Train robbery goes to court
Last week’s column was about the daring night holdup of a Southern Pacific train north of Riddle, July 1, 1895, and the case came to trial six months later.
Of the three men charged for robbing the train and stealing the U.S. Mail, John Case was believed to be the masked man who, with six-gun in hand, brazenly walked the cars of the train, robbing passengers and the train crew, while partners James and Albert Pool lit up the sky with a pyrotechnic display outside the train; their dynamite blasts and gunshots meant to terrorize and intimidate passengers.
Prior to the robbery, Case had just been released after serving two years in the state penitentiary for burglary. He had served a previous term for armed robbery. James Pool, Case’s cousin, had been in the penitentiary three times, convicted of horse stealing, extortion and manslaughter. Albert Pool served two years for theft.
On the bench in the Portland courthouse was U.S. District Court Judge Charles Bellinger, who took an active part in the proceedings, at one point reprimanding the government prosecutor for mentioning the defendants’ previous convictions in front of the jury.
“The government,” Bellinger said as he glared at the prosecutor, “ought to be cautious to see not only that justice is done, but that no error is made!”
By the second day of the trial, Bellinger was already annoyed with both attorneys.
“Judge Bellinger infused a little ginger into the cross examinations,” wrote an Oregonian reporter, “by commenting on the lawyers’ propensity to drag and repeat themselves and go over and over the same testimony until it became tiresome.”
Conflicting testimony from a number of witnesses and physical evidence that was questionable left the outcome questionable. When the jury quickly returned with a guilty verdict for Case and James Pool and acquittal for Albert Pool, Bellinger expressed his concern.
“I am frank to say that I am not entirely satisfied with the verdict.”
Bellinger granted the defense an appeal hearing, and at the end of June 1896 issued a 35-page decision, setting aside the guilty verdicts and immediately releasing Case and Pool from prison.
Bellinger said the identification of Case by eyewitnesses “does not tend to similarity, but rather in the opposite direction.”
Among other discrepancies listed by Bellinger were horse and boot tracks, allegedly found at a camp believed occupied by the train robbers before the robbery. Discovered July 2, the tracks were not compared until July 8 — four days after a heavy rain.
“There is nothing to sustain the guilty verdict,” he wrote. “It is against the evidence and must be set aside, and it is so ordered.”
Judge Bellinger may have believed Case and Pool were guilty, but he was following the law. He said he believed they were convicted only because of their past criminal history and because evidence was gathered hastily in pursuit of the $3,000 reward offered by Southern Pacific Railroad.
The robbery was never solved and never again went to trial.
Writer Bill Miller is the author of “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at email@example.com or WilliamMMiller.com.