This true tale from the Juniata Valley was written by local historian Paul T. Fagley, who graciously shared it with Pennsylvania Jack and approved its inclusion in this collection. The following notes are provided by Paul as a prelude to the story below.
This story appeared in the pages of the Lewistown Sentinel, of Lewistown, Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, on September 5, 2009. It is a true story, but more than that it is a story that has turned into a legend in the century since the actual crime it recounts. For those readers unfamiliar with the area, the robbery occurred near the Mifflin/Juniata County line, in what is known as the Lewistown Narrows – a seven-mile long gorge between two steep mountains with the Juniata River squeezed in between. It is an inhospitable yet beautiful place, where U.S. highway 22/322 hugs the mountain on one side, and the river and the Norfolk Southern Railroad (successor to the Pennsylvania Railroad) on the other. One has to see the narrows to appreciate why the crime took place here, and why it was so difficult to search for the bold robber.
“EXPRESS TRAIN ROBBED IN LEWISTOWN NARROWS”
“The whole affair bids fair to go down in history as one of the mysteries of Central Pennsylvania.” So prophesized an unnamed Sentinel reporter a century ago, in describing one of the most daring and bold crimes to ever occur in our area. On August 31, 1909, in what has been described as the last “Jesse James” style holdup of a train in America, a lone gunman stopped and robbed a Pennsylvania Railroad train in the Lewistown Narrows. While the train was in fact carrying over $100,000 in money, including thousands of dollars worth of gold bullion, the robber got away with nothing but pennies – sixty-five dollars worth of pennies to be exact.
He also escaped with something else – his identity. To this day, the person who robbed the train has never been identified, and no one was ever tried for the crime. Many theories have been put forward as to the identity of the robber, but we may never know. Given these facts, this has become more than a story about a century-old crime. In the 100 years since the hold-up, the event has evolved into a local legend, told and retold by countless train crews that still pass the spot.
Equally hard is to put the events of that August night in order, to tell them as they happened. As is common with such events, the stories given by the train crew differ in many of the details, and even the early reporting in the newspapers contained errors, due largely to having to rely more on hearsay until the true details became available. One has to realize how much slower information travelled back then, when instant communication was defined by the telegraph and telephone, providing you were at a place to use these technologies. This was a time when two-way radio was just being invented, and cell phones weren’t even dreamt of yet! What follows is a reconstruction of the events, using the actual news articles that appeared in the pages of the Sentinel, New York Times, and The North American. The story made national headlines.
In a 1972 article in the Sentinel, the late editor Jim Canfield began his version of the story with such eloquence that it is fitting to begin this history with it. His times were off a bit, but his melodrama sets the stage quite well.
Engineer Sam Donnelly checked his watch as he reached for the whistle cord. It was 1:47 a.m. and the Pittsburgh Express was making good time. Fireman Grant Willis shoveled more coal into the fire box as the fast night express steamed past the few flickering lights that marked the Juniata County community of Mifflin. “Number 39,” as she was known to her Pennsy crewmen, was wending her way westward at a speed of 40 miles per hour. Dead ahead in the deep stillness waited the Lewistown Narrows. The mournful cry of her whistle was heard far up in the deep blackness of the mountain fastness and, unbeknown to its crew, actually triggered what was to become a date with destiny. Before the hands of Sam Donnelly’s watch reached two o’clock a.m. on Aug. 31, 1909, the Pittsburgh & Northern Express was to figure in the last of the great train robberies.
“EXPRESS TRAIN ROBBED IN LEWISTOWN NARROWS”
This headline greeted readers of the Sentinel’s August 31st Tuesday evening edition (the Sentinel was an evening paper back then). Early in that morning, the Pittsburgh and Northern Express was making its way westward, through the darkness of the Juniata Valley. In addition to four Pullman cars full of sleeping passengers, there were two express cars. They were carrying money not normally carried on this train, and in amounts much larger than normal. Early accounts rumored that there were millions on the train, but this was over exaggerated. However, there was enough to pique the interest of more than a few bandits. Was it coincidence that made the bandit choose this night to rob the train, or was it an inside job, as some later claimed?
The first express car, known as the “Washington Express Car,” was carrying over $100,000 in currency destined for Pittsburgh and Chicago. Next was the “Adams Express Car,” which was carrying the $40,000 payroll for a coal mine in Cambria County, a little over $5,000 in bars of gold bullion being shipped to a bank in Elgin, Illinois, and thousands of brand new Lincoln pennies, yet to be released to the public. The pennies were heading to Cincinnati. Train Number 39 pulled out of Harrisburg station at one minute past midnight. Before long, it would make the turn to head up the valley of the Blue Juniata, and to its date with destiny.
INTO THE NARROWS
It had been hot and steamy for the past few days. On this early Tuesday morning, the weather was changing. Showers were expected around daybreak. Isaac R. Poffenberger, the conductor, could sense the change of weather, as the train cut through the inky blackness of the Juniata. Since leaving Harrisburg, the train had gone quiet inside. It seemed like a smooth run to Pittsburgh, and the train was making good time. The passengers were sound asleep as the train passed Newport, Thompsontown, Port Royal, and now Mifflin. All seemed normal on this night, but that would soon change.
Ahead of them were the Lewistown Narrows, where the rails hug the steep sides of the mountains on one side and the Juniata on the other. This remote, wild area had been the haunt of the “Robin Hood of Pennsylvania,” highwayman Davey “Robber” Lewis, a century earlier. In the closeness of the mountains, many a traveler along the old pike was ordered to “Stand and deliver” at the point of Lewis’ gun between 1814 and 1820, when Lewis and his confederate Connelly were captured. Old-timers said that his ghost still haunted the Narrows. Maybe that was why the seven miles of the Narrows seemed darker that night to engineer Donnelly as he pierced the silence with his whistle.
Meanwhile, in the darkness of the Narrows stood a man waiting patiently for the train. This was the wildest part of the narrows, as far from civilization as possible at the time. He was covered with a gunnysack, with holes cut for his eyes, mouth, and arms. He had prepared for the train by placing three dynamite charges of six to eight sticks in each charge. In his pockets were more sticks of dynamite, and each hand held a revolver. If he wasn’t the ghost of Robber Lewis, maybe he was James Lawler, Pennsylvania’s own “Jesse James.” Why did he choose this night? Did he know of the riches aboard this train? One thing was certain — he knew which train to stop, and when!
EXPLOSIONS STOP THE TRAIN
As the train approached the stretch of track where the village of Hawstone was later built, three explosions were heard. The time was 1:22 am, as officially determined in the ensuing investigation. At first, the engineer and fireman thought they were “torpedoes,” charges placed on the track to warn of foggy conditions ahead. This was a common practice in a time before radio communications allowed instant contact with the engine crew.
However, the charges seemed much stronger, causing damage to the engine. The glass in the headlight, along with the windows of the locomotive, was immediately shattered. According to policy, the engineer immediately stopped the train. Later investigation showed that the bandit had placed charges under the track, with the explosive caps on top of the rails. He may have intended to blow the engine off the tracks, which would have rolled it down the hill into the river. For some reason, the charges did not go off, but the igniters did explode. Later examination of the engine revealed that the front cowcatcher was damaged. Also, the third charge blew out a chunk of the steel rail, which almost derailed the train. If all the charges had gone off, the engine would likely have been blown from the rails, throwing it into the river.
Before the crew could determine what was happening, the bandit stepped from the shadows and boarded the engine, saying, “Hold up your hands, damn. I’ll kill the first who disobeys orders.” He spoke with what was described as a foreign accent, originally described as German or Italian. Later, it was determined that it was a southern accent. He demanded, “Are there any mail cars?” Donnelly answered, “No.” “Any Express Cars?” was the next question, to which he was told that there were. He had the train crew covered with his revolvers, so they were compelled to comply at gunpoint. He forced them from the cab with their torches.
CONDUCTOR POFFENBERGER SHOT
At this time Conductor Poffenberger came running to the front of the train to find out what was going on. He was ordered to return to his post at the rear of the train, but he insisted on knowing what was happening. The bandit fired five to ten shots in his direction, with one traveling painfully through his left hand, severing the tendons to his index finger. As he fell to the ground in pain, the fireman shouted, “My God, you have shot that man!” The robber retorted, “Yes, and I’ll shoot any other d*** man who don’t listen to me.” Then he took a stick of dynamite from a pocket and said that he was “going to blow the engine, express cars, and messengers to h***unless the latter immediately opened their doors.” By this time, three passengers had come out of the train, and ran up to Poffenberger. They were all forced to retreat and returned to the rear of the train.
ROBBED THE ADAMS EXPRESS CAR
He banged on the door of the first car, the Washington Express Car, which messenger J. A. Clayton refused to open, saying that there was no money in the car. The bandit said, “That will be all right. Shut up if you don’t want to die. I know my business.” Evidently, he did not know his business, because he had just passed up the car with over $100,000 of government currency.
Passing up the first express car, the bandit proceeded to the second car, the Adams Express Car, where messenger John W. Harper came to the door as ordered. It never occurred to him that this was a robbery in progress. Train robberies like this happened in the Old West, not in Pennsylvania, and not in the 20th century. As the crew clamored into the car, the bandit slipped and fell, causing one of the revolvers to discharge. The bullet went whizzing by Harper’s ear. To this the bandit oddly apologized, saying he didn’t want to kill anyone by his carelessness with a gun.
He ordered the safes to be opened, which Harper refused to do, saying he did not know the combinations. While holding a gun on the crew, he proceeded to blow the safe with nitro-glycerin. He was evidently an expert on this, as he used only enough to burst the lock, thereby causing the tumblers to drop, all without further damaging the door. Once inside, he had the engineer hold a large sack, while he filled it with the bags from the safes. One contained $5,049 in gold bullion. There were several bags of $100 each of the new Lincoln pennies, a bag of $100 in silver dollars, and a fourth bag with the silver dollars. As they were filling the sack, the bandit grabbed a few pennies and put them in his pocket, perhaps thinking they were gold coins. About this time, Clayton had emerged from the Washington car at the sound of the explosion and upon arriving at the door, was also covered by the bandit.
ADAMS EXPRESS CO. DISPUTES HOW THE ROBBERY TOOK PLACE
M.S. Slater, general manager for Adams Express, stated that he examined the rifled safes and later disputed that they were blown open. Instead, he stated that Harper, who had the keys for the safe, opened them at the point of a revolver. However, the detectives spoke of testing the nitro-glycerin, and determining it was the same stuff known as “soup,” that was commonly used by amateur thieves to blow open post office safes.
Another point of contention in the robbery had to do with 50 envelopes containing money and negotiable securities. Adams Express claimed to the North American newspaper that they had been rifled and the money removed. Slater said that they were bulging from the contents as he held them up and said he knew nothing else of the robbery. Funny thing is that the local Sentinel articles say nothing about envelopes being rifled, or about paper currency or stocks being stolen. Also, it was stated that the robbery lasted only about three minutes or so, not enough time to rifle fifty envelopes.
BANDIT WILL GRUNT FOR FIREMAN
The bandit was a jovial fellow and had a nerve about him. He had all of the bullion and money put into the large sack. This, of course, made the sack too heavy to lift. When fireman Willis tried to lift the sack at the orders of the bandit, he strained to lift it, to which the bandit jokingly replied that he would do the grunting for him. The smaller sacks were then taken out and tossed outside. Fireman Willis and engineer Donnelly were compelled to carry the sacks of money up the mountainside into the woods, which they did. Donnelly tripped and fell, causing his torch to go out. The robber allowed him to return and told him to send one of the messengers in his place.
Once the loot was carried away from the train, he told them to get back on and proceed, wishing them, “Good luck and good bye.” He then fired a shot forward and back along the train. With this, he slipped into the darkness. Poffenberger felt it was now safe to summon help, so he and flagman Albert Miller walked back to the old FX tower near Denholm. They caught a later freight train to Lewistown. Throughout the hold-up, the passengers (except for the three) remained sound asleep, blissfully unaware that their train had been held up. They didn’t learn of the hold-up until the next morning upon reaching Pittsburgh, where they arrived only a few minutes late.
SARGEANT DAVIS ON THE CASE
Sergeant Merrill A. Davis had just started a long-deserved vacation, after returning from Erie to arrest a thief. He had no sooner got into bed when Frank Van Boskirk, a local towerman, came hollering at his bedroom window, yelling that No. 39 had been held up. Davis leaped into his clothes and ran to the station, where eastbound freight No. 40 was ordered to stop and pick him up. He was the first law enforcement official to arrive at the scene of the hold-up, getting there about 3 am. The first person he came upon was Lew Baltozer, a trackman from Mifflin, who was armed with a lantern and shotgun.
Davis was fairly new to the job of railroad detective when fate would link him to the infamous crime, one that would dog him throughout his long and illustrious career. He had been hired as a detective a year before, coming to Lewistown on September 22, 1908. He had worked in a coalmine beginning at age 12. After a dozen or so years, he became the police chief of Bellwood in Blair County, and then an Altoona City Police Officer. It was here that he came to the notice of some PRR officials, who induced him to come and work for the railroad.
Jim Canfield said of Davis that he “was born in Clearfield County in 1880, inheriting from his father the clear complexion of the Welsh ancestry from which he sprang. But it was from his mother that he undoubtedly obtained the persistence in following the quarry which characterized his work as detector of crime and criminals; for she, as a maiden by the name of Oshell, was a lineal descendant of the Black Hawk Indians.”
Davis would pursue the robber his entire career, never catching his quarry. As Canfield observed of Davis, “the detective never closed the book on the infamous robbery, not until the book of life closed on him.”
THE STRANGE LIGHT
Davis took the chance to interview members of the train crew. They related a story that would hound Davis for almost 25 years. They said that during the robbery they witnessed a strange light on the opposite side of the river, on the highway. The light moved westward at a slow rate of speed, and seemed to stop for a while right across from the train during the robbery. Davis determined that it was an automobile, and was likely involved in the robbery. He was so convinced that he staked his reputation on his theory.
THE SEARCH BEGINS
By daybreak, word of the robbery spread, both in official terms with the railroad and the police, and with the rumor mill, which was working overtime. All available local police were at the scene. Twenty railroad police soon arrived, along with Pinkerton Detectives brought in by the Adams Express agency. They established a headquarters in the old FX tower, and began organized searches. Posses of men were in the woods looking for the bandit within a short time of the deed. Confidence was running high that the bandit would be caught in short order.
MOST OF THE LOOT RECOVERED
Estimates of what the bandit took ranged from a hundred dollars or so to over $18,000, with one source stating that the amount was twice this figure. Most of the loot was found quickly, as carrying coins and bullion was heavy work. In actuality, the bandit was able to take only about $5,250, of which $5,190 was recovered within short order. Six sacks of pennies were found along the tracks. The seals were still intact, but the canvas was slit open, with pennies scattered on the ground. Evidently, the robber had abandoned them in disgust at finding only pennies.
Of the rest, the robber was still carrying two sacks. Due to the weight of the sacks, he dropped one, and in the darkness, could not see what was in the sacks, so he ended up dropping the one with the gold bullion. Davis and fellow officer Charles Shaeffer found the sack about 500 yards away from the hold-up, at the base of a decayed tree. Official tallies of the missing money now confirmed that only $65 worth of pennies were still missing.
CALLED IN THE DOGS
To aid in tracking the thief, the PRR called in the famous Thompson Bloodhounds, “Henry,” and “Colonel,” from Chillicothe, Ohio. They arrived by train around seven o’clock in the morning, and were immediately taken to the knoll where the bandit was last seen. After circling a couple of times, the dogs took off straight for the river. During the search, the mask worn by the bandit was located. A spot was found in the brush that was trampled, creating speculation there had been some confederates laying in wait to help haul off the loot following the hold-up.
Unfortunately, the dogs were never really able to get a scent on the bandit, as by the time they arrived, other men had been all through the woods searching for the bandit, which made too many scent trails. Even the mask worn by the bandit had been handled by too many people to get a scent. After two days, they gave up and were sent home. Mr. Jesty, the owner of the dogs, said that although the dogs had a good reputation at tracking, not having a scent hampered their effort.
BANDIT YET AT LIBERTY
“When the curtain of night dropped over the scene of the hold-up in the Lewistown narrows, darkness made all activity in the man hunt take a back seat, but all night long passenger trains were stopping at the old FX tower letting off representatives of the railroad, the express company, and the law.” So the Sentinel reporter wrote in summarizing the first day of the search for the bandit. It seemed funny to many that one bandit could hold up five able-bodied men. Two of these men even carried their own firearms, but they were afraid to shoot, for fear of setting off the sticks of dynamite in the bandit’s pockets.
Detectives put together a profile of the bandit by this point, piecing together the evidence of the hold-up and the descriptions of the bandit. They felt that that he was an amateur, of the type that would commonly blow the safe of a small rural post office or country store. They found that, despite the hold-up having been a success from a certain point of view, the bungling of the bandit was not the mark of a professional. Also, the fact that he knew the train was carrying large sums of money, which he stated during the hold-up, implied that he had inside information, either from the railroad itself or one of the express companies. And what about the man inquiring about trains and times in the area a few days earlier? They were particularly interested in the description of a man who was seen loafing in the narrows the past few days. They were confident this was their best lead, so much so, that they had an arrest warrant made out based on the description of the man.
Throughout the first days after the hold-up, rumors were flying as to who the bandit was and of his arrest. At one point, a rumor circulated that 19 men had been arrested. This was quickly dispelled, but it was confirmed that four recently dismissed railroad employees were being questioned, and an arrest was expected soon. However, by the afternoon of September 2nd, the detectives conceded that the bandit got clean away, without leaving any clues to his identity. They decided that it would be fruitless to continue searching the narrows at this point. Instead, they would now concentrate on sending out the arrest warrant and description of the bandit, with the hopes that some city policeman would find him.
Of course the rumor mill was of no help. The speculation by the railroad detectives that the bandit may have had an inside confederate was picked up by the public when it was learned that messenger Harper was recalled. The rumors flying insinuated that Harper was the “inside man.” The truth was that both Harper and Clayton were kept in Lewistown to aid in the identification of the robber. After hearing his wife took ill after reading the wild speculation about the robbery in the Philadelphia papers, Harper was permitted to go home and tend to her.
On September 3rd, the Sentinel reported that an unknown man resembling the bandit’s description and speaking in a foreign accent was seen in Moundsville. He claimed to several people that he had just come from Lewistown, and was heading south.
THE SECOND ROBBERY
Just as the railroad detectives were giving up on finding the robber in the woods of the Narrows, he struck again on Friday evening, September 3rd. This time, he accosted some travelers along a road near the railroad tracks. Lewistown businessman R. F. Little and his wife were out in Doe Trough Hollow, near Spangler’s Farm, located about two miles from Lewistown. They were out inspecting some timber tracts he was planning to cut. They had noticed a man in the bushes that they described as having a swarthy complexion, dark curly hair, and wearing blue overalls and coat. Since he did not accost them, they paid little attention to him. They soon met up with one of the woodchoppers, John Beckwith, and continued with their business.
While the Littles were walking back to their buggy, the man, now with a gunnysack over his head, jumped out of the bushes, pointed a revolver at them, and ordered them to halt and turn over their money. Being unarmed, there was little they could do. Mr. Little handed over what money he had, which amounted to about nine or ten dollars. The highwayman was not pleased with this, and threatened to search Mr. Little, who turned out his pockets to show he had nothing else. With this he was ordered to lay down on the ground while the bandit covered him with his revolver, and said that he would wait for someone else to come along. Mrs. Little and a companion in the buggy were compelled to lay down as well.
About twenty minutes later, Grace and Hazel Shilling came along, and the highwayman held them up as well. Finding no valuables, he ordered all the victims to leave, and as a final act, took Mr. Little’s hat. They quickly got to the house of James Brower, who lived near Spangler crossing. The alarm was quickly given, and Brower was directed to seek out Mr. Bearce, head of the Pinkerton Detectives, who was staying at the Coleman House hotel. Upon relating his story to Bearce, the sheriff was summoned, and the search began in earnest a second time. Mr. Little, having just recovered from a serious illness, was again confined to his bed over the incident.
This time the sheriff were sure they would catch the robber in short order. The detectives quickly called in the dogs again, this time from Charleroi, near Washington, Pa, and they arrived by 8 am in the morning. With the help of the Shilling ladies, the dogs were put to work to find the trail of the highwayman. They had covered considerable ground, when startling news reached the search teams. The bandit had been found in his lair.
BANDIT FOUND IN HIS LAIR
The search teams quickly gathered up and headed by automobile to Granville Gap, where the lair was discovered. It wasn’t discovered by a search team, but rather by Ira Lash, who was coming back to town from his lumber camp, around 9:30 in the morning. While enroute, his dog started to bark at some bushes, so he decided to investigate. Ira looked through the bushes and saw a bed made from old sacks. Suddenly, he saw the man staring back at him from behind a log. Ira described him as unattractive, and had at least a week’s growth of beard. Ira was so startled he jumped on his horse and took off as fast as he could. He came down the mountain so fast that his horse suffered cuts of the legs and broken hooves. When he reached the road at the bottom of the gap, he found a search party, and informed them of what he found. They quickly returned to the spot where Ira had discovered the man, but he was gone, with the sacks. The spot where he made his bed was clearly visible.
THE SEARCH TIGHTENS
Within a half-hour, search teams were fanning out from the lair. The search was now at a frantic and exciting pace, reported the Sentinel. The one hound quickly picked up the trail, and the chase was on. The trail led to the top of the mountain, then down into Bixler’s Gap, one mile east of Lewistown. Eight men armed with rifles were in hot pursuit, and it seemed only a matter of hours that the announcement would come that he was captured. The Sentinel reported on the chase: “No event of such exciting and absorbing interest has occurred in this vicinity for many years. To those engaged in the hunt, particularly when the outlaw was so closely traced, it was a matter of the most intense excitement to prospect of a battle to the death with the daring bandit being imminent at any moment.” By three o’clock in the afternoon, the bandit was still eluding the chase team. They had continued on the trail again to the top of the mountain, and down into Licking Creek. As the dog crossed the mountain, he got thirsty, and refused to continue until his thirst was quenched. The chase was abandoned and the dog was returned to Lewistown. The six men remaining in the chase were getting exhausted, and were cut and bruised by briars. A fresh team was soon dispatched to Licking Creek by way of Minehart’s Gap.
The next day, a fresh dog was brought in and taken to the spot where the first dog stopped the day before. The trail was resumed and followed for several miles. The trail crossed the mountain again through Minehart’s Gap, and then continued to Longfellow and down to Mattawanna, where the search ended for the day. In the meantime, the mask worn in the Little robbery was found in Doe Trough Hollow, the scene of the second hold-up.
On Monday, September 6th, Superintendent C. A. Preston of the Middle Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad issued posters offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the man who held up the train and the people along the road, provided it was received by September 20th. For the first time, a detailed description of the bandit appeared in the papers. He was described as follows: Age, 35 to 40 years; 5 foot, 6 to 8 inches in height; 160 to 170 pounds; stocky build; dark, curly hair; may have a week’s growth of beard; and may have a dark mustache. He has an unusual expression, and peculiar speech, possibly with a foreign or southern accent. He was also described as wearing or having a soft, flat-top hat with the initials R. F. Little in the sweatband.
No new developments were reported this day. All avenues of escape were covered, but the trail of the bandit had been lost at Mattawanna, and was not found again.
WRONG MAN CAPTURED
After no news on Tuesday, the Sentinel reported on Wednesday that the wrong man had been captured. A man matching the description of the bandit was taken into custody at Mexico, in Juniata County. He was identified as John Keys of Philadelphia. He came under suspicion at one of the checkpoints, when he could not provide detailed answers to the officers’ questions. Some other clues that led to his arrest were his possession of two gunnysacks similar to the ones used in the robberies. Mrs. Little was asked to make an identification, but she was unable to positively identify him.
Keys said that he left Philadelphia to go to Pittsburgh for work, and that he was hoboeing his way across the state, and when he reached Huntingdon he was told there were strikes there and no work could be found. He admitted hearing about the robbery and being advised to stay away from the railroad tracks. He was sleeping where he could find a place and a few nights earlier he had slept in a barn where he found the gunnysacks. After his arrest, he was taken to Mifflin County Jail. There, he gave 10 cents to the warden to buy some tobacco, but he was taken away before he was able to get either his tobacco or money back.
MASK DID NOT FIT
The mask that had been found in Doe Trough Hollow was brought to the jail. When they tried it on Keys, it was found to be too small. Also, when the Littles were brought in to identify the man, they both said the man did not look like the one that robbed them, and the mask was not the same. The Shilling ladies later collaborated the statements made by the Littles. This led to speculation that the two robberies may not have been committed by the same person. However, owing to his speech pattern resembling the robber of the train, the authorities decided that they would still treat this as the same bandit, and kept Keys another day or two before releasing him.
THE CHASE ABANDONED
“Frustrated at every turn to capture the man who held-up the express train in the narrows, and subsequently, it is believed, robbed Robert F. Little of Lewistown while passing along the mountain road near Doe trough Hollow, the large force of railroad and Adams Express detectives have abandoned the search in the mountains in which the robberies occurred.”This the Sentinel reported to its readers on September 11th. After twelve days of intensive search and failing to capture the bandit, the men involved with the search were paid off and sent home.
ANOTHER SUSPECT ARRESTED
The same day it was announced that C. E. Baker, of Philadelphia, was under arrest as a suspect in the two robberies. Baker was one of the oldest conductors in the Philadelphia Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. By a curious coincidence, he decided to vacation near Granville for a few days. While camping, his appearance became more “uncouth-like,” and when he was seen by some detectives he much resembled the bandit. After receiving the “third degree” he was released. Baker and his friends beat a hasty retreat back to Philadelphia.
WAS IT “PENNSYLVANIA’S JESSE JAMES?”
Other than a short item noting that the bloodhounds returned home, mention of the robbery faded from the front pages of the Sentinel. While the search had ended, Sergeant Davis continued on the case, trying to identify the robber. Years later, Merrill Davis said that within a couple of days, they had focused in on James Lawler, a noted highwayman who was recently seen in the area. Lawler was known as “Pennsylvania’s Jesse James,” a moniker that described him well. If indeed he was suspected in those first few days, no mention of this was made in the local papers. Lawler’s role in the robbery, if true, comes from later accounts by Davis, in the 1950s, and still later in the 1970s.
James Lawler, alias James Lewis (which authorities believed to be his real name), alias James Showalter, was a man about 45 years of age at the time of the train robbery. He was born in Joplin, Missouri, and it was said that his home was not far from the home of Jesse James. Jim Canfield doubted this, saying, “this has to be less fact than fancy.” First, Lawler would have been only about 13 years old in 1882 when Jesse James was shot and killed in St. Joseph, not Joplin. Also, James never lived in Joplin, although in 1879, he did try to fake his death there.
Lawler had a long record of robberies when he was arrested at Williamsport, Pa, in 1897, and was sentenced to four years at the Western Penitentiary. In 1903, under the name of Showalter, he was sentenced in Scranton to the same penitentiary for robbing post offices in Mifflin, Blair, and Centre counties. Lawler was actually arrested at the top of the Seven Mountains, at the old Foust place, near the present-day Kearns Campground, across from Camp Rayona. With several deputies, the sheriff of Centre County cornered him at Foust’s and Lawler was wounded in the neck when he refused to surrender. He was photographed at Potter’s Mills after receiving the neck wound.
Davis said Lawler became the prime suspect after photos of him were identified by a railroad water tender, who said a man looking like Lawler was hanging around several days, and was asking about trains and times. Others also placed him in the area at the time of the crime. Lawler and his brother John (a.k.a. Jack) were known to have been in the Big Valley area, but never had gainful employment there.
Whether Lawler committed the hold-up or not is a matter of speculation. One thing is certain. Lawler disappeared after the hold-up and was never heard from again. Whether he went straight, perished in the mountains while trying to elude a search party, or suffered some other fate, the reward for his arrest was never claimed. About the same time as the robbery occurred, brother John was hanged at Clark’s Ferry, Virginia, for murder. Authorities watched carefully, hoping that James would show up, but he never did. Did he assume a new identity and live out his life somewhere else?
AS INTEREST DWINDLES, THE LEGEND BEGINS
A week after the search was officially called off, another robbery took place in the area, but it got little notice in the papers. On the 29th of October, a 38-year old man in Philadelphia walked into a police station and confessed to being the robber, but his story was soon found to be false. As time passed, the robbery became famous both for its daring style and for the fact that the bandit got away with so little. Many people came to visit the site of the robbery. One of the most notable visitors was Theodore Roosevelt. While on his whistle-stop campaign tour in 1912, he had his special train stop at the scene for him to inspect it personally.
Merrill Davis would go on to an illustrious career as a local lawman, and was elected sheriff during World War I. He was personally involved in more captures of killers than anyone local up to that time. The one blemish on his record however was the 1909 train robbery, the one crime he never solved.
THE MYSTERY OF THE LIGHT SOLVED
In January of 1934, almost 25 years after the robbery, the mystery of the light on the other side of the river was solved, eliminating the last thread of a clue to what happened to the hold-up man. Davis was travelling by train, and was talking to another man from Lewistown, Wallace Wilson. While traveling through the narrows, Davis pointed out the scene of the robbery to Wilson. He continued, “You know, we always had a pretty good idea of how that robber escaped. There was an auto waiting for him across the river and as soon as he made off with the plunder, he must have crossed over, boarded the car, and disappeared. Those on the train saw it going away. It had one headlight out. For years I have been trying to run down that man who drove the car with only one headlight burning, but the trail was cold and I never picked it up. If I only knew what became of that man and the car!”
Davis was astounded when Wilson said that he was in fact the man in the car that night. Wilson told him that he had traded the car in years earlier, but that it was one of the first Cadillacs ever built. He was returning from Carlisle, and was dodging mudslides in the narrows so it was slow going. He could only travel at nine miles an hour. He related that his son left a wrench on a nut holding one of the acetylene lights, and when it fell off, it broke the one light. He related how he observed the stalled train, but was unaware of the events taking place. So closed the last unsolved lead that Davis clung to all these years.
THE FINAL CHAPTER
Forty-five years, three months, and almost to the day of the train robbery, the final chapter began in this unsolved crime. In late November of 1954, three hunters–John A. Dubendorf, his brother Albert, and Charles E. Bell –returning from a deer stalking trip chanced upon a cache of old pennies on the mountainside, near the site of the legendary robbery. Trying to find a foothold, Bell drove deep into the soil, and out came what he thought were coin-like slugs. Upon further investigation, they discovered that they were pennies, and could identify the date of 1909 on some of them. They dug furiously for more of them, and filled their pockets. They remembered hearing stories of a train robbery, and returned to the area, hoping to find gold. But all they found were a few more pennies and four spent .38 caliber shells. In total they found about 3,700 pennies, or about half of the take of the bandit.
It is now 100 years since the hold-up, and it remains one of the greatest events of our area. If Lawler was indeed the bandit, we will never know. Anyone connected with the train robbery is now long dead. The event has passed the barrier from true story to legend, talked about over the years as it fades further back into history. The prophesy of the Sentinel a century ago still holds true today as it will into the future – “The whole affair bids fair to go down in history as one of the mysteries of Central Pennsylvania.”
As noted in the preface above, to truly appreciate the geographpy of “The Narrows”, one should drive along this stretch of the Juniata River. Rather than travelling the present U.S. 22/322, which is a four-lane limited-access highway, travel instead along PA Route 333 from the little Juniata County town of Mifflin all the way to Lewistown. This road follows the south side of the river and is right above the railroad tracks. In places this road rises high up the mountain for a grand view. The photograph just above is of a Pennsylvania Railroad “E3 Atlantic Series” locomotive, the type probably used on the mainline express trains in 1909. A photograph of a present Norfolk Southern train coming through the narrows at about the location where the robbery took place can be seen at the top of the page. An aerial view of the Narrows is also shown below. The river flows between Blue Mountain on the left and Shade Mountain on the right. The modern highway follows the right (North) side of the Juniata; the railroad tracks are on the left (South) side of the river. Note the line of state highway 333 high on the hill above the railroad.