The silent 1903 motion picture, Great Train Robbery (Parts 1, 2 and 3).
The obvious peril caused by wrecks and fires was added to by the fear and very real chance of train robberies. Mail cars carried registered mail, which meant they often transported large amounts of money and valuables from one end of the line to the other. The Railway Mail Service was so highly regarded and trusted that in the late 19th century, they were trusted with a few massive shipments of gold from California to Washington, D.C. or New York City. While Railway Post Office clerks were armed with .38 caliber revolvers, the allure of riches was strong enough for some to attempt robbery of the mail car. While many mail clerks never experienced a traumatic robbery, the chance was still imminent and frightening.
In 1892, the Rio Grande mail robbers were sent before a U.S. Circuit Court. They were accused of robbing the United States Mail of $3,000. These men were well known as the biggest crooks in the West. There were suspicions of other unlawful activities on the part of the same robbers. Additionally, the story was sensationalized throughout the trial, as everyone involved in the situation had stories they wished to tell. All of the evidence that could possibly be used against these men was brought up, creating romanticized, over-the-top stories that further dramatized this incident. The robbers walked into the court room in their “rough costumes, slouch hats and high-heel boots….[they had a] pronounced swagger, [and an] air of indifference.(1) Descriptions like this only made the story more appealing to the public.
An armed robbery occurred in Colorado around that same time and place. The criminals stole $3,600 from passengers on the Rio Grande train No. 4. The gang of robbers had at least seven rifles with which they used to force the engineer to stop the train. The mail car was broken into but the Express Manager used his weapon effectively, stopping theft from the RPO car. Horses were spotted near the scene, ready for an escape.(2) This type of robbery was common, with obvious forethought and immense planning on the part of the criminals.
Armed robberies were not exclusive to the West, however. In 1891, a train car about ten miles from Birmingham, Alabama, was victim to an incident. One of the robbers held up the engineer in order to make him stop the train. One of his accomplices was responsible for taking care of the clerk in the Railway Post Office Car. He was met with some resistance by R.P. Hughes, the mail agent. Hughes backed down when he sustained a bullet through his clothing. While there were two bags of registered packages, one bound for New York, the other for Atlanta, the criminals only took the former. The packages were found 300 yards away, the contents taken from 85 of them. One that contained no money was discarded. A $1,000 reward was placed for the robbers as was typical of the time period.(3)