwin Daugherty. Investigators could only find his charred skull and a portion of vertebrae. The robbers panicked.
As brakeman Coyl Johnson, 37, ran to investigate he was shot three times, the third shot while he was lying on the ground still alive. Then they shot Marvin Seng twice and, finally, they shot Bates in the back of his head. After killing four men, the robbers fled empty handed. At the scene police found a detonator, a .45 Colt pistol, three sacks soaked in creosote (these were to drag along the ground to confuse sniffer dogs), a black travelling bag with a railroad shipping tag, a pair of greasy overalls and a pair of shoes. Despite many arrests the police got nowhere.
Then they decided to request help from Dr Edward 0. Heinrich, a master criminologist known as The Edison of Crime Detection. His investigations led to William Elliott, a known alias of a Roy D’Autremont. The three D’Autremont brothers were twins Ray and Roy, aged 23, and Hugh, aged 19. Their father was a barber while the boys tried their luck as lumberjacks. Two and half million wanted posters were distributed both in the United States and around the world. But it wasn’t until 1927 that an American soldier stationed on Alcatraz Island (not a prison until 1933) recognized Hugh as James Price, a fellow soldier he had recently met in Manila.
Hugh was quickly extradited and the twins located in Steubenville, Ohio where Ray’s bleached hair failed to stop him being recognized from newly issued posters. Their trial was the last in the Jacksonville Court House built during the Oregon Gold Rush. The prosecution insisted on an all-male jury because it was frightened a woman’s motherly instincts might cloud her judgement. One witness said, “They thought they’d get all this money and they didn’t get anything. They were clueless.”
Tunnel 13, Siskiyou Mountains, Oregon, USA
12.40pm Thursday 11 October 1923
On 21 June 1927 Hugh was sentenced to life imprisonment. The twins confessed the next day and also received life sentences. Angry railwaymen never forgot andwhenever a train passed on the line that skirted the southern perimeter of the Oregon State Prison the engineer would ring the warning bell reminding the brothers their release would not be a happy event. After 26 years of increasing mental deterioration Roy went berserk. It took six men 15 minutes to subdue him.
He was given a prefrontal lobotomy in the same hospital that years later was filmed in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. He was paroled in March 1983 and died in June of that year. Hugh was paroled in 1958 but died three months later in San Francisco of stomach cancer. Ray was granted parole in 1961, aged 61, and died on 22 December 1984.