Back when trains were the popular way to travel, train robberies occurred frequently. This one took place in Birmingham on February 19, 1914, and it appears few people even realized it was happening. The dramatic story has been transcribed from The Traveling Post Office: History and Incidents of the Railway Mail Service, by William Jefferson Dennis, Homestead Printing Company, 1916.
The night of February 19, 1914, was an ideal one for train robbery. It was dark, and drizzling rain. The fast Queen and Crescent Cannon “Ball” was forty minutes late, with one of the best and swiftest engineers on the road at the throttle. This train makes only two stops between Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Birmingham, Alabama, one hundred and fifty-six miles. Everything was going merrily as the great locomotive shot through the dense darkness of night. The four other clerks in the car were busy distributing the big mail, received from three large connections: Cincinnati Southern R. R., Southern from Washington, and the N. C. St. L. R. R. from the West. I was checking up the registered matter and arranging it for delivery, not in the least dreaming that a pair of evil eyes was on top of my car, watching where I put everything, with intent of robbery when the right time came.
Felt something cold like steel
Just as the train swung around a sharp curve in a deep cut, Engineer Murphy felt something cold, like steel, jab him in the left ear. He had every nerve and eye strained watching ahead, for he was now running over sixty miles an hour. Murphy did not look around then, but, thinking his fireman had punched him with the engine-rake, said, “What do you mean? Keep that rake out of my ear!”
On finding that the steel was pressed tighter, he turned to see a masked man with a large Colt’s extra-long-barrel gun looking into his face, and another man with one covering the fireman. The robber said, “Do you think that you can do as I say?” The engineer said, “I will try.” The robber said, “Don’t shut her off yet. I will tell you when I want you to stop.”
After they had run about three miles below Trussville, Alabama, in a wild, mountainous country, the robber told the engineer to slack her down, and when the engine stopped the robber ordered the engineer and fireman off the engine and back toward the coaches. But as soon as the fireman, a young man about twenty years old, hit the ground, he started to run around the front of the engine. One of the robbers ordered him to stop or he would kill him on the spot, at which he stopped and was taken back toward the coaches.
Had to let them in mail car
After leaving the engineer and fireman with one robber, the other two came into the mail car. (We had to let them in. for they were preparing to throw sticks of dynamite through the windows after shooting them out.) Two of the robbers came in, ready to shoot the first man who resisted. They asked, “Who is the ‘Boss-man?'” to which one of the clerks, pointing to me, said, “There he is.” I said, “I am the clerk-in charge. What do you want?” The robber said, “We want what you have got, but before, we get it we want all these other men to vacate at once.” The men did so, with their hands up and guns stuck against their ribs. The robbers took them back where the engineer and fireman were stationed, and about that time the old negro porter came on the scene to see what was up, only to find a gun thrust in his face, and to be ordered to uncouple the mail car from the rest of the train. As soon as the porter uncoupled, the heavy set robber ran down to the engine, climbed up in the cab, opened the throttle, and off we went; myself, with two robbers in the car, rifling the sacks of mail, and one acting as engineer. It may be funny to some, but I now had an entirely new crew out and out. The new engineer ran the train down about two and a half miles farther, nearly to Irondale, Alabama, and then stopped and came back into the mail car.
Map showing Irondale
I had not told them what they wanted to know, and they said, “Wait until the big chief comes in. He’ll cut your d – d throat if you do not tell.” I tried to keep them off the registered pouches, and this big chief bulldozer stabbed me in the arm and kicked me around and abused me unmercifully, saying that he intended to kill me when they had got all they could.
I know as much as you do
One of them said, “By G—d, I know as much about this business as you do,” and proceeded to locate the registered pouches. He cut straps and transferred the contents to another sack he had provided for the purpose. He also remarked that he had had a d – d long, cold ride, not to have got anything. One of them said, “Get his d – d watch”; but another, a little better man, said, “Oh, no, don’t do that.” When the two others were in the other end of the car, I asked this one if he had any manhood, and appreciated my position to get them not to kill me, and he did so. After they had rifled and taken all they could see, and the car looked as if a cyclone had struck it, they left the car and got on the engine, after uncoupling it from the mail car, and ran about three miles to where they had an automobile waiting. Here they got off the engine without shutting off the steam, got into an automobile and made their escape into Birmingham.
Wired the chief of police in Birmingham
As soon as the conductor knew what was up, he ran back to the first telegraph station and wired the chief of police at Birmingham, and in twenty-five minutes after the robbers got out, two high-speed automobiles came with a dozen police and a doctor. They passed the robbers on the way to the mail car and did not know it. It seemed to me ages while the robbers were in the mail car, tearing and rifling mail pouches, but it was only forty-five minutes. Incidentally, they were punching me in the stomach with their guns, and making me turn with my face to the wall while they kicked me, threatening to cut my throat, and gouging me with a dirk. It seemed a long time there all alone with those desperate men. After the robbers left, I had to stay there thirty minutes before anybody came. The police came first, then two of the clerks ventured to come up and call for me at a safe distance, and I answered and had them come in. By this time the railroad men had got up the scattered train, and collected the crew together. We were six hours late, and proceeded on our journey, a wearied set of men.
Newspaper Report follows:
ROBBERY HUMOR WERE WISE GUYS SAY THE CLERKS1
They Knew Which One To Rob Humorous Elements Of Holdup
Birmingham, February 21 –
The Queen and Crescent route has two trains leaving Chattanooga every evening for New Orleans. The schedule separates the trains by only 15 minutes. No. 7 is the New York-New Orleans train and No. 1 is the Chattanooga-New Orleans train. Whichever train runs last always carried the mail car, and since the robbers picked out No. 1, it is believed that they knew exactly what they were about since No. 1 does not always carry the mail car.
Instead of leaving Birmingham before 11 o’clock, as per schedule time, No. 1 did not leave for New Orleans until 4:10 o’clock. Train crews were changed at Meridian. The engineer and fireman, however, were changed at Birmingham. The train was carried to New Orleans by another engine.
Bernard J. Murphy, of 700 Weaver street, was the engineer and Forest Aderholt, of 2437 Avenue H, was the fireman, John White is the conductor of the train. He did not know anything about the robbery until after the engine and mail car had been uncoupled from the train by the robbers. Few of the passengers knew of the affair until after it was all over.
A. B. Merville was the chief railway clerk on the train. Other clerks were Clayton B. Hunter, A. Stevenson, John R. Livingston and Jack Woodall, C. E. McLane was the express clerk and C. O. Smith the baggage clerk.
A train robbery frequently has some humorous features. The robbery of the A. G. S. train near Irondale Thursday night, has resulted in one good joke.
Chief of Police Martin Eagan, with his squad of men, dashed up to the Irondale telegraph office in an automobile and rushing in, asked the surprised operator at Irondale where the robbery occurred and where the train was. It was the first the operator had heard of the robbery and he made hasty and frantic efforts to locate the train but his wires wouldn’t work.
After a fruitless effort he gave up, “I guess they have been cut, I can’t get any answer,” he said. Then, just as the officers were leaving the office, the operator remembered. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder and remarked to the crowd: “Say, don’t you reckon I’d better wake up this ‘cop’ back here. The members of the Birmingham force laughed and the snoozing section of the Irondale force was brought from the slumbers to assist in the search for the train robbers.
ADDITIONAL STORY ON TRAIN ROBBERY
BIG AMOUNT FROM THE MAIL CAR
EFFORTS MADE BY GOVERNMENT TO MINIMIZE THE LOSS AS FAR AS POSSIBLE
Birmingham, February 21 – Two hundred and sixty thousand dollars were secured by the bandits who held up the Queen and Crescent train Thursday night, according to the statement of a railroad official. When told of this report, a postal inspector said the loss will not exceed five hundred dollars. This is believed to be an effort to minimize the real facts.
Up to noon, no suspects were arrested. Belief is growing that the bandits have escaped from the city.
March 26, 1914 news article from The Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincinnati, Ohio.
RADLIFFE IS ARRESTED
In Connection With Robbery of Express Train In Alabama
Greenville, S. C. – March 25 – John Radliffe was arrested here today in connection with the robbery of a Queen and Crescent express and mail train near Birmingham, Ala., February 19.
Bank books showing deposits of $24,000 to Radliffe’s credit in Greenville and Atlanta banks were found among the prisoner’s effects, according to detectives.
Two men recently were arrested in Atlanta in connection with the robbery, which is said to have netted three bandits $40,000.
1Transcribed from The Montgomery Times, February 21, 1914, Montgomery, Alabama
- The Montgomery Times, February 21, 1914, Montgomery, Alabama
- The Traveling Post Office: History and Incidents of the Railway Mail Service, by William Jefferson Dennis, Homestead Printing Company, 1916.
- March 26, 1914 news article from The Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincinnati, Ohio.
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