A brave conductor also paid the ultimate price.
Around noon on November 3, 1893, veteran conductor William P. McNally left Poplar Bluff, Missouri, with 300 passengers bound for Little Rock, Arkansas, on Train No. 51 of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway. Nearing retirement, McNally looked forward to this run as one of his last, but he didn’t count on it being his very last.
After a dinner break at Walnut Ridge, Ark., the seven-car train stopped at the Jackson County village of Olyphant shortly before 10 p.m. to let off a single passenger and then pulled onto a siding to let a northbound “cannonball” express pass. Train No. 51 had scarcely come to a halt on the sidetrack when seven masked bandits charged out of the cold, rainy darkness to surround the engine, while an eighth robber held the gang’s horses at a nearby canebrake. Brandishing Winchester rifles, the outlaws covered the engineer and fireman and shouted for them to throw up their hands.
Jim Wyrick, Tom Brady and George Padgett had formed the gang several weeks earlier in Benton County, the northwest corner of the state, with the idea of holding up a train as a “get rich quick” scheme. They soon recruited Ol Truman, Bob Chesney, and brothers Sam and Pennyweight Powell. Although at least one of the organizers had been involved in selling illegal whiskey in nearby Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), the recruits were just farmers from the Siloam Springs area, and none of the gang had any real outlaw experience.
In early October the three ringleaders rode east to reconnoiter the railway line, settling on No. 51 as their target. During the scouting expedition the fledgling outlaws also hooked up with Albert Mansker, who claimed prior experience robbing trains and wanted to do so again.
Later that month Wyrick returned to Benton County to collect the other four gang members, and the eight men rendezvoused near Jamestown, where they stayed on the property of H.H.Wackerly a few days before riding 35 miles southeast to Olyphant.
Now three of the bandits marched the engineer and fireman toward the express car while four others, two on either side of the train, maintained a lookout. The trio ordered the express messenger to open up and started shooting at the door. He quickly complied, and the outlaws entered the express car, forced him to open the safe and emptied the strongbox. Meanwhile, the four lookouts kept pelting the train with lead and shouting oaths to intimidate the passengers.
Toward the back of the train, McNally heard the commotion and then a baggageman rushed up and told him it was a holdup. McNally hurried through the passenger cars, warning folks to hide their valuables. Borrowing a pistol, McNally then stepped out on the platform of the baggage car and fired two shots at the gang. The bandits promptly returned fire, mortally wounding McNally.
After emptying out the express safe, the outlaw trio marched the engineer and fireman through the passenger cars. One bandit collected all of the valuables and money the passengers had been unable to conceal. The other two kept the rail company hostages and passengers covered. The northbound express sped by while the robbery was in progress.
After plundering the passenger cars, the three robbers strode back through the train, still herding their prisoners. Arriving back at the train’s engine, they jumped off, retrieved their horses and galloped west into the dank night.
Informed of the robbery, a telegrapher at Olyphant station wired area lawmen about the holdup, and several posses were soon trailing the bandits northwesterly toward Batesville. By daylight on Saturday, November 4, nearly 100 men had joined the chase. That afternoon, acting on a tip that “evil-looking men” had been hanging around the Wackerly home during the past week, the posses closed in on the fugitives near Jamestown.
A three-man posse caught up with two of the gang about 5 p.m. Saturday. Carrying only concealed revolvers, the lawmen got the drop on the heavily armed fugitives before they realized who the newcomers were. Taken to the Independence County seat at Batesville, the captives, who gave their names as Mark Arnett and Bill Lemons, were identified as two of the robbers by plunder in their possession.
Scores of lawmen continued to scour the countryside for the remaining robbers. After beating the bushes around Jamestown all night, a posse that included local postmaster M.C. Long and two of H.H. Wackerly’s sons came upon several armed men on horseback in a canebrake around daybreak Sunday morning, and Long fired a shotgun blast at them as they bolted. During the brief skirmish, 21-year-old Clem Wackerly threw down his weapon and ran off. He was later captured and held on suspicion of being in cahoots with the train robbers.
On Thursday night, November 9, a Searcy County deputy marshal captured a third bandit, who gave his name as Jack Williams. He, too, was sent to Batesville. Meanwhile, the men calling themselves Arnett and Lemons were transported to the state penitentiary at Little Rock, and the newest captive soon joined them.
By mid-November lawmen had tentatively identified most of the gang members based on reports from Benton County. A few days later two Benton County citizens viewed the prisoners at Little Rock and testified that Lemons was actually farmer Tom Brady and Arnett was George Padgett. The five bandits still at large were also named.
The identity of the man calling himself Jack Williams remained a mystery. But a few days after officials had positively identified the other seven robbers, Williams said he was really Albert Mansker, from Howell County, Mo. A claim later arose that he was actually John Hill of Mammoth Spring, Ark., although the prisoner insisted he was Mansker.
In early December lawmen captured Wyrick near Van Buren, Ark., and took him directly to the penitentiary at Little Rock. By Christmas, Chesney and the Powell brothers were also in custody. Truman eluded capture, though lawmen eventually caught up with him, too.
The trials for the three original members of the gang were set for late January 1894 at Newport, the Jackson County seat, and the circuit judge ruled that anyone convicted of the robbery would also be accountable for McNally’s death. George Padgett quickly agreed to turn state’s evidence in exchange for leniency, and he was not tried for murder, even though testimony suggested he was the robber who had gathered loot from the passengers and was one of the main leaders of the gang.
Padgett testified that Brady and Wyrick came to him with the idea of robbing a train, and the train’s brakeman testified that Wyrick was the man who fired the shot that killed McNally. Both Wyrick and Brady were convicted of first-degree murder and scheduled to hang on April 6. Mansker claimed he was the man who held the horses during the holdup, but some considered him the ringleader of the group, as he had participated in previous robberies. At his trial in early February he, too, was convicted of first degree murder and slated to join his two partners on the gallows. Juries later brought indictments against Truman, Chesney and the Powell brothers, but they were never brought to trial.
On the night of April 5, 1894, townswomen visited the three convicts in the Jackson County Jail at Newport to sing hymns and pray. The next morning a large crowd gathered as the condemned men were led to the scaffold, but only 25 witnesses were allowed inside an enclosure surrounding the platform. In final statements all three men suggested that “drink and bad company” had led to their downfall and shirked responsibility for the crime, claiming that Padgett had been the instigator. Moments later, their protestations of innocence still on their lips, all three dropped to their deaths in the only triple execution in Jackson County history.
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.