It was November 1893, at the very end of the frontier era. At 9:30 on the night of the 3rd, at the little hamlet of Olyphant, Arkansas, the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern passenger train pulled off the main line onto a siding.
It had been a routine run for the passengers and crew of Train #51. They had left Poplar Bluff, Missouri, at noon, and had made good time on the first leg of the run to Texarkana. In addition to the engine, there were seven cars: the usual mail, baggage and express cars, all of which had open platforms, as did two of the passenger cars. In addition, there were a closed coach and a Pullman car.
In the days before dining cars, trains stopped for meals. After supper at Walnut Creek, the train took off around 7:30, and after passing through Newport they pulled onto the siding at Olyphant to let the famous Cannonball Express go by. It was long after dark and very cold.
Conductor W. P. McNally signaled the engineer with his lantern. There was no answering signal from the front of the train. McNally, anxious to reach his warm bed in Texarkana, signaled again and was beginning to grumble about the delay when the baggage attendant came out of the next car yelling “Mac, it’s a holdup!”
McNally rushed through the passenger cars warning the people still on the train to hide their valuables, and then borrowed a gun from a surprised Charles Lamb, a businessman from Newport. Standing on the steps of the car, McNally started firing towards the front of the train. He had fired several shots into the darkness when he was cut down by a rifle shot fired by one of the outlaws who had come down the other side of the train.
Charles Lamb found another pistol and headed toward the front of the train, firing shots. Bullets flew everywhere. In the meantime other members of the gang, wearing black masks and sacks, worked the inside of the train, starting with the jewelry in the baggage car safe, and working their way back, relieving the passengers of their money and valuables. One man successfully eluded the bandits by hiding in the lavatory, but he panicked and stashed a roll of cash in the toilet. Although the robbers didn’t get it, he never saw it again either.
Lamb, shooting with a faulty pistol, was able to fire off a few shots, but he was badly outgunned by the bandits. Amazingly, he wasn’t injured during the melee. When he was unable to fire any more, he was taken prisoner.
After finishing the job inside the train, the bandits tied up the crew in front of the engine and made their getaway. Apparently someone tried to flag down the Cannonball when it roared past on the main tracks, but the engineer initially misread the signal for an “all-clear” and kept going. He did, however, make a report at his next stop that something was wrong with Number 51.
Ignoring the threats of the bandits to return and kill them, the passengers untied the crew and the train soon made its way to Little Rock, carrying the body of the fallen McNally on a cot. By the time they got there, the news of the robbery had reached the capital, and a trainload of men and horses, along with a gaggle of bloodhounds drafted from the state prison, was ready to leave for Olyphant. Sheriffs from ten counties joined the hunt, and a large reward was posted for the capture of the gang.
The bandits pulled off the robbery almost without a hitch, but then they seemed to turn into a criminal version of the Keystone Kops. Instead of, in the words of Huckleberry Finn, “lighting out for the territory”, they hung around the county and were seen “acting suspicious”. Reports soon filtered back to the posse and presently four members of the gang were captured.
Those arrested and charged with the crime were George Padgett, a former Little Rock policeman, James Wyrick, Tom Brady, and one Albert Mansker, who may also have been known as “John Hill”. Arrested later were Al (or Ol) Turman, Bob Chesne, and brothers Sam and Pennyweight Powell.
During the trial in January of 1894, the story of the robbery unfolded: Wyrick had been smuggling and selling whiskey in the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) where he met Padgett and Brady. Several times the three men discussed robbing a train and getting “rich”. At some point Albert Mansker joined the group and greeted the plan with enthusiasm. The four remaining men, apparently just poor and ignorant farmers from the Siloam Springs area, were recruited some time later.
It was agreed that Wyrick, Padgett, Brady and Mansker would go ahead to scout out the area and the others would follow. The ringleaders first went to Kensett, a small station on the Iron Mountain Railway about forty miles from Olyphant, and then to Jamestown, some ten miles closer. The rest of the conspirators joined them there and the eight of them rode to an African-American church about three miles from Olyphant. There they drank whiskey until time to put the plan into action -- it isn’t surprising that no one besides McNally was injured in the shootout.
Padgett turned state’s evidence, testified for the prosecution, and escaped trial. Turman, Chesne and the Powell brothers, in a show of prosecutorial generosity, appear to have been released without charges.Wyrick, Brady and Mansker were found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang. A public execution took place in Newport, Arkansas, on 6 April 1894, and the three of them were executed at the same time.
Immediately before the hanging, Albert Mansker wrote the following letter to the editor, which appeared in The Arkansas Gazette on the day of his execution.
If you will kindly give me space in your valuable paper I will, in a brief & plain way, write a short article that may interest some of your many readers. There has been so much said & written in regard to the Olyphant Train Robbery & murder of Conductor McNally, that public sentiment as well as justice demands that a simple & truthful statement from one of the men condemned for said murder be made.
Now, sir, in view of my pending fate on next Friday, & fully realizing that I am probably very near eternity & the great importance to say & write nothing but plain truth, I do not know who committed the crime for which I am condemned. I never saw Mr. McNally in my life & all that I know about it is what I have read & heard, but I do know that I did not commit that great crime, & I do know that I never willed it, & I do further know that there never has been a time in my life that I would have taken the life of any human being for money in any amount. I have never heard any man say who did do it.
I was at what they called my trial & in that trial no one said who did the fearful deed. I was incarcerated in prison about the last November & was taken sick with pneumonia fever that kept me confined in the hospital 25 days. I was not in a condition to know what was being done outside, had I been permitted to know, but I was not.
I was taken to Newport for trial just after recovering from the fever. The time that intervened between my incarceration in prison & my trial was as though I was asleep. At Newport I was a total stranger to every one, & without a dollar in money, with every prejudice raging at fever heat that could be created through newspapers or otherwise, I was not able to hire counsel, but finally 2 young attorneys volunteered their services.
They tried to get a continuance, but were not allowed it. They tried to get a change of venue, but could not. One man said that he could safely make an affidavit that the minds of the people were so prejudiced against me that I could not get a fair & impartial trial, but he said that he was a citizen there & was afraid to do it, which was a much stronger proof of the excitement as well as the prejudice that he knew existed, insomuch as to put him infear to swear to what he knew was the truth. These are exactly the surroundings when I was forced into what they called a trial for my life. The prosecution had had every opportunity & facility to be entirely ready, & was ably represented by 2 learned & experienced attorneys. I had not had any chance to be ready, but was totally unprepared, & 2 young, inexperienced men - almost boys - to defend me.
I don’t think that I have had the rights that any citizen should have for his life. It appears very forcibly that I have had next to no chance at all. I don’t feel at all like the doors of justice had been open to me. It does seem to me that dear old Arkansas, that I have ever loved so much, is going to take my life away from me, & that too so very unjustly. Arkansas has been my home a great part of the time for 20 yrs. past.
I know that it is right & very necessary that where an actual offense has been committed that the transgressor should have the punishment of the law for the offense that he has committed. I know that this is essentially necessary for the protection of the people. If I have violated the laws of the fair State of Arkansas I am willing to suffer the penalty of the law for the offense, but I did not commit the crime for which I am condemned, nor don’t know who did it; neither did any witness who testified in my trial know. If they did, they would not tell it. The verdict of the jury that tried my case was not warranted by the testimony. The testimony of Mr. Lamb was the testimony mostly relied upon by the prosecution in regard to the murder.
He did not know who did it, but thought the shot that did it came from 2 men that stood out off of & away from the depot platform in the dark. He said he could not tell whether they were masked men or not, & that he did not know whether they were robbers or not. He said that he stood on the depot platform & shot 5 times. He said that McNally was standing on the rear steps of the baggage car leaning out with part of his body exposed, fired one shot & was killed.
The baggage master testified that he was on the opposite side of the train from where Lamb was; that he (the baggage master) was on the ground & fired 4shots at 2 men on the side of the train. The engineer & fireman testified that while at the express car door they heard some pistol shots down the train, but did not see anyone down there. It does seem to me that Mr. Lamb’s testimony would be sufficient to convince a fair-minded man that the men that were working the train did not kill Mr. McNally. It is quite reasonable to me that if those men had gone there to rob the train & to kill anyone that might resist them, that they would surely have killed the baggage master that was, as Lamb, standing in open space & fired 4 times.
This is about the testimony that was in evidence in my case in regard to the offense for which I have to lose my life. I was reliably informed this afternoon that it had become to be thought that Thomas Brady fired the shot that did the fatal deed, but I do wish to say & say it as if in sight of judgement that Mr. Brady did not do it. I do positively say that he did not do it. I would be willing to make it my last word that Brady did not, nor does he know who did it, I will not say anything more in regard to that part of the very disagreeable subject.
Perhaps it would be of some interest to some of your sympathizing Christian readers to know something about my hopes & fears after earthly power had inflicted the last & greatest punishment possible.
I am quite happy to say that after a long, hard warfare with sin, with a stubborn, wicked heart to subdue, I have gained a great & glorious victory; I have prayed untiringly, fervently & with all the earnestness of my whole nature, ever since my incarceration in prison. I know that my burden of sin is gone; I know that I am prepared to meet my blessed Savior in judgement. I am continuing to pray & rejoice, & to pray for those who have misused & abused the power &authority that they had over me, & for those who testified so willfully false & damagingly false against me.
I have only one more enemy to conquer, that is the last enemy, death. I know that I am fully possessed of the means of warfare to conquer that enemy. After my life is taken from me I will have no other enemy to contend with, but will meet God & His Christ in Heaven. Blessed, glorious, happy thought.
Hoping this will be of interest to some of your many readers, that your paper may prosper, I am humbly yours in prison,
It wasn’t until some months after the execution that sufficient evidence was developed to finally establish that it was actually Wyrick who shot and killed Conductor McNally. Albert was vindicated in his assertion that neither he nor Brady had fired the fatal shot.
The great Olyphant train robbery truly signaled the end of the frontier in Arkansas: No more banditry was reported in the state after this incident. In fact, except for some of the notorious exploits of the Wild Bunch and the Dalton Gang, the Golden Age of outlaws was pretty much at an end in the United States. Civilization had finally won the West...
So who, exactly, was Albert Mansker? According to the birth certificate of his son, William Albert Mansker, who was born in Winfrey, Arkansas, on 22 December 1893, his father was 36 years old, born in Willow Springs, Missouri, and his occupation was school teacher! Given that at the time of William’s birth, Albert was already under arrest for murder, it isn’t surprising that William’s mother, seventeen-year-old Mary Mullins Mansker, didn’t want his father’s true “occupation” listed on the birth certificate.
It isn’t known for sure who the parents of Albert Mansker were, but there is strong speculation that he was the son of Elliott Mansker (see the Missing Manskers Page).
Click here to read contemporary Arkansas Gazette newspaper accounts of the robbery. As you read through these stories, you will no doubt be struck by the fact that not one of the men tried and convicted for the crime is mentioned in the newspaper accounts. It's almost as if there were two separate holdups...