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America's First Train Robbery, by Boone County Thieves?
By: Hillary Delaney
Could men from Boone County be the perpetrators of the first peace-time train robbery in U.S. history? To this day, historians disagree. On May 5, 1865, as many as twenty men crossed in four skiffs from Boone County to a spot near North Bend, Ohio. They successfully moved one of the train rails, causing the derailment of a St. Louis-bound Ohio and Mississippi express train that had just left Cincinnati.
According to “Murder and Mayhem on Ohio’s Rails,” by Jane Ann Truzillo, the steam engine, Adams Express Company car and baggage car were all overturned. The train had four passenger cars, full to capacity, that remained upright. The thieves worked their way through these cars first, stealing cash and valuables. People in the final car had enough lead time on their would-be robbers, however, to cleverly hide both money and jewels. Ladies were particularly creative, hiding jewelry and cash in their hair and undergarments.
After passengers and train crew were robbed, the thieves began the work of breaking into the three safes contained on the Adams Express car. The keys held by train employees would only open the “local” safe, not the other two, which contained U.S. Treasury Bonds. After trying unsuccessfully to break into these safes with an axe, the well-equipped thieves turned to gunpowder, which did the trick. Some historians speculate that this was an attempt by Rebel Guerillas to fund the recently defeated Confederacy. Others debunk this theory, pointing to the fact that the train would have been completely destroyed, not just disabled, if this was indeed an act of the rebels; this question may never be answered.
Whatever the motivation of the band of outlaws, it was a success. The robbery took only about an hour to complete. The thieves fled with thousands of dollars in U.S. bonds, cash and valuables, and were tracked to Verona. According to an article and letter found in the pages of the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer during the week following the robbery, several Boone County residents were suspect. The accused were known to have fought for the Confederacy, several under the command of General John Hunt Morgan. Only one man, Weden Sleet, was arrested. He was soon released for lack of evidence, despite the “trail of stolen mail” found leading to his Verona home.
Some reports tell of stolen bonds being found in the streets of Verona, after a night of revelry by the perpetrators, but the authorities never got their men. There were rewards offered for information of those involved for up to $500 per person captured but to no avail. This remains a Boone County mystery.
- Ferguson, Bruce. John Hunt Morgan's Escape Through Boone County [video]