When the Silver City stage was robbed by two masked men about eight miles south of Nampa in October 1895, the Idaho Statesman reported the news that should have made anyone planning a trip by stage concerned: "This makes about half a dozen holdups on the Silver City route within the past year."
Not all of those robbers succeeded, however, as was the case reported in August 1895, when a lone masked man stepped out of the brush beside the road between Silver City and Delamar. With a revolver in each hand, he shouted "Halt," and told the driver to, "Throw down the box!" The driver explained that there was no box aboard, but the man repeated the order "seven or eight times, all the time nervously handling his guns, cocking and un-cocking them in a manner that indicated he was a novice at the trade of road agent." He finally backed off and let the stage proceed.
A traveling salesman from San Francisco, who said he had been in 11 previous stage holdups, told the driver he would get his pistols and join him on the box, which he did.
"Ballard a Lucky Man" read an August 1895 headline. E.L. Ballard, sheriff of Owyhee County, had captured three stage robbers in 1894 and was thereby entitled to a statutory reward of $1,500 from the U.S. Post Office Department for the capture of anyone stealing the mail. Young Boise Attorney William E. Borah had pursued the reward for Ballard and had been told that the money would be paid in a few days. The statesman thought, "This good news will encourage men to seek out and capture others guilty of robbing the United States mails."
On Nov. 14, 1897, even The New York Times found robbery of the mail way out in the mountains of Idaho newsworthy: "Warren, Idaho - The mail carrier was halted near here yesterday by a lone highwayman, who compelled him to dismount from his horse. The carrier was then told to cut the mail sack open, which he did, and the robber took all of the registered mail and letters. There was about $4,000 in cash in the sack."
MEMORIALIZED IN MOVING PICTURES
Later, 1903 was a memorable year for mail robbery, not only because the Idaho City stage was robbed yet again in May, but for the first time the subject was made into a motion picture. In September 1903, a British film entitled "Robbery of the Mail Coach" was released. It was a period piece that showed 17th century highwaymen robbing a stagecoach carrying the Royal Mail.
On Dec. 1, the American classic "The Great Train Robbery" was shown for the first time. It depicts the robbery of the mail coach on a passenger train by a gang of armed bandits. Although considered one of the first Westerns, it was filmed in Milltown, N.J. It was written, produced and directed by Edwin S. Porter, a former cameraman for Thomas Edison, the great inventor sometimes considered the father of motion pictures. You can watch this 12-minute classic on your computer. Simply search YouTube for "The Great Train Robbery." I think you'll enjoy it.
There was a daring robbery of the mail car on the Great Northern Railway's Oriental Limited on March 16, 1908. The Spokane News and Courier reported, "Mail robbery in Idaho. Bandit Subdues Clerks, Helps Himself, and Escapes. A bandit boarded the mail car on the west-bound train at Bonners Ferry before daylight today, bound the two mail clerks, robbed the mail car, and delivered way station mail for one hundred miles. Then he dropped off the train and escaped. The train carried the through mail, and much of it was registered. The amount stolen will not be known until the registered mail has been checked up."
This brief report leaves a number of questions unanswered. First, how did this daring bandit overpower the two mail clerks in order that he could tie them up and continue with his robbery? Railway postal clerks at the time were armed with .38-caliber revolvers to protect the mail from thieves. We can therefore assume that they were taken totally by surprise and that the bandit himself was armed. He certainly knew that there would be much registered mail aboard the train, and that it would contain a lot of money. Perhaps the best evidence that this robbery was well-planned is that he made sure to carefully drop off the local mail at stations along the way. If he hadn't, the stationmasters at those places would have been alerted and would have wired ahead that something was wrong. And so, you see, Idaho did have its own "great train robbery," with no shootout and no fatalities.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.