Verdi Train Robbery, Part II

Sol Jones

In Part I, a gang of desperadoes pulled off the first train robbery in the West and escaped with more than $41,000 in gold coins. The successful heist occurred in the early morning hours of Nov. 5, 1870, near Verdi, Nev., about 23 miles east of Truckee.

After they broke into the Wells Fargo strong boxes, the perpetrators loaded their saddled horses with the gold coins they stashed in leather boot-tops and buckskin purses. Quickly, they bolted into the surrounding countryside. Ringleader Jack Davis grabbed $20,000 for his share, buried it nearby and then rode south to his mill operation in Virginia City, Nev. Some of the gangsters took the road northeast to Crystal Peak, Nev., where they left their take in a hidden ravine. Others headed to Sierra Valley in California about 25 miles north of Truckee, where they hid out in a quiet boardinghouse.

READ MORE: Read Part I of the story

The stunning crime shocked Western communities. In a front-page editorial, the San Francisco Daily Alta warned: “This affair has struck everybody with amazement, so bold, decisive, well planned and successful has it proved. An end must be quickly put to this still neophyte form of banditry before others imitate it — devil-may-care desperadoes flaunting long-barreled revolvers in stealing mail of yours and mine.”

Central Pacific Railroad dispatched F.T. Burke, their most experienced detective, along with a force of hand-picked investigators. To generate incentive for local lawmen, Central Pacific, Wells Fargo, the U.S. Post Office and Nevada governor Henry G. Blasdel teamed up to post a reward of $40,000 for the arrest and conviction of the daring robbers. It was the largest bounty ever offered in the West.

While locked up in Truckee’s calaboose, Gilchrist confessed to the crime and then spilled the beans and implicated leader Jack Davis, a well-known businessman.

The robbery itself was a complete success; the result of careful planning and quick execution by a team of daring men. But an inquisitive woman and the dogged efforts of Reno Sheriff Deputy James H. Kinkead spoiled their perfect crime. Eight hours after the heist, gang member John Squires took lodging at Pearson’s Hotel near Sardine Lake in California northwest of Verdi. The innkeepers at the small hostel were Nicholas Pearson and his wife, who were unaware of the recent crime.

Shortly after Squires’ arrival, two of his cohorts, E.B. Parsons and James Gilchrist, registered and took a room across the hall. Minutes later, Squires quietly crossed the hall and entered the other room. Mrs. Pearson noticed the suspicious activity and climbed the stairs. Putting her ear to the closed door, Mrs. Pearson heard the three men whispering and she decided to keep an eye on them.

Early the next morning, Squires and Parsons rode off, leaving Gilchrist behind, asleep in his room. By now Mrs. Pearson had heard of the train robbery from a customer and sensed the trio’s uneasiness. When Gilchrist left his room an hour later carrying a heavy sack, Mrs. Pearson followed him to the outhouse, where she peeked at him through a small knothole. She watched him pour $20 gold pieces from a saddlebag into an old boot that he lowered into the latrine. Mrs. Pearson knew then that Gilchrist was one of the crooks.

When Deputy Kinkead arrived, Mrs. Pearson gave him a complete description of the three suspects and their activities. She told him that one of the men was asleep in his room and then showed the deputy an unusual boot print she had noticed in the fresh snow. It had a very narrow heel, the kind popular with gamblers and dudes. Kinkead had seen the same imprints in the snow at the scene of the crime. A group of armed hunters from Truckee helped the deputy ambush the suspected bandit in his room. Gilchrist was arrested without incident and escorted to the Truckee jail.

Kinkead then rode north following the tracks left by the captured outlaw’s accomplices. Around midnight, he caught E.B. Parsons asleep in the Sierra Valley Hotel and quickly arrested him. The lawman didn’t know Parsons, but he recognized the distinctive boots near the bed. Kinkead suspected that the other fugitive was John Squires, a Virginia City outlaw familiar to him. The officer knew Squires had a brother living in Sierraville, where he caught the exhausted bandit napping. By the afternoon of Nov. 7, Squires, Parsons and Gilchrist were all under guard in Truckee.

Kinkead had caught three of the train robbers in just 48 hours and would earn about $30,000 of the reward money for his efforts. While locked up in Truckee’s calaboose, Gilchrist confessed to the crime and then spilled the beans and implicated leader Jack Davis, a well-known businessman. Wells Fargo’s detectives tracked down suspect Sol Jones and Chief Detective Burke interrogated the carpenter until he broke down and implicated the others.

Chat Roberts, another gang member who had not been present during the robbery, also cooperated and within four days all the crooks involved were in custody. Gilchrist and the others led the detectives to most of the cached money. Davis reluctantly took officers to a spot near the Truckee River where he had stashed his loot. A reporter for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise wrote, “The twenties [coins] were scraped up by the double handfuls…Davis did not assist in this work, but stood looking on — doubtless almost sick at heart to see his booty scratched to the last coin.”

After a short trial, four members of the gang were sentenced from 18 to 22 years in the Nevada State Prison. A 24-year sentence was leveled on known stage robber John Squires. E.B. Parsons, a long-time Virginia City gambler, got 20. Tilton Cockerell, a previously convicted gunman and road agent, was sentenced to 22 years’ hard labor. John Chapman, a Sunday school superintendent who continued to proclaim his innocence, was sent away for 18 years. The judge reduced Sol Jones’ sentence to five years for cooperating, while James Gilchrist and Chat Roberts went free for testifying against the others.

Despite his role as ringleader, “Big Jack” Davis was still popular among the Virginia City community. Sentenced to only 10 years in prison — a governor later cut that to three — “Big Jack” never learned his lesson. In 1875, his first year of freedom, he was killed while attempting to rob a Wells Fargo stagecoach. Thus ended the criminal career of Jack Davis. The first Western railroad heist finally passed into history when gangster E. B. Parsons was pardoned in November 1881.

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Mark McLaughlin
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.