Stupid Question ™
Aug. 23, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: Why did bandits of yore always rob the mail train? What was so valuable about mail?
A: Bandits were after registered mail—documented and insured letters and packages—which often contained cash or securities.
Often this mail was simply a bag of cash. Mailed cash included company payrolls, transfers from the Federal Reserve to regional banks, and transactions between banks, companies and private citizens.
Thieves were also interested in the safe in the “express car,” which carried packages (not necessarily mail) being shipped by the fastest possible route. It could contain gold, silver, jewels, cash, commercial goods (gold watches, silk dresses) and negotiable bonds and securities. Much of the gold and silver was bullion going from mines to banks or assay offices.
A good theft could score $20,000. Many robberies were ill-planned fishing expeditions that still netted something. Jesse James and his gang supplemented their income by also robbing a train’s passengers.
There were several reasons to mail all this treasure by train: the huge size of the country after westward expansion; the flow of Western gold; lack of electronic fund transfers; and the gold standard backing cash. It made the US prime train-robbing territory from about 1860 to 1940, with 28 mail-car robberies between 1897 and 1899 alone.
Railway mail was simply an extension of and improvement on stagecoach mail, which was also frequently robbed. (The last stagecoach robbery in the US, in 1916, netted $4,000 in gold coins.) Rail mail began as early as 1832, but wasn’t standardized until the 1860s, when the Railway Mail Service was founded.
Almost every train was a mail train, with a specific mail car that acted as a rolling post office. Handgun-wielding clerks sorted mail and dumped it off on hooks at towns along the way. It continued until 1977.
Despite bandits, registered rail mail was considered very safe. In 1937, the nation’s $15.5 billion gold reserve was transferred from New York to Fort Knox, Kentucky—entirely as registered mail on mail trains. It was not robbed.
However, mail clerks weren’t above pilfering cash from registered letters as the train went through dark tunnels. A $2 million Illinois train robbery (immortalized in the film “The Newton Boys”) was engineered in 1924 by Chicago’s top postal inspector.
The earliest “Great Train Robbery,” an 1855 English heist, burgled a regular London-to-Paris shipment of gold bullion. But it was technically a private mailing service.
England can also claim the largest train robbery (in absolute dollars) in history: the 1963 “Great Train Robbery” of about 2.6 million British pounds (about 7 million US dollars, or $50 million in today’s money) from a Glasgow-to-London mail train. The thieves took about 120 mailbags full of small-value bank notes—mostly old, worn-out ones doomed for burning—being sent as registered mail from Scottish branch banks to the central London offices.
One of the robbers, Ronald Biggs, was given an interesting job in prison: sewing mailbags.