The train became the great symbol of American progress in the 1800s. Engines built in America rode on lanes of steel forged in American factories. Passengers could ride across the continent in a matter of days safely and with relative ease compared to the slow covered wagons of so many pioneers. However, some of the most notorious crimes of the late 1800s were train robberies. One train robbery in Arkansas in 1893 left one man dead and launched one of the biggest manhunts in state history.
The St. Louis, Iron Mountain, and Southern Railway connected Little Rock to St. Louis and beyond. On November 3, 1893, Engine No. 51 left Poplar Bluff, Missouri, at noon with seven cars and 300 passengers and headed into Arkansas on a routine trip. The train stopped at Olyphant, a small depot just south of Newport, around 9:30. Two passengers disembarked, and the train waited for a north-bound engine to pass. It was at that point that everything went wrong.
The travel experience of the 1890s was much different than what modern travelers might expect. There were no metal detectors or security checkpoints of any kind. There were no special safety protocols. Passengers could simply pay for a ticket and wander onto a train in seconds with hardly anyone even noticing who was boarding or what they were even carrying. Employees often suffered serious injuries connected with railroad work. And men with sinister plans could quickly figure out how to easily overwhelm a train crew or its passengers.
Four men boarded the train with guns and began robbing the passengers. Conductor William P. McNally heard the commotion and sprang into action. Though unarmed, he began moving toward the front of the train to confront the gang. He warned passengers to hide their valuables and to stay calm as he went along. One passenger offered him his revolver, which he quickly took. He confronted the four, firing at them. One of the robbers responded with a rifle blast that caught McNally full force.
In less than 30 minutes, it was over. By the time the robbers left, they had also seized nearly $6,000 in valuables (or more than $180,000 in 2018 dollars). After they fled, the engine roared to life and sped toward Little Rock nearly 70 miles distant. McNally, mortally wounded, died on the way.
The news of the robbery and murder shocked the state. Immediately, a mass search ensued, taking up ten northern counties. Sheriffs organized large posses to make sure no lead was overlooked and no stone unturned. Many communities and individuals came forward with promises of reward money. The railroad itself offered a reward of $300 (more than $9,000 in 2018 dollars). Smaller searches soon appeared in all corners of the state. It was by far the largest manhunt that Arkansas had yet seen.
Thousands attended McNally’s funeral. In the meantime, newspapers across the state played up rumors and continued to comment on the grisly details. Rumors swirled about their possible identities and hideouts. The Arkansas Gazette openly speculated it was a hold-up by the notorious Dalton Gang, a theory that disintegrated as the investigation continued. Strangers riding into different towns were immediately questioned. The Batesville area especially filled with rumors and seized anyone acting unusually or anyone unfamiliar. Shootouts between suspects and posses were reported though unverified. It all fed into a frenzied atmosphere as an anxious state demanded justice.
It took nearly a month, but three suspects were ultimately caught not far from the site of the robbery. Tom Brady, Albert Mansker, and James Wyrick were charged and put on trial in Newport. A fourth man, George Padgett, was arrested as well. He quickly broke down and identified the other three. He explained that they had all met some weeks before in the Indian Territory and plotted a train robbery. They eventually decided to rob the No. 51 train and cased the tracks for several days. They drank themselves into a near-stupor preparing for the robbery beforehand.
Padgett turned state’s evidence and told his part on the stand as the trial convened in January 1894. The gripping tale convinced jurors. In no time, the verdicts came back loud and clear: guilty. The three others would hang for what they did. Only Padgett’s belated honesty saved him from the rope.
On April 6, 1894, the three were brought to the gallows. It was a hastily built stand with three ropes behind the city jail in downtown Newport. A crowd managed to get a look at the execution. Sheriff J. M. Hobgood oversaw this last act in the ordeal. Once the nooses were tightened and the floor dropped, it was over in a matter of moments. The last chapter in the train robbery and the murder of McNally closed.