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Two bandits rob a Great Northern train near Bellingham and kill three passengers on February 20, 1914.

HistoryLink.org Essay 7623 : Printer-Friendly Format

On Friday evening, February 20, 1914, two armed bandits board a northbound Great Northern passenger train at Burlington, Washington to rob the passengers traveling in the day-coach. Three passengers attempt to disarm one of the bandits and a wrestling match ensues. After killing the three men, the bandits calmly proceed to rob the other passengers. A conductor sitting in the dining car, hears the shooting, and pulls the cord for the emergency brakes. As the train comes to a halt near the Samish Depot, the bandits jump off and escape into the darkness. Authorities in Washington and British Columbia arrest and question scores of ex-convicts and suspicious transients, but none are charged with the crime. Although the Great Northern Railway offers a $30,000 reward for the capture of the bandits, dead or alive, the crime remains unsolved.

Two Well-Dressed Bandits

On Friday at 4:35 p.m., February 20, 1914, Great Northern passenger train No. 358 left the Seattle's King Street Station en route to Vancouver, B.C., Canada. The train stopped at Burlington in Skagit County at 7:00 p.m. to discharge and receive passengers. Two men, dressed conservatively in suits, hats, and overcoats, boarded the smoking/observation car and sat down. At about 7:15 p.m. the train departed the station for Bellingham.

The train picked up speed as it proceeded across the Skagit Valley toward Blanchard. At about 7:30 p.m., the two men stepped into the vestibule between the smoking car and the day-coach and tied large white handkerchiefs over their faces. The first bandit stepped through the rear door into the coach, shouting "hands up" and shot out a light in the ceiling of the car. The second bandit ran up the isle to the front door and locked it, preventing anyone from entering from the dining car.

Three men were sitting in the seats near the front door: Thomas F. Wadsworth, a Canadian Pacific Railway conductor; Harold. R. Adkison, a salesman for Vancouver Tire and Rubber Company; and Robert L. Lee, a clerk for the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton. Wadsworth immediately attacked the bandit, trying to take away his gun. Then Adkison and Lee joined the fight. While they were struggling, the bandit at the rear of the car walked down the isle shooting out the coach's ceiling lights and then shot Wadsworth in the shoulder. The bullet traveled through his body into his heart. The second bandit managed to shoot Adkison point blank through the left eye. The bullet entered his brain. Then he shot Lee five times in the back. One bullet penetrated his heart.

The first bandit returned to the rear of the car, telling the hysterical passengers not to be afraid, it was all a joke, then demanding their money and valuables. Some of the passengers hid their personal property, but many threw their purses and wallets into the aisle. The second bandit started walking down the aisle, collecting the loot.

The Killers Escape

Conductor Charles S. Waldren was sitting in the dining car when he heard gunshots and pulled the cord for the emergency brakes. The bandits were gathering and stuffing the booty into their coat pockets when the train came to an abrupt halt near the Samish interurban station, about 10 miles south of Bellingham. They immediately ran from the coach into the front vestibule and leaped from the platform, escaping into the darkness. The passengers estimated their losses at about $100.

Four people waiting at the Samish interurban station saw two men leap from the day-coach and run along the right side of the train to the engine tender. As the men started to climb onto the tender, they were scared away by the approach of the engineer George C. Wright shining a flashlight back along the train. The men ducked under the train, ran 40 feet and disappeared under the wooden platform in front of the Pearl Oyster Company, hiding there until the train left for Bellingham.

Learning that the bandits had escaped, the conductor had the engineer take the train into Bellingham where it was met by the Whatcom County Coroner Dr. Henry Thompson, and three deputy sheriffs at the Great Northern Station. Dr. Thompson took charge of the scene, examining the bodies where they fell and taking names and addresses of the witnesses. The bodies of the three murdered men were removed to the Anders G. Wickman Undertaking Parlor at 1146 Elk Street (now State Street) in Bellingham.

The Manhunt Begins

Whatcom County Sheriff Lewis A. Thomas and Skagit County Sheriff Edwin Wells combined forces to search for the bandits. Heavily armed posses were sent to patrol all the trails, roads, intersections, and train tracks between Burlington and Bellingham. A sheriff's posse was sent south on a special train toward Samish to examine the crime scene and search for the killers. Using lanterns, they found tracks that led from a culvert under the Pearl Oyster Company wharf, north along the Samish Bay tideflats toward Chuckanut Bay, where the bandits could have stashed a boat. Police officers were sent from Bellingham in fast motor launches to patrol the area as it was realized that the men could easily make their escape by water to the San Juan Islands or Canada. The manhunt continued throughout the night without success.

On Saturday, February 21, 1914, law enforcement authorities established a dragnet covering Western Washington and British Columbia. Scores of transients and ex-convicts were detained and questioned by police. Armed men stopped all vehicles and trains traveling through the area, looking for suspicious persons. Posses began combing the woods for miles around Samish and a pack of bloodhounds from the Washington State Reformatory at Monroe was brought in for the hunt.

Bellingham Police Officers combed the entire shoreline from Blanchard to Bellingham, inspecting shacks and hobo camps, looking for hiding places and clues. They learned from a fisherman living in the vicinity that a strange motorboat put into Chuckanut Bay about 8:00 p.m. the previous night and was gone in the morning. The authorities, convinced that the bandits had made their escape by boat, abandoned the land search and increased the number of motor launches searching the San Juan Islands and patrolling the waters south of the international boundary.

Train Robbery No. 2

By coincidence, on Saturday night, Puget Sound Electric Company interurban train No. 59, southbound to Tacoma, was held up at the South Side Station, six miles from Seattle, by three masked men brandishing handguns. While one bandit held his gun on the train crew, the other bandits forced 18-year-old Norris King to carry his hat through the forward coach, collecting money from the passengers. After that, they robbed the passengers in the rear coach and the train crew.

These bandits escaped with an estimated $400 in loot. The newspapers speculated the robberies of interurban and the Great Northern passenger train were connected somehow, but law enforcement authorities quickly dispelled that theory. Sheriff's posses searched South King County for two days but the interurban bandits were never caught.

The Great Northern's Maximum Effort

James J. Hill (1838-1916), owner of the Great Northern Railway, sent Chief Special Agent Al G. Ray from headquarters in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and Assistant Special Agents James J. Davis from Seattle, Charles McShane from Chicago, and James A. Dundon from Columbus, Ohio, to Bellingham to direct the investigation. Hill's instructions were to spare no expense and to stop at nothing to capture the two fugitives. He dispatched 150 railroad detectives and Pinkerton Agents to the Northwest to participate in the manhunt and to follow leads. Chief Ray established his center of operations in Bellingham's Leopold Hotel, 1218 Dock Street (now 1224 Cornwall Avenue) on Sunday, February 22, 1914, announcing that a detective would be there at all times to receive information. The Great Northern Railway distributed thousands of handbills offering a $30,000 reward for the capture of the killers, dead or alive.

On Tuesday, February 24, 1914, the intensive manhunt for the two bandits was abandoned. All the suspects arrested in connection with the crime had been questioned and released. Over the next several days, armed vigilantes continued roaming the area hoping to capture the killers and collect the reward money. The agents stationed at the Leopold Hotel were fielding at least 20 telephone calls per day from all over the Northwest with information about suspicious persons and activities. Most of the Great Northern Railway detectives working in the area were dispatched to follow clues in other parts of Washington and British Columbia, leaving the county sheriffs to pursue the local leads. Every penal institution in the Northwest sent photographs of recently released convicts to Special Agent Davis at the Leopold Hotel. The pictures were shown to witnesses, but none were identified as the bandits. The investigation dragged on without success.

On Friday, March 20, 1914, Chief Special Agent Ray announced they would be leaving Bellingham to attend to their regular duties, but an agent would remain at the Leopold Hotel for a few weeks to investigate any new leads. He said that railroad detectives had two suspects under surveillance in Canada and were in the process of collecting corroborating evidence. An informant in a Victoria B.C. hospital, believing he was about to die from an abdominal gunshot wound, identified the train robbers as George Ball and Harry Mathews, both ex-convicts and drug addicts. Chief Ray said that witnesses to the robbery had tentatively identified mug-shots of George E. Ball, age 25, and Harry Mathews, age 26, as the bandits.

Chief Special Agent Ray alleged that on Wednesday, February 18, 1914, Ball and Mathews purchased two guns from a pawn shop in Seattle, then traveled to Bellingham by train on Thursday, February 19, 1914. They visited two local drug stores and made purchases of pharmaceutical-grade morphine. Later, they hung around a billiard hall and played several games of pool. The druggists and billiard hall proprietor picked mug-shots of Ball and Mathews from 50 pictures of ex-convicts. On Friday, February 20, 1914, the day of the robbery, Ball and Mathews took the Pacific Northwest Traction Company interurban train to Mount Vernon where they purchased morphine, ate ice cream and drank several glasses of Coca-Cola in local drug stores. They walked three miles to Burlington in the late afternoon and boarded Great Northern passenger train No. 358, murdered three men and robbed the passengers in the day-coach. After leaving the train, the men split up. Ball reached Bellingham, riding on the brake beams of the train he had just robbed, and Mathews dropped out of sight.

The Case of George Ball

Coincidentally, a railroad detective from Seattle claimed he recognized George Ball on the streets of Bellingham the morning after the robbery. When Ball boarded the northbound Great Northern passenger train for Canada, the detective followed. They both left the train at New Westminster, B.C. where they took jobs in a logging camp. Six more railroad detectives joined in the surveillance, hoping that Ball would join with Mathews. Over the next few weeks, they shadowed Ball around lower British Columbia then to Calgary, Alberta. When news leaked out that warrants had been issued for the arrest of the men suspected of the train robbery, Ball began to act suspiciously and the detectives feared that surveillance was blown. On Thursday night, March 26, 1914, Ball was arrested by the Calgary Police as he exited a telegraph office. The railroad detectives speculated that Ball, spotting the surveillance, telegraphed Mathews to warn him away.

On Saturday, March 28, 1914, two Great Northern Railway detectives arrived in Vancouver B.C. on the Canadian Pacific Railway with prisoner George Ball. There they met with Sheriff Edwin Wells, who had an arrest warrant for Ball issued by Skagit County Superior Court Judge Egbert Crookston. Ball denied any connection with the crime, then waived extradition to the United States, declaring he had an alibi for the day of the train robbery.

On Wednesday, April 1, 1914, Chief Prosecutor Charles D. Beagle charged George E. Ball in Skagit County Superior Court with train robbery and the first-degree murder of three passengers. But Prosecutor Beagle and Sheriff Wells were not satisfied they had charged the right man and made two trips to British Columbia to investigate Ball's alibi. They returned to Mount Vernon convinced that the railroad detectives had arrested the wrong man. Even when the detective's mistakes were pointed out, Great Northern Railway officials persisted in pushing the case against Ball. Beagle paid to bring three witnesses from Port Coquitlam, B.C. to Mount Vernon to testify on Ball's behalf.

On Friday, April 10, 1914, Ball entered a plea of not guilty at his arraignment before Judge Crookston. At the preliminary hearing, the prosecution produced several witnesses who thought they recognized Ball as one of the bandits, but none would swear to it. Ball said it was a case of mistaken identity. He identified a picture of Mathews as Harry McAvoy, a man he had met several months ago in Vancouver, B.C., but hadn't seen since. Ball testified that he was in Port Coquitlam with friends on February 20, 1914, the day of the robbery, and defense attorney John F. Dore (1881-1938) introduced Beagle's three witnesses to establish his alibi. At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge Crookston bound the case over for trial in Superior Court.

The Wrong Man?

To further confuse matters, on April 18, 1914, Prosecutor Beagle arrested L. P. Johnson, one of the state's most important identification witnesses, for first-degree perjury. Johnson had testified at the preliminary hearing that he knew Ball and saw him drinking at the Pioneer Saloon in Sedro Woolley on February 21, 1914, the day after the robbery. However the saloon's liquor license had expired and was closed from February 15 to February 24, 1914, and on that day, Ball was registered at a hotel in Kamloops, B.C. Johnson pleaded not guilty and his trial was set for June 15, 1914.

Conflict with the Great Northern Railway officials over prosecuting Ball led Beagle to request that Washington State Attorney General William V. Tanner conduct an independent investigation of Ball's alibi. Beagle gave Tanner a complete report detailing Ball's movements from one week before to three weeks after the crime, including names, addresses, interviews and a hotel register proving he was in Canada on the day of the robbery. He also learned that the informant in Victoria, B.C. who had originally fingered Ball as one of the bandits did it out of spite over a woman.

Beagle told Tanner he was concerned about a possible conspiracy by railroad detectives to frame Ball for the crime in order to collect the $30,000 reward. Assistant Attorney General Scott Z. Henderson engaged the Burns Detective Agency to investigate the case. A few weeks later, they reported that Beagle's report was accurate. Ball;s alibi was valid.

On Monday, June 15, 1914, the case against George E. Ball was dismissed in Skagit County by Superior Court Judge Jessie P. Houser on a motion by Prosecuting Attorney Beagle, who said the state's evidence was insufficient to sustain a conviction. The motion was unopposed by Frederick V. Brown, counsel for the Great Northern Railway. Judge Houser ordered that Ball be held in the Mount Vernon jail as a material witness until the completion of L. P. Johnson's trial for first degree perjury, which began the same day The trial concluded at 4:00 p.m. on June 17, 1914. After deliberating for about two hours, the jury acquitted Johnson of the charge and both he and Ball were released from custody.

Harry Mathews

Great Northern Railway investigators fared no better in their search for Ball's alleged partner, Harry Mathews. Shortly after the robbery, Seattle Police arrested an ex-convict named Harry Mathews, but after interrogation by Captain Charles Tennant, he was released. On March 28, 1914, Special Agent Davis located Mathews in the Western Washington State Hospital at Steilacoom. The Seattle District Court had committed him to the mental institution 10 days earlier upon complaint of his father. Mathews's father substantiated his alibi, that he had been living with his parents in Seattle for the past 18 months. He identified a picture of Ball as George Blair, whom he had met several months ago while visiting Vancouver, B.C.

Also in March 1914, police in Vancouver, B.C., arrested a suspect named Harry Mathews for a local bank robbery, but he too was the wrong man. On April 14, 1914, Great Northern Railway officials announced that fugitive Harry Mathews was killed in a gun fight with railroad detectives in Lemmon, South Dakota, but two days later, this man was identified as James W. Weininger, an outlaw from Butte, Montana. Great Northern Railway investigators expanded their search for the two murderous bandits to include all of North America, but they were never found.

Sources:
Don Duncan, Washington: The First One Hundred Years (Seattle, The Seattle Times, 1989); "Two Bandits Hold Up Train," The Bellingham Herald, February 21, 1914, p. 1; "County Combed for Outlaws," Ibid., February 23, 1914, p. 1; "Sleuths Vanish But Continue Search for Bandits," Ibid., February 24, 1914, p. 1; "Man Suspected of Aiding the Bandits to Escape," Ibid., February 25, 1914, p. 1; "Canadians Help Detectives in Search for Bandits," Ibid., February 27, 1914, p. 1; "No New Clues in Manhunt," Ibid., February 28, 1914, p. 1; "Detectives on New Line of Inquiry," Ibid., March 2, 1914, p. 1; "Detectives to Make Final Report,"Ibid., March 20, 1914, p. 1; "Bandit suspect Employed as Waiter," Ibid., March 27, 1914, p. 1; "Extradition Probably Will Be Fought," Ibid., March 28, 1914, p. 1; "Marshal Says He Saw Ball on Day of Murder," Ibid., April 2, 1914, p. 1; "Ball's Hearing Is Begun in Skagit," Ibid., April 10, 1914, p. 1; "Alleged Bandit Must Stand Trial," Ibid., April 11, 1914, p. 8; "Samish Bandit Is Killed in Boxcar?" Ibid., April 14, 1914, p. 1; "Man Shot in Boxcar Not Samish Bandit," Ibid., April 16, 1914, p. 1; "Witness Against George Ball Is Arrested on Perjury," Ibid., April 20, 1914; "Bandit Clue Is Uncovered in Tacoma," Ibid., June 8, 1914, p. 3; "Ball Will Be Set Free, Is Report," Ibid., June 12, 1914, p. 2; "George Ball Is Liberated in Skagit," Ibid., June 16, 1914, p. 8; "Perjury Trial Being Held in Skagit County," Ibid., June 17, 1914, p. 5; "Johnson Is Found Not Guilty by Skagit Jurors," Ibid., June 18, 1914, p. 6; "Three Passengers Killed in Hold Up of Seattle Train," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 21, 1914, p. 1; "Train Robbers Defy Posses in Two Counties," Ibid., February 22, 1914, p. 1; "Bandits Sought Among Islands," Ibid., February 23, 1914, p. 2; "Get Clew to Train Robbers," Ibid., March 26, 1914, p. 1; "Find Man Sought as Train Robber at Steilacoom," Ibid., March 28, 1914, p. 1; "Innocent, Says Prisoner, But He Won't Cross Line," Ibid., March 29, 1914, p. 1; "Accused Bandit Ball Bound Over," Ibid., April 11, 1914, p. 1; "Prosecutor Puts Ball's Alibi Up to Attorney General," Ibid., April 26, 1914, sect 2, p. 2; "G. N. Bandit Suspect To Be Freed Is Report," Ibid., June 6, 1914, p. 1; "Suicide Believed G. N. Train Bandit," Ibid., June 7, 1914, sect. 2, p. 5; "Ball's Alibi So Good Beagle Is for Freeing Him," Ibid., June 12, 1914, p. 1; "George Ball Is Freed of Murder in G. N. Robbery," Ibid., June 16, 1914, p. 7.


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Profiles of Samish train robber bandits, March 26, 1914
Courtesy Seattle Post-Intelligencer


Bellingham Herald headline, February 21, 1914
Courtesy Bellingham Herald


Topographical map, Bellingham and Chaukanut Bay, July 1, 1975
Courtesy United States Geological Survey


Topographical map of Samish Bay, Skagit County, August 4, 2000
Courtesy U.S. Geological Survey


Great Northern train, Blanchard, Skagit County, 1915
Courtesy Whatcom Museum of History and Art (Daniel Kerlee Collection)


Great Northern Railway Co. reward poster for arrest and conviction of robbers and murderers of February 20, 1914, still posted in Blaine Depot, February 2006
Courtesy Carl Johnson, BNSF, Bellingham


 
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