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The Great Street Car Robbery

During the first quarter of the twentieth century, Indiana County saw tremendous wealth thanks to the flourishing businesses and industry located in the area. A host of transportation networks allowed citizens to venture from one town to another, while the mass production of the automobile enabled travel wherever there was a roadway. In a time before electronic transfers and direct paycheck deposit, payrolls often traversed these networks to reach the hands of the eager laborers. This vast amount of currency traveling a seemingly empty stretch of rail was alluring to those looking to make a quick profit and compelled five men to attempt to make it their own on one unsuspecting June morning in 1917.

Streetcar (Editor's Note: This is not the streetcar involved in the robbery).

Just before nine o’clock, a streetcar from the Indiana County Street Railways Company was set to depart for Clymer on one of multiple trips scheduled to take place that day. The crew onboard the car included Motorman Ralph Stadmiller and Lewis Matiska, Conductor. Accounts of the incident noted that there was a higher than normal passenger count that morning, however, nothing else was noticeably out of the ordinary. The semi-monthly payroll for the Russel Coal Mining Company of Clymer was also on board accompanied by two armed guards, policeman Askey and Caldwell. Other valuables under their protection included a sack filled with registered mail and a small quantity of silver.


Shortly after the railcar departed, one of the passengers came to the platform voicing that he was warm and could use some fresh air. Motorman Stadmiller explained that passengers could not stand on the platform and the man was guided to a seat where a window was opened. At the Risinger crossing, about halfway between Indiana and Clymer, the Clymer bound car slid onto the siding to allow the car headed towards Indiana to pass. At this point the trip was still routine, however, that was all about to change.


With the flip of a switch, the car jumped back to life and slipped back onto the main track towards its destination. Two minutes after leaving Risinger Crossing a husky man rose from his seat, quickly brandished a revolver, and fired a warning shot into the ceiling of the car. Two more shots were fired, one through the glass just past Motorman Stadmiller’s cap, the other through the front of the car just to the left of the motorman. As bullets whizzed through the vehicle, the four other men rose from their seats also with firearms and ordered everyone to hold up their hands. There was instant compliance. The speed at which the scene took place prevented the guards to use their weapons in defense. The staff were searched for weapons and the two policeman had their guns confiscated. Now defenseless, the lives of the passengers and crew were in the hands of the bandits.


The husky man tore open the bag of registered mail and began searching it for valuables, while the passengers were repeatedly warned to stay still and in return no one would be harmed. One of the bandits noticed a passenger in possession of a large bag and demanded that he hand it over. The passenger, Mr. Kneiss, a traveling salesman from Pittsburgh, made a sudden movement out of panic. Without hesitation, one shot was fired grazing his side. Thankfully, the wound was not fatal. The thieves meant business. The bag was confiscated and searched for valuables.


With all loot accounted for, the bandits congregated to one end of the car and forced the passengers and crew off at gunpoint threatening that if any passenger appeared in court against the bunch, it would be a mark of certain death. One of the bandits threw the switch and away the car went with a shocked audience watching it slip out of sight. The passengers and crew followed the tracks and found the car sitting vacant at Strong crossing about one mile away. It was believed the thieves had an automobile in wait to get away, but this fact cannot be verified.


Word was telephoned to the office of the railway company in Indiana and Sheriff Malcom was notified immediately along with County Detective Fields who raced to the scene of the crime. The Police of Clymer and Indiana were alerted to the robbery and notices were sent out in all directions to be on the lookout for the fugitives. State Police from Greensburg and Indiana joined force with the railway employees to bolster the search effort.


With statements collected and all witnesses free to go, Stadmiller brought the car to Lydicks siding with the wounded passenger and caught the return trolley to Clymer with the remaining mail. The car where the robbery occurred returned to Indiana, the bullet holes and broken glass would need to be repaired before it could once again enter service. Fortunately, no life was lost during the whole ordeal and the only casualty was Mr. Kneis. Although human life escaped slightly scathed, the funds on board were not so lucky.


The loot included the bills from the payroll, a satchel containing loose silver, and the registered mail, all which were carried by the guards. The payroll alone amounted to a staggering $28,750, a sum equal to around half of a million dollars today. None of the registered mail was stolen, however, thieves made an awful mess of it by clumsily tearing through the container. The money for the payroll was from the Farmers Bank and Trust Company of Indiana. There was no loss of money for the bank since the totality of the funds were insured. The registered mail was also insured, so the only entity who reported any initial loss from the robbery was the insurance company.


Work soon began on an investigation and evidence began to point the possibility that the Indiana robbery may have been linked to a series of prior suspicious instances. A heist which had occurred one week prior saw the theft of a new automobile from in front of a residence on Clark Avenue. There was also the fact that a robbery had recently taken place using similar tactics at the Bakerton Bank. A car wreck involving four men took place later that day and it was speculated that these were the men who performed the robbery. However, there was no conclusive evidence to warrant arrest.


The robbery had been well planned, evident from the cool calculated method that it was carried out with a clear goal in mind. How long had the men meditated on this action? None can be sure. However, the thieves were incredibly in tune with the payroll schedule, knowing precisely when it was to appear on the streetcar and exhibited a knowledge of the network of roads and rails in Indiana County. Although there were no fatalities from the case, it was evident that thieves were not afraid to use force to accomplish their goal, an unfortunate detail for the unlucky salesman. An article about the heist would grace the cover of the Indiana Evening Gazette and leave the public on edge as to when the men would strike next. Chances are the five men were hundreds of miles from the scene of the crime by the time the story went to press. Despite the best efforts of law enforcement, no conclusion was ever drawn to the case and the criminals were never identified or caught and the where bouts of their loot remains unknown.