The Freedom Gang

I’d like to tell you a story of a train heist gone wrong, of a tough gang of thieves who didn’t quite pull off the job. And they didn’t get away either. But the men reporters called the Freedom Gang still have a story I think you’ll want to hear.

It was winter, 1901. Jesse James had been dead for nearly 20 years and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fled to South America earlier that year. More sophisticated law enforcement and secure forms of currency like traveler’s checks were making train robberies harder to pull off and even harder for bandits to get away. But the risks weren’t enough to stop the Freedom Gang from going after a safe full of cash, guarded by a lone engineer at a quiet Pennsylvania station.

The Freedom Gang was led by William O’Brien, a mustachioed Canadian who went by many names. Some called him Wolf or Little Joe or even Ralph Walhopper; he seemed to have a different name for each robbery he had pulled in the past. O’Brien was what the police called a “yegg man,” a burglar specializing in safe cracking. A printer by trade, he had a $100 price on his head for pulling off a string of bank robberies in Michigan. Moving east, he set his sights on the small town banks and unguarded railroad stations near the Pennsylvania-Maryland border.

Freedom Gang Members

The five members of the Freedom Gang, 1901. Pennsylvania State Archives RG 15.66.

O’Brien arrived on the East Coast and didn’t waste any time recruiting a gang of fellow thieves. He found four men who worked for the Northern Central Railroad– they knew the area well and would be less suspicious hanging around NCR stations late at night. The quintet pulled off a few small robberies in Aberdeen, MD and York Haven, PA before they moved on their big target: The NCR Station in New Freedom.

New Freedom was a small town on the Mason Dixon Line, 40 miles north of Baltimore. Its rail station was the junction of the Northern Central and Stewartstown railroads and the gang knew that a large amount of money was usually stashed in the office safe.

They broke into the New Freedom station late on a Wednesday night. The lone engineer guarding the office was out inspecting the tracks when the burglars crept in and got to work on the safe. O’Brien drilled a hole in it and stuck a short fuse and nitroglycerine inside. The bomb should have blown the door easily but surprisingly failed. Detectives said it was because a wedge stuck in the door joint had broken off and too much air was allowed to get in. There was $5100 cash inside; so close but just out of reach. The gang tried twice but failed each time.

After the second attempt the engineer returned from his patrol and noticed a light in the building. As he walked down the station platform, he neared the door and peered through the window inside. To his surprise, there was no one there and he turned off the light.

A second later a hand reached out from the darkness and grabbed him. The muzzles of four revolvers flashed in his face and a chorus of voices demanded he give up his valuables. He pulled away and started to run but a blow to the head knocked him out cold. He woke up a few minutes later to see the thieves holding his watch and pocket book. The Freedom Gang took him back to the office, threatened him not to tell anyone what happened, and said to go home. And before he knew it, the thieves had disappeared into the night.

New Freedom NCR Station

New Freedom Station still stands today. Steam Into History.

The engineer waited till the coast was clear and ran for the police. Within a few hours railroad detectives were called in. They got to work early the next morning.

There weren’t many clues at the scene of the crime, the thieves wore masks and the engineer couldn’t identify any of them. There were no other clues left behind near the safe or on the office. The Freedom Gang had gotten away clean…or so it seemed.

After making some inquiries in New Freedom, the detectives learned that several men had spent the night in a nearby hotel bar. When they ran out of beer money the men pawned a watch with the barkeep for a few pints of whiskey and left. As luck would have it, this was the engineer’s stolen watch from last night.

The chase was on. After more questioning the detectives learned that an NCR trackwalker had seen several men drinking in an open freight car earlier that morning. They raced over to the railyard, but it was too late. The car was empty, save for two whiskey bottles tossed on the floor. With police assistance, the rest of town and locals interviewed, but there were no more signs of the gang.

The detectives widened their search to a 10 mile circle around New Freedom. A thorough hunt led them to nearby Bentley Springs and by the end of the day to Parkton. Searching the surrounding woods, they found five men asleep by a campfire. It was O’Brien and the Freedom Gang.

Capture of the Yegg Bank Burglars

Still from the 1904 film “Capture of the Yegg Bank Burglars”.

They stole silently into camp and aimed a pistol at each man. The signal was given and the gang was woken up and ordered to surrender. Two men tried to pull their own guns out for a fight but realized they’d been had. The chase was over; the Freedom Gang caught.

They were taken to the police station in Baltimore and searched. O’Brien’s men carried revolvers, a bottle of nitroglycerine, a bar of soap, chisels, $10 in cash, and a ring of keys in many shapes and sizes. For all their planning and preparations, this was all they had to show for their tiny crime spree.

The Freedom Gang’s run on the wrong side of the law was over. A sturdy safe, back luck, and good detective work doomed the thieves to a quick capture. But even if they had gotten away, the gang would have been one of the last great outlaw gangs to threaten America’s trains and banks. Their way of life was almost dead.

Though there would be a few more high profile train and bank robberies after the Freedom Gang was caught, the golden age of the outlaw gangs was over. It was becoming much harder for a gang to burst into town, pull a heist, and get away clean. Changes in technology, forensic science, law enforcement practices, and lots of other factors had changed the criminal landscape forever.

Eastern State Penitentiary

The Freedom Gang served their time in this Philadelphia prison. Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site.

The story of the Freedom Gang barely registered a blip in the newspapers. It was, after all, a failed crime attempted by a couple of second-rate thieves who were easily captured. But the gang’s story ends better than most of the great train and bank robberies of the day. Many train robbers were killed in shootouts with guards, on the run from the law, or were swiftly sentenced to death by the courts. The Freedom Gang was sentenced to just seven years and nine months in the Eastern State Penitentiary, and they even got out early when a judge commuted their sentence.


Creating the Right Narrative: Tom Randall’s Slavery Story

Sometimes as a historian I’m caught between my desire to interpret/contextualize a historical source, and the importance of letting individuals from history have their own, unmediated voice. Some posts in my blog contain lots of extra explanation and analysis that can shape how you read the quotes and copied passages , and others I’ve simply copied and left the reading and understanding up to you readers. It’s always a struggle for me and I’m hoping that I can get at finding the right balance as I keep on writing.

Especially when I was in graduate school, the pressure was always on not just to find important historical sources, but to fit them in larger narratives and use them to build up some sort of argument or larger point. And though (I think) I’m pretty good at finding those great sources, there’s always been a nagging voice in my head that wonders what the original authors/speakers would think of how I’m using their words. Did I get it right? Am I using their material in ways that they had never considered? What would they think? These are just a few of the questions I ask myself as I write and especially as I got back and look at pieces I’ve written in the past.

Every situation is different. Some historical sources are made even more powerful or can lend themselves to discussions that the original authors might not have thought about but nonetheless might have engaged in given the opportunity.

Other sources don’t need as much assistance from the historian and are more effective when you let the original author’s voice speak as loudly as possible. I think this is especially the case when you’re dealing with authors from communities that have traditionally been silenced or misinterpreted by the dominant voices in our society.

These sources are more compelling on their own and as a historian I feel it’s just my job to give the proper introductions and step to the side. I’ll leave my readers with a few short thoughts on why I’m interested in the source and what I was thinking about as I read it.

In the past few weeks I’ve been debating on how best to write about a 1930s ex-slave narrative and have finally decided that this is another good candidate for a brief introduction only.  This is a story by Tom Randall about life as a slave in Ellicott City, Maryland. Randall was interviewed towards the end of his life by the Federal Writers’ Project in 1937, part of a larger project to collect oral histories from former slaves before they passed away. Randall hadn’t moved very far from his boyhood home in Ellicott City- he was living in Oella (just a mile away) at the time of the interview. I grew up in this area and was really happy to learn more about the experience of slavery in Civil War-era Maryland. Continue reading

Richard Silvester and Maryland Agricultural College: “A School for the Farmer’s Boy”

Do you think that farming is “the loveliest of all professions on the face of the earth?” Would you argue that agrarian work is “the vocation on which all prosperity rests?” Or would you be so bold as to say that working on a farm “brings men into contact with that mysterious principle of life, that essence of God in the world?” If you answered yes to any of these, then you should have gone to the Maryland Agricultural College in 1895! This small land-grant college that eventually became the University of Maryland, College Park (my alma mater!) was originally a school devoted to training farmers and using agriculture experimentation to support the state’s farms. In order to really understand the college’s role in agriculture in the late 1800s and early 1900s, let’s get acquainted with Richard Silvester, the 16th president of the school.

Revilee_Silvester Portrait

Richard W. Silvester (1857-1916). Image Credit: 1900 Reveille.

Continue reading