October 11

This Day in History

Crime

Oct 11, 1923:

A mail car explodes in a train robbery

Three men blow up the mail car of a Southern Pacific train carrying passengers through southern Oregon in a botched robbery attempt. Just as the train entered a tunnel, two armed men jumped the engineer. A third man appeared with a bomb that the thieves intended to use to open the mail car. However, the explosives were too powerful and the entire mail car was blown to bits, killing the clerk inside. In the ensuing chaos, the train robbers shot the train's engineer, fireman, and brakeman, and then fled. They left behind the detonator and some clothes, but bloodhounds were unable to track them.

Southern Pacific decided to bring in Edward O. Heinrich, the "The Edison of Crime Detection," to solve the crime. He immediately asked to examine the clothes that the gang had discarded at the crime scene. Within a day, Heinrich produced a profile that led to the capture of the train robbers.

Heinrich noted that what the police had thought were grease stains were actually created by pitch from fir trees, commonly found on clothing worn by lumberjacks of the region. He also found a strand of hair that helped him peg the age of one of the robbers. Heinrich also noticed that the wear and tear on the buttons of one shirt indicated that its owner was left-handed. Most important, he found a scrap of paper that turned out to be part of a mail receipt. He tracked the mail receipt, and the identities of the three men were soon known.

In March 1927, twins Ray and Roy D'Autremont and their teenage brother, Hugh, were finally brought to justice. One was found in the Philippines and the other two in Ohio. They all pleaded guilty and were sentenced to life in prison. It was only one of the estimated 2,000 cases that Edward O. Heinrich was credited with solving before his death in 1953.

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