Great Saginaw TX Train Robbery of 1898


Juvenile crime, traffic violations, and similar misdemeanors are about all you will find on the Saginaw Police blotter nowadays, but it wasn’t always like that.  If you go back about 112 years, Saginaw, TX was the scene of one of the most sensational train robbery stories of its time.

It happened on July 21st 1898, when train robberies were the means of a “big score” for outlaws.   It contained all of the elements which go to make up a western movie, only the good guys were killed.  There was an intricate plot, murder, bravery, a double cross, a lot of bungling and finally a hanging.

While there is no one alive today who has a personal recollection of the crime, a relative of the train’s fireman, who was shot to death by the bandits, has preserved yellowed clippings from the Galveston News and the Fort Worth Record which give the details.

It was Sante Fe No. 7, en route from Chicago to Galveston via Fort Worth and Cleburne TX.  Existing records don’t indicate how many passengers were on the train, but apparently there were a good number.  No.7 stopped on a switch north of Saginaw to pass a northbound train, then continued on to the Saginaw station where it stopped for about a minute before pulling out for Fort Worth, a dozen miles away.

The intricate plot

But the story started several days earlier in the Arbuckle Mountains of Oklahoma.  Jim Garlington, a bank robber by profession assembled a small gang of thugs to rob a train in Oklahoma, but they had to swim a swollen river to get to the designated spot, unfortunately the swim was so arduous that the train was already gone when they reached the tracks.  So, Garlington and his friends headed south for Fort Worth where they had heard of a rich merchant who owned a fortune in diamonds.  Somehow they took Assistant Police Chief H.D. Grunnells into their confidence and he talked them out of the diamond caper, but recommended the train robbery in Saginaw.

The double cross

As developments later revealed, Chief Grunnells planned the old double cross, he would arrest them after the robbery and collect the big reward the railroads were offering for train robbers.
Garlington and his friends armed themselves with pistols and dynamite, hid in the darkness until No.7 rolled into Saginaw, then boarded her at the “blind baggage” between the engine’s coal tender and the first baggage car.

A lot of bungling and murder

When the train got 200 yards or so south of the Saginaw depot, Garlington started crawling across the coal tender, apparently slipped and accidentally fired his pistol.  His companions thought the shot was a signal for them to swing into action so they clambered across the coal tender, shooting as they went.   Fireman Watson Whitaker of Goldthwaite was killed instantly and Engineer Joe Williams was fatally wounded.

Bravery

When the train stopped, the brakeman got off to find out what had happened, the robbers saw him and started shooting at him.   He fled into the darkness, ran to a house to spread the alarm.  A young man at the house rode horseback to the nearest telephone and called the sheriff.

But Chief Grunnells and other Fort Worth police were already approaching the scene, and when the shooting started, they fired in the general direction of the engine, and the robbers fled.  Garlington apparently planned to commandeer the engine, uncouple the baggage cars, take them further down the tracks and blast them open with dynamite.  When the plans went awry, they placed three sticks of dynamite under the baggage car, but were driven away before they could set it off.

The newspaper reports don’t indicate the reaction of the passengers, but the train eventually reached the depot in Fort Worth, then completed its run to Galveston.
The two victims were given hero’s burials.  A special train took Whitaker’s body from Cleburne to his hometown of Goldthwaite, where it was greeted by most of the populace.

Finally a hanging

Grunnells was fired by Police Chief William Rea, and was indicted by a grand jury but never went to trial.   He just disappeared from Fort Worth.

Three of the robbers were eventually captured and tried, and a fourth, if there was one, escaped, Charley Ellis turned state’s evidence and escaped trial.  George Moore got a 99 year sentence, but served only 15.  Garlington was arrested in Corsicana some days after the crime, was duly tried, convicted and sentenced to hang.  A year and a day later after the attempted robbery, he was hanged on the gallows built by the Tarrant County jail.

  • Steam Train 1898

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