Flashback Friday: The Great Omaha Train Robbery of 1909

RG0813-444 SFN0426_2 Burlington in Wilber 1910 detail

This isn’t the train that was robbed, but is one from that era: a Burlington train in Wilber, Nebraska, in 1910. NSHS RG0813-44

By: David Bristow

On a night train heading into Omaha, “two men wearing long coats, slouch hats, and dark-blue polka dot handkerchiefs over their faces suddenly appeared over the tender and jumped down to the engine,” writes Tommy R. Thompson. One of the men pressed a pistol to the engineer’s temple and looked out the cab window for a signal fire in the distance. They halted the train in a deep cut near Forty-second Street, where it would be hidden from view. The “Mud Cut Robbery” of May 22, 1909, had begun.

The robbery was soon the talk of Omaha. No one was killed, but the four or five bandits made off with the mail sacks. The Union Pacific Railroad and the federal government offered rewards that eventually totaled $30,000.

ODN 1909-05-29a_3

Omaha Daily News, May 29, 1909

Investigators had few leads until May 27, when “several boys from the Brown Park Elementary School at 19th and U Streets in South Omaha found two guns, dark blue polka dot handkerchiefs, and slouch hats hidden in a gully near 18th Street between T and U.” The school principal notified police, who staked out the area. That night they “arrested three men who approached the area ‘in a suspicious manner.’” Soon the mail sacks were discovered in the school’s attic.

The bandits’ plot continued to unravel . . . a story too complicated to tell in a blog post. You’ll want to read the whole thing. It involves a female companion of the robbers who agreed to testify against them, an Omaha trial and attempted jailbreak, a successful prison break in Leavenworth, Kansas, and a bitter legal fight between the many claimants for the reward money. In all, it’s a fascinating look at law enforcement a century ago.

—David Bristow, Associate Director for Research & Publications

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