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Bill Miner

Old Bill Miner during a long criminal career beginning soon after the Civil War, he lived all the clich├ęs that Hollywood would later transform into our outlaw dreams. Born in Michigan in 1846, he robbed stagecoaches, held up trains, fought horseback gun battles, cavorted with dance-hall girls, and got away with sacks of gold dust. He served hard time in some tough jails but never abandoned his criminal vocation. Those he robbed reported him soft-spoken and courteous. Once popular, he's now overshadowed by hoodlums like Jesse James. Miner robbed his last train in 1911. At the age of 65, Old Bill was filing off his chains for one last prison break. He liked kids and according to legend coined the phrase used by generations of six-year-old desperadoes: "Hands up!"

The image of the western outlaw is etched into our national consciousness. Thousands of novels, films, and television programs have portrayed the frontier badman. He has captured the imagination of generations of Americans, from dime novels of the nineteenth century to such sophisticated modern films as Butch Ccrssidy and the Sundance Kid. Whether a powerful symbol of freedom or rebelliousness or simply a fictional vehicle for adventure, the myth of the western outlaw occupies a special niche in our culture.

The genesis of this myth is the real badmen of the Old West, such men as Jesse and Frank James, the Younger brothers, Butch Cassidy, and the Dalton boys. Bill Miner ranks among them as one of the West's most notorious. If historians were to rate western bandits (excluding Billy the Kid, who was not a highwayman) in terms of contemporary notoriety, they would probably place the James-Younger band at the top of the list and would follow with the Dalton brothers, Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch, and then Bill Miner.

Bill Miner was better known in his day than such western bandits as Sam Bass, Bill Doolin, Henry Starr, Bill Cook, and Black Jack Ketchum. Each of these was notorious regionally - Doolin, Cook, and Starr in Oklahoma and Indian territories, Sam Bass in Texas, Black Jack Ketchum in New Mexico and Arizona-and in the ensuing years they have become better known as a result of their treatment in books and magazines.

Bill Miner, on the other hand, has been largely neglected by historians and writers of Western Americana. This is strange: Miner, during a criminal career spanning some fifty years, achieved notoriety throughout the western United States, as well as in Canada and the Deep South. No other Old West bandit accumulated such a lengthy and wide-ranging record. Even Jesse James's career lasted only one-third as long as Bill Miner's. Bill Miner robbed more stagecoaches and only one less train than did the James-Younger band.

It is surprising that no full-length biography of Bill Miner has yet appeared. Countless books have been published about other bandits and badmen of the Old West, but comparatively little has been written about Bill Miner. Even after the release of the charming 1983 film The Grey Fox, which dramatized Miner's exploits as an aging train robber during the early years of this century and made him known to the modern public, no factual studies have appeared, with the exception of a chapter on Miner's Colorado career in Bandit Years: A Gathering Of Wolves (1987) by Mark Dugan and a chapter on his California exploits in Badge and Buckshot: Lawlessness in Old California (1988) by John Boessenecker.

The main reason for this lack of attention by historians is that Bill Miner was a shadowy, elusive character in life and remained so long after his death. Just as he spent his lifetime evading the law, after death he long succeeded in eluding those who sought to track down his true story. Bill Miner is a perfect example of what one might expect from a habitual criminal. He deliberately fabricated as much personal information as he could and presented it to all who dealt with him. Most articles and books that have touched on Miner's life treat this misinformation as fact.

Even something as simple as Bill Miner's date and place of birth have long remained a mystery. At different times during his career, Miner claimed to have been born in four separate locations, with Kentucky being the most widely accepted. During his first term in the California state prison at San Quentin, he claimed Michigan as his birthplace, but he never again made that claim.

Old Bill

Miner's mother was a teacher and his father a miner. When Bill was ten his father deserted the family, bequeathing only his restlessness to his son. At thirteen Bill ran away from home to become a cowboy. He worked his way west from ranch to ranch, and when he reached California he became a bullwhacker. In 1863 he made a courageous ride through Indian-infested country to deliver a message, and for a time thereafter he operated a mail service in southern California. But in 1869 he tried a stagecoach robbery, and when his horse stumbled, a posse captured him.

Sentenced to fifteen years in San Quentin, Miner won release in 1879 for good behavior. He promptly went to Colorado and teamed up with a notorious highwayman named Bill Leroy. But after several successful train and stage holdups, vigilantes were formed to catch them. Leroy was hanged, and Miner escaped only after a desperate shootout.

Miner then left the country and spent more than a year traveling in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and South America. In Turkey he joined in a venture involving the abduction of desert women and their subsequent sale as harem girls.

Back in the United States by 1880, Miner returned to robbing stagecoaches, with occasional vacations to spend his ill-gotten loot under one of a string of aliases. Late in 1881 he was caught and again sentenced to a long stretch in San Quentin.

Released in 1901, Miner seems to have gone straight for a couple of years. But in September, 1903 he held up a train near Corbett, Oregon, and then one year later he robbed a train just outside Mission Junction, British Columbia. For three years he lived off his booty, but in 1905 he stuck up another train in British Columbia. Within two months the Canadian Mounted Police caught him, and he was sentenced to life in the New Westminster Penitentiary in Victoria, B.C. In August, 1907, however, he escaped through a thirtyfive-foot tunnel and fled to the United States. In July, 1909, Miner robbed a bank in Portland, Oregon, and in February, 1911, he led four other thieves in holding up a train near White Sulphur, Georgia.

Captured after a fight with a posse, Old Bill was sentenced to life in the Georgia State Penitentiary in Milledgeville. Three times he broke out and was recaptured, and finally, after being chased down by dogs in a swamp, the sixty- six-year-old fugitive admitted, "I guess I'm getting too old for this sort of thing." He died quietly in his sleep in 1913.

After his 1911 capture and conviction for train robbery in Georgia, Bill Miner became a great favorite of the Georgia press. Several newspapers repeatedly interviewed him and then flattered him with their press releases. As the old bandit openly granted more interviews and talked freely to reporters, he inadvertently allowed glimpses into his character. The rapport that developed between the outlaw and the Georgia press afforded rare insights into Bill Miner the bandit and Bill Miner the man.

On September 2, 1913, in Milledgeville, Georgia, a wizened sixty-six-year-old relic of a man died. The next day, one of the largest newspapers in the Southeast ran a four-column photograph and two stories extolling him, all on the front page. One of these articles described him as "a kindly, lovable old man, whose thoughts were humorous, whose manner was that of one who was a friend to all humankind ... the most courtly, the most kindly spoken, the most venerable man ... one whom they all regard with affection and something of esteem." These words do not portray a great philanthropist, a well-known religious leader, or even a benevolent old southern statesman, but rather a stagecoach bandit and train robber, a criminal who from the age of eighteen had spent more than thirtyseven years behind bars. The words describe Old Bill Miner.

Why would a major newspaper print such statements about a notorious criminal? Bill Miner was blessed, or maybe cursed, with the uncanny ability to charm and influence nearly everyone with whom he came in contact. His deftness in mesmerizing others allowed him to lure many younger men into crime. It is evident that he had the same success with the Georgia press. His many years in prison seemed to mellow him and to give him an image of trustworthiness and kindness instead of making him appear sinister or dangerous. Wherever Miner went, he was viewed as a gentle, good-natured man.

These characteristics set him apart from the stereotypical western badman, but they did not make him unique in the annals of the Old West. What made him unique was that he was one of the first, and most certainly the last, of the old-time bandits, successfully continuing his career into the second decade of the twentieth century. His criminal career seems to have begun in 1863, several years before Jesse James reportedly committed his first robbery at Liberty, Missouri, in February 1866. It ended in 1913, thirty-one years after Jesse James's death.

Miner's career began with stealing horses and then escalated to stagecoach holdups. After the turn of the century, when the stagecoach had become obsolete, he turned to train robbery, using the method pioneered by A. J. ("Big Jack") Davis in the Old West's first train robbery, near Reno, Nevada, in 1870. By holding up a train in the state of Georgia in 1911, Miner earned himself the title "Last of the Old Time Bandits."

Miner circumscribed his criminal escapades with two rules of conduct. He never killed anyone (though in his younger days he had been dangerous in a tight spot), and he robbed only corporations, justifying these crimes on the basis that corporations robbed the common man. Thus the public related to Bill Miner and he became a folk hero in two countries. Once he was even cheered by crowds while being returned to prison following an escape attempt. Few criminals have made this kind of impact on the public.

Bill Miner was a paradox. He was not an exceptional or extraordinary bandit like Jesse James, who plied his criminal trade for sixteen years and was never captured. As Miner's time in prison attests, he was good at being caught. He was neither original nor a mastermind. Miner's two most sensational and profitable robberies, the first train robbery ever committed in Canada, in 1904, and a train robbery in Washington state in 1905, evidently were devised by a friend and confederate, but Miner got the credit and the blame. Legend has it that Miner was the first to use the term "Hands up!" but detailed accounts of his first robberies provide no evidence to support this assertion.

Politically, Miner claimed he was a socialist, but when he had money, he thoroughly enjoyed living a fashionable life in high society, dressing in the latest style, and spending his money freely. Intellectually, he had a keen mind, and even though he had no formal schooling he was highly literate and had a good command of speech. This he owed to his mother, a schoolteacher who seems to have ensured that he receive a decent education.

Throughout Miner's life he pursued women and engaged in numerous love affairs. He even became engaged to a socially prominent young woman in Michigan in 1880. Much mystery surrounds Miner's life as a result of his habitual lying and misleading statements. Over the years he used at least seven aliases and could spin a tale so convincing that to this day many are accepted as fact. Fanciful tales were as much a part of Bill Miner as was his ability to influence everyone around him. As he grew older the tales seemed to become truth to him. Bill Miner, like the people who extolled and idolized him, came to believe the legend he created.

Mark Dugan and John Boessenecker. The Grey Fox: The True Story of Bill Miner - Last of the Old-Time Bandits. University of Oklahoma Press. June 1992.


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