95 years ago in Lake County's rural Rondout: A huge train heist that captured nation's attention

  • On June 12, 1924, unincorporated Rondout in central Lake County was the site of the largest train robbery in U.S. history. Gangsters with information from a corrupt postal inspector made off with more than $2 million in cash, jewelry and securities.

    On June 12, 1924, unincorporated Rondout in central Lake County was the site of the largest train robbery in U.S. history. Gangsters with information from a corrupt postal inspector made off with more than $2 million in cash, jewelry and securities. Courtesy of Illinois Digital Archives

  • A still image from an animated video exhibit of the Rondout train robbery at Bess Bower Dunn Museum in Libertyville.

      A still image from an animated video exhibit of the Rondout train robbery at Bess Bower Dunn Museum in Libertyville. Mick Zawislak | Staff Photographer

  • A historical marker detailing the Rondout train robbery is on the north side of Route 176 near I-94 in the Rondout area of Green Oaks.

      A historical marker detailing the Rondout train robbery is on the north side of Route 176 near I-94 in the Rondout area of Green Oaks. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Unidentified men stand in front of an interlocking tower. Operators at these towers monitored train traffic where multiple tracks crossed over each other at grade.

    Unidentified men stand in front of an interlocking tower. Operators at these towers monitored train traffic where multiple tracks crossed over each other at grade. Courtesy of Illinois Digital Archives

 
 
Updated 6/8/2019 9:39 PM

On the night of June 12, 1924, a heist of unparalleled proportion unfolded at a rural railroad crossing in the tiny unincorporated town of Rondout in central Lake County.

The well-planned robbery of $2 million in cash, jewelry and securities is the largest train robbery in U.S. history. The perpetrators escaped but were quickly caught. Within months, the six-man crew and two others were tried and convicted.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Were it not for one big mistake, they might have gotten away with it.

The Great Rondout Train Robbery was a daring inside job based on precise information provided by a corrupt postal inspector and executed by a gang of thieves that included four prolific bank-robbing brothers from Texas who might have been looking for one last big score.

Two stowaways forced the engineer at gunpoint to stop the train, and four accomplices -- with the forced help of train clerks -- loaded 63 mail bags into four waiting stolen Cadillacs. The plan unraveled when one of their own was shot.

A trail of blood, buried cash, a case-making tip and the mystery of unrecovered loot are among the elements that make the Rondout robbery an enduring and fascinating tale still being told 95 years later.

A historical marker on Route 176 near I-94 describes the well-planned and -executed train robbery of more than $2 million in cash, jewelry and securities from a mail car.
  A historical marker on Route 176 near I-94 describes the well-planned and -executed train robbery of more than $2 million in cash, jewelry and securities from a mail car. - Paul Valade | Staff Photographer
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A cast iron marker and section of railroad track atop a raised planting bed on the north side of Route 176 near I-94 marks the area where the chain of events began and for decades has been a familiar reminder of what happened nearby.

The actual robbery occurred once the train was stopped to the north at Route 137, east of Libertyville. The area since has been annexed by Green Oaks.

Just this past week, it was the topic of the inaugural "Distilling History" fundraiser by the Lake Bluff History Museum. The event sold out at $25 a ticket and generated so much interest an encore is planned.

"All of us drive by on (Route) 176 and see the historical marker and don't know a lot about it," said Steve Kraus, a history museum board member who gave the presentation.

"What was stolen? What was recovered? There is disparity and still some questions," he said.

A band of armed men stopped and looted the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul mail train at the rural Route 137 crossing in Rondout.
A band of armed men stopped and looted the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul mail train at the rural Route 137 crossing in Rondout. - Courtesy of Illinois Digital Archives
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

A take of about $3 million in cash, bonds and jewels was widely reported, but about $1 million of the bonds were said to be nonnegotiable. Postal authorities said the loss was about $2 million in paper and jewelry and $75,000 in cash -- the equivalent of more than $29 million today.

All but $100,000 was said to have been recovered, some unearthed from jugs and jars buried in various places. But one mail sack thought to have carried $1.125 million in bank notes was not, according to some accounts.

Undisputed is the involvement of the Newton brothers -- Willis, Joe, Willie and Jesse -- who by 1924 had robbed 60 or more banks in Texas, Arkansas, Kansas and other states, including Illinois.

Meticulous and well-prepared, the brothers were the most successful robbers of the early 20th century but didn't have the reputation of other outlaws of the era because they never killed anyone.

Their lives were chronicled in the 1998 movie "The Newton Boys," starring Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke, and a History Channel documentary in 1999.

The gang used nitroglycerin to blow safes. But opportunities dwindled after the introduction of vaults that were much harder to crack.

Since trains at the time transported cash and valuables for the postal service, robbing them could be more profitable. But details of what was on board were closely guarded.

"They wanted to rob trains," explained Nicole Stocker, an educator with the Lake County Forest Preserve District's Bess Bower Dunn Museum, which has a video exhibit of the heist. "But it was very difficult -- you might come away with just mail."

A plan emerged after Jim Murray, a Chicago politician and one-time beer runner, introduced Willis Newton to William Fahy, a postal inspector who was regarded as an ace investigator.

Postal Inspector William Fahy was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Postal Inspector William Fahy was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to 25 years in prison. - Courtesy of Illinois Digital Archives

Fahy, who oversaw shipments from the Federal Reserve to branch banks, provided the gang with the schedule for Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul train No. 57, which of the eight cars contained the registered mail, and which numbered postal sacks in that car should be taken.

On the evening of June 12, 1924, Willis Newton and Brent Glasscock hid on the train before it left Union Station at 9 p.m. At Rondout, they confronted the engineer and another crew member at gunpoint and told them to stop when they saw a red light on the tracks.

The train overshot the intersection at Route 137 and had to back up until car No. 2015, which contained the valuables, straddled the road. Employees locked inside the target car were forced out by homemade tear gas hurled against the barred windows.

Willie Newton, one of the four Newton brothers involved in the largest train robbery in U.S. history at unincorporated Rondout in central Lake County.
Willie Newton, one of the four Newton brothers involved in the largest train robbery in U.S. history at unincorporated Rondout in central Lake County. - Courtesy of Illinois Digital Archives

As the mail sacks were loaded into cars, Willie Newton emerged from beneath the coupling of two rail cars and was shot five times by Glasscock, who supposedly mistook him for a mail clerk.

As the robbery was ending, the others realized Newton had been shot and placed him atop mail sacks in one of the cars. A blood trail showed someone had been injured.

Authorities quickly learned a doctor was treating someone for gunshots at an address in Chicago. Three of the brothers and Murray were questioned there and confessed. That led to the arrests of Herbert Holliday, in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Glasscock, in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Unincorporated Rondout in central Lake County was the site of the largest train robbery in U.S. history on June 12, 1924. All but $100,000 of an estimated $2 million take was recovered and the conspirators were caught and prosecuted. This is the car from which stolen mail sacks were recovered.
Unincorporated Rondout in central Lake County was the site of the largest train robbery in U.S. history on June 12, 1924. All but $100,000 of an estimated $2 million take was recovered and the conspirators were caught and prosecuted. This is the car from which stolen mail sacks were recovered. - Courtesy of Illinois Digital Archives

The fourth brother, Jesse, was located in Mexico and lured to a fictitious rodeo in Texas.

That left Fahy, who was being tailed after a tip. He was arrested Aug. 26 after calling Murray on a tapped phone.

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