Outlaws, Marshals and Lawmen
Train robbers, bank robbers, and other gun-toting outlaw gangs are all a part of the heritage of LeFlore County. Throughout the years, the stories of these outlaws have made for great novels and movies. However, the grim reality is that law and order in the early days of Oklahoma was a deadly business, and shootouts between outlaws and lawmen were common.
Newspapers of the age are filled with numerous stories of shootouts, murders, and robberies, such as these stories:
A local newspaper reported, “J. M. Harris and Elisha Harris were charged with the murder of William Webb at Poteau Switch on January 15, 1888. Both J. M. Harris and Elisha Harris were acquitted on April 17, 1889”.
On Thursday, January 17, 1889, a local newspaper reported of a triple killing a few miles north of Poteau Switch. The fight was between two brothers and three other men.
Another report mentions the murder of two officers on July 17, 1898 by Jasper Simpson. The victims were Deputy U. S. Marshals L. S. Hill and J. B. Grady.
Crimes such as this had a devastating effect on people’s lives. While outlaws such as Belle Starr and the James Gang have been sensationalized, the simple fact is that they were notorious criminals who simply had a way of avoiding the law – for a while.
In Sugarloaf County of the Choctaw Nation, later LeFlore County, laws that were broke ranged from petty thievery, horse and cattle thieves, robbery, rape, and murder. By 1902, horse and cattle thievery had become so rampant that an anti-horse thief organization was formed in Poteau Switch. Many ranchers willingly paid the 10 cents per month dues in order to receive some protection from the thieves.
Spiro Train Robbery
During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, train robberies were common throughout Indian Territory. On January 17, 1902, seven masked men held up a train near Spiro, Indian Territory. After they stopped the train, they quickly subdued the engineer and fireman. Once the two were bound, the bandits uncoupled the express car and sent the engine on down the line. While in the express car, they went to work on the safe.
Unfortunately for the bandits, the safe was empty, and they were unable to open the larger mail safe. They were, however, able to escape with some mail. Once they had finished, they escaped into the deep woods that surrounded the area.
In less than a week, three suspects were arrested and sent to the jail in Poteau, where they were put on trial and later found guilty.
The Great Train Robbery of 1912
It was a clear, chilly morning on October 4, 1912. The Kansas City Southern passenger train Number 4 had just left Poteau, traveling towards Westville, Oklahoma, when it came to a crossing three miles north of town. As the passenger train slowed down to stop at the crossing, three masked men crawled over the tender and silently entered the engine. A fourth man stood guard outside.
As the three entered the engine car, two of the masked men quickly forced the engineer and fireman on to their knees while the other man swiftly applied the air brakes, bringing the train to a complete stop. Once the train was brought to a stop, two of the men rushed back to the express car.
Unaware of what was going on, the messenger, baggage man, and conductor were taken by surprise as two armed men rushed in. The bandits leveled their guns at the men and brutally forced the three behind a large pile of luggage trunks. After the train employees were subdued, the bandits used a good supply of nitroglycerine to blow open the safe. They emptied the safe in record time, stuffing the valuable loot into large gunnysacks.
Not yet satisfied, the bandits rushed back to railway post office car, pried open the lockboxes, and proceeded to stuff anything they could grab into the gunnysacks. Two mail clerks tried valiantly to stop them, but the bandits quickly overpowered them.
Unknown to the bandits, a large freight train was barreling down the tracks towards them. With the passenger train stopped, it seemed inevitable that the freight train would crash into the observation car at the end of the passenger train. Luckily, a brakeman stationed at the rear of the train saw the looming disaster. Risking his own life, the brakeman rushed down the tracks towards the oncoming freight train, frantically screaming and waving his arms. The conductor in the freight train noticed the commotion and immediately applied the air brakes. Even after hitting the air brakes, the train continued for another 4,000 feet before finally coming to a stop. If it hadn’t been for the bravery of the brakeman, the awareness of the conductor, and the long, straight section of tracks, the collision that would have occurred would have been one of the worst in Poteau’s history.
While this drama unfolded outside of the passenger train, inside, the bandits continued to loot passenger train. Once the bandits had taken everything that was of value, the two masked bandits left the train. Outside, they met up with the guard bandit and the one that had taken the engine car. Together, the four quickly escaped into the deep woods that surrounded Cavanaugh Mountain.
During the robbery, the train’s passengers remained oblivious.
After the robbery was reported, a posse of citizens and deputy sheriffs began a massive manhunt for the bandits. Using bloodhounds, the men spent the entire night searching, but by daybreak, it became obvious that the men had easily outwitted their pursuers.
In all, over $7,000 was stolen, along with most of the registered mail that was on board the train.
The Bandits Strike Again
A paper out of Fort Smith, Arkansas reported this on October 5, 1912:
…bandits who held up northbound Kansas City Southern train No. 4, on Tarby Prairie, three miles northeast of Poteau, Okla., Friday evening… All day long posses searched the Cavanaugh Mountains, which are close to the scene of the robbery…
William West, the boy who discovered the bandits boarded the train and whose cries of warning were unheeded by the passengers…J. M. Murray and Arthur Deshiort, two farmers, [said] the bandits rode away on the train…
On October 6, 1912, The Daily Oklahoman had this to report:
$80,000 Reported As Loss In Fast Express Robbery
Railroad and Express Company Officials Refuse To Confirm
No Trace Of Bandits
Posse Scours Hill All Day; Few Registered Letters Missing
On October 8, 1912 the Rock Island train No. 41 westbound was held up near Howe, Oklahoma. The bandits brought the train to a stop by waving a red lantern. Once the train came to a stop, the bandits boarded the train where they subdued the train staff. They then strapped dynamite to the safes and blew them open. The amount stolen is not known, however, it is assumed to be quite a stash. No passengers were molested in this holdup.
Shortly after the October 8th robbery, a dispatch from Wister informed the authorities that the robbers have been located in a corn field near there. A posse on route from Haileyville rounded up the bandits and then brought them to Poteau to stand trial. After four days of reigning terror on the railroad lines, the bandits were finally out of business.