Wells, Fargo messenger David Trousdale proved big trouble.
The No. 9 Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio locomotive was on time when it pulled into the Dryden, Texas, station shortly before midnight on March 13, 1912. As the steam engine took on water, two men emerged from the darkness and slipped aboard the locomotive tender. One was a relative unknown, Ole Hobek, a minor crook who had served time in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. While incarcerated there, he is believed to have met and formed an alliance with the second man.
His partner, Ben Kilpatrick, was no stranger to train robberies. A onetime member of the Wild Bunch, the 6-foot-2 Kilpatrick was known as the “Tall Texan.” His biggest claim to fame was having posed front and center in the infamous “Fort Worth Five” photograph with Butch Cassidy, Kid Curry, Will Carver and the Sundance Kid. In 1901 he’d been convicted of passing stolen banknotes and sent to the Atlanta penitentiary. On release from prison in 1911 he had resumed his career in outlawry and had pulled off several successful train holdups.
As the No. 9 pulled out from Dryden, westbound for Sanderson, the robbers clambered forward to the engine and pulled their pistols. They first ordered engineer D.E. Grosh to stop at an approaching iron bridge to disconnect the passenger cars and caboose. That done, the outlaws ordered Grosh to move the engine, tender and express cars another mile or so to Baxter’s Curve, about midway between Dryden and Sanderson.
Barely 10 miles north of the Mexican border, the curve was an ideal setting for a train holdup. The terrain was sparsely inhabited and rough enough to discourage anyone from following them. They had recruited an 11-year-old boy to wait nearby with their horses for a quick getaway. Their plan was going well.
What they had not counted on was 32-year-old David A. Trousdale, a Wells, Fargo & Co. Express messenger with a quick mind and plenty of nerve. Wells, Fargo later released Trousdale’s official statement regarding the incident, granting us a firsthand narration of events from his perspective:
The first I knew of being held up was when the train came to a stop at Baxter’s Curve. I did not go to the door and did not know there was any trouble until the train porter or the engineer called me.…When I looked out, there was a man with a mask on, standing there pointing a rifle at me.…The robber told me to “fall out” with my hands up. When I got out of the car, he walked up to me and searched me for arms. He made the conductor and the train porter uncouple the baggage cars from the coaches …and gave [them] instructions to go back and stay with the coaches; the mail clerk, the helper and I to go on the engine. One of the robbers rode on one side of the engine in the gang way, and one on the other side. They carried us something like a mile from the place they held us up.
The outlaws referred to one another by aliases, Kilpatrick using “Frank,” Hobek answering to “Partner.” While Hobek guarded Grosh and the fireman, Kilpatrick forced Trousdale into the baggage car with his helper (a man named Reagan) and the mail clerk, M.E. Banks. Trousdale deliberately misled the Tall Texan, pointing out only low-value items from the safe. Kilpatrick, in his frustration, insisted on going to the mail car, where he found little of value.
I thought if there was any chance for me to get the advantage on him, it would be by taking him back through my car, where I could find some means of turning the table on him.…I told him that I was not getting fighting wages and did not care how much he took out. In this way I gained his confidence, and he quit treating me as roughly as he had been. Before this he would jab me with his rifle and command me around in a boisterous manner.
When we passed by a stack of oysters… I picked up the ice maul [a wooden mallet] which was lying on them. I placed it behind my overcoat so that he could not see it…and showed him a package which was going to Sanderson, and told him that the package was worth more than all he had gotten, I thought. He rested his rifle against his leg and started to pick up the package in his right hand. While he was in this position, I saw my chance.…The first blow I struck him was at the base of the skull, adjoining his head from his neck. Then I struck him two more blows in the top of the head after he had fallen and knocked his brains out the third blow.
I took two .45-caliber Colt revolvers and a .401 model Winchester off this man. I gave the mail clerk and the helper each a revolver, and I kept the rifle….I turned the lights out and…waited something like two hours for the second man to come back.
He did not show up for some time, and I fired a shot through the top of the car.… In a few minutes he came to the door and called the name “Frank” three times and waited about five minutes, then I saw his head sticking out from behind a trunk 40 feet from me.
The first time he put his head out, I did not get a chance to shoot, but the second time he was looking toward the rear of the car. I fired one shot—the bullet striking him about an inch and a half above the left eye, passing through his head.
With both bandits dead, Grosh returned to the throttle and backed the engine and baggage cars to the passenger coaches. Trousdale refused to open the express car until certain no other gang members remained in hiding.
The fireman came back to the coaches and called me. I told him to get the conductor and some of the passengers before I could open the car, that I had killed two men. In a few minutes he came back with the conductor, porter and 15 or 20 passengers. When I found that there was no one out there to harm me, I opened the door.
I transferred all of my money run to helper Reagan and went as far as Sanderson and unloaded the dead bodies with the six guns taken from them.
The train arrived in Sanderson about 5 a.m. After hauling the robbers’ corpses from the train, a handful of irate citizens propped up the dead men in front of the depot and posed with the erect bodies for a macabre photograph. Terrell County Sheriff David L. Anderson—who under the alias Billy Wilson had been a member of Billy the Kid’s gang after the Lincoln County War in New Mexico Territory—later apprehended the duo’s 11-year-old accomplice still waiting at Baxter’s Curve. The all-too-eager boy referred to himself as the “Cimarron Kid.”
Authorities noticed that the outlaws had shod their horses with the shoes facing backward, presumably to dupe any pursuing lawmen into tracking the opposite direction. A further note by Trousdale proved the robbers meant serious business: “I removed six sticks of dynamite and a box of dynamite caps and an ‘Infernal Machine’ [a multibarreled gun intended to cause multiple wounds] from the man called ‘Partner.’ The man called ‘Frank’ had a pint of nitroglycerin in his side pocket.”
Gravediggers placed Kilpatrick’s and Hobek’s bodies in a mutual box and buried them in the potter’s field of Sanderson’s Cedar Grove Cemetery. In 1985, perhaps in a bid to boost tourism, the Terrell County Historical Society erected a granite marker atop their grave, though there is some question whether the bodies had washed away during a flash flood two decades earlier.
Authorities amply rewarded Trousdale for his heroics that night. Wells, Fargo presented him with $1,000 and an engraved gold watch. The federal government contributed another $1,000, while the railroad line gave him $500. Taking up a collection, the passengers presented Trousdale a token of their thanks to complement his watch, buying him a gold fob inlaid with a diamond set inside the star of Texas.
In 1945, after 43 years, Trousdale retired from the Railway Express Agency (the former Wells, Fargo & Co. Express). He lived in San Antonio until 1949 and then returned to his home state, Tennessee, where he died in 1953 at age 73.
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.