Browning & Brady, Train Robbers & Murderers, 1894-95
Story by Thomas Duke, 1910
“Celebrated Criminal Cases of America”
Part II: Pacific Coast Cases
At 9 p. m., October 12, 1894, two young men, one very tall and powerfully built and the other of medium height, halted a track-walker named John Kelly as he was speeding along on a track tricycle about seven miles from Davisville, Cal.
They relieved Kelly of $5.50, some dynamite cartridges used for signaling trains, and his red lantern. Their next move was to bind him hand and foot and render the tricycle useless.
The cartridges were then placed on the track and the robbers awaited the arrival of No. 3 Omaha Overland, which left San Francisco at 6 p.m.
Presently it appeared, and in response to the wild waving of the red lantern in the hands of one of the robbers and the explosion of the dynamite cartridges, Engineer Bill Scott lost no time in bringing his train to a standstill.
The bandits then pointed pistols at the engineer and fireman and ordered them to accompany them (the robbers) to the third car back, which was Wells Fargo and Co.’s express car.
The fireman was instructed to uncouple the express car from the cars in the rear.
The engineer and fireman were then ordered to accompany the robbers to the locomotive and pull the three cars about three miles from the remainder of the train, the robbers keeping them covered with revolvers all the while.
When they came to a stop, the fireman and engineer were instructed to accompany the robbers to the express car, and Engineer Scott was told to persuade J. F. Paige, the express messenger, to open the door or he (Scott) would be killed.
In response to Scott’s pleadings, Paige finally opened the door, but not before he had fired several shots, none of which did any damage.
The engineer and fireman were then ordered to enter the car and carry the contents of the safe, nearly $53,000.00, back to the locomotive.
The fireman was ordered to uncouple the engine from the cars. The robbers then entered the cab and throwing the throttle wide open they sped away in the darkness, leaving the trainmen standing by the track dumbfounded.
After traveling a couple of miles they stopped the engine, and after removing their loot, reversed the lever, opened the throttle and jumped to the ground.
The engine returned to the three cars, but as the steam was then low, the only damage done was to cave in the end of the first car.
When the robbers jumped from the engine they were about two miles from Sacramento, and as their loot was too heavy to carry any distance without attracting attention, it was surmised that the money was cached near the spot where the bandits left the locomotive.
The railroad and express company detectives co-operated with Chief of Police Drew of Sacramento in organizing and sending out posses after the bandits, but they returned despondent and empty handed.
For several years prior to 1895, the Ingleside roadhouse was conducted in the southwestern suburbs of San Francisco by aged Cornelius Stagg, who was a jovial host and boon companion.
At 9:40 p. m., on March 16, 1895, two men, wearing linen dusters and white masks, entered the side door of this roadhouse.
At the time, the bartender and three patrons were in the barroom. The robbers covered the four men with pistols and ordered them to throw up their hands. The taller of the two then left these four in charge of his companion while he proceeded to the rear rooms on a tour of inspection.
In the sitting-room he found Mr. Stagg conversing with Robert Lee, his colored servant.
The robber ordered the two men to hold up their hands, but Stagg, being a practical joker himself, concluded that some of his friends were turning the tables on him and merely laughed at the command.
The infuriated robber then sprang at him and struck him a terrible blow over the head.
The negro took advantage of his opportunity and instantly bolted for the door.
It is presumed that Stagg continued to offer resistance, for immediately afterward two shots were heard. The tall robber then returned to the barroom and after hurriedly removing the contents of the money-till, about $4.00, the two bandits backed out of the place and disappeared.
The men in the barroom then rushed to the sitting-room to ascertain the cause of the shooting, and they found Stagg dying from two bullet wounds.
At 1:45 a. m., March 30, 1895, the Oregon Express train, No. 15, was running at a high rate of speed near Wheatland, a small town twelve miles south of Marysville, Cal., when Engineer A. L. Bowser and Fireman Barney Nethercott were startled by feeling a pointed instrument against their backs and at the same time hearing a command to halt the train. Upon turning around they observed two masked men who had revolvers in their hands. The engineer lost no time in bringing his train to a halt at the next road crossing in accordance with the command of the taller of the two bandits.
The robbers then ordered Bowser and Nethercott to precede them to Wells Fargo and Co.’s car. Upon being informed that his car would be dynamited if he did not open it instantly, the express messenger opened the door and the shorter of the two robbers entered and began a search for money. The through safe containing the valuables was locked with a combination unknown to the messenger, and as the robbers had no equipment for blowing open the safe, they handed Fireman Nethercott a sack made from the leg of an old pair of overalls, and compelled him and the engineer to precede them into the passenger cars. The passengers who had not gone to bed were instructed to keep their seats and place their valuables in the sack which the fireman carried. All the passengers in the first car complied with the request with the exception of a man named Sampson, who positively refused to part with his valuables. For his “obstinacy” the tall robber beat him over the head with his revolver in a most brutal manner. The bandits and their involuntary companions then proceeded to the smoking car, where they began operations in the same manner as in the first car.
In the meantime, a colored porter, knowing that Sheriff J. J. Bogard of Tehama County was in bed in a sleeping car, ran to locate the official and notify him of what was transpiring. The Sheriff dressed hastily and, pistol in hand, he rushed to the smoker. He immediately opened fire on the taller of the two masked robbers and shot him through the breast, killing him instantly. The shorter of the two bandits then began firing, the first shot killing the Sheriff, and the next shot seriously wounding the fireman, who still held the improvised receptacle for the loot.
After firing several shots promiscuously, the lone bandit backed out of the car and disappeared in the darkness without stopping to take the booty from the wounded fireman. The train bearing the dead and wounded was then rushed to Marysville.
Peace officers went to work on the case at once. On the day following the tragedy, Sheriff Sam Inlow of Yuba County and Deputy Sheriff Bogard of Tehama County, a brother of the murdered Sheriff, located a bicycle in the brush near the scene of the holdup, and on the same day they found another bicycle hidden under a small bridge near State Senator Dan Ostrom’s home, which was about three miles from the scene of the robbery. It was the theory of the officers that this was the bicycle upon which the short bandit escaped and that the one found in the brush belonged to the bandit who was killed.
As the robbers ordered the train to stop near the spot where the bicycle was concealed in the brush, it was presumed that the machines had been previously hidden there to be used as a means of escape.
The general appearance and modus operandi of these two men convinced the authorities that they were the same men who held up the Omaha train near Davisville on October 12, 1894, and also murdered old Cornelius Stagg in San Francisco.
Believing that these men procured their bicycles in San Francisco, the machines were brought to the city, where they were positively identified by Perkins & Speiker, bicycle agents, who had rented out the machines to two men about one week previous to the last holdup. When shown a photograph of the dead bandit, the members of the firm at once recognized it as a likeness of the taller of the two men who hired the bicycles. After showing the picture to several people in the neighborhood it was finally ascertained that it was a photograph of the remains of a man known as 0. S. Brown, who had resided at 626 Golden Gate Avenue, San Francisco.
A further investigation disclosed the fact that a short man named John Brady, alias John McGuire, alias Henry Williams, an ex-convict who resided at 305 Grove Street, had been Brown’s inseparable companion, but had disappeared immediately after the bicycles had been procured. (These men had previously served a term in prison for horse stealing.)
Brady’s room was searched and in a trunk Captain of Detectives Lees found photographs of Brady and the man known as Brown, whose right name was Samuel Browning. The newspapers published Brady’s likeness, but the bandit remained under cover for many months.
On July 25, 1895, a man entered the grocery store conducted by Phil Reihl in the village called Freeport, a few miles from Sacramento. He purchased a can of oysters and some crackers, and while Reihl was wrapping up the package the stranger picked up the newspaper of that date. He became so absorbed in an article that he became unconscious of his surroundings and the expression on his face as he perused the article attracted Reihl’s attention.
After finishing the article the stranger threw down the paper and his suppressed excitement was apparent as he hastily left the store. Through curiosity Reihl picked up the paper and saw that the article which so affected his strange customer was in relation to a clue which the officers had recently obtained regarding the whereabouts of Brady. The grocer immediately telephoned to the Sheriff, who sent Deputies Alexander McDonald and W. A. Johnson in pursuit.
At 8 a. m. on the following day the deputies saw a man sitting under a bridge near the village of Richland, about 17 miles from Sacramento. They managed to close in on him without being observed, and when they pointed their weapons at him he was so surprised that he had no opportunity to resist.
At first he claimed that he was not Brady and that he had never committed a crime, but a sawed-off shotgun was lying beside him which was subsequently identified as property stolen from Wells-Fargo Express car during the last holdup.
On July 27 the man admitted that he was Brady and made a complete confession, in which he stated that Browning and he robbed Stagg’s place and also committed both train robberies. He furthermore took the officers to the spot in the tules near Sacramento where he and Browning had buried $50,000.00 of the money stolen near Davisville. The officers recovered $17,000.00, but what became of the balance remained a mystery until the year following.
On July 29 Brady was taken to Marysville by Sheriff Inlow to be tried for the murder of Sheriff Bogard. On August 13 his preliminary examination was concluded and he was held to answer. On November 27, 1895, Brady was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
On the morning of February 7, 1896, a stranger entered the office of Detective Hume, of Wells, Fargo & Company, and informed him that he suspected that a man known to him as Carl Herman had gained possession of the money stolen by Browning and Brady. When asked the reason for his suspicions he replied:
“I have a friend named Kohler who is a blacksmith and a personal friend of Herman, who until October, 1894, was commonly called ‘Carl the tramp.’ Up to that time he never had a cent, never worked and was a typical tramp. Suddenly he discarded his rags, arrayed himself in the costliest garments and had diamonds galore. He became a constant visitor at the racetrack, where he met a woman known as May Vaughn. Herman spent money lavishly on her and her female companions, and finally fitted up a flat for the Vaughn woman at 412 Post Street, San Francisco. He then went to Chicago, but becoming lonesome, he telegraphed $1,000.00 to May with instructions to join him immediately. May got the money but did not go to Chicago. Carl then returned to San Francisco but not to May.
“Herman found no difficulty in getting ‘friends’ to help him spend his money and one night he gave a dinner at Zinkand’s which cost him over $300.00.”
The stranger also informed Detective Hume that Kohler had an appointment with Herman at Second and Howard Streets that morning. Detectives White and Thacker were detailed to watch the place designated, and at the appointed time a man of Herman’s description made his appearance. The detectives took him into custody and using the information obtained from the stranger, they soon had the man so unnerved that he voluntarily made the following confession:
“My right name is John P. Harms. On the night of the Davisville train robbery I slept in the tules near Sacramento, and on the following morning I discovered a spot where the ground had been recently disturbed and covered over with leaves in a very careful manner. I investigated and soon dug up the golden treasure. I could only carry $33,000 conveniently, so I placed that amount in my blankets and beat a hasty retreat.”
The detectives learned of deposits in banks and notes which Harms held aggregating $12,000.00. Wells-Fargo gained possession of this money through civil suits and Harms was charged with grand larceny. He was convicted and on May 31, 1896, was sentenced to serve three years in Folsom Prison. On October 8, 1898, he was released.