Daniel Buck
Re: Question for Dan on the Posse Cars
Sat Nov 18, 2017 5:45am

Interesting quote. I wonder, tho, if the author -- William MacLeod Raine, "Guarding a Railroad in the 'Bandit Belt'," The Wide World Magazine, January 1905 -- is not laying it on a bit thick. Anyway, even by this account, when all is said and done, the posse at best arrives at the holdup scene with the miscreants having a six-hour head start, and if they have cached or stolen horses en route, fresh mounts upon which to further outrun the now super fatigued posse.

Not surprising then that the super posse had a short life, though resurrected in the 1969 movie with great effect. Less cinematic currency serial numbers nabbed more train robbers that super posses.

Also, a colleague wrote me earlier this year that Tom T. Keliher was a sheriff in Nebraska at the time of Wilcox, not coming to Wyoming until January 1902, thus the "keeps in close touch with all his men" remark is yet another Raine flourish. My colleague also told me that the Tipton posse, the first iteration of the short-lived super posse, broke down on the way to the holdup site. The train broke down, but the super posse legend galloped merrily on. Dan

PS From our 25 September 2012 OWR exchange:

Earlier this year [2012]. a writer asked me about the Super Posse. My reply, below. I'm sure I screwed up a few details, but the gist of it is I think valid, that the super posse might have been a posse, but it was not super-duper. Dan

Richard Patterson, Butch Cassidy: A Biography (1998), is good on the "super posse" question, pp. 187-91, plus informative endnotes. Patterson, by the way, wrote a train-robbery encylopedia, The Train Robbery Era (1991) Fun fact: 1890-1899 the US weathered "261 train robberies . . . mostly in the western states." Casualties: 88 people dead, 86 injured. Of course, nowadays California has twice as many bank robberies in a single year.

Summary from Patterson: E.H. Harriman, who took over the Union Pacific in 1898, knew horses and understood that "a successful express car robbery usually depended upon" the outlaws having access to fast horses. He pushed for "posse cars," retrofitted baggage cars equipped with ramps that could take posses and their mounts quickly to the scene of holdups. Precisely when they started is unclear. The UP suffered two bold robberies: Wilcox, WY, June 1899 and Tipton, WY August 1900. The idea was already in play at Tipton, but not at Wilcox.

Best I can tell, veteran New York reporter turned outlaw & Pinkerton historian James Horan coined the phrase "super posse" in his 1954 Pictorial History of the Old West, p.217. I can find no earlier reference. But it was William Goldman's use of the "super posse" meme (I hate the word meme, but here it is) that made it a popular catch phrase. The modern references to super posse all come from the 1969 movie, as does another of Goldman's dramatic devices, Joe LeFors as a hard-riding Inspector Javert. LeFors existed, of course, but he was but one of many law officers who scrambled after Wild Bunch members at one time or another.

"The most exciting and difficult ride of the Super Posse"? That gets complicated, and is an example of why it's easier to romanticize and streamline for dramatic effect, as so many writers and screenwriters do. The boring details: two posses chased the Tipton robbers, one led by Sheriff Pete Swanson out of Rock Springs and another by Sheriff Frank Hadsell, with LeFors, out of Rawlins. The Hadsell-LeFors posse followed the robbers for two hard days, pulling off the chase at the end of the second after finding that the robbers had cached fresh horses and were well on their way to their hideout in Browns Park, on the Utah-Colorado border. Fresh horses are the equine equivalent of a spare tank of gas. The outlaws had one, the posse did not. The idea of spiriting a posse and horses to the holdup scene at least meant that the horses would not be fatigued, and the posse lose time, by having to gallop from the nearest town to the holdup to start the chase. But, as it turned out, the Hadsell-LeFors posse was chauffeured out to Tipton on a rail car, and still it failed, though I'm sure it scared the bejeezus out of the outlaws.

The Wilcox posse, by comparison, was leisurely, not even getting organized until the day after the holdup, though it did catch up with some of the robbers the following day -- an inconvenient fact that rather undermines the idea of the efficacious super posse, since it was not limoed by rail car. In the ensuing gunfight, posse member Sheriff Josiah Hazen was mortally wounded, and the three bandits escaped. Whether or not Cassidy was among the Wilcox bandits -- accounts vary -- he was linked to it in the press and suddenly became a much wanted man.

Of the four Wild Bunch train robberies in the northern Rockies, UP, Tipton (1899), UP, Wilcox (1900), Great Northern Railway, Wagner (1901), and Denver & Rio Grande, Parachute (1904), the first two involved super posses, the last two, no. Patterson says that Harriman's UP was the only line that pursued the super posse idea.

A large posse -- accompanied by a cook and chuck wagon! -- went after the Wagner bandits, but never caught up with them. The posse was not wheeled to the scene in a rail car. The exceptional case is Parachute. Per Gary Wilson, who has written extensively about Harvey Logan, the D&RG telegraphed the authorities rather quickly, and posses were dispatched from three nearby towns, Glenwood Springs, Grand Junction, and Meeker -- on horseback, not special trains.

The Parachute robbers irritated area ranchers (who might normally look the other way, since they had no inherent love for the railroads) by stealing their horses, and one rancher telephoned the authorities -- yes, telephoned. Welcome to the 20th century. Other ranchers joined in -- I guess on a party line, let's call it early 1900s crowd sourcing -- on the bandits' whereabouts. A posse cornered the bandits in a canyon. During the shooting, one bandit, presumably Logan, was wounded and committed suicide, a second was wounded but escaped and is thought to have died. The third bandit escaped. Oh, the bad guys had robbed the wrong train. They missed their target, a train with more than $150,000 in gold because the D&RG had overtaken it on the same line, and ended up with less than $100.

Where does that leave us? Super posse is a made-to-order movie stunt, but in practice it didn't turn out to be all that effective, though some argue that it forced bandits to target other railroad lines. But in the end that didn't work out to well either. Anyway, more bandits got caught passing stolen bank notes than by posses, it seems. -- Daniel Buck

  • Re: Question for Dan on the Posse Cars Vince Garcia, Fri Nov 17 5:32pm
    In my june 1900 timeline I have copied a 1905 article about Je LeFors and the Union Pacific Rangers who had their own train, called GUARDING A RAILROAD IN THE BANDIT BELT One nice paragraph: Chief... more
    • Re: Question for Dan on the Posse Cars — Daniel Buck, Sat Nov 18 5:45am
      • Re: Question for Dan on the Posse Cars Vince Garcia, Sat Nov 18 8:56am
        One thing to keep in mind, the UP special train posse was meant to go after train robbers, and train robberies didn't happen every day in Wyoming so I have to wonder how many times they actually were ... more
        • Re: Question for Dan on the Posse Cars Daniel Buck, Sat Nov 18 8:59am
          Well, how many UP robberies were there, say, post Wilcox? Regardless, best I can tell, the idea was a bust. Dan
          • Re: Question for Dan on the Posse Cars Vince Garcia, Sat Nov 18 10:25am
            Referring to wyoming, Wm Pinkerton only mentioned Wilcox and Tipton in his famous speech on train robbers in 1907. Past that, while doing all my newspaper research, I looked up references to train... more
            • Re: Question for Dan on the Posse Cars Daniel Buck, Sat Nov 18 12:21pm
              Vince, Richard Patterson, in Train Robbery: The Birth, Flowering, and Decline of a Notorious Enterprise (1981), and Historical Atlas of the Outlaw West (1985), cites the following Wyoming train... more
              • Re: Question for Dan on the Posse Cars Vince Garcia, Sat Nov 18 4:02pm
                I'm right then. After Tipton there is nothing until the Teens (which I did not search for because the railroad posse I imagine would be a memory by then, replaced by cars, I suppose? So really, it... more
                • Re: Question for Dan on the Posse Cars Daniel Buck, Sat Nov 18 10:09pm
                  Vince, Well, I think that is the point, it was only used once or twice in Wyoming by the UP, and in neither case was terribly effective. In reality, sending an expensive posse to the scene of the... more
                  • Re: Question for Dan on the Posse Cars Vince Garcia, Sun Nov 19 10:14am
                    Interestingly, the train robbery business seemed to go in in Montana during the early 1900s, so Wyoming did seem to get too hot for the robbers.
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