056: Bill Miner: Last of the Old Time Bandits
August 28, 2019
Listen Now [59 MB, length: 1:04:40]
On May 8th of 1906, three armed and masked men held up the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Transcontinental Express, at a place called Duck’s Station, 17 miles east of Kamloops in British Columbia. It was a botched robbery to say the least. The bandits ordered the engine and mail car uncoupled, and moved the train a mile down the track. Realizing that the safe containing 35,000 dollars in gold had been mistakenly left behind in the second express car, which was still attached to the main passenger cars, they started going through the mail sacks. Overlooking a bag containing over 40,000 dollars in cash, they ended up with only 15 dollars and 50 cents, and a bottle of liver pills. The holdup set off one of the largest manhunts in Canadian history. One of the men being hunted, was the notorious Bill Miner, the last of the old-time bandits…
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Bill Miner: Last of the Old Time Bandits
Josée Arnold (JA): Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Josée Arnold. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.
On May 8th of 1906, three armed and masked men held up the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Transcontinental Express, at a place called Duck’s Station, 17 miles east of Kamloops in British Columbia. It was a botched robbery to say the least. The bandits ordered the engine and mail car uncoupled, and moved the train a mile down the track. Realizing that the safe containing 35,000 dollars in gold had been mistakenly left behind in the second express car, which was still attached to the main passenger cars, they started going through the mail sacks. Overlooking a bag containing over 40,000 dollars in cash, they ended up with only 15 dollars and 50 cents, and a bottle of liver pills.
The holdup set off one of the largest manhunts in Canadian history. One of the men being hunted, was the notorious Bill Miner, the last of the old-time bandits…
Nicknamed “The Gentleman Bandit,” Bill Miner was a legendary criminal on both sides of the Canada–U.S. border. Although he committed dozens of robberies and escaped from multiple prisons, many saw him as a generous folk hero who targeted exploitative corporations only. Library and Archives Canada holds many documents and other material relating to Miner.
On today’s episode, we discuss the life and times of the legendary criminal with author and historian John Boessenecker. John’s 1992 book, The Grey Fox: The True Story of Bill Miner, Last of the Old Time Bandits, co-written with Mark Dugan, stands as the definitive biography of Canada’s best-known outlaw.
John, fascinated by the Old West from a young age, published his first article on frontier history at the age of 15. Since then, he has published dozens of articles and numerous books about lawmen, outlaws and vigilantes of the period. We spoke to him at his home in San Francisco…
John Boessenecker (JB): My name is John Boessenecker. I've written eight or nine books about crime and lawlessness in the Old West. I've written dozens of magazines articles during the last 50 years. I first got interested in the Old West as a kid growing up in the early '60s and got hooked on the television programs that were principally about the west. As I got into high school, I began to wonder if there was an actual wild west. I went to the local library, read everything I could get my hands on and have been consistently researching and writing ever since.
JA: We asked John if he could tell us a little about the early life of Bill Miner and how he got into a life of crime.
JB: Bill Miner was the subject of the only full-length biography written about him by myself and Mark Dugan, it was published more than 25 years ago. It is very difficult to write about outlaws because they're secretive by nature, they don't leave behind letters, diaries and that sort of thing. Anybody researching them has to rely on court records, newspapers and sometimes written memoirs. In Miner's case, we were able to dig up a lot of information about his early life.
Much about what's been written about him is myth, which is based on false statement that he made to reporters near the end of his life. Among the very common stories about him are that he was nicknamed, “The Grey Fox”, which is not true. That was the title of a film and that was the invention of the film writer, he was never called, “The Grey Fox” until the film came out.
He was not born in Bowling Green, Kentucky, which you will read all over the internet. He did not originate the command ‘hands up’ that was probably originated by some English highwayman in the 17th-century robbing coaches on the King's Highways. His real name was Ezra Allen Miner. He was born just outside of Onondaga, Michigan, on December 27th, 1847.
My co-author, Mark Dugan, did extensive research on his early years and found the genealogical records and probate records of his family and he did that 10 years before anybody ever heard of the internet, it wasn't easy to do research before the internet became popular. Bill Miner was one of ten children. His father died when he was nine years old, in 1856. Four years later, his mother, Harriet, moved overland by wagon train to California with their three youngest children, including Bill.
She settled in Yankee Jims, which was a famous mining camp in Placer County, probably about 50 miles east of Sacramento. He grew up there, and by all accounts, led an exemplary life as a boy and teenager.
JA: In 1864, toward the tail end of the Civil War, Bill enlisted as a private in the Union Army in Sacramento, but his character started to come out at this point. He deserted within just two months. He also began using the first name, “William”.
JB: Then about the same time, according to a letter that we have written by the district attorney of that county, he fell under the influence of a woman of ill repute, which was 1865 language for a prostitute. This woman lived in Sacramento and according to the district attorney, the prosecutor in that county, she led him into a life of crime. The first crime that we know about, he's still only about 18 years old, he stole $300 from his employer.
He was caught but the employer liked him and declined to prosecute him, which was a mistake because only a week or two later, he turns 19 at the end of the month and the very next day he holds up and robs the treasurer of Placer County on a street in Placerville, which is another famous gold town, used to be called Hangtown, now known as Placerville. Then he stole a horse, rode to another nearby town, stole another horse and then escaped to San Francisco and begin living the high life there. That's how he got started on his career of crime. Then just a few weeks later, he hooked up with another young hard case. They rode into the San Joaquin Valley and held up and robbed several travelers near Stockton.
JA: That hard case was named John Sinclair.
JB: Within a few months, the two of them were captured, convicted and lodged in San Quentin. This was the first of several terms he would serve in the California State prison, which would be his principal home up to 1900.
JA: Miner and Sinclair were both sentenced to three years in San Quentin.
JB: He was released from San Quentin in 1871 and immediately set out as a stage robber. He hooked up with this notorious outlaw named, “Alkali Jim” Harrington. They robbed a stagecoach in Calaveras County, which is in the mining country in California.
They both were lodged and jailed in San Andreas, but they managed to get a knife that must have been smuggled into the jail and they used it to saw off their irons. They were in the process of escaping when a jailor spotted them and managed to coral them both and put the heavy balls and chains on both of them. They were both convicted and sent back to San Quentin.
JA: Was this Bill’s first attempt at a prison break?
JB: That's the first time he tried to break out of a jail and certainly not the last, but that was his first.
JA: In 1871, Miner and Alkali Jim Harrington, and another accomplice Charlie Cooper, rob a stagecoach of $2,600 dollars near San Andreas, California. They are apprehended and arrested weeks later and Miner is sentenced to 10 years, back in San Quentin. During his time there, Miner makes another attempt to break out, but is unsuccessful. He is finally released from prison on July 14th, 1880, but would not remain a free man for long….
JB: This time he was released from San Quentin in 1880, after serving about nine years. What he does is he's close to his family, he's got a sister who lives in Colorado Springs in Colorado. He boards a railroad train and heads to Colorado Springs to visit her.
While he's on the train, he runs into a young guy from Iowa, named Arthur Pond, who Miner starts regaling with stories of his life as an outlaw and stage robber.
He doesn't tell him that he's a very unsuccessful outlaw and stage robber. Pond gets very interested in this and changes his name to Billy LeRoy and he soon becomes known as, “The King of the Rocky Mountain Bandits”. The two of them hook up together, they associate with Arthur Pond's brother. They rob numerous stagecoaches in Colorado.
JA: Their final robbery together was the Alamosa to Del Norte stagecoach on Oct 14th. Bill, along with Leroy and Leroy’s brother Silas Pond, made off with just over $4,000 dollars. A small fortune in those days. After the successful hold up, Miner parted company with Leroy and Pond. The brothers ended up robbing another stagecoach near Del Norte, Colorado a few months later, in May of 1881, and Leroy and his brother were eventually caught. The citizens of Del Norte, fed up with stage robbery, stormed the jail and lynched the two men. Bill Miner on the other hand, headed east, back home to Onondaga, Michigan. There he posed as William A. Morgan, a ‘cultured and prosperous California mining man’ and became engaged to twenty year old Jennie Louise Willis, the daughter of a well-to-do Onondaga businessman.
After 3 months in Onondaga, Miner found himself nearly broke, so he left Michigan, heading west, telling his fiancée that he’d return soon. Jennie Louise Willis never saw Bill again.
JB: When he's back in California, this is in 1881, he hooks up with the gang of notorious horse thieves and highway robbers…
JA: Stanton T. Jones, Bill Miller and James Crum…
JB: …and they rob a stagecoach near Sonora, another famous gold town in the mining country. They're quickly captured by Wells Fargo detectives and he's sent back to San Quentin. This time they throw the book at him, he gets like 20-25 years for armed robbery.
JA: Stanton and Jones managed to evade capture, but Miner, Miller and James Crum were all captured and convicted. Miner received a 25-year sentence. So on December 21st, 1881, Miner once again enters his old homestead of San Quentin for the third and final time.
JB: He becomes a fixture in San Quentin, he has a checkered career there, he is generally a good convict.
At one point, he got into a fight with another prisoner who tried to cut his throat. In another event in 1892, he tries to pull another escape, and this one is quite ingenious. They managed to figure out how to break the lock of their cell, he and his cellmate, a guy named Joe Marshall, but the guards got wind of this fact that they were working on their cell door. One of the guards sets up an ambush with a shotgun and waits for them to come out.
As they are coming down onto a balcony outside the cellblock, the guard just opens fire without warning and kills Miner's partner. Once again, Bill Miner is very lucky because he is missed by the buckshot, he surrenders. He tells reporters who come to the prison, immediately this is in all the newspapers in San Francisco, and he is very despondent, Bill Miner, and he says he'd rather be with Marshall dead in the morgue than to still be in prison.
There was an investigation into that shooting because the proper thing would be for the guards simply to take their tools away that they were working on the cell door with, but instead this particular guard set up an ambush. My recollection is that after the investigation, he was fired. Whether he did this to glorify himself, so he could say, “Hey, I shot and killed Bill Miner”, who at that time was one of the most notorious convicts in the prison.
Or, whether this was actually engineered by the prison officers to send a message to the other prisoners, “Don't try to escape”, that's a question. Generally speaking, San Quentin was a very well run prison. That's another story. Folsom Prison at that time was not well run, San Quentin was, and there were plenty of prison breaks at San Quentin. They really didn't need to set up a prison break in order to send a message to the convicts because there were many of these incidents during that era. It does seem as if Miner was victimized by a lone prison guard. The guard, as I recall, was fired.
There may have been some sympathy for Miner in that he was almost killed, and it was very fortunate that he didn't die along with Joe Marshall. Nonetheless, he gets what were called coppers, which were credits for good time behavior, good time credits, and he gets some years chopped off of his sentence because of that and is released from San Quentin for the last time in 1901.
JA: In 1901, having spent over 33 of his 54 years behind bars, Bill Miner is released, never to see the old stone walls of San Quentin again. So what does he do next?
JB: He again goes to visit his sisters. At this point two of his sisters, Harriet and Mary Jane, are living in Washington State, so he goes up there.
JA: Bill tries to go straight, and gets a job for two years as superintendent of an oyster bed.
JB: By this time, he is a dyed-in-the-wool bandit. In the movie The Grey Fox, he gets out of San Quentin, and he goes to a silent film theater, and he sees the film The Great Train Robbery, which is generally considered to be the first feature film, and he gets all excited and gets the idea to rob a railroad train.
Again, that's a fictitious invention of a film writer. The fact is that when Bill Miner was in San Quentin, some of the real pioneer train robbers of the Old West were locked up with him. One of them was Chris Evans, who was California's most notorious train robber. He and his partner, John Sontag, had robbed a bunch of railroad trains in California, as well as in the Midwest. Another one was Charles Shinn, who had engineered the first train holdup in California up in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1881.
So Bill Miner had ample opportunity to discuss the fine art of train robbery with guys who had actually invented train robbery. That's clearly where he obtained his expertise in knowing how to rob railroad trains.
JA: Where does Bill’s life of train robbing begin?
JB: In the Pacific Northwest. What happens is in 1903, he tries to rob a train in Oregon and it doesn't work out. It's an attempted robbery, it's a failure. Four days later though, he and some partners of his, they again try to rob an express train near Portland. One of Miner's partners is shot and wounded, and Miner and his other partner both escape. Again, he's quite lucky in the sense that he manages to escape shootings and lynchings on a number of different occasions.
JA: At the end of September 1903, Miner, along with two other bandits, Guy Harshman and Charles Hoehn, attempt to rob the Oregon Railway Express train near Portland. The trio, using dynamite, blasted open the express car doors. The express manager, a man by the name of Fred Korner, hiding in the car’s dark interior, fired his shotgun at the bandits, hitting Harshman in the right side of his head. Miner and Hoehn fled, while Harshman, injured but alive, was captured. Miner ends up returning to his job on the oyster beds in Washington State, and evades capture, but Harshman ends up confessing everything to the authorities, and identifying his co-conspirators, Miner and Hoehn. Hoehn is caught, and Miner ends up escaping. He flees over the border, to Canada.
JB: Bill Miner flees to Canada to escape the manhunt for him in Oregon. When he's up in the Northwest, he meets a fellow that he knew in San Quentin named Jake Terry. Terry's a real hard case, and he's a smuggler on the Canadian-US border. Terry and Miner engage in smuggling along the border. At the same time, Miner lives in Princeton in British Columbia, which is about 50 miles east of Vancouver. He poses as an honest man there and is well liked by the townsfolk.
By this time, he's in his 50's, I guess, and he's seen as a harmless older gentleman. There's plenty of stories about him. One girl left the story that Miner took a liking to her, he went by the name of George Edwards, he always used aliases when he would live in these little towns, and she said that she wanted to go ice skating but there was no pond, so he cleared a field and flooded it from a nearby creek and let it freeze over so the little girl could have a pond to go ice skating. That's a story that comes from the girl, rather than from him.
Miner told plenty of stories later in life about being a Robin Hood and how he one time goes into a general store in British Columbia, and they're collecting for the poor, and he hands over some of his stolen loot and says, “Give it to the poor folk, they need it more than I do.” If you believe that, I've got some oceanfront property in Arizona for sale.
JA: Throughout his criminal career and right up until his death, Bill used to regale journalists with his heroic deeds, describing himself as a Robin Hood figure. Telling many about his gold and diamond mines down in South America. According to John, most if not all of these stories are untrue.
JB: Bill Miner's stories that he told in later years about being a Robin Hood were generally not believed by the public. The public in the 19th century and up, I think, into the last generation or so, had a lot more life experience than a lot of young people have today, and just didn't believe that stuff. The journalists would record it because it's a great story, but did people really believe it? Generally, no.
However, I will say that some of my fellow historians from the prior generations, one of them is James Horan, who wrote quite a few books in the 1940s and '50s based on the Pinkerton archives which he very shrewdly recognized that those are valuable historical records. Horan, unfortunately, when he was faced with the facts which might be boring, or a great story, he'd always go with the great story.
He was one of the main culprits in promulgating these stories about Bill Miner being a wealthy mine owner and going to South America, which is all impossible. There's no way we know where he was, we know what he did now, and there's no way he had time to go to South America and run diamond mines. He certainly didn't rob from the rich and give to the poor, as we'll discuss as we go along about his later life.
JA: We asked John to tell us more about Miner and Jake Terry.
JB: He and Jake Terry decide to rob a railroad train. On September 10th of 1904, this is about three years after he got out of San Quentin, Miner and Jake Terry, with a fellow named Shorty Dunn, they holed up in a Canadian Pacific train at Mission Junction, which is in British Columbia, and it's a pretty successful robbery. They get $7,000 in cash and $300,000 in bonds and securities. This becomes a very important incident in Miner's life.
This is an enormous amount of money, the $7,000 in cash would be-- You multiply it by at least 30 or 40, so you're talking quite some hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash in today's money. The bonds and securities, from what we could tell, they probably weren't bearer bonds but they were bonds in which the railroad or the express company would've been liable for making this loss good, because when you shipped by the various express companies or railroads, they guarantee the safety of what they lost in transit.
This is something that was going to be important to Miner later. He did spend money like crazy. This money apparently didn't last him and the rest of the gang very long.
JA: So Bill Miner, Jake Terry and Shorty Dunn pulled off the first ever Canadian train robbery. Or did they? Bandits had robbed a train of the Great Western Railway, between Toronto and Port Credit, Ontario some 30 years earlier in 1874, making off with $45,000 dollars. There is some debate with historians if this was a hold up, or just a theft. Apparently, there is a difference….
JB: When we did our research back in the late '80s, we went with the normal story, and the newspapers said at the time that this was the first train hold-up in Canada. However, I understood later that there was apparently an earlier train robbery. The issue is, generally, western historians count a train robbery or a train hold-up as an actual raid on a train. Either the bandits spot the train and rob everybody or they put a culprit on the train, and the culprit climbs over the coal-car, drops into the engine cab, orders the engineer to stop typically on a trestle called the trestle method, that way the passengers fall off the trestle if they try to get out and interfere. Those are generally considered train robberies. There were some robberies of trains where someone snuck in and stole something, or maybe the train was parked on a sighting and some burglars broke into the express car and stole the safe, those are not considered train robberies. It depends upon the facts. If they snuck in at night and did a burglary, then it's not a train robbery, and if they actually did a daylight, armed, hold-up of an expressman on a railroad train, then that is a train robbery. If that what's happened, then that would be the first Canadian train robbery, at least earlier train robbery by many years than the one Bill Miner did. Could simply be that the journalists were probably young men in 1904 and had no recollection of what happened back in 1873.
JA: Either way, this was the first time the Canadian Pacific Railway had been robbed, and $300,000 dollars worth of bonds being stolen was going to be a problem for them….
Do we know what happened to the bonds?
JB: The bonds they realized were really easy to trace. In Butch Cassidy's case, his gang stole bonds in a Montana train robbery and those bonds are what allowed the lawmen to trace them. When they tried to pass them, it wasn't like a $5 bill. Bonds attracted attention, the bankers would immediately recognize them often there were wanted posters issued, listing all the bonds by serial number. When somebody came in with a bond and tried to cash it in a bank, the bank probably wouldn't even accept it. Miner knew that, he was no dummy, he was very smart. He hid the $300,000 in bonds after that Mission Junction train robbery.
JA: We asked John what happened to the gang after the robbery. Where did they go?
JB: Bill Miner, he goes back to the US after the CPR [Canadian Pacific Railway] robbery and then he lays low for a year or so. In 1905, this is about a year or so after the Canadian Pacific robbery, Miner and Jake Terry they rob a train near Seattle and escape with $36,000, which is a hugely successful train robbery. That would end up being enough for the two of them to retire for the rest of their lives. The average person only made $50 to $100 a month back then and that's a good job.
Apparently, Miner buries his share of the money and lives off of some of it, but then it just seems like he liked being an outlaw, he liked being a robber because he clearly didn't need the money at this point. He then goes back to Canada and on May 9th of 1906, with Shorty Dunn, who was one of the guys with the first train robbery that they did at Mission Junction, and another guy named Louis Colquhoun, he robs the Canadian Pacific train at Ducks, in British Colombia. This one got a humorous aspect to it because this is a very unsuccessful train robbery, they get $15.50 and a package of catarrh pills, which were an early medication for an upset stomach or liver problem.
JA: The authorities realized that it was a repeat performance by the same gang that had held up the CPR train 2 years earlier. They were not going to let these bandits remain at large. On May 11th, two days after the robbery, the Royal North-West Mounted Police were called in to help search for the outlaws. They were joined in the search by the CPR Railway police, special sworn in cowboys acting as special constables, Siwash Indigenous trackers, bloodhounds, and American detectives operating along both sides of the border.
John tells us how the three men were eventually caught.
JB: The North West Mounted Police have a justifiable reputation for getting their man. This was one of Bill Miner's major mistakes because the Mounties got on the gang's track, they trailed him to a place called Douglas Lake. Shorty Dunn tries to fight, that's not a good idea either. He gets shots in the leg by the Mounties and Bill Miner, Dunn and Colquhoun are all captured.
JA: The police took the captives to Kamloops; all the while Miner insisting his name was George Edwards. He even stuck to his story when Warden Kelly of San Quentin prison was brought up to identify Miner. Their trial didn’t last long, and by the 1st of June, the jury had found all three men guilty.
JB: All three of them were tried and convicted in Kamloops. Miner, because of his reputation, by this time he's in newspapers all over the country in Canada, all these headlines about this notorious western outlaw, what is he doing in Canada. The judge gives him a life term, which was then and now a pretty harsh punishment for an armed robbery, but that was Miner's punishment.
JA: Along with Bill Miner, Shorty Dunn also received a life sentence, with Colquhoun getting 25 years. The men were ordered to serve out their terms in the BC Penitentiary at New Westminster. At this point, Bill Miner had become quite a celebrity in Canada, with large crowds gathering to greet him and his partners at every train depot along the route from Kamloops to New Westminster. Bill ended up spending over a year in the BC Penitentiary, and then one day in August of 1907, he was gone.
JB: In Bill Miner's case, one day he basically just walks out of prison. There was a big scandal, how did he do it? The guards told this kooky story about how he, supposedly, tunneled out underneath the prison wall and escaped. The guards, they felt that this was an attack on their reputation, attack on their character and they pointed out that this alleged tunnel couldn't even fit a man's body through it. There's a big investigation and it develops that what happened was that the Canadian Pacific Railroad, which was one of the most powerful economic forces in Canada, just like in the US, the railroads in the 19th century were that century's version of our huge tech firms. The railroad exercised extraordinary political power, they had all kinds of politicians in their pockets. The CPR, they were on the hook for this $300,000 in stolen bonds. What they did was a representative from the railroad came repeatedly to the penitentiary to meet with Bill Miner and he negotiated this deal, where Miner would deliver the $300,000 in bonds in exchange for being allowed to escape from the prison, and that's exactly what happened.
JA: “No prison walls can hold me”. This is what Bill Miner had told the court in Kamloops after his conviction. He was right. A few hours after the break out, Miner’s three companions that escaped with him were all recaptured, but no trace of Old Bill could be found. Did Bill indeed receive ‘outside’ help in his escape? From the start, Miner’s escape aroused suspicion.
Here’s a quote from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper, two days after the break out:
‘Not the least interesting feature of Bill Miner’s remarkable escape is the public sympathy being extended to him. Many on Vancouver streets declare openly that they hope Bill Miner will never be recaptured, and that he will live long to enjoy his freedom. There is probably no doubt that Miner received aid from the outside.’
Another quote from the Vancouver Province newspaper…
‘An official who is in a position to speak authoritatively on the subject of Bill Miner’s escape from the penitentiary this morning made the following statement for publication’. “At the time of the investigation into the escape made by Inspector Dawson, I could have told him, had I been called to testify, that Bill Miner did not escape from prison by crawling under the fence through the hole through which it was alleged he went. No man ever crawled through that hole for two good reasons. The first was that the hole was not large enough; the second because the hole was made only for the purpose of covering the letting out of Mr. Miner. These facts can easily be proved if the government makes an investigation.”’
Even Canada’s Prime Minister at the time, Sir Wilfrid Laurier expressed his outrage at a possible conspiracy:
“The question which interests the country is whether there has been any connivance on the part of anybody in the escape of Miner. No more dangerous criminal, I think, was ever in the clutches of Canadian justice. It was a fact for which we took some credit that when one of these American desperados came to Canada, thinking to play with impunity in this country the pranks he had been playing on the other side of the line; he was arrested, tried and convicted. It was a shock when we heard, and we heard it with a good deal of shame also, that he had subsequently been allowed to escape from the penitentiary.”
Apparently, the Prime Minister’s outraged stopped there, because no official investigation or inquiry into the escape of Miner was ever held.
JB: Just based on the contemporary evidence, it seems pretty clear that this is what happened. Knowing how the railroads operated in that era, they were strongly disliked I believe both in Canada and in the US because they had a monopoly, they exercised grossly disproportionate political influence. They basically got away with murder. In California, it was said that the Southern Pacific ran the state from Whistle Stop to Capital Dome and not too much of an exaggeration.
The CPR wielded tremendous political power so it wouldn't have been that difficult for them to get a hold of their politicians, have them explain to the warden, “We need to get this guy out he's going to give us our $300,000 back”. Keep in mind $300,000 is equivalent to about $9 million in modern money.
JA: What do we know of Bill’s movements after he gains his freedom?
JB: What happened was he comes back to Washington State, he had buried some of the loot from that train robbery near Seattle and goes to Denver and lives the high life there for several years.
We've got his own stories from him in which he explained to reporters that that's what he did. Those accounts seem to be reasonably accurate because here he's not claiming that he was a Robin Hood character. He just says, “Hey, I went to Denver and I lived a comfortable life with my stolen loot.” He runs out of money in Denver and then what does he do? He follows his family or heritage. At this point, his sisters are not in Michigan anymore but he still has the family in Michigan.
He goes back to his home state in 1910 and there he meets this young man named Charlie Hunter. Again, like he has done so many times in the past, he talks him into robbing a railroad train. Hunter stupidly agrees to do this so they go south to Georgia. Why they picked Georgia is really not clear, but one of the possibilities is simply that Georgia never seen a train robbery ever.
It really wasn't the Wild West, it was rural and it was in the south and Miner may have felt that it would be easy to avoid lawmen in a southern rural area. They hooked up with another accomplice and they held up and robbed a train at White Sulphur Springs in Georgia. Again, this is the first train robbery in Georgia's history. This is not a successful robbery, there is a huge manhunt. All three of them are captured only four days later and Miner is sentenced to 20 years in the Georgia State prison. He's put into the prison in Milledgeville and by this time, he’s really an experienced escape artist because of his prior incidents of escaping and attempting to escape.
In 1911, at this point, he's in his 60’s which would be given life expectancy back then, now it’d be equivalent to the early 80’s in modern day age. He escapes from the Milledgeville prison, but a few weeks later his fellow escapee is shot and killed in a shootout and Miner is captured by the officers and he's returned to prison. Incredibly, in 1912, he escapes again and Bill Miner is captured after a grueling flight through the swamps and he's returned to the prison. This time his health is broken but his sense of humor is intact and he tells his guards, “I guess I'm getting too old for this sort of thing.”
These various escapes had taken their toll on his health and he slowly weakened. On September 2 of 1913, at the age of 66, he died in the prison hospital. At that point, he was really a nationally known figure. When he died, it was published in newspapers all over the country. Certainly, the local folks in Milledgeville saw him as their local celebrity, there's no doubt about that.
JA: What did the public in Canada and the U.S. think of Bill Miner?
JB: Prior to 1901 when he was in California, he was very well-known to the police and sheriffs. They called him California Bill and he was known as a professional criminal. His mug photograph would be kept in police mug books all over California as well as Colorado, probably New Mexico as well. Because he was really known throughout the West but known to the police and sheriffs, he was not a nationally known figure.
The newspapers would call him the notorious Bill Miner, the notorious California Bill but he wasn't really anybody, anybody had really seen a photograph about. The only time you'd see a photo of him is if you happened to know a police detective and the detective showed you a copy of his mug photograph. That would really be the only way. However, by the time he gets out of San Quentin in 1901 and then that's when he really starts to be notorious because by this time, he's not just the typical stage robber.
The San Quentin held dozens and dozens of stage robbers at all times from the late 1850’s up to 1920 there were probably 20, 30, 40, 50 stage robbers in San Quentin all the time. They were very, very common and people didn't really think of stage robbers as being that romantic, it was later that stage robbers after the turn of the century they became thought of as romantic Western outlaws. At the time, they were just a nuisance. Miner though, by the early 1900’s, he was really a throwback to the horseback era, the last of the old time bandits.
That's when newspaper reporters found him very interesting and whenever he'd be captured, they go in and interview him and he was interviewed repeatedly by the newspapers from 1906 up to his death in 1913. That's when he really became very famous primarily because of his longevity. We write in our book that he robbed one less stagecoach than the entire Jesse James gang and he robbed the same number of trains as the Jesse James gang. He was quite a prolific highway robber and train robber.
JA: Was Bill seen as a folk hero?
JB: Especially in Canada, he became a folk hero because it was kind of unusual. There were a few outlaws that I can think of that did go up to Canada but they disappeared, they went up there to escape. Miner went to Canada to enlarge his criminal career. That was very, very unusual. Canada had plenty of their own outlaws, but just as he was notorious in the US because he had such a high profile by 1906 his capture – the capture by the Mounties, had a very public trial. The reporters really liked him, he was very intelligent, he really didn't have any more than a grade school education but he was very intelligent and well-spoken as we've discussed.
That you can tell from the letters that he wrote. He really captivated the journalists and the public. In Canada in particular, he became a folk hero and still is, as I understand it to this day.
JA: The 1982 Canadian film, The Grey Fox, staring Richard Farnsworth and directed by Phillip Borsos, is a biographical western based on the life of Bill Miner. The film, regarded as one of the best Canadian films of all time, won seven Genie awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. LAC holds a copy of the 35 mm print, preserved in our film vault at the Gatineau Preservation Centre.
Bill Miner has left a lasting legacy in Canada. Mount Miner, near Princeton, BC was re-named in 1952 in honor of Old Bill and the Kamloops Heritage Railroad regularly re-enacts the famous robbery. Not to mention, the Billy Miner Pub, in Maple Ridge, BC.
We asked John his thoughts on how this well-mannered, well-educated young man in the middle 1800’s ends up a career criminal?
JB: If I knew the answer to that, I'd be a wealthy psychologist or psychiatrist. What causes people from what was at that time a middle class, probably even upper-middle class background to become one of the most notorious outlaws of the Old West. That's the million dollar question.
The one thing I can point out though is that he grows up in a close family. Clearly, had a close relationship with his mother and his sisters but none of his siblings, of which there were nine, none of them became criminals. The thing that was different is that his mother comes to the California gold rush in 1860. She settles in one of the most famous mining camps in California. So growing up on a rough frontier clearly had an effect on him.
The frontier conditions were very different than really, anything we were used to today. There was this very much of a get rich quick mentality. There was a lot of gambling, drinking, very few women, the number of women in California in 1860 were over less than 20%. There's five men to every woman. Most of the women in California, at that time, grossly disproportionate number, I will say, were prostitutes.
Prostitution was legal and open then. Excessive drinking was very common. The average man drank like, I can't remember the exact number but some unbelievable, a pint of liquor a day, I think, was the average consummation of liquor in the 19th century. You had these wide open, free wheeling society, with this get rich, quick mentality. That's just like a disaster waiting to happen.
A gullible young man is looking for a way out of life of drudgery, as a drayman they're working in a livery stable or working as a hard rock miner in the California mining country. A life as an outlaw would be very appealing and something that's not too far away from the rough society that he grew up in. I think, at least in Miner’s case, growing up in the frontier, had a very strong influence on him becoming a career criminal.
JA: We asked John what sort of resources he and Mark Dugan used in writing their book?
JB: Mark wrote quite a few books before he passed and I've written quite a few also. We follow the same pattern. We use primary sources, which are newspapers, correspondence from the time period, government records, court files and the like. Generally, we avoid old-timer’s tales. My father told me this story, my grandpa told me this story, because those oral myths are all just-- They're generally just wildly inaccurate.
We've always done our research like that. That's why our books have remained reliable even though some of them like this, our biography of Bill Miner, which is called the Grey Fox was written 25 years ago. It's still a reliable source and I don't think there's been a huge amount of new information dug up about Bill Miner since our book came out. There's more details that have come out, but the major aspects of his life were addressed in our book because we did a lot of in-depth primary source research.
Dugan, because he had – What was interesting is that he had done a lot of this research before we hooked up principally on the Canadian end of it. My research focused on his career in California and Colorado. That's how we got in touch with each other and decided to collaborate on the book by putting all of our research together.
JA: Library and Archives Canada holdings include records from the B.C. Penitentiary that provide fascinating details on Bill Miner and his escape from the prison. These documents are available as a Co-Lab challenge, and include intake forms and mug shots of Miner, reports of prison officials, newspaper clippings and even letters from individuals claiming to have spotted The Grey Fox, years after his death. Co-Lab is a crowdsourcing tool that invites the public to contribute transcription, translation, tags and description text. The public contributions then become metadata to improve our search tools and enhance everyone’s experience of the historical record. The challenge is not entirely transcribed, however, we expect it to be completed shortly as stories about criminals and their fates are extremely popular. Head over to LAC’s homepage for more info.
JB: That's just fantastic because the- I'll give you an example of that problem. My last book is a biography of Frank Hamer, the Texas Ranger who tracked down Bonnie and Clyde. I was very fortunate because just when I started doing my research just before that, the FBI file on Bonnie and Clyde was found in the basement of the federal courthouse in Dallas, Texas. Many of the documents are hand written and it took me so long to be able to read this god-awful handwriting.
It would be such a pleasure to have had somebody, I wish they do that with a Bonnie and Clyde file, the stuff that's typewritten is, of course, easy to read. The handwritten stuff is very, very difficult. That's really a labour of love for somebody to volunteer and transcribe handwritten documents.
JA: We asked John one last question. Does he think there’s any old Bill Miner treasure out there buried or hidden somewhere?
JB: Most of these buried treasure stories about outlaws are mythical. People want to believe that the stage and train robbers and bank robbers buried their loot and that there's whole cadres of organizations of treasure hunters.
It's just a myth. The outlaws did not risk their necks to rob a passenger train with armed passengers and armed Express guards, just so that they could then go bury the stolen treasure to allow some treasure hunter to dig it up 100 years later. They took the money, and they spent it on women, booze, and gambling. Most of these buried treasure stories are totally crazy. The only buried treasure stories that are true, are the ones where the outlaw is being pursued by a posse. He then buries the treasure because it's loading his horse down and he can't escape. Then he's either killed or he is lynched before he can ever go back and dig up the treasure.
Even the stories where the outlaw buries the treasure, then he gets sent to prison. What do you think he will do as soon as he gets released from prison? He's going to go back and dig up his treasure. He isn't going to leave it there. A lot of people have fun with their metal detectors. I don't like to burst their balloon, but those stories, 99% of them are just total nonsense. The idea that Miner would have run out of money in Denver in 1910 and left thousands of dollars buried back in Canada or near Seattle is just crazy. If he ran out of money, he had gone back to Canada and dug it up. No, I don't buy those stories at all.
JA: If you’d like to learn more about Bill Miner at Library and Archives Canada, please visit us online at bac dash lac dot gc dot ca. Also, don’t forget about the Co-Lab Challenge where you can transcribe, tag, translate and describe digitized records from our collection. The more work we collaborate on using the Co-Lab crowdsourcing tool, the more accessible and usable our digital collection will become for everyone using the Library and Archives Canada website.
Thank you for being with us. I'm Josée Arnold, your host. You've been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you.” A special thank you to our guests today, John Boessenecker. Special thanks as well to Theo Martin, Tom Thompson and Ellen Bond for their contributions to this episode.
This episode was produced and engineered by David Knox.
All music in this episode by Blue Dot Sessions
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