Train Robbers Routed by Science and Brawn (Jul, 1931)

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Train Robbers Routed by Science and Brawn

ALL the world . loves detective stories. Here is one that deals with real men and tells the thrilling truth about their fight to save millions of dollars in stolen goods. Ten years ago American railroads were losing $13,000,000 a year to box car bandits. On one road, scientific methods and the careful training of road police have now cut off about ninety-nine percent of this loss. In this story you see how these men do their work.


I LIKE detective stories. Best of all I like stories of real detectives. Consequently when Professor Charles P. Berkey, Columbia University geologist, told me that a pile of rocks on his table was a clue in a mysterious robbery I pleaded for details.

“I’m just a helper on this job,” said Professor Berkey. “The real detectives are members of the New York Central Railroad police force. I am not at liberty to tell you about this case, but if you see Carl Jellinghaus, the railroad’s superintendent of Property Protection, perhaps you can get the whole story.”

I did see Jellinghaus and I got the whole story of the rocks. Better still, I got other yarns that made my blood course faster than any tales ever told of scientific detectives of fiction.

To get the full measure of a great railroad system’s fight with thieves it is necessary to consider the state of affairs that existed at the close of 1920. In that year robbers had taken from the trains and stations of the New York Central a total of $2,596,560. The Central was not the only road that was suffering from these bold criminals. For a long while conditions had been growing steadily worse until in 1920 the total loss by robbery on the rail- roads of the nation was $12,726,947. Last year the robbery loss of all the railroads was less than $1,000,000.

Affairs were in such a state that something had to be done. How well it was done on the New York Central may be shown by another total. Remember that the robbery loss in 1920 was $2,596,560, and then contrast with that the total loss for 1930, which was $2 7,936. When Jellinghaus gave me those figures he grinned. Then he wrote down another figure.

“This,” he said, “is the proportion to which the robbery loss has been reduced in ten years.”

I LOOKED at what he had written. The figure was 1.1 percent. That comes pretty close to being a perfect score.

“That change was not worked by keeping books,” I said. “How was it done?”

“Well,” he said, “some men were killed; some were wounded; a lot went to jail— car burglars, pickpockets, sneak thieves, crooks of all kinds. Our lines ten years ago were infested with thieves. Now it is different. Hoboes avoid our lines as carefully as they avoid work, and as for pickpockets, when one of them is seen around one of our stations he is pretty likely to keep his hands in his own pockets.”

“But how?” I persisted. “How about those rocks and Professor Berkey?”

The answer to that was an interesting revelation of the growing use of scientific knowledge in detective work. The rocks I had seen on Professor Berkey’s table had been found by an amazed grocer when he opened a packing case that was supposed to contain cheese from a Mediterranean port.

Other complaints began to pour in from other merchants who h?.d found rocks in boxes supposed to contain cheese. If the substitution had occurred anywhere along the New York Central the railroad would be liable to the shipper for the full value of his cheese. Who could say where those rocks came from? Well, a geologist might, and consequently specimens were taken to Professor Berkey.

“This is lava,” said the distinguished Columbia geologist. “It is a peculiar form of lava and I can guarantee that it came from just one place. Mt. Vesuvius.”

THAT was one robbery about which the New York Central could cease to trouble itself. The ship that had carried a cargo of cheese across the ocean to New York had stopped en route at Naples. Obviously the substitution had occurred there. The railroad was not responsible.

The switching of rubbish for merchandise is a common trick of freight thieves. The motive is always the same—to delay discovery of the crime as long as possible; and, of course, an empty box would arouse the suspicion of the first person to handle it. Among railroad men this sort of thing is spoken of as a concealed loss.

Sometimes it happens that the rubbish exchanged for stolen goods leads the detectives unerringly to the thieves. Once a ship that had left the Amazon loaded with crude rubber was discovered, when preparations were made to unload her, to be partially filled with rocks. Where had the substitution occurred? The ship was tied up at a railroad pier, but in her log was written the record of a five-thousand-mile journey. Were the thieves in South America, the West Indies, New York, or aboard ship?

Specimens of the rock were submitted to Professor Berkey. He identified them as pieces of concrete, and the concrete had been made from Long Island sand. The trail was hot! A concrete pier was being demolished in the immediate vicinity of the ship’s berth. That was bringing the crime pretty close to the men responsible.

OCCURRENCES of this sort illustrate a most important factor in the lowering of the robbery losses of the New-York Central and other American railroads. The railroad police have learned how to localize crimes.

There had always been a force of railroad policemen, and some of the individuals were first-rate men. But there were not enough of them and they were not well organized. There had always been a simple way of telling approximately where the robbery had occurred, but it had not been used. Every freight car when loaded is sealed with a string of tin looped through staples on the sliding door and doorframe and fastened with a small ball of lead.

A CHILD might break that seal, but once broken no amount of ingenuity could disguise the fact that it had been tampered with. But what was the good of discovering, at the end of a freight car’s journey, that it had been tampered with somewhere on the American continent? The problem was to discover at what points freight cars were being looted.

That was one of the first things to be done in clearing up the mystery of the annual disappearance of all manner of goods, silk, cigarettes, automobile tires, canned food, and other kinds of merchandise worth millions of dollars. Consequently arrangements were made to have freight trains moved through a corridor of police inspections.

Between Chicago and New York a tram might stop several dozen times. Nevertheless it was provided that each time there was a stop every seal had to be examined. If a policeman at one stop reported all seals intact and the one who made the next examination discovered that several were broken, that bit of information was a vital aid in recovering the stolen goods and capturing the robbers.

EAST of Buffalo the New York Central police are under the command of Chief James D. Roosa, who weighs about 220 pounds when he is in condition, as he generally is. For some time all his men had been getting regular pistol practice. At night before they rolled into bed, and in the morning as their feet touched the floor, they would practice. They would draw their guns in a manner taught them by an expert, aim at the doorknob, and then squeeze the trigger. Of course they always went through these exercises with unloaded guns. The point is they practiced as faithfully as old-time gunmen of the West. Also they were given frequent opportunities to fire their guns on a range using as a target a swinging silhouette fashioned in the shape of a man.

On a farm in the hilly region south of Niagara Falls, N. Y., there was a man who also practiced with pistols and rifles incessantly. This supposed farmer’s hired hands also practiced. The man’s name was Perry. He was a Westerner and something of a sinister mystery to his neighbors; but he was no longer a mystery to Chief Roosa and some of his detectives.

They were convinced that this man was the leader of the most daring gang of freight thieves in the United States. Almost any one of the daring freight robberies within a radius of one hundred miles from Perry’s farm might justly be attributed, they felt, to this toughest of all car burglars. But how to catch him?

Chief Roosa stopped shaving for a couple of days; so did ten of his best men. Then, when they closely resembled a collection of tough hoboes, they started north for a section of the railroad known as the Falls Road. It runs from Oswego to Niagara. In some manner Chief Roosa had learned that an attempt was to be made to rob a particular freight car loaded with costly furs.

IT WAS a dark night when that fur car was shunted back and forth in the railroad yards until it had become part of a freight train. Secreted within the car were a couple of tough looking citizens who rode silently in nests they had formed for themselves in the bales and boxes of freight.

Hours later the men within the sealed car heard above the clamor of its thirty-mile-an-hour speed the sound of feet on the roof. Then a heavy body scraped against the side of the car. They waited tensely. The door was pushed open. A strip of blue light relieved the gloom of the car interior. The shooting began at once. It was by no means a one-sided battle.

The invader answered them shot for shot for a space. Then for a second or two that passed as slowly as hours there was no firing. The two men in ambush heard a body crash heavily to the floor. Again they heard steps on the roof, fired up, and waited expectantly. But nothing happened. That other thief had jumped from the moving train into the darkness.

When the freight train stopped at the next station two more of Chief Roosa’s men joined the pair in the car. The man with whom they had fought was dying.

Chief Roosa’s men hastened back to the point on the right of way where the gun fight had begun. There they found and made a prisoner of a dazed person they identified as an old car thief known as Shanahan. Him they locked in jail, but where was Perry?

Perry, the prosperous farmer, came to the jail boldly to see about getting the release of his hired man and was promptly locked up. Sufficient evidence was dug up to bring a conviction and a prison sentence.

Perry, Shanahan, and a fourth man were given long terms in Atlanta penitentiary because in robbing a shipment in interstate transit they had committed a Federal offense.

Silk was one of the great prizes luring car burglars ten years ago. In 1920 the value of the raw silk stolen from cars or stations of the New York Central was $426,965. During the last five or six years not a dollar’s worth of silk has been lost by the road. This is in spite of the fact that a small bale of silk, easily carried by a man, is worth about S500 and there have been times when that value was $900. All this thievery was stopped completely by policing shipments of silk.

THERE were some bottles containing brilliantly colored powders standing on the desk of Chief Roosa when I was in his office recently.

“Are you going in for chemistry?” I asked him.

“No,” he replied, “but sometimes chemistry helps us.”

Then he explained about the bottles. A railroad with scores of thousands of employees and with many other thousands of persons, messengers, truckmen, and other visitors having access to its premises, may suffer from sneak thieves. Sometimes they take baggage; sometimes they rifle desks.

The sum of their activities if uncontrolled might make a serious dent in the income of a railroad. Consequently such characters must be frightened into good behavior. The railroad has not the time to reform all the pilferers in the world. It has to be satisfied to keep them from stealing.

“Our method,” explained the chief, “is quite simple. We always catch them.

“If we get a few complaints about objects disappearing from baggage, and everything that vanishes even though it is worth only a few cents is reported to us, we get busy with those little bottles. We place some of the powders in those bottles in the desks that are being looted; or rub it on baggage placed as bait.

“Usually the thief is not a very daring person anyway but what nerve he has vanishes when he discovers that his fingers have become stained with indelible marks that will not wash off, scrub them as hard as he may. Then along strolls a railroad policeman. All he is looking for is someone with stains on his fingers. Usually a thief trapped in that manner hasn’t enough nerve left to lie about the matter.”

Record keeping can be a science, and the localizing records of the New York Central police are certainly kept in a scientific manner. Sometimes the property of passengers disappears from coaches or Pullmans. The missing articles are catalogued in two ways by a sort of cross indexing that may be reached through a reference to the type of article or the place on the train where the happening occurred.

IT would not be fair to say too much about this system, but one illustration will serve to show its effectiveness. Several passengers on trains running in and out of New York had reported that their money had been stolen while they were sleeping in their berths.

The robberies were not confined to the same Pullman nor even to the same train. Nevertheless the records in Chief Roosa’s office indicated that a certain colored porter might be responsible. It was revealed by those records that he had been aboard every train on which a robbery had occurred. Sometimes he had been the porter of a car in that train, but the robberies never occurred in his car. At other times he was a dead-head passenger. Finally he was dismissed. Then another robbery occurred.

A wealthy man woke up one morning and began to squawk because his trousers were missing. They were found beneath a berth farther down the car. The pockets were empty. The man said they had contained $115. One of Chief Roosa’s men was aboard the train. He spotted the dismissed porter riding on the train as a passenger and took him into custody. The man was carrying a revolver and that made it possible to arrest him. In his pockets $115 was found. New bills, unwrinkled.

THE colored man protested with heat that it was his money. While he was serving out a six-month sentence for carrying a revolver without a license, the railroad policemen kept on investigating. They went to the bank of the man who had been robbed. The cashier remembered that this rich man was always cranky about getting new bills when he cashed a check.

The bank records revealed that the money had been paid from a bundle received from the Federal Reserve Bank. A check-up revealed that the serial numbers of the bills in that bundle had included the same serial numbers of the bills found in the colored man’s pocket. In the face of that evidence he decided to confess.

It is in that painstaking investigation and preparation of evidence that you can find a portion of the answer to the question as to how the New York Central with its property spread over half the continent has been able in the last few years to protect that property against thieves. It has protected it and is protecting it while all the cities through which the lines of the New York Central run have been suffering as never before from the depredations of thieves. Science has helped; so has the freedom of the railroad’s police from the interference of gang politics; likewise marksmanship.

There have been plenty of gun fights in the last dozen years but now that it is pretty generally known that the railroad policemen have become crack shots there is less and less necessity for shooting. The pistol expert who teaches these men, traveling all over the lines to do so, is Captain Jack Smith, who formerly worked with Annie Oakley and traveled as an expert shot with the 101 Ranch Show.

It is not uncommon for communities along the New York Central to appeal for the aid of one of the company’s crime specialists in emergencies. All of them are officers of the states in which they operate.

LIEUTENANT Joseph Genova of this A unusual force of industrial policemen is so accomplished in tracking murderers that his services are often loaned to small towns bewildered by a mysterious crime.

One puzzling mystery solved after painstaking work by the New York Central men concerned a dynamite explosion at a mine tipple. A box of caps found at the scene of the explosion was traced to a place many miles away where dynamite had been stolen. The man who was arrested for the dynamiting had thought he had a pretty good alibi. At the moment the explosion occurred he had been talking to the local chief of police. How he arranged that was explained when it was revealed that with the dynamite he had taken 250 feet of fuse. While that was burning he had had ample opportunity to stroll into town and engage the chief in conversation.

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