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The Great Train Robbery

Casey Jones in 1898 two years before he was killed in a train accident at Vaughan at the controls of an engine that is likely similar to that which pulled the New Orleans Special when it was robbed at Batesville on July 4, 1913.

Hollis Crowder as a youngster, posed with his grandmother, Carrie Crowder. Hollis only asked his grandmother about the train robbery once, he said.

At a meeting of the Friends of the Oakland Library, Hollis Crowder (left) shares information about the Great Batesville Train Robbery with Mike Worsham. – The Panolian photo by John Howell

By John Howell

The Panolian


Nobody at the time nor since called it the “Great Batesville Train Robbery,” but it was.

On July 4, 1913, armed men posing as passengers boarded the southbound Illinois Central Fast Mail Train Number 1 in Sardis, overpowered the train crew as it rolled toward the Tallahatchie River, exchanged gunfire with passengers and a conductor, hijacked the train, ran it through Batesville, stopped the locomotive north of Courtland, blew up the safes in the express and mail cars and escaped with the loot. At least part of it.

As the 20th Century progressed, the story of the train robbery receded into local memories, displaced by the epochal events that followed, World Wars, Depression, Cold War, Vietnam. By the time the late Bobby Carlisle, once Batesville’s pre-eminent local historian, compiled a short story for the April-June 1992 issue of the Pan Gens Quarterly, “1913 Train Robbery in Panola County,” eye witnesses were no longer living.

Carlisle developed the story using newspaper accounts and from interviews with children of witnesses. That might have been the last word but for a man with Panola County roots who has spent years trying to unravel a closely guarded family secret. 

Hollis Crowder grew up in Memphis but spent summers and holidays on his grandparents’ Panola County farm. After a career in the military that included two tours in Vietnam and with the Veterans Administration as a mental health counselor, Crowder retired to Panola County about ten years ago. 

Crowder’s retirement has allowed him time to research the genealogy of his family extensively, but it is his paternal grandfather, Norman Crowder, in whom he has become most interested. Hollis Crowder believes that his grandfather, who in 1913 was plowing land south of Batesville next to the Illinois Central railroad tracks, found part of the money blown clear of the express and mail cars in the bandits’ attempt to get inside the safes carried aboard the train.

Crowder has entertained local audiences with the story — the Yalobusha and Panola historical societies, the Friends of the Oakland Library— about how his curiosity was piqued as a youngster by his father’s habit of giving a silver dollar at birthdays and other special days. 

“Why don’t you give us dollar bills?” he asked his father.

“Papa used to give us silver dollars,” was his father’s reply.

From an early age, Hollis began piecing together information about his grandfather’s generosity with silver dollars. During visits to Panola County he would question aunts, uncles — anyone who he thought might have a piece of the puzzle to share.


Illinois Central Fast Train No. 1

—The New Orleans Special —

The Illinois Central Fast Train No. 1 — the New Orleans Special — left Memphis near midnight July 3, 1913, pulling the mail and express cars immediately behind the engine’s tender, followed by five sleepers, two day coaches and a caboose. As the train headed south for New Orleans, the men — probably three of them — who planned to rob the train, boarded when it stopped at Sardis about 1:30 a.m.

Passengers first became aware that something was amiss when they heard gunfire and felt the train lurch as its emergency brakes were engaged. The first shots were apparently fired to intimidate the train crew, according to the contemporary accounts of Memphis newspapers. Two men had crawled over the tender —the rail car immediately behind the engine that carried the coal and water necessary to make the fire and steam — and got the drop on engineer Harry A. Norton and fireman John Foster.

Back in the sleepers an alarmed conductor, J. W. Harrison, went through the cars, dousing lights, locking doors and telling passengers to hide their valuables. He also begged for the loan of a firearm. The train jerked and stopped. 

Up ahead, the bandits had forced the engineer to pull the passenger cars onto the long bridge over the Tallahatchie River. Then as now that bridge is raised well above the water on a trestle with no railing on either side of its long approach. Stopping there kept passengers from exiting the side doors of their cars. The bandits planned to go from car to car, robbing the trapped passengers.

But conductor Harrison was apparently successful in borrowing a firearm and in finding other armed passengers willing to join him. They made a stand in the car reserved for the train’s African American passengers — referred to in extant accounts as the “Jim Crow” car. 

“Here numerous shots were exchanged and the two bandits who evidently had been assigned to separate the passengers from their valuables were driven off,” passenger Perley B. Jones of Jackson told the Memphis News Scimitar.

There was also gunplay from the express car up ahead. Express clerk R. E. Hooker answered the robbers’ demand to open the express car door by firing his revolver through the door until he ran out of bullets. When the robbers threatened him with death, Hooker relented and opened it. At the mail car the clerks “were quickly cowed at the points of rifles,” the Commercial Appeal account states.

After overcoming the resistance in the mail and express cars, the robbers forced the clerks and the engineer into the passenger cars and made the fireman uncouple them, leaving the passenger cars on the bridge.

Back in the caboose, the train’s flagman, at the sound of the first gunshots, had fled back up the track towards the tiny hamlet of Tallahatchie that then stood beside the tracks at what we have since named River Road. Discovering that the phone wires had been cut (yes, there were land line phones in those days — at least along railroad tracks — and they had apparently been severed by the bandits prior to their boarding the train in Sardis), the fireman cut off a piece of ground wire and worked on the line until finally he was able to contact the Sardis depot and give the alarm. 

The robbers forced the fireman to move the engine forward, pulling the mail and express cars with it. 


Passengers stranded on bridge worry about being rear-ended by southbound ‘Ole Miss’

As the engine and its complement disappeared south into the night, stranded passengers, no doubt by this time sweltering and under attack from clouds of river-bottom mosquitoes swarming through open windows, were worried. Unaware of the flagman’s contact with rail authorities in Sardis, concern grew among them that the “Ole Miss,” another fast passenger train of that day, was soon scheduled to travel the same southbound route, possibly rear-ending the rail cars stranded on the bridge.

The truncated train without passenger cars apparently raised no alarm when it passed through Batesville off-schedule during the early morning hours of July Fourth. It stopped two or three miles south of Batesville where the bandits went to work on the safes. They set off five explosions, according to the News Scimitar account — nitroglycerine or dynamite — around 3:30 a.m., heard all the way back to where the passengers still sat stranded. Yet no alarm was raised in Batesville, residents assuming that someone was getting an early start on Fourth of July celebrating, according to the News Scimitar.

The explosive force damaged both rail cars extensively but failed to blow the door off the mail car safe, warping it so that stacks of currency later determined to total $22,000 could be seen on the inside but not reached, Panola County Sheriff W. P. LeMaster would later report. The blasts were more successful in opening the express car safe. “The negro fireman said they took two gunny sacks with money out of the express safe,” according to the Commercial Appeal.

Finally, the bandits uncoupled the engine and tender from the two damaged cars and, after telling the fireman to make himself scarce, headed further south on the rails, eventually abandoning the still rolling engine to let it run out steam further south.

By the time the Ole Miss reached Sardis, a posse of armed men boarded to become the first part of a growing posse that mobilized to pursue the bandits. Undoubtedly, the stranded passenger cars left behind on the bridge by the robbers were pushed into the Batesville depot by the Ole Miss. 

“About half an hour after the Ole Miss pulled up with the first posse and they at once took up the trail, others took up the work and at Batesville every man who had a gun turned out,” the News Scimitar’s account continues. Bloodhounds were summoned from Parchman and Dyersburg.

But Sheriff LeMaster had already arrived at the scene in a motor car fitted with rail wheels and driven by C. C. Tye, general superintendent of the Batesville and Southwestern Railroad then under construction to Crowder. What they drove up on was two partially demolished rail cars and silver dollars and currency strewn everywhere.


Hollis Crowder’s granddad blessed with newfound 

prosperity  following explosions in mail, baggage cars

In those days, Norman Crowder hired himself out with his two mules for what we’d call custom plowing today, and early on that Fourth of July morning 103 years ago he was close by, either working, preparing to go to work or attracted by the noise of the explosions. Hollis Crowder has several theories.

What he remembers from childhood visits to his grandparents — and from family lore told him then by his dad, aunts and uncles — Crowder has now pieced together, with his post-retirement research, enough circumstantial evidence to have convinced himself, and those who have heard him tell it, that his grandfather was benefactor from the collateral scatterings of those explosions.

An aunt and uncle remembered the events of that July Fourth when Norman Crowder came riding back to his barn in his mule-drawn wagon, summoned his wife, went directly into the barn and closed the door behind them. He had indeed found money, family members agreed, and he returned it to the sheriff — or at least a portion of it — perhaps lured by the Post Office’s promise of a $1,000 reward.

“The next morning after the train robbery, my grandfather … showed up at the sheriff’s office in Batesville and told them that he was in his field when the safe blew and that money came out, and he showed up and picked up all kind of money in the field,” Crowder said recently, speaking to the Friends of the Oakland Library at their fall quarterly meeting.

“My dad’s schoolmate’s father was the janitor at the sheriff’s office so when my grandfather came to the sheriff’s office, he heard everything,” Hollis Crowder said.

“Where is the rest of the money?” the officials asked him. “They just assumed that he turned some of the money in and kept some. He never did say he kept any money,” according to the account relayed by jail janitor Dugger to his son, who then told it to Hollis Crowder’s dad, Hayward Crowder. “He said, ‘this is all I have to turn in.’”

Other Panola residents who had been contemporaries of Hayward Crowder include the late Ernest Willingham. 

“When I went to meet him, I told him who I was and who my grandfather was, he said, ‘Oh, yeah, your grandfather was the one who found that money from the train robbery,” Hollis Crowder said.

“When school started, the first week of school, they all came to school every day with brand new clothes,” another contemporary of his dad told him, describing the contrast of the Crowder children who previously arrived for class in hand-me-downs, patched and worn.

“After I moved back,” Hollis Crowder said, “I was at Flint’s Hardware one day and I made a charge there and Mr. Flint knew my grandfather real well because my grandfather used to be the town night watchman … He said, ‘were you any relation to Mr. Norman Crowder?’

“I said, yessir, that was my grandfather.”

“He said, ‘he had the prettiest set of Belgium horses. He used to come through town here, he used to have mules but after that train robbery he bought the prettiest set of Belgium horses you ever want to see.’”

Crowder has unearthed other evidence that his grandfather came into big money after the train robbery: He bought bricks for an addition to Shiloh Church. 

Then Crowder found a substantial puzzle piece when he went to the chancery clerk’s office to apply for probate on the family farm. “I had been paying the taxes and so I went down to the courthouse,” Crowder said. 

The clerk assisted Crowder in finding the original deed so he could apply for probate. The clerk had determined that his grandfather had bought the farm (the property at Highway 51 South and the Eureka Road) six weeks after train robbery.

She said to me, “‘this is really interesting,’” Crowder recalled. “‘He paid $1,450 for the farm,’” she told him.

“I said, ‘okay, what’s, what’s …?’”

“‘He paid cash,’” the clerk replied. “‘I just have to ask you, where did a black man get $1,450 cash in 1913?’”

“So I had to kind of defend my grandfather, so I said, ‘Who knows? He may have had a 401-K.’”


Posse’s search lasted two days, came up tired and

empty-handed

There is no description of what the posse looked like in 1913, but armed men from Sardis and Batesville assisted by bloodhounds and undoubtedly traveling in the limited number of autos available then as well as by horseback and buggy, took up the trail “at a point nine miles east of Pope Station, where two lads named Bearden, who were blackberrying this morning, were gruffly accosted by two men who answer to the description of the men who held up the train,” the Commercial Appeal’s account stated. “The entire countryside is aroused and pickets have been sent out all the way to Water Valley in an effort to catch the men.”

The posse came up empty-handed, exhausted and was disbanded after two days. Those from Sardis caught a ride home on a northbound train, “The Accommod-ation.” The free ride home was apparently the only compensation offered for their vain search.

Nineteen days later, a Post Office Inspector and two special agents of the Illinois Central Detective Force were led by a Monroe, Louisiana policeman to Tom Clark, who offered no resistance when he was arrested near the Louisiana city. Hollis Crowder’s research indicates that a woman scorned had tipped off police after she was shorted a portion of the loot promised her. Clark had been employed on a Vicksburg, Shreveport and Pacific work train.

In December, 2013, Philip E. Tabor and William Crowe were arrested in New Orleans after Tabor was first apprehended for a robbery of the Sunset Limited train near New Orleans. Witnesses from Water Valley and Ingomar who had seen them during the Batesville robbery traveled to New Orleans to identify the suspects.

No one knows how much money was on the train. Crowder’s research indicates that Illinois Central paid its employees in silver dollars and a payroll destined for Grenada was part of the express cargo. One estimate placed the loss at $23,000. The American Express Company said its loss did not exceed $1,000, probably playing down its losses as financial institutions tend to do. A Postal Service official placed its loss at $200, likely another intentional downplay. The fireman had described two full gunny sacks gunny sacks of currency.

Crowder said that his research has found no record of any money ever returned to the railroad, express company or post office.


Crowder’s grandmother was the person who could have cleared up the mystery

There was one witness who could have cleared up all of Hollis Crowder’s questions: his grandmother, Carrie Crowder.

Hollis recalled staying at her home after his grandfather died. 

“She would get up in the morning on the farm, she would make the fire in the wood stove and after that she’d go and feed the chickens and then she’d come back and make breakfast, and after breakfast she’d go out and gather the eggs and make the fire under these big old black pots to wash the clothes in and you’d just kind of follow her around … she was just really, really busy. 

“So you really couldn’t talk to grandma because you’d always be following her around,” Crowder said, conjuring among listeners the image of a little eight or nine-year-old boy trotting along behind his grandmother.

“But one thing I realized, talking time to grandma was in the evenings. She had these two milk cows,” and Crowder said he learned that was his time to talk with her.

“So that’s when I would sit on a little stool on the other side of the cow and I’d ask her all these questions. So finally I had the nerve to ask. I said, ‘Grandma, did Grandpa find some money from a train robbery?’”

“She stopped, she paused for a second, and she kind of looked up under the cow and she looked at me and she said ‘Boy, what you need to remember about your Grandpa is that he was a deacon in the church!’”

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