He was born and died in the United States, but Canada proudly credits Bill Miner with effecting that country’s first train robbery (between prison terms).
After one of his railway robberies, circa 1904, aging Bill Miner reputedly told the train crew, “Goodnight, boys. Sorry to have troubled you.” That gesture and similar ones throughout his career earned him the enduring appellation “Gentleman Bandit.”
Miner was a man born to rob. He tried numerous law-abiding occupations but invariably resorted to what he did best. He was best at extracting money from individuals, stores, stagecoaches and trains.
He also was good at being apprehended.
A Kentucky-Born Bandit Goes West
Miner was born in Kentucky in 1847 (possibly 1846). At about 17, during the Civil War, he joined the Army but soon went AWOL and took to thievery, stealing everything from watches and clothes to horses. By the time he was 20, he’d robbed his way to California.
Over the next 40 years, he worked with an assortment of criminal partners, some of whom were caught and lynched. Miner’s only punishment was prison time—a lot of it.
Even at the early stage, Miner displayed a touch of compassion. For example, after robbing a cowboy of $80, he felt compelled to give back some of the money.
Also from the beginning, he seemed to have a knack for getting caught. It’s generally believed he spent more of his years in jail than out. Many of the details are sketchy, but his initial “rap sheet” (a modern term) basically runs thus:
- 1866: Sentenced to three years for personal robbery plus two years for horse stealing. Released in 1870.
- 1871: Sentenced to 13 years for train robbery. Released in 1880.
- 1881: Sentenced to 25 years for train robbery. (He reputedly committed other crimes during his brief period of freedom.) Released in 1901.
After another train robbery or two in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, Bill Miner went to Canada.
Canada’s First Train Robbery
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police records that Miner effected the first train robbery in Canada on 10 September 1904. His cohorts at the time were William “Shorty” Dunn and Louis Colquhoun. They made off with $7,000 from a Canadian Pacific Railway hold-up at Mission Junction in British Columbia.
Two years later, they robbed another Canadian Pacific train near Kamloops, BC. Mounties captured them a few days later. Miner was sentenced to 25 years.
By this time, Miner was almost 60. His life of crime appeared to have entered its sunset.
But he was destined for an encore. The New Westminster Penitentiary in British Columbia held him barely a year. In August 1907, he escaped and fled Canada.
Pinkerton agents arrested him near White Sulphur Springs, Georgia, in 1911. There, he’d formed a gang and begun mischief anew. Miner was sent to his final prison destination in Milledgeville.
Bill Miner Dies in Georgia
Miner’s career as a robber ended, but not his escapades. He broke from the Milledgeville institution at least twice, always to be recaptured. He allegedly remarked to lawmen at the time of his last re-arrest, “I guess I’m getting too old for this sort of thing.”
Miner died of natural causes 2 September 1913 in the Milledgeville prison.
It should be pointed out that between crimes, Miner made half-hearted attempts to make his living lawfully. For instance, he worked as a cowhand. He ran something of a courier-on-horseback operation (he was the self-employed courier). He briefly worked in his brother-in-law’s Colorado mine. According to some accounts, he spent time in the Middle East, South Africa and South America, finding adventure (and, no doubt, trouble).
Richard Farnsworth portrayed Miner in the 1983 Canadian film The Grey Fox. Although the historic accuracy of the screenplay was only partial, the movie realistically portrayed life in the bleak Pacific Northwest during the segment of Miner’s later life as he attempted to reestablish himself as a train robber after being released from San Quentin. The movie won numerous Genie Awards, including Best Picture.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has calculated Bill Miner spent 35 of his 67 years behind bars.
- Davis, Chuck. “The Grey Fox.” The History of Metropolitan Vancouver.
- The Grey Fox (film/VHS). Media Home Entertainment, Inc. (1983).
- Mackey, Doug. “Bill Miner, ‘The Grey Fox,’ Canada’s First Train Robber.” Community Voices/North Bay Nugget.
- “Story of Bill Miner.” Royal Canadian Mounted Police