Thursday, April 30, 2020

Last Stop: Train Heist Leads to Hangings in Arkansas

Photo courtesy of the Arkansas
State Archives, G5216_2.
The railroads were vital to the development of Arkansas. They brought settlers and supplies to the area and spurred the rise and fall of many towns. As the state developed, railroads allowed goods to be shipped easily from place to place and allowed easier travel.

However, for all of the advantages the railroads brought, there was danger. Train robbers were plentiful and attacks frequent. Trains became targets for robbers who sought easy money, and in 1893, eight farmers, most with no criminal background, decided to rob a train in Jackson County with tragic results. The robbery became the last train heist in Arkansas.

On the evening of Nov. 3, 1893, the No. 51 train pulled into the station in Olyphant, a small, sawmill town on the White River. As the train slowed to a stop, engineer Robert Harriet heard loud yells and whoops and saw a group of armed men rush toward the train. Thinking the men were a group coming back from a hunt, he went back to his duties unconcerned. His indifference quickly turned into panic, however, when men wearing masks and holding guns surrounded him.

“Hands up!” the men shouted. The group forced the engineer onboard and gathered the rest of the crew. Then, the robbers ordered a crew member to open the train’s safe. When the crew member said he couldn’t, the men started firing their Winchester rifles into the train’s roof. The crew member then quickly opened the safe, and the robbers gathered its contents.

Unbeknownst to the robbers, W.P. McNally, the train’s conductor, was in the baggage car. McNally, a veteran train conductor, had often boasted he would never let anyone rob a train he was conducting. Upon hearing the commotion toward the front of the train, McNally loaded his pistol, told the passengers to hide their valuables and took cover. As the robbers proceeded through the train, McNally opened fire. The outlaws shot back, hitting McNally in the abdomen and killing him.

The armed men then marched through the train and ordered passengers to put their valuables into their sack. They ordered the train’s crew to the front, then wished the crew a goodnight before going the baggage car to check for any other valuables. There, they were shocked to discover McNally’s body. Alarmed at what they had done, the men ran down the tracks and disappeared into the woods.

Immediately, authorities began hunting the robbers. Gov. William Fishback offered a $100 reward for each robber caught and convicted. The Iron Mountain Railroad, which the group had robbed, offered a $300 reward. The day after the robbery, a doctor in Jamestown in Woodruff County telephoned authorities in Jackson County to report several suspicious men camped near his home. He contacted Marshall Patterson, the sheriff of Woodruff County, who then organized a posse to investigate.
When the sheriff arrived, the two men in the camp told the posse their names were Bill Lemons and Tom Arnett. After further investigation, Patterson discovered the names were aliases and arrested them. The men confessed to being Tom Brady and George Padgett, two Benton County farmers who had disappeared weeks before.

Under interrogation, Padgett confessed to being in on the robbery, but Brady denied any involvement. In Brady’s possession, law enforcement found a map that showed where some of the other robbers could be found.

Albert Mansker, another member of the gang, was captured in Searcy County. While in custody, Mansker wrote to L.H. Davis, a respected farmer in Missouri, disclosing he was really John Hill, a former justice of the peace and constable from Myatt Township in Missouri. Another robber, Sam Wyrick, was captured within a week. Law enforcement captured a fifth robber, Pennyweight Powell, in Colorado a few months later. Three robbers remained at large: Ol Trueman; Sam Powell, who was Pennyweight Powell’s brother; and Bob Chesney.

With five of the robbers in jail, a grand jury convened in January 1894 to consider the crime. They handed down indictments for first degree murder for Brady, Wyrick, Mansker (Hill), and Padgett and ordered the men be tried. Padgett decided to testify against his accomplices, and as a result, the prosecutor agreed to delay his trial until the trials for the others were finished. The trials for Brady, Mansker and Wyrick were set for later in January.

The first to go to trial was Tom Brady, the presumptive ringleader. The prosecution called George Padgett as star witness. According to George Padgett’s testimony, he lived in rural Benton County, where he worked on a farm for $20 a month to support his wife and six children. One day, Padgett traveled to Oklahoma to buy whiskey. There he met Tom Brady and Jim Wyrick, who told him of a scheme to get rich. Brady and Wyrick told Padgett they were planning to rob a train in Jackson County. The pair said they thought the train would not be well defended in the White River Valley. After the robbery, the men could return to their respective homes, and no one would know.

With dreams of riches dancing in his head, Padgett agreed to participate, and the three set out to organize a gang. The morning of the robbery, the gang met and gathered their guns and ammunition. While together, they drank whiskey to build their courage, and then set out to rob the train.
Brady chose not to take the stand in his defense, and the case went to the jury. After deliberating for over eight hours, the jury returned a verdict of guilty and sentenced him to death.

Wyrick’s trial was next.  Unlike Brady, Wyrick chose to take the stand in his own defense. He testified that he met Padgett and Brady in Oklahoma. The two then convinced him to take part in the robbery, Wyrick said. He claimed on the morning of the robbery, he became disenchanted with the plan and chose to leave, making his way home in Benton County, and that he never took part in the crime. The jury took four-and-a-half hours to return a verdict of guilty and sentence Wyrick to hang.

Mansker’s trial began the same day Wyrick’s trial concluded and ended with the same outcome − a conviction and death sentence.

At trial, the defendants all disputed Padgett’s story. They argued the star witness for the prosecution was actually the mastermind of the plot. Despite their protests, the three convicts were sentenced to hang together. Meanwhile, Padgett remained in jail awaiting his trial.

On April 7, 1894, Mansker, Brady and Wyrick were hanged in front of 25 witnesses. The newspapers covered the hangings in excruciating detail. After the executions, the bodies of the condemned men were loaded onto the No. 51 train, the very train they had robbed months before, and taken back to Benton County for burial.

Pennyweight Powell went on trial in July in the Jackson County Courthouse. Powell’s trial was very different from the previous trials. The courtroom was packed with friends and family, many of whom testified as to his good character. Powell projected  an aura of confidence that was able to sway the jury to acquit him of murder. When the not guilty verdict was read, the audience in the courtroom erupted into cheers. After the gruesome hangings of the previous months, it seemed the jury was not willing to convict and sentence anyone else to death.

Ol Trueman was captured in 1896, but like Powell, he was not convicted, and was set free.

Meanwhile, George Padgett walked out of jail a free man, never being tried for the crimes. The judge ordered him released after he testified against the rest of the gang. Upon his release, Padgett, like any good outlaw, bragged to reporters he had been the mastermind of the crime after all. Despite his admission, the man who claimed responsibility for the last train robbery in Arkansas lived the rest of his life in obscurity.

For more information on Arkansas history, call 501-682-6900 or email The Arkansas State Archives is closed to the public as part of a widespread effort to reduce COVID-19. Some research services are available by calling the State Archives or by visiting