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 traveler’s checks and other secure forms of currency 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.


When the Telegraph Lines Connects Pennsylvania

Many of the most memorable inventions of the 19th century aided transportation and communication, as seen in this 1876 Currier & Ives print. Library of Congress.

Long distance communication and transportation have historically been struggles in America. Long roads, bad roads, and many times no roads at all have slowed the movement of people, goods, and ideas all over. Fortunately, Americans turned this challenge into an opportunity with new inventions and industries that have improved our lives in many ways.

It’s easy today to take long distance calling, good highways, and next day delivery for granted, but these were all distant dreams in the 19th century. As new inventions were created and became available for use, they had dramatic impacts on the every day lives of ordinary Americans- sometimes in ways you might not expect.

Conestoga wagons were also known as covered wagons or prairie schooners to settlers moving to the American West. Landis Valley Farm Museum.

Maybe it was just pure luck, but Pennsylvania happened to be at the heart of many 19th century technological advances that made transportation and communication possible over long distances. Conestoga wagons, invented by Pennsylvania Dutch settlers, made travel easier on the region’s rocky, rutted, and muddy roads (and also where there were no roads at all). No surprise that generations of settlers moving out west made Conestoga wagons the vehicle of choice to move their families and possessions westward across the continent. Pennsylvania’s Delaware and Hudson Railway was one of the first American railroad companies and was the first to operate a locomotive on rails in the United States in 1829. The Pennsylvania Railroad, chartered in 1846, became the largest railroad in America and helped move freight and good all over the country.

One story from Pennsylvania’s innovative past you may not have heard of comes to us from Lancaster County. In the late 1840s, both the curious and the suspicious were introduced to a rudimentary new technology: the telegraph. We all know that the telegraph was the basis for our modern electronic communication networks, but the first people to see a telegraph had mixed feelings about the new machine. Continue reading “When the Telegraph Lines Connects Pennsylvania”

The Industrial Home for Women at Muncy, Pennsylvania

Inmates training in the kitchen at Muncy. Lycoming College.

In 1913, the Pennsylvania State Legislature passed an act establishing the Industrial Home for Women at Muncy, about 20 miles east of Williamsport, PA. The first woman was admitted in 1920 and Muncy’s population grew steadily in the following years. Many new buildings were built in the 1930s, some of which are still in use today. Originally, the institution was built to house first-time female offenders between the ages of 16 and 30, but the maximum age limit was removed when Muncy was transferred from the Department of Welfare to the Department of Justice (now Corrections) in 1953.

Muncy Cottage
Pennsylvania State Archives, RG 9.1

By 1955, 11 cottages were built on the grounds. According to one report,

“The cottages are homelike in atmosphere with pianos, radios, and record players in the living rooms where each evening, except Sunday, the girls may congregate, play the piano, listen to the radio, sing, play cards, crochet, embroider, and on Saturday nights dance until 8:00 o’clock…the beautiful campus and well-kept, mountain stone buildings compare most favorably with those of the best of our modern American colleges. It is hard to believe that such beauty and freedom could ever be associated with a penal institution.” At Muncy, “each girl is encouraged to use nail polish, rouge, and lipstick, and to arrange her hair attractively. Every individual girl is issued three print dresses which she wears to religious services and movies, as well as at all other appropriate times.”

Inmates were kept busy working on Muncy’s 828-acre farm and in the power sewing shop throughout the year. Inmates were paid two cents an hour for their work. In the 1950s, Muncy also offered vocational and business classes in the winter months to help women find employment after they were paroled. If an inmate was paroled, she was given ten dollars, a suitcase with several outfits, a “very stylish hair-do,” and a ride to the train or bus station.

Muncy Group
Pennsylvania State Archives, RG 9.1

Muncy still only holds female inmates, and is known today as SCI Muncy. The Pennsylvania State Archives a variety of documents, photographs, and other interesting stuff. To learn more about Muncy’s long history and the women who were detained there, see the Department of Correction’s history of Muncy, or this Muncy scrapbook that’s been digitized by Lycoming College Archives. Lots of interesting stories here!

Gus Egolf: Captain of the Antique Industry

Gustavus “Gus” Egolf was a German immigrant who settled in Pennsylvania and eventually became one of the most prominent antique dealers in the United States.

Gus Egolf
Gus Egolf with a “homemade velocipede,” 1896. Photo credit: PA State Archives, MG 171.21

Egolf was born in Baden, Germany in 1849 and moved to Philadelphia at a young age. He attended school sporadically until the age of fourteen, when he became a teamster. Saving as much money as he could for nine years, Egolf eventually was able to launch a contracting business where he employed eight teams who hauled goods all around Philadelphia. By the early 1870s, he was a financially successful businessman and went on an extended holiday to his first home in Baden. Afterwards, he spent several months touring Germany, France, Ireland, and England. Perhaps it was because of the many  treasures that he saw on his European travels, when Egolf returned to Philadelphia he established an antique, china, and furniture business.

Business in the antique trade was good to Egolf and he had to move his store several times larger and larger buildings to make room for all his wares. It was around this time that he also married his wife Eliza Egolf (no relation I think). They would have 10 children together. In 1879 he moved out to nearby Norristown where he occupied a four story building on Main Street. Egolf was also a prominent local historian and was well known nationally for his extensive personal collections of antique coins and china.

Gus Egolf Furniture
Advertisement for Egolf’s furniture and anqitue business from a c. 1900 Directory of Montgomery County, PA.

The captain of the antique industry also caught the attention of one of the most important advocates for Pennsylvania history- Samuel Pennypacker. Pennypacker, best known for serving as the Republican Governor of Pennsylvania from 1903-1907, was an avid collector of antiques and other historical items- especially books. Pennypacker had so many books!

Samuel Pennypacker
Governor Pennypacker in 1906. Capital Preservation Committee.

Pennypacker served as the president of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and personally published several books on the history of the Keystone State. As a prominent politician and lawyer from a venerable Philadelphia family, Pennypacker had the means and energy to amass a huge collection of antique books, maps, and other historical materials that documented the history of the state. And Gus Egolf was Pennypacker’s favorite antique dealer. Here is what Pennypacker remembered about Mr. Egolf in his autobiography:

“My books came to me in all kinds of ways, and from over the earth, and I became known to the dealers and writers not only at home but in Amsterdam, London and Berlin. Some of the incidents which occur in the search for out-of-the-way treasures are both romantic and dramatic. Gus Egolf, short and stout, with a wen on the back of his neck nearly as large as his head, a keen dealer in old furniture and old books, lived and still lives in Norristown, where he has a store. Often I went ‘incog’ in an old suit and broken hat with him to the sales of the German farmers in the country and I have bought as many as a three-bushel bag full of books at a sale. The auctioneer would hold them up at a window, half a dozen at a time, and knock them down for a few pennies. There was little or no opportunity for preliminary inspection and often the purchase proved to be of little value, but every once in a while there turned up a Franklin, an Ephrata or a Sower imprint. In this way I secured nearly all of my Schwenkfelder literature.”

Pennypacker also supported his antique dealer politically. The Governor appointed Egolf (a staunch Republican who “always contributes his share to the success of the party at the polls”) a factory inspector in Philadelphia, a position that Egolf held until he died in 1916.

It doesn’t appear that Egolf’s antique business lasted long after his death, but it was a major force in the antique world at the time. Today, you may find an old clock or a piece of china or furniture with his name on it though, a reminder of the many antiques and fine articles that were made or sent to him from all over the world and sold at his store.

A Hot Reception for the Cold War: Civil Defense in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania was hundreds of miles from the battlefields of the Cold War, but the state was prepared to be on the front line of war at a moment’s notice. With the ever-present threat of nuclear  warfare hovering over the state, officials worked tirelessly to protect the Commonwealth. Beginning in the early 1950s federal, state, and local government created a civil-defense system for Pennsylvania that would prepare citizens for an inevitable nuclear attack.

Following World War II, American relations with the Soviet Union swiftly broke down and seemed to be on the brink of war. At the same time, American and Soviet forces were working the develop new powerful nuclear weapons that would likely target cities and other civilian areas. Once the Soviets successfully tested their own nuclear bomb in 1949, the American home-front became much more vulnerable to attack. Many Americans feared attacks like the ones that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki only a few years earlier. The United States began to train and prepare citizens for civil-defense: to protect themselves and their property in the event of a nuclear attack. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania developed a sophisticated civil-defense system within the state. “There’s still a big difference between taking a punch you’re prepared for,” Commonwealth officials reasoned, “and getting knocked out in the first round because you didn’t see it coming.”

“By every possible criterion, Pennsylvania will be a No. 1 target so long as men possess weapons,” one civil-defense pamphlet read. Civil-defense officials feared that the concentration of resources, vital industry, and transportation systems would make the Commonwealth a likely target for Soviet bombers. If Pennsylvania’s resources and industries were bombed and destroyed, they reasoned, “there would be little point in any farther resistance on the battlefields. The war would be over and the country in the hands of a foreign overlord.” Continue reading “A Hot Reception for the Cold War: Civil Defense in Pennsylvania”

More than an Institution: Farview State Hospital

Driving along Route 6 in Wayne County, the view extends for miles. The Moosic Mountains dominate the landscape with their graceful peaks and quiet valleys. Small ponds and lakes add shades of blue to the landscape, and there are only a few small houses and farms in sight. It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful scene in Pennsylvania. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that these “restful and healthful qualities” have attracted tourists and admirers since the early 19th century.[1] The area’s beauty, isolation, and healing features, however, have also welcomed another group of Pennsylvanians: the intellectually disabled. Since 1912, thousands of patients lived on top of a Wayne County mountain plateau at Farview State Hospital, Pennsylvania’s first and only institution devoted to the care of the criminally insane.

Farview 12
The view from Farview State Hospital extends for miles. Visible in this picture is the Superintendent’s home. Circa 1920 Image credit: PA State Archives RG23.992 Farview State Hospital.

From its modest beginning of a few wards and administrative buildings, the patients and staff at Farview worked hard over the decades to expand the hospital and its grounds and turn it into a self-sufficient community with all the facilities needed for the care of mentally insane patients. By the 1960s the institution had grown to become the home of over 1400 patients from all over Pennsylvania, complete with dozens of buildings and a 300 acre farm. For 84 years, Farview served as a home and community for patients who needed care and attention unavailable in prisons or other mental institutions. The hospital’s colorful history, full of challenges and dramatic transformations, sheds light on society’s changing views regarding proper care for the intellectually disabled, as well as the experiences of Pennsylvania’s intellectually disabled citizens. Continue reading “More than an Institution: Farview State Hospital”

The Littlest Models: Harry Whittier Frees’ Animal Photography

“Puppies are tractable when rightly understood, but the kitten is the most versatile animal actor, and possesses the greatest variety of appeal.”

Harry Whittier Frees was a Pennsylvania native and creator of novelty animal postcards in the early 1900s. He is best known for his photographs of kittens and puppies dressed up and acting out human scenes.

The Cook
Harry Whittier Frees, “The Cook,” 1914. Photo Credit: Library of Congress.

Continue reading “The Littlest Models: Harry Whittier Frees’ Animal Photography”