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.
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).
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.
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
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