Most people think of train robberies as nineteenth-century crimes, complete with Butch and Sundance blowing up a train car, or Jesse James and his gang taking on the evil railroad companies. However, one of the most violent and tragic train robbery attempts was in 1923. On October 11 of that year, three men, twins Roy and Ray DeAutremont and their younger brother Hugh, ambushed Southern Pacific train #13 in southern Oregon, just as the train was emerging from a tunnel and slowed for a brake check.
The brothers’ goal was $40,000 in gold they believed was in the mail car. Railway Mail Clerk Elvyn Dougherty was in the secured mail car when the young men approached. Unable to force their way inside, they decided to blow the door open using dynamite and a detonator they had stolen from a construction company.
Listen to the song written and sung by the Johnson Brothers about the DeAutremonts.
Way out west in Oregon in nineteen twenty-three
The D'Autremont brothers wrecked the train as brutal as could be
"Twas train number thirteen of the Southern Pacific line
They had just passed through Siskiyou and were making regular time
When going through the tunnel upon the engine they came
Shot dead Bates and his fireman, and then they wrecked the train
Then they killed the brakeman and the mail clerk, too
And endangered all of the lives of the passengers and crew
Then they fled to the mountains to hide their brutal crime
Leaving death and destruction on the Southern Pacific line
For nearly four long years they were sought in vain
To pay for the lives and the wrecking of this train
But God is always good and just, as we all know well
They were finally caught at last as the time will always tell
Now they are in prison for the lives they led
Without any hope of pardon until they are dead
The DeAutremonts had no idea what they were doing with the explosives and used far too much dynamite. The blast destroyed the car, killing Dougherty and obliterating most of the mail. During their holdup of the train and attempted robbery, the three men also shot and killed the railway engineer Sidney Bates, fireman Marvin Seng, and brakeman Charles Johnson, not wanting to leave any witnesses. There was no gold and the three fled the scene with nothing. They managed to elude authorities for three years.
The brothers were eventually brought to justice after an extensive manhunt that included bloodhounds, airplanes, the Oregon National Guard, local law enforcement, railway security forces, a forensic expert, and teams of postal inspectors. More than two million wanted posters were produced for distribution internationally. The reward reached a total of $15,900 for all three. The first domino fell in February 1927 with the arrest of Hugh DeAutremont. He had joined the army under the name James Price and was serving in the Philippines, where he was apprehended following a tip from a comrade who had seen a wanted poster with Hugh’s photo. Hugh claimed he did not know where his brothers were, but his arrest revived national media interest in the story. Ray and Roy were recognized and apprehended a few months later in Steubenville, Ohio, where they had been living under the name of Goodwin. By the summer of 1927, all three were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Hugh DeAutremont received a parole in 1959 and died roughly two months later in San Francisco. Roy was given a frontal lobotomy while in prison and was paroled in March 1983. He died three months later in a nursing home. Ray was paroled in 1961 and died on December 22, 1984, in Eugene after working for years as a custodian at the University of Oregon.