A Theatrical Train Robbery

John Robison

Borrowing from Bernhardt and the Bard

Frank James knew his lines. “I am joined with no foot land-rakers, no long-staff sixpenny strikers, none of these mad mustachio purple-hued malt-worms; but with nobility and tranquillity, burgomasters and great oneyers; such as can hold in, such as will strike sooner than speak, and speak sooner than drink, and drink sooner than pray: and yet, zwounds, I lie; for they pray continually to their saint, the Commonwealth; or, rather, not pray to her, but prey on her, for they ride up and down on her, and make her their boots.”

Upon boarding a railroad car at Gads Hill, Missouri, Frank quoted Shakespeare, announcing to railroad passengers his justification for robbing them. But just the rich, mind you. Not the working poor, with calloused hands. No women. No children.

In Henry IV Part I, the Bard describes the fat-kidneyed Falstaff and a gang of highwaymen, on the “Road by Gads Hill.” The well-read Frank James may have favored that scene because it fit his disdain for fusty fat cats who rode the rails. So why not stage a train robbery at Gads Hill, Missouri, conveniently
located in the middle of nowhere?


That’s one theory, anyway. Since the bandits’ faces hid behind bandannas, witnesses and historians can’t be sure who quoted Henry IV during the robbery. Nor can they be sure what specific lines were quoted. That’s okay. Nobody is quite sure who wrote Shakespeare,

After a full meal and even fuller conversation at the Ellington Senior Center, I climbed into Erifnus–my trusted ride–and motored to that spot where the words of William Shakespeare and Frank James intersect. Oh, and Charles Dickens, too.

Gads Hill is a wide spot along the highway as it unfolds beside the tracks of the St. Louis & Iron Mountain Railroad. Some say the town is named for the English estate of Charles Dickens, Gads Hill Place. But long before Dickens, the Bard knew that the Road by Gads Hill was a hangout for highwaymen who robbed travelers.

Often as not, trains didn’t stop in 1870s Gads Hill, Missouri. They just slowed to snag the mail sack from a trackside saloon. But on this afternoon, the southbound Little Rock Express planned to stop and discharge a passenger, even as the gang prepared to force it to stop.


Sarah Bernhardt would’ve chuckled, the way the robbers played the passengers, including
Frank’s soliloquy on robbing nobility. At the conclusion of the plunder, one of the outlaws, likely Frank, handed over a written statement describing the robbery, muttering that newspapers had misreported details in some of the outlaws’ earlier exploits. Frank was a contemporary of Sarah Bernhardt, the hottest act in show business at the time, and a damn capable self-publicist. It’s probable
that Frank watched the success of Sarah Bernhardt’s self-promotion. It worked for Sarah; Frank could do it too.

This first-ever press release from a bank robber described the outlaws’ appearance, and lied about the direction of their getaway, thus forever casting doubt on the veracity of billions of subsequent news releases. Evidence suggests the gang escaped by heading west, following the Black River, then the Current River. Eventually, Frank’s younger brother Jesse made it back to his betrothed and they used their cut of the loot to honeymoon on the Texas Riviera.

Nowadays, there’s not much at Gads Hill. A sign marks the spot where the outlaws stopped the train. The old saloon is gone, and a successionof local watering holes have come and gone, including a pub owned by a publicist. Somewhere, Sarah Bernhardt is smiling.

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