Train Robbery

Published date01 December 2017
AuthorScott Decker,Rick Ruddell
Date01 December 2017
Subject MatterArticles
Train Robbery: A Retrospective
Look at an Obsolete Crime
Rick Ruddell
and Scott Decker
There has been recent interest in applying contemporary criminological theories to better under-
stand historical criminal behavior and events. Retrospective studies—much like case studies—can
be a useful methodology to help us understand the justice system responses to crime and in par-
ticular what strategies “worked” or were ineffective. This study examined 241 train robberies that
occurred between 1866 and 1930 and found that routine activities theory can explain the origins,
growth, and eradication of this violent and often costly crime. Reducing offender motivation and
target attractiveness as well as increasing capable guardianship of shipments of attractive goods
explains the eradication of this form of crime. Implications for a criminology of public transportation
are discussed.
robbery, routine activities theory, historical crime, criminology of transportation
There has been recent scholarly interest in using modern analytical techniques and theory to interpret
historical crime data, offender histories, or the responses of criminal justice systems to these
offenses and offenders. Rafter (2004, 2005), for instance, analyzed Victorian-era crimes and crim-
inologists to trace the development of criminological theory. Other scholars have used historical data
to analyze patterns and trends in violent offenses (Bowman & Altman, 2002; Leonard & Leonard,
2003). Moule and Decker (2013), for example, examined data from the Bos ton Special Youth
Project in the 1950s in order to understand contemporary gang dynamics. Knepper (2015) also
analyzed changing patterns of crime in the 1920s and the impacts on justice systems—and used
those analyses to refine theoretical development of contemporary crime trends. Altogether, taking a
retrospective look at offenders and their offenses provides an opportunity to apply 21st-century
analysis and understanding to crimes that challenged early justice systems.
One very problematic form of crime was train robbery. Train robberies resulted in considerable
loss of life and property, disrupted public transportation, and hindered the movement of people and
goods across the United States. While most of our understanding of train robbery is from the
portrayal of these offenses in films, it was a violent crime that became obsolete by the 1930s. Train
University of Regina, Regina, Canada
Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ, USA
Corresponding Author:
Rick Ruddell, University of Regina, 3737 Wascana Parkway, Regina, SK S4S 0A2, Canada.
Criminal Justice Review
2017, Vol. 42(4) 333-348
ª2017 Georgia State University
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016817702192
robbery was a distinctively American form of predatory crime that emerged shortly after the Civil
War and plagued railway companies and law enforcement for over two generations. Train robbery
disrupted banking and commerce, but also had considerable human costs, as rates of injuries and
death could also be high, especially since many trains were derailed as part of the robbery. Success-
fully eliminating these offenses not only stabilized rail transportation but also in part signaled the
taming of the “Wild West.”
It is important to understand why some crimes have been eradicated. There may be lessons for
contemporary efforts to deal with crime in the historical evolution of crimes and crime types. The
fact that some crimes have been eradicated is intriguing for a number of reasons. First, some crimes
have been eradicated due to technological advances. Check kiting, for instance, is a type of fraud that
relied upon the deposits of checks with insufficient funds to perpetrate a fraud on financial institu-
tions. Offenders relied upon the lag betwee n the depositing checks and when the funds would
actually be taken from the account, which is called the “float time” (see Starkey, Park, & Novak,
2005). When this lag was based on checks that were mailed or couriered between banks, offenders
were able to successfully defraud these financial institutions. But, electronic deposits and with-
drawals have reduced this time lag and have made kiting a crime that occurs less frequently today.
Some scholars have argued that electronic benefit transfers (EBT) and the use of debit cards is
reducing street robbery, another example of the impact of technology on crime (Garcia-Swartz,
Hahn, & Lane-Farrar, 2006; Wright et al., 2014).
Other offenses became obsolete because of changing social, economic, or cultural conditions that
affect enforcement or prosecution. Adultery, sodomy, and possessing pornography, for instance,
were once crimes that were regularly prosecuted. Changes in cultural mores, values, and norms,
however, have made these acts less threatening to the social order (Posner & Silbaugh, 1996). While
some of these offenses remain “on the books” in some jurisdictions, they are rarely prosecuted: The
acts still occur but are no longer treated as crimes.
In some cases, acts once considered as crimes have been redefined. Government-operated lot-
teries, for instance, now fund education or social programs in many jurisdictions. Purchasing a
lottery or sweepstake ticket, however, was once a crime but governments had littl e success in
reducing demand. An inability to control the illegal lottery enterprises operated by organized crime
led to state-operated lotteries. Not only does the state reap the economic benefits of ticket sales, but
patrons are ensured that they will receive their winnings, law enforcement and government corrup-
tion is reduced, and another source of revenue for organized crime eliminated, although illegal
internet gaming generates significant revenues (Williams, Wood, & Parke, 2012).
Perhaps the most interesting categories of obsoletecrimesarethosethathavebeeneradicated
by justice systems. Kidnapping for ransom, for instance, has generally falle n out of favor in the
United States, although is common in “war-torn and destabilized nations or countries where the
rule of law is weak” (Pires, Guerette, & Stubbert, 2014, p. 784). This success in the United States
was due, in some degree, to extending the jurisdiction of this offense to the Federal Bureau of
Investigation in 1932 and since then, noncustodial kidnappi ngs are rare. When justice systems
successfully eradicate a crime, we question whether these strategies can be applied to other
offenses. Moreover, does displacement occur and do offenders shift their attention to other
offenses with less risk or greater rewards?
It is possible that taking a retrospective look at crimes that have been eradicated can inform
current criminal justice policies. Crime is dynamic and shifts in form and nature in response to
changing technology, economic factors, and social conditions. The dynamic nature of crime can be
seen particularly in forms of robbery, which have been altered dramatically by changes in technol-
ogy and social practice. It is worth noting that robbery was created as a crime when the concept of
private property emerged (Hall, 1935). As robberies of stage coaches were replaced by attacks on
trains, both offenses eventually were replaced by bank robberies (Wellman, 1961). Although there
334 Criminal Justice Review 42(4)

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