Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, ‘Buffalo Tom’ Vernon held up a train. Well, not quite like them— it was 1929, and Vernon was strictly an amateur.
Out on parole in August 1929, 45-year-old “Buffalo Tom” Vernon was getting a little old for the criminal life, but neither that realization nor the fact he was a six-time loser seemed to faze him. Having failed at every other criminal endeavor, he decided to take up train robbery. Ironically, officials at California’s Folsom Prison had pointed him toward this criminal enterprise by providing him vocational training as a locomotive engineer on the prison’s narrow-gauge line. They had hoped it would provide him with honest work when he got out. It didn’t. Just three months out of Folsom, Vernon returned to his outlaw ways.
The history of the Wild West is loaded with stories of such legendary outlaws as Jesse James, John Wesley Hardin, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Then there is Buffalo Tom, who was a failure at every criminal enterprise he ever tried. Most of what we know of his life comes from a 1929 jailhouse interview he gave to wire service reporter Jim Hopkins, who dubbed him “the last of the West’s old-time badmen.” Vernon’s self-described life sounds like the stuff of dime novels or the new (at that time) Hollywood Westerns.
As Vernon told it, his parents were Mr. and Mrs. James Averill, better known to history as Jim Averill and Ella “Cattle Kate” Watson, Wyoming pioneers summarily hanged from a cottonwood tree by regulators in 1889. Jim and Kate, so far as the record shows, were never married and never had any children. Vernon described them as “honest, law-abiding folks” and “perfectly innocent settlers,” which some researchers now say is closer to the truth than the story put out at the time, but Tom has never been connected to the pair.
Returning to Vernon’s story, he was 5 at the time of the double hanging, and the regulators killed his brother, shot Tom and carried him off to their cave hideout in the Black Hills of South Dakota. There they kept him chained to a stump outside the cave. One day, while the gang was away, passing Indians freed him and took him to Chief Iron Tail at the nearby Sioux reservation. Iron Tail in turn placed Tom in the care of a white man named Pete Vernon, who nursed the boy back to health and taught him the skills of a cowboy. Tom’s only playmates were Sioux children, until, at age 12, he decided it was time to make his place in the world. All he took with him was the last name of his mentor, becoming “Tom Vernon,” one of about nine different names he used during his lifetime.
Pete’s last kindness to the boy was introducing him to Jim Mitchell, described as the “chief cowboy in Buffalo Bill’s show,” who took Tom to NewYork and introduced him to Cody. Buffalo Bill reportedly gave him a part in the show, performing as a bronc-riding girl billed as “the daredevil daughter of Cattle Kate.” After touring with Cody for four years, Tom left the show and joined the 6th U.S. Cavalry. It was 1900, and his unit was sent to China to fight the Boxers. When his enlistment was up, he got a series of jobs back in the States as a cowpuncher and “rough rider.” For a while he was part of the Wild West show of Major Gordon W. Lillie, better known as Pawnee Bill. It was Lillie who gaveVernon his stage name, Buffalo Tom. After leaving Pawnee Bill’s show, Vernon performed with other rodeos and roundups, along the way becoming pals with future film stars Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson. Twice more during the next two decades he would return to the U.S. cavalry.
In between enlistments and cowboying, Vernon embarked on a life of petty crime that earned him several stretches in the California prison system. When the cavalry discovered his criminal background, it dishonorably discharged him, but that didn’t prevent Vernon from enlisting in the cavalry a third time in 1917 for World War I. He never saw combat and in 1919 left the service for the last time—with an honorable discharge. (His California prison record specifically states Vernon was not a veteran.)
Vernon’s life of crime began inauspiciously in Scranton, Pa., in 1905. He was sent away for 16 months for stealing a watch he swore two young ruffians had slipped into his over- coat pocket. In 1908 he was working in a Claremont, Calif., livery stable when he got the wanderlust and took off, taking $60 from his employer’s cash register on the way out of town. He landed in East St. Louis, Ill., where he secured a contract to buy horses and mules for the British army. He decided to keep one of the mares he had purchased, which earned him a stretch in the Ohio State Penitentiary. He was saved from serving his full sentence when Governor James Cox visited the prison and was reportedly so impressed with the model prisoner that he issued a pardon, putting Vernon back out on the street. He was soon back in the Army.
After World War I, Tom returned to California where he got a job as a stunt rider in the movie industry. That lasted until police arrested him in 1920 for stealing a horse. According to Tom, it was all a misunderstanding. “I’d paid for the horse,” he insisted, “but I couldn’t prove it.” He got 10 years in Folsom prison but was paroled after just 2 1⁄2.
Vernon left California and drifted up to Oregon, settling in The Dalles and taking up bootlegging. He was busted twice; the second time the judge fined him $100 and ordered him to leave the area. Vernon returned to southern California, where he could only find work as a janitor. He used his wages to play the ponies in Tijuana, Mexico, and was soon arrested for being $500 overdrawn at his bank. That landed him back in Folsom. But in August 1929, thanks to good behavior (he was always on his best behavior behind bars), Vernon again got out on parole.
On the night of November 10, 1929, he derailed the West Coast Flyer (aka, the Pacific Coast Limited) on its way from Los Angeles to Sacramento. It was just entering Soledad Canyon (near Saugus), some 40 miles north of Los Angeles, when he struck, using tools he had stolen from a Southern Pacific toolshed to pry up the spikes that held the tracks in place, being careful not to break the signal wires that would have set off warning lights down the track. When the train hit the loosened tracks, the engine and four cars flipped over. The engineer was badly scalded, but no one else was injured Tom did not even don a mask on his walk through the passenger cars, relieving frightened riders of their cash. He let them keep their jewelry. Witnesses said it was a toss-up who was more nervous, the robber or his victims. He brandished a .38 revolver but was exceedingly polite. When a porter locked the doors on either end of his car, it kept the frustrated train robber from getting to all the passengers. It was an amateurish job from the get-go. By the time Vernon got to the end of the train, he had netted only about $300. And he ignored the express car, historically the main target of train robbers.
Not all of his victims were unnerved by the shock of being robbed at gunpoint. English tourist Irwin Bennett considered it “quite an experience,” explaining, “I had begun to think all of those tales of your Wild West were fiction, but now I can see they are based on fact.”
After exiting the rear of the train, Vernon disappeared over a nearby hill. Adding a final bizarre twist, he made his escape by hitching a ride into Los Angeles with a passing motorist, whom he tipped $5 for dropping him off at Hollywood Hospital to visit a lady friend. The next morning Vernon visited another lady friend before hitting the outlaw trail.
The reading public loved tales of the Wild West, and the press latched onto the story. New Jersey’s Trenton Evening Times, for one, said the robber had pulled off the job in “genuine dime-novel fashion,” which was hardly the case.
Vernon proved not much of a fugitive. He had left his coat, inscribed with his name, lying beside the tracks. He showed up in Cheyenne, Wyo., on November 14 and could easily have lost himself in the state’s wide-open spaces but chose to stay less than two weeks before lighting out for Denver. All the while he passed the time by writing a series of letters to lady friends back in Los Angeles. The day before Vernon left town, by strange coincidence, the Portland Limited was derailed and robbed near Cheyenne by a lone bandit who cleaned out the passengers for $239 and ignored the express car. In Denver he took up with a hotel chambermaid, in whom he confided his next destination before taking off for Pawnee, Okla. There authorities caught up to him, having trailed the not-so-desperate outlaw across four states.
Los Angeles Deputy Sheriff Thomas Higgins deserves most of the credit. First he showed Vernon’s picture to the passengers on the Flyer, who easily identified their robber. Then he tracked Vernon to Cheyenne, Denver and ultimately Pawnee. The Pawnee sheriff gave Higgins the honor of making the arrest. The fugitive offered no resistance, although he did protest his innocence when informed he was also wanted for the Cheyenne train robbery.
Back behind bars Vernon offered three different explanations for why he had robbed the train in California. Initially he told the Los Angeles and Pawnee lawmen that he needed the money to pay for an operation for his lady friend in the Hollywood Hospital. Later he said he needed traveling money to get to Oklahoma for a job on Pawnee Bill’s ranch. Finally, under oath at his trial, he said his “sole motive” was revenge against the Southern Pacific, which had promised him a job when he got out of prison but welched on that promise.
As soon as news of his capture got out, authorities in both Wyoming and California demanded his extradition. Sheriff Gus Romsa of Cheyenne hurried to Pawnee to assert Wyoming’s claim, only to find L.A.’s Higgins already there and tight with local authorities. Governors C.C. Young of California and Frank C. Emerson of Wyoming raced to see who could get all the paperwork submitted first. To strengthen Wyoming’s claim, the governor even enlisted state historian Mrs. Cyrus Beard, who asserted Vernon was a Wyoming citizen because of his alleged parents ( Jim Averill and Cattle Kate). When pressed, however, Beard had to admit that the “historical data in her department” only showed “considerable foundation” and not absolute proof of Vernon’s claim.
Who got him was more than just a matter of friendly competition between two states. Wyoming imposed the death penalty for train robbery, whereas California law offered the possibility of life in prison. In the end California got him and wasted no time trying and convicting him. It did not hurt he was now a seven-time loser, having confessed to the Saugus train wreck and robbery after a little encouragement and to avoid being extradited to Wyoming. Pawnee County Sheriff Allen Jones told reporters that Vernon had voluntarily confessed after prolonged questioning. On December 11, 1929, one day after being returned to Los Angeles, Vernon was arraigned on three counts of robbery and one count of “train wrecking.”
His trial was short, even perfunctory. First, there was the confession written out in his hand. On top of that the defense counsel was a court-assigned public defender, and the state succeeded in getting Vernon’s entire criminal career entered into the record. The accused did not deny he had robbed the West Coast Flyer but insisted he had been driven to it, an argument that won him little sympathy with the jury. Public opinion was also against him, especially after false rumors spread that the badly burned fireman had died of his injuries. If true, that would have upped the charge to “murder in the commission of a train robbery.” The district attorney described Vernon as “a vicious and dangerous man.” The defense countered with the sympathy card, wheeling out the story of how Tom had been forced to witness the brutal murder of his mother and father. It was a desperate ploy that failed.
On December 18 the jury brought back a guilty verdict, and the judge assessed Vernon two life sentences without possibility of parole, citing the state’s habitual-criminal act. With six known convictions on his record, Vernon had already doubled the three-strike limit set by that law. Now he would never commit another crime. Tom’s lawyer expressed satisfaction just to have kept his client from the electric chair. The judge also ordered a pro forma sanity hearing, prompted by the fact that so many people thought Vernon must have been crazy to even try holding up a train by himself and without a getaway plan. Vernon’s sentence at Folsom began January 10, 1930.
Turns out Tom Vernon did not spend the rest of his life in prison, and his ending was as unlikely as the rest of his life. After repeated appeals for clemency he won parole in November 1952. The required public notice of his impending release sparked no opposition, so he walked out of Folsom—and into the welcoming arms of a nice suburban family apparently not put off by his criminal past. After years of drifting and hard times he had finally found a safe, loving environment. Twelve years later his sentence was commuted by “executive clemency.” Buffalo Tom Vernon died in 1967 in the company of his adopted family.
His life seems to have been one tall tale after another, the author constantly revising and embroidering the story. Whether the “facts” as he related them are true or not, his life story demonstrates a crucial element in the appeal of the Old West: A man could endlessly reinvent himself. He could, if he so chose, drop out of sight, invent any number of aliases, even choose who he wanted his parents to be, all safe in the knowledge that virtually no one could prove him a liar. He could invent a career in the cavalry or in Wild West shows. He could be friends with Buffalo Bill or Tom Mix or anyone else he happened to hear about. Years later who was to say otherwise? If Tom Vernon was indeed “the last of the West’s oldtime badmen,” he was a pretty pale imitation of his better-known predecessors; he spent more than 30 years behind bars and died quietly in bed. There was no shootout with enemies, no going out in a blaze of glory like Butch and Sundance.
If he was simply the last of a breed, he was cut from the same cloth as Davy Crockett, Wyatt Earp and other larger-than-life characters that created their own legends, albeit with a little help from Western writers and newspapermen. Such legends have shown a half-life only slightly less than carbon 14. In the 1950s the patriarch of a family of traveling performers (“Mr. and Mrs. Mel Hall and the Fabulous Cycling Whiz Kids”) told a Dallas newspaper he was “a child of the old Wild West shows” and that his father had been Buffalo Tom.
Vernon’s story is really about the end of the Wild West—how it ended not with a bang but with a whimper. In 1929 Time characterized him as part of an “obsolete tradition of Old West train robbers.” His apprenticeship included being “a onetime rodeo roughrider, horse thief and forger,” which put him squarely in the dime-novel tradition. Buffalo Tom was obsolete, because in 1929 he had to compete for headlines with gangsters like Al Capone and “Bugs” Moran. Just nine months before Vernon held up the West Coast Flyer, the Capone gang used machine guns to rub out seven of Moran’s boys in Chicago’s Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. How could a cowboy turned train robber compete?
Richard Selcer of Fort Worth writes books and articles about the West. For this story he used contemporary accounts and prison records.
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.