Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Train Robbers

Oh, look, here it is Wednesday again. This has been one of those weeks that proceeds at the speeds of light and molasses simultaneously. I can't believe it's Wednesday, and yet yesterday felt much later in the week than Tuesday. Ah, well. Time for my weekly digression into local historical matters, and while I try to refrain from using my handy "This Day in Oregon" book too frequently I couldn't help but enjoy yesterday's entry:

"The last great train robbery in the United States took place on Oct. 11, 1923, in southern Oregon. Twins Ray and Roy DeAutremont and their younger brother Hugh held up S. P.'s southbound train #13 in tunnel 13. The brothers jumped the train just before it entered the half-mile long tunnel, assuming that the blast of the explosives they planned to use would be muffled inside. Actually it acted as an echo chamber especially since they used much more dynamite than necessary, blowing not only the door off the mail car, but destroying the car itself, any money inside and killing four men in the process. The brothers fled and hid out in the woods. Ray and Roy were finally captured in 1927, following the most extensive and expensive manhunt in the U.S. up to that time."

With names like Ray and Roy DeAutremont, it's easy to see why slightly later criminals with more mellifluous names such as "John Dillinger" became the stuff of legend instead (although Dillinger's prominence was aided as well by the growing stature of the FBI).

Even so, this story of inept train robbers gives me a wonderful opportunity to share one of my favorite historical films: "The Great Train Robbery," filmed in 1903. This early film was produced by the famous inventor Thomas Edison, who just a year before had lost a court case that would have granted him a monopoly over moving picture technology. Other companies would grow and become increasingly dominant in the industry, but it was Edison cameras which captured many of the first significant events on film, from the Spanish-American War in Cuba to the actual assassination of President McKinley. (It's worth noting, however, that 'footage' of the US Navy at war in the Philippines was actually produced with toy boats in what was essentially a bathtub.) "The Great Train Robbery" is silent, choppy and admittedly cheesy from a contemporary perspective, but the film is well worth viewing with an eye toward the experiences--or lack thereof--early viewers brought to the piece. Watch it to the end and I defy even the most jaded of modern mediaphiles not to flinch.

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