Book Excerpt: ‘Bedlam on the West Virginia Rails’

Posted by Dave Tabler | March 6, 2015

Wilson Casey (l) with Luman Ramsdell.

Wilson Casey (l) with Luman Ramsdell.

Please welcome guest author Wilson Casey. Casey’s new book ‘Bedlam on the West Virginia Rails,’ a firsthand account by America’s last moving train robber, releases March 16. Casey is a professional entertainer and speaker, who emcees upbeat entertainment, mainly trivia nights, for civic organizations, churches, pubs, and conventions. He also compiles a daily trivia column for numerous nationwide newspapers. “Curiosity seekers are always coming up to me at events, asking trivia questions, probing thoughts, and ‘whys,’” says Casey. “I’m good at noticing faces in the crowd, especially reoccurring ones who follow my gigs. This one man in particular always seemed to be in the background, loping around in the audience. He was a loner among the other patrons, but at breaks or after my sets, he’d often approach me. That’s how I first met Lu.”

 

“Who was America’s last moving train robber?”

This fellow kept asking me the same question over and over. That went on for several weeks. I kept giving him the same answer, “It was Jesse James or Butch Cassidy, that’s what the history books say.” I didn’t brush him off, nor was I rude to him, but I was seriously wondering why he was fixated on that same topic. Why in the world does he keep asking me this?

I was accustomed to him warmly smirking and walking away, but one evening at a reading at a Spartanburg writer’s project he didn’t walk away. He stayed right with me, in front of me.

bedlam book cover

Lu calmly said, “No, it wasn’t.”

“What?” I questioned.

He stated sincerely and reverently, “No, it wasn’t.” Then a short pause as he made stronger, more-direct eye contact.

“It was me.”

This was a profoundly unsettling experience. I thought to myself, what can he be talking about? Who’s he kidding? Does he suffer from Alzheimer’s? Does he realize his repetitiveness?

This time I was ready to pursue. I wanted to put closure to his persistence. I had answered his question; he’s very old, and just mixed up. I should be nice to him and move on. He didn’t move away, nor did I.

Lu was carrying a stuffed bag with him. It had cloth handles and was an old makeshift sack. Then he started reaching in and pulling out papers, some wrinkled, some folded. It was a thick 3 – 4 inch collection of photocopied clippings, some larger than the standard 8 ½ by 11. He handed me some. I took a number of them in both hands and started opening them up. I quickly started perusing. In astonishment I was raising my brows and widening my eyes.

From Lu’s collection of newspapers I was seeing headline after headline … Train Robbery … Jesse James-like Bandits … Mugging Passengers … People Robbed … Stealing Getaway Cars … Massive Manhunt … Shootout with Police … Last Rites … 5 Blocks from White House, etc., etc.

I was frozen in disbelief. To my utter surprise, he had handed me flamboyant national headlines and articles from 1949 newspapers. They all featured this B & O (Baltimore & Ohio) train robbery. It had been nationwide news. I was still dazed from him telling me it was he who pulled off the robbery. This guy Lu was in fact the mastermind, the leader, the notorious criminal, the man who stopped and robbed a moving train. Here I was in conversation, not three feet from the 1949 head bandit himself.

Trying to gather my coolness, I questioned Lu again, “What? … How can all this be about you?”

He never answered. He was too busy pulling out more and more photocopied clippings from his bag.

“Could this have happened?” I wondered. “Is this the guy? Why is he telling me?”

Baltimore and Ohio Railroad train in 1949, a fair likeness to the “Ambassador” (the train robbed).

Baltimore and Ohio Railroad train in 1949, a fair likeness to the “Ambassador” (the train robbed).

 

I steadily gazed at the headlines of more of the papers he presented. They were from newspapers all across the country. He had a dozen or so photocopies with him. Paper after paper, all talking about the same shocking story — even the 1949 Spartanburg (SC) Journal newspaper, in the town where Luman Ramsdell and I both now lived. I was still flabbergasted. How could the historians have missed this? I’m a professional researcher, and I thought it was Jesse James and his gang, or possibly Butch Cassidy, who stopped and robbed the last moving train in America. Certainly not Lu and his gang.

The history books were in error. It was Lu. Lu Ramsdell was America’s last moving train robber.

Here I was face to face with the head bandit himself in the year 2009. He stopped and robbed a moving train with 150 passengers. How could he still be alive? Why wasn’t he in jail? How had he survived so long with such a background? And why was he living in Spartanburg, SC of all places? Was he still dangerous? Was he a menace to society?

As I came to know him, none of my irreverent thoughts ever panned out about the main character. Lu was actually a gentle man who honestly wanted me to tell his story. He chose me. He believed in me. He knew from my other books that I fought for the little guy when it came to getting things correct. The notorious train robber had chosen me to be the intimate insider of conveying exactly what happened that day in 1949.

Train robberies were more common in the 19th century, not the 20th. They often occurred in the American Old West with guns a blazing. Trains that carried payroll shipments were major targets of bandits. Many of the outlaws were organized, while others would make robbery attempts on the spur of the moment, usually while intoxicated. The bandits’ first goal was to steal any money being delivered as cargo. Those shipments would be guarded by an “expressman.” His duty was to protect the cargo of the “express car.” Expressmen, conductors, and other train personnel took enormous pride in their duty. They had no problem with risking their lives for a shipment, or with protecting the safety of passengers.

Photo courtesy the author.

Photo courtesy the author.

 

If the outlaws of the 19th century were able to overpower the expressman/men, they’d take what valuables they could and then flee the scene on horseback. But if the bandits were unsatisfied with the goods, or if they couldn’t get into a safe or the train’s strongbox, the passengers would be held up at gunpoint. Sometimes both scenarios took place. These travelers in the train’s carriages were usually unarmed. They would be forced to hand over any valuables they were carrying, usually in the form of jewelry, watches, or currency. It was commonplace for uncooperative passengers to be pistol-whipped into submission. At times, passengers were shot, knifed, or bludgeoned. That made a serious point with the other travelers.

If the person in front of you was being terrorized, you’d certainly want to cooperate to the fullest when the bandits got to you. The robbers would go up and down the line of passengers, looting them at will. This is exactly what Lu and his gang (“Duke,” his cohort) did. They were a gang of two — though false newspaper accounts had the number of gang members higher, at four or six.

I’d soon become involved in the life of the main character and subject matter, while also being able to observe from a somewhat detached vantage point. I’d have the arcane detail firsthand and not be blinded by the groupthink of everything in those 1949 newspapers.

Their references to the days of Jesse James were many and frequent as officials and reporters pieced together the brazen, gun slinging train robbery, shootout, and ultimate capture. The descriptions of Lu and his gang had all the trappings and descriptions of the frontier days.

It was insightful and meaningful to collaborate Lu’s firsthand accounts. Later, during my research I was able to uncover over 50 articles accounting the train robbery, and even a comic strip. There was very little, if anything, on the internet. Digging through microfilms at my local Spartanburg, SC County Public Library proved invaluable.

Being permitted inside the genius mastermind of Luman Ramsdell, being allowed to spend time with him the last three years of his life right up until his death at age 86 in 2012, and to hear his story, captivated me. He was a real-life person, a real-life train robber, and a real-life “thug” who became my friend.

Lu was a career criminal until late in life, whose quick wits and narrow escapes followed him. I could not help but to become submerged into his life’s past and his infamous path of criminal activities. My in-depth dealings with this train robber led to my intensive research on the central character and to spending a lot of time with him. We’d meet for breakfast a couple-three times a week at the local Hardee’s, near the house where Lu was living.

He was a stamp collector. He asked me to speak at one of his club’s monthly meetings. I picked him up and we rode to the affair together. None of its twenty members present ever suspected nor knew about Lu’s past. He fit right in. It was an intellectual group. With my Guinness world record holding credentials I entertained them via my trivia knowledge. I sensed they all respected Lu for what he was with them: an intellectual with sharp wits.

The Trento Borsalino caps in different colors would become part of his everyday appearance during the many times we would meet for breakfast conversation at the local Hardee’s, a busy place in the mornings. Lu drove himself there. We both loved their gravy biscuits and coffee. I taped many of our talks and was always jotting on my notepad. Lu was good about drawing and doodling illustrations to clarify my many curiosities. Sometimes we would sit and talk in the restaurant’s parking lot in my car for further privacy. It cut out the background noise of when we were seated inside the restaurant trying to talk.

This was the beginning of a fascinating journey of actually being able to talk live with a formerly extremely notorious human being. The man who was in the thick of all the mayhem and dangerous escapades. He was the gang leader. I came to know Lu like growing a soul. He became my friend. After spending countless hours with him, I wanted to tell his story, the true account behind “America’s last moving train robber.”

I want to set the history books straight.

‘Bedlam on the West Virginia Rails’ is available from-

The Publisher: http://www.historypress.net
Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/bedlam-on-the-west-virginia-rails-wilson-casey/1121010535?ean=9781626198937
Books a Million: http://www.booksamillion.com/p/Bedlam-West-Virginia-Rails/Wilson-Casey/9781626198937?id=6255732875913
Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Bedlam-West-Virginia-Rails-Crime/dp/1626198934/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1425573396&sr=8-1&keywords=Bedlam+on+the+west+virginia+rails

And other fine stores and distributors

The author is actively pursuing book-to-movie-option-rights. Please feel free to email him: WC@TriviaGuy.com

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The Flood that convinced Huntington to built a Flood Wall

Posted by Dave Tabler | March 5, 2015

After heavy rains in Huntington, WV during much of December 1936 and January 1937, the Ohio River jumped its banks with a vengeance, cresting on January 27 at 69 ft. (Cincinnati, OH, further upriver, was 80 ft under water). By the time the waters subsided five days later, over $17,000,000 in damages had been done, dwarfing the damage caused in the area’s most destructive previous flood (1913: $1,456,833 of damage). Five people were dead locally; up & down the Ohio River valley 400 total had been killed. 25,000 Huntington residents were affected, with some 11,000 requesting Red Cross services. City services were suspended for 2 weeks.

http://www.marshall.edu/library/speccoll/virtual_museum/1937_flood/Images/White-NorthcottInterior.jpg
Those who were there just call it “The Flood.” There had been nothing like it before. It was a rolling catastrophe, as the river rose house by house, street by street, climbing stairs and pushing families into second and third floors of houses. Communities turned to lakes, people lined up to get fresh water in buckets and soup pots, rescue workers navigated streets in boats.

“The common complaint last night was not the closing of the liquor stores but the lack of drinking water. Curiously enough in downtown restaurants milk was easier to order than water and sweet milk was available where buttermilk was not.”
— Herald Dispatch (January 27, 1937)

A 1933 flood caused $108,481 in damages, and an official government engineer’s survey placed 1936 flood damage at $369,288. Finally, the devastating 1937 flood convinced the federal government that a flood wall was needed. Irene Drukker Broh, one of Huntington’s foremost suffragists and civic leaders, led a campaign to pass a $1 million bond to fund Huntington’s flood wall.

The flood protection system was completed in 1943 with money from the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program designed to relieve the hard times of the Great Depression. Huntington has not experienced as serious a flood since the wall was constructed.

 

sources:
http://www.wvculture.org/history/broh.html
http://www.marshall.edu/special-collections/1937_flood/default.asp

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Time for a Spring Tonic

Posted by Dave Tabler | March 4, 2015

Doctors once prescribed a tonic.
Sulfur and molasses was the dose.
Didn’t help one bit.
My condition must be chronic.
Spring can really hang you up the most.

“Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” (1952)
lyrics by Fran Landesman; music by Tommy Wolf

Time to shed the sluggishness of winter!

Up till the middle of the 20th century, many Appalachian residents, like Americans elsewhere, downed an annual spring tonic of sulfur and molasses. It was believed the family needed a good “spring cleaning” after a sedentary winter eating dried vegetables and salted meat. Each member of the family would have their dose of this mixture to purify their blood, thin or “cut” the blood, and make them feel better after the long winter.

sulfured molassesThis particular blood tonic was fashioned from a pure yellow crystalline form of elemental sulfur known as sublimed sulfur, or “flowers of sulfur.” We now know sulfur is in the nucleus of cells and is fundamental to regeneration of strong healthy tissue. Mixes of sulfur with cream of tartar were also used and more exotic variations may include powdered pearl as well.

The name “molasses” is derived from a Portuguese word, “melaco”, and means “resembling honey.” The unsulphured tastes stronger but has more nutrients. Sulphur treated molasses is sweeter but has fewer nutrients.

Blackstrap molasses is the thick liquid separated from the solid granules of cane sugar during refining. It is not only a source of energy but contains iron and other minerals including a fair amount of calcium. It also has several B-Complex vitamins.

The use of spring tonics revolved around Victorian theories of high blood, low blood, thick blood, and thin blood.

High blood has very little to do with the modern concepts of high blood pressure and hypertension but instead is derived from the belief in humors and the practice of blood letting. It can be thought of as high blood volume which results in symptoms like headaches, nosebleeds, dizziness, feeling “flushed”, fainting, rapid pulse and nausea.

By contrast, low blood is a low volume of blood or blood that lacks vitality. Symptoms of low blood are fatigue, dizziness, pale complexion and listlessness.

Thick blood is thought to be due to the presence of toxins and waste in the blood which makes it more viscous; this is viewed to be a source of sickness if left untreated. Heat intolerance, obesity and sluggishness are symptoms of thick blood.

A person who is cold-natured, frail, and slow to heal is thought to have thin blood, which is watery and lacks vital properties.

These four blood states express seasonal variation just like the sap in trees. During the winter, blood becomes thicker and lower because of the cold weather and a more sedentary lifestyle. A poor diet of canned and dried food in the winter also contributed to this change in blood state.

Springtime blood tonics help the sluggish blood rise like sap in trees in preparation for the hard work to be done in the growing season. Sulfur and molasses is just one of the options; there are lots of regional variations on the spring tonic formula throughout Appalachia, depending on availability of particular roots and herbs and also on local traditions and preferences.

 

sources: ‘Spring Tonics and Appalachian Herbals,’ by Lee Barnes, Ph.D., Appalachian Voices, Friday, April 20th, 2007
www.otherworld-apothecary.com/articles/spring_tonics.html
www.wildcrafting.com/appalachian_healing_traditions.htm

 

spring+tonics sulfur+and+molasses blood+tonics appalachia appalachian+history history+of+appalachia

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Feature film ‘Coal Dust’ gets underway

Posted by Dave Tabler | March 3, 2015

Please welcome guest author/film director Laura Smith. Smith got her bachelor’s degree in broadcasting from Eastern Kentucky University and continued on to UCLA to study screenwriting. “I learned most of the technical aspects of film by working on my own short film projects and by working crew on a feature film,” she says. “In addition, I have written 4 full length screenplays.” She’s currently starting production on her first feature film, ‘Coal Dust.’

 

As I reflect upon growing up in the Appalachian foothills, I consider my family, neighbors and community. I realize I come from a long line of builders. I don’t mean those who build houses, churches and businesses, although they were surely there. I refer to those who make things and seek to improve things. Those people who create.

zara jones directing shot

My ancestors were some of the earliest settlers of Tennessee and Kentucky. They forged trails through what was then the wilderness, they settled the wild frontier, and they built towns, houses, the roads. They built the businesses people needed to survive. They saw a need, and they thought about what they could build or create to fill it.

My family was not the only one who pursued this creation. Entire communities would get together to raise barns, churches and houses when there was a need. Ladies got together in sewing circles and made quilt pieces and patterns out of worn and outgrown clothing. Hardly, anything was left to waste because they could make something new from it. Something helpful, something practical. They could fulfill a need for something.

While some traditions such as barn raising and sewing circles were dying out as I grew up, I always heard the stories and saw the outcome of what happened when people got together to create things. Churches and houses are still standing. Roads are still traveled, and many of those quilts are still around to keep me warm on a cold winter’s night. Not only did they build and create things. They made things that lasted.

As I have witnessed the decrease in coal production over the years, and I have watched businesses decline and disappear, I’ve found myself wondering what our communities would make and how they would proceed. What would they build?

In recent years, the communities seem to have spoken because I am seeing an increase in beautification, and a quest for tourism. It seems Appalachia is ready to open its doors for visitors and share what our families have built over all these years.

As I await the unfolding next chapter in Appalachia’s story, I paused to ponder where we’ve been, where we are going and what we must do to get there. I ask myself, “What can I create? What can I build?”

My narrative film Coal Dust depicts a modern lobbyist who is called home to see her family. She reflects on her town and family’s history with coal mines, as she helps her family. She sees her hometown’s own attempts to promote tourism and bring in new forms of revenue as the so-called “war on coal” rages in the nation’s capital.

While this is a work of fiction, it is set around modern topics affecting central Appalachia and the debate about coal and other natural resources in this country. This film is set in eastern Kentucky and shows the way of life as we’ve come to know it.

My lead character is loosely based on my experiences as someone who grew up in the region, went to college and left the area to pursue her career. She adapted to life outside the area and held on to her roots to be of benefit to her culture and her world.

It is my intention to break media stereotypes of the region by showing the earnest work of modern Appalachians, and inform the country of our efforts to survive and maintain our way of life in keeping with our inherent cultural values.

I grew up in southeastern Kentucky in the small town of Manchester. I studied psychology at Berea College and was subjected to many courses in Appalachian studies. While there, I began to make the correlation between life as I knew it and scholarly observations of the people of the region. I learned to view myself as both an individual and a member of the community.

When asked about my influences, I’m fond of saying “I’m a Spielberg/Capra kinda girl.” In truth, my greatest influences will always be the oral tradition of Appalachian storytelling. I grew up hearing yarns spun by the greatest storytellers of all time. My challenge to myself has been to mold those oral traditions into visual storytelling in a film medium. I believe this film will show the success of that.

To learn more about the film Coal Dust, please visit www.indiegogo.com/projects/coal-dust-fa or like our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/CoalDustFilm.

One Response

  • Peggy Smith says:

    Laura I am so glad to see and hear that all these things you heard as you were growing up have really stuck with you. I can hear some of them now . Discussing the quilts that were made and whose dress piece it has in it or shirt.
    How the people would all get together when there was a need. . I am so proud of you.

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George W. Christians, American fascist

Posted by Dave Tabler | March 2, 2015

It is the privileged role of the Art Smiths, the William Pelleys, and the George Christians to lay only the cornerstone of fascism. It is in their rudimentary organizations that the petty bourgeoisie receives its first elementary schooling in dictatorship. It is from the Smiths and the Pelleys that it learns to scrap its democratic scruples, to hate the Jew as the Mephistopheles responsible for depressions and to detest the Communist as the companion creation of the Devil.

It is in their lecture rooms that the small shopkeeper and the petty officers avidly absorb the bombastic emotional rantings of the would be American Hitlers who intoxicate their listeners with glorious hallucinations of the past and still more glorious visions of the future under the aegis of fascism. Religious animosity is of course, stressed more than anything else.
–Class Struggle, Vol 4, No 3 March 1934 (http://www.weisbord.org/FourThree.htm)

Tennessean George W. Christians, chief officer of the fascist Crusader White Shirts, was an odd combination of comedian and sinister revolutionist. “Does our Commander in Chief have ideas,” he asked, “or is he just the world’s greatest humbug?” In another handbill, Christians wrote of the president: “Some neck—for a rope.” He was characterized by one-time Roosevelt braintruster Raymond Moley as a ‘harmless lunatic.’

George W. Christians (White Shirts)

George W. Christians (White Shirts). Photo courtesy Saturday Evening Post

“The Crusader White Shirts,” Christians stated, “known as the American Fascists, is a military auxiliary of the Crusaders for Economic Liberty [CFEL]…. It embraces the Fascist idea of personal leadership, unity, force, drama and nationalism.”

Christians once issued orders to seize control of the government: “The first- objective should be to take control of the local government in the following manner: March in military formation to and surround the government buildings. Then, by sheer numbers and a patriotic appeal, force the officials to accept and act under the direction of an economic adviser appointed by the President of the CFEL.”

One night when FDR was scheduled to arrive in Chattanooga, TN, Christians threatened to cut off the city’s electric power and warned grimly, “Lots of things can happen in the dark!” Followers took this as a veiled reference to consider lynching Roosevelt.

American Liberty League logoThis protege of the American Liberty League was from then on kept under surveillance by the Secret Service. On March 27, 1942, Christians and Rudolph Fahl, onetime physical-education instructor at a Denver high school, were arrested for disseminating material that could demoralize the army. Christians was accused of violating the Smith Act by “communicating to soldiers statements designed to impair their morale.”

In early April, five more seditionists were arrested. Meantime Christians, held in Chattanooga under $10,000 bond, said, “I consider myself a political prisoner rather than a criminal and should get better treatment.” The President took pride in the operation during his “Fireside Chat” late in April: “this great war effort . . . must not be impeded by a few bogus patriots who use the sacred freedom of the press to echo the sentiments of the propagandists in Tokyo and Berlin.” All of those from the March-April group were convicted by the end of the summer of 1942, except Fahl.

 

sources: www.csulb.edu/~crsmith/whitepapers/patriots.htm
Time magazine, Monday, Apr. 13, 1942 “Milquetoast Gets Muscles”
Time magazine, sidebar, Monday, May. 11, 1942
Free speech in the good war by Richard W. Steele, Palgrave Macmillan, 1999
‘Star-Spangled Fascists,’ by Jeff Nilsson, Saturday Evening Post, March 10, 2012,

George+W.+Christians Crusader+White+Shirts American+fascists Chattanooga+TN appalachia appalachian+history appalachian+mountains+history

4 Responses

  • Levi says:

    As a life-long resident of the Chattanooga area, this is the first I;ve heard of this character. Where else could one find more info on this person?

  • Dave Tabler says:

    Start with these:

    http://www.csulb.edu/~crsmith/whitepapers/patriots.htm

    Time magazine, Monday, Apr. 13, 1942 “Milquetoast Gets Muscles”

    Time magazine, sidebar, Monday, May. 11, 1942

    Free speech in the good war by Richard W. Steele, Palgrave Macmillan, 1999

  • Janet says:

    He was my grandfather, and we thought he was a few cards short of a full deck, too.

  • Connie says:

    He was my uncle and yes he was a different kind of fellow, but I had never heard of him in this light. We knew he went to jail. I was told that the government thought he was a spy, but that this was not true. I was also told that he invented asphalt grouting that stopped leaks in the Watts Bar Dam and that he was very smart. “far out” would be a good term.

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