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The Great Rising Sun Train Robbery

RISING SUN, Jan 2, 1885 — A passenger train that was making its way through the gloom of a winter night was robbed outside Rising Sun 131 years ago. Admittedly, it was not a great holdup, for it only involved a watch or two and small sums of money. Nevertheless, a raid on the rails in Cecil County, one causing fear as highwaymen cleaned passengers out of valuables, was a singular occurrence in this area.
The scene could have been straight out of the Wild, Wild West. Two young crooks, guns hidden away, quietly boarded a local train. Once the cars rumbled away from the station, however, they drew their revolvers and one of them began racing down the aisle, robbing terrified passengers. Within a couple of minutes, as quickly as it had begun, it was over, with the holdup men jumping off the train.
Newspapers throughout the region covered the crime. City papers “brought out their big type” to dish it up in the “liveliest style,” the Cecil Democrat, an Elkton newspaper, observed. Locally, journalists said they would try not to present a sensational story, but the most correct version possible.
Here are the details drawn from the local press. As the shade of winter darkness began settling on the Chesapeake, the evening accommodation out of Baltimore started its Jan. 2, 1885, run on time at 5:10 p.m. Scheduled to terminate in Oxford, Pa., the trip rolled uneventfully along until the locomotive shrieked to a stop in Rising Sun, where two young men with tickets for Sylmar boarded.

The Sylmar Train Station,, courtesy of the West Nottingham Historical Commission.

As the cars shook and rumbled, rolling slowly up the dark tracks toward the Mason-Dixon Line, the men handed their tickets to Capt. Ed Gilligan, the conductor. Just outside town, the two abruptly jumped from their seats. One of them pointed a derringer at head of a brakeman E.H. Tarring. The other robber started down the aisle, threatening passengers and demanding their money, watches and jewelry. One man handed over a dollar. The editor of the North East Star, G.A. Garey, “bought the desperadoes off with a watch.” An “old Quaker, named Passmore, slid his gold watch and chain worth $150 and $500 in money into the top of one of his boots. ‘I haven’t anything for thee,’” was his quiet remark, the Star reported. Passengers were holding up their hands in terror, but upon their declaring that they had nothing, they were left unmolested.
As soon as the robber had gone through the car to the rear, where his comrade was holding the brakeman, the two opened the door and disappeared into the darkness. The whole affair had lasted but a moment or two.The brakeman notified the conductor, who ran back as the robbers jumped from the train. The cars continued to Oxford, where news of the offense was telegraphed to Philadelphia.
Officials there speedily dispatched a special train with a posse of Philadelphia detectives. It reached the crime scene about 2 a.m. Saturday and pursuit was begun at once. The detectives scoured the neighborhood. There was a rumor that this was the work of a notorious bunch that terrorized Lancaster County, Pa., the Abe Buzzard gang. But the trail lead them to Calvert, and there the two suspects, Bud Griffith and William Trainor, were captured, the Wilmington Morning News reported.
On Saturday evening, they were put on a special train to Elkton, where they were lodged in jail. One of the city papers reported that at stations along the route crowds collected to get a glimpse of them and they were greeted everywhere with howls and shouts of “How are you, Abe Buzzard?” and “Hello, Jesse James.”
With the desperadoes secured away in the county jail, Cecil’s association with a great wave of train robberies that reached its height in the 1870s had passed. But county scribes had a little more to say about the subject. Philadelphia newspapermen set up a howl about the holdup as if there “was danger that Jesse James and all the western highwaymen … were advancing on the City of Brotherly Love,” the Cecil Democrat reported.
These highwaymen were wanting in every essential trait requisite to make successful train robbers was the reality, observed the editor. That “two callow youths” had no better sense than to rob passengers on the Oxford train out of Rising Sun and that they chose to commit the robbery in a thickly settled part of the country within four miles of where they lived was the proof. The final evidence, having no better sense than to rob an editor and a printer: “Printers and editors rarely have any money, and never have any about them when riding on railroad trains. Jesse James knew this and he would not have tackled one of them under any circumstances,” the Democrat noted.
As for the cause of the startling crime, it was reading “the abominable trash with which the country was flooded, yellow back literature, which was doing so much to demoralize our youth,” the Elkton Appeal observed.