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Texas | Features | Railroads

The Last Full-Sized
Train Robbery in Texas

(Agent Trousdale did it in the baggage car with the ice-mallet).
Sanderson, Texas

by Brewster Hudspeth
TE's Big Bend Correspondent
Ben Kilpatrick
Ben Kilpatrick mug shot circa 1901
Ohio Federal Penitentiary

Courtesy of Arthur Soule

Part of the story you are about to read is sometimes referred to as the last train robbery in Texas. That's not entirely true, since the miniature train in Austin's Zilker Park (currently called The Zephyr) was held up at gunpoint not that long ago. We believe it was sometime in the early 1980s. Call Texas Monthly, they'll know, since they gave the robbers one of their Bum Steer Awards.

There was more alcohol than planning, since the culprits were arrested before they got out of the park.

Anyway, the penultimate train robbery in Texas took place in the scenic expanses west of Del Rio. Ole (rhymes with Holy Moley) Hobek and Ben Kilpatrick were in need of some excitement and cash money. Convenience stores hadn't been invented yet, and Willie Sutton wasn't old enough to have made his famous "that's where they keep the money" quote, so they decided to rob a train. While we're not sure where Ole Hobek was from, we do know that Ben Kilpatrick AKA the "Tall Texan" was from Knickerbocker, Texas, just southwest of San Angelo. Knickerbocker was an under- populated town that grew watermelons for Fort Concho in season and exported outlaws the rest of the year.

If the name sounds familiar to our wild-west buffs, yes, Ben was the same Tall Texan who ran with The Wild Bunch. They weren't always running though, and when they sat for that well- known photograph in Fort Worth, Mr. Kilpatrick is sitting dead center. Most people assume he was Butch Cassidy because of his prominent position and his look of authority. Various sources have reported Ben as having two pupils in his left eye, however this was not the case. We were contacted by a Mr. Arthur Soule of Utah who has written an entire book on this incident. Ordering information will appear at the end of this story.

History repeats itself because men like Ben Kilpatrick didn't listen the first time. The outlaw "Black Jack" Ketchum got his dubious place in history back in 1901 by being the only man ever hung for train robbery. He did kill some people, but technically it was the train robbery that gave him the death penalty. Our sources say the charge was "felonious assault upon a railroad."

The Tall Texan was illiterate, so he missed the newspaper accounts of the Ketchum hanging which had occurred ten years earlier. But both were from Knickerbocker and both were Knickerbocker School of Hard Knocks alumni. One would assume that Ketchum's failure was a topic of conversation in the barbershop there for many years.

"Black Jack," who was a Caucasian, by the way, and was also not named after a cudgel, got a painful arm wound in his last attempted train robbery which was in New Mexico. The rest of the gang overslept and weren't there to meet the train, so BJ went solo, which cost him his arm. After his capture, BJ's doctor decided that maybe the operation should be upgraded to an amputation. BJ's refusal of anesthetic during the removal isn't as brave as it sounds. He was often seen pummeling his head with his pistols when he made mistakes, sometimes even when he didn't make mistakes. This leads several historians to believe he might have enjoyed the pain. Coincidentally, Ben's brother Sam had died of blood poisoning a few years earlier when he refused to have his arm amputated after getting it shot in a train robbery of his own.

Black Jack Goes to Hell - Head First.

The day of Black Jack's departure arrived and during the high point of his not-so-excellent adventure, the novice hangman either made the drop too long or tied the wrong knot and Black Jack's head and body were separated. The event was photographed both before and after, making it a lucrative day for photographers. The coroner reunited the head and torso with needle and thread.

Meanwhile, back on the tracks….

If the Tall Texan knew of Mr. Ketchum's end, or if it would've made a difference is a moot point. Ben Kilpatrick and Ole Hobeck had what Black Jack didn't have - a novel plan and heads on their shoulders.

An argument for counting your SWAG before leaving the scene.

The plan was that Ole and Ben would board the train in Dryden as regular paying passengers. Black Jack Ketchum had robbed the train near Dryden a few years before in one of his "successful" robberies. After dynamiting one of the express car's two safes (the one the agent said held the cash), BJ and Company fled to Mexico, without looking closely at the contents of their bags. They left $90,000 behind.

One wet-behind-the-ears desperado, waiting for the train.

For this caper, Ben and Ole had an 11 year old boy (who was so eager to start a life of crime, he had already chosen "The Cimmaron Kid" as his alias) stationed with fresh horses about 10 miles east of Sanderson. What made this plan novel was that the horses had been shod with their horseshoes backward (Really). After conducting business, they would gallop off, seemingly in the opposite direction or something like that.

That wasn't to be, though, for a Wells-Fargo employee named Dave A. Trousdale, rained on their parade by not cooperating. Ole met his end by having his vertebrae compressed with an ice-mallet and the Tall Texan was shot minutes later.

The bandits climbed into the Engine compartment at Baxter's Curve and introduced themselves to the engineer. They wore bandana masks and throughout the robbery called each other by the names "Frank" and "Pardner". These guys thought of everything! The Engineer was told to take the engine to the first iron bridge. The passenger cars were then disconnected and rolled down the incline.

The robbers had a member of the train crew order the express agent to open the door and this was done. According to Mr. Trousdale's account, the two men (Trousdale and Hobek) walked down the aisle of the express car past a shipment of oysters and the ice that preserved them. Trousdale slipped an ice tool under his coat. When Holbeck put his rifle down to examine the contents of a mail sack, Trousdale hit him in the back of the neck with the tool. Second and third blows to the top of the head finished the job.

After some time, the Tall Texan approached the car and asked for a progress report. What he got was a bullet. The Cimmaron Kid was left holding the feed bag.

Trousdale was given a reward of a gold watch by Mr. Wells and Mr. Fargo and the passengers gave him a fob with a diamond set in a Texas star. The Cimmaron Kid went straight. Years later, in 1972, the "Kid" who's last name was Longbaugh and claimed to be the son of the Sundance Kid, died in a hotel fire in Montana.

Sheriff Anderson of Sanderson

The two dead outlaws were taken to Sanderson where they were photographed standing up (with a little help). In the photo they appear very drunk or only slightly dead. The Tall Texan resembles a sleepy Bruce Willis. At the time of this fiasco, Sanderson's Sherrif was named Anderson. We'd like to say more about him, but our sources only mention that he was there.

Sleeping Double in a Single Grave

They were buried in Potter's Field in Sanderson as unknowns. A marker was placed over their graves many years later and while the headstone is a double header, the truth is they were simply dumped in the hole together. We are told their graves are a major tourist attraction in present-day Sanderson.

July 2000 Feature
© John Troesser

Editor's Note:

Arthur Soule of Utah has written an entire book on the incident at Baxter's Curve and it's participants. A more factual account and biographies of both Ben Kilpatrick and Ole Holbeck can be found at http://members.networld.com/soulpatrol/ including ordering information for the book.

Bibliography: Frontier Violence: Another Look, W. Eugene Hollon, Oxford University Press, 1976 The Shooters by Leon Claire Metz, Berkley Press, 1996 Etta Place: Her Life and Times with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, by Gail Drago, Republic of Texas Press, 1996

Our special thanks to Dorothy Marquart, Curator of the Terrell County Memorial Museum, in Sanderson for her telephone interview, reading the official records to the editor, and sending copies of Trousdale's official report.

Our special thanks to Arthur Soule, author of "The Tall Texan" for correcting certain errors and contributing previously unknown facts.

Readers' Comments:

Subject: Correction about Black Jack Ketchum gang

There are three errors in the "The Last Full-Sized Train Robbery in Texas": (1) the rest of the gang 'overslept' is a figment of the writers imagination. No serious researcher or writer has found the reason why Black Jack went on this escapade alone. (2) It wasn't Ben's brother Sam, but Black Jack's brother Sam that died of blood poisoning in the NM Territorial Prison after trying to escape from a posse that had chased them to Cimmaron, NM after a train robbery. (He was my great grandfather). And, I believe that he was shot in the leg, not the arm, according to Jeff Burton, a respected researcher/expert on this gang. (3) Ketchum's is misspelled.

I have reseached the Ketchum family genealogy for 30+ years, and of course, I have come across much information regarding the two outlaw brothers but that was not my main intent. I have about 3,000 people on my list of kin, including the great grandfather of Black Jack and Sam, and his descendants down to the present time. My web page has most of my info, but hasn't been updated in almost a year....and the html code is outdated and so some of my text and photo borders have turned red :-) http://www.hal-pc.org/~berrys - Berry Spradley, July 14, 2004

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