Tuesday, January 18, 2011

January 13, 1857 --- The Great Train Robbers Brought to Justice

Some eighteen months after the baffling "Great Train Robbery," the daring thieves stand trial in London.
In 1855, gold worth 12,000 pounds, on its way to the troops in the Crimea, vanished somewhere between London and Paris. No trace had been found while the mysterious perpetrators of this spectacular crime won grudging, almost romantic, respect.  Suddenly, in late 1856, from behind bars, for passing a bad check, the mastermind confessed.  Edward Agar, a veteran schemer, although facing transportation for life, is motivated by revenge as there had been the inevitable falling out among thieves.

Before a hushed courtroom, Agar details how he planned the robbery with William Pierce, an ex-employee of the South-East Railway.  For a year, they traveled the London-Folkestone line, studying the operation.  They recruited a railway guard, Burgess, who let Agar into the very gold van itself.  When the SERR suddenly changed its keys, a clerk named Tester provided one key and for the essential second, Pierce stole into the office at Folkestone to make a late night impression.  The theft was flawless; gold exchanged for bags of shot of equal weight. The bandits, with their unusually heavy "luggage" returned to London where the gold was melted down in a cauldron in Agar's flat.  Then came Agar's unrelated arrest.  He had left Pierce with 3000 pounds in trust for Fanny Kay, a former SERR clerk and mother of his child.  When Pierce squandered the money, Agar sang. 

Burgess and Tester - for breaking their employer's trust - were transported for 14 years apiece.  Pierce, only an ex-employee, received a lighter two year term.  He also received the hisses of the packed Old Bailey courtroom when the judge declared, "A greater villain than you are does not exist."  As for Agar, the "criminal genius" he is told that had he dedicated even a tenth of his energy to honest pursuits, by now he would have been raised to a respectable situation.  Instead, he was transported for life. 

The Spectator worried about the shocking disloyalty of the railway staff and the oft-expressed admiration for the audacity of the criminal classes: "The worst sign is a general indifference to the distinction between Right and Wrong.  It might be the premonitory symptom of national decay."

[Movie poster for the 1979 film based on Michael Crichton's novel.]

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