1895 : Michigan’s Most Notorious Train Robber Killed

August 25, 2022 all-day

On August 25, 1895, John Smalley — Michigan’s most notorious train robber, who bragged to have stolen more than $1 million — was shot dead by deputies during a shootout in McBain in Missaukee County. Smalley had been suspected in numerous robberies for two years, but had always succeeded in getting off due to a lack of evidence or by avoiding authorities.

The rest of the story:

Smalley grew up on his family’s farm in Clare County. As a young man, John worked as a lumberjack and made a name for himself as a pugilist, or boxer. It wasn’t long, however, before he came upon an easier way to make a living.

It’s not clear exactly how many banks and trains John Smalley knocked over in his decade or so as a professional robber. Though he was suspected in many crimes, authorities never gathered enough evidence to make an arrest. But that string of luck ran out on Aug. 20, 1895, when Smalley and his gang held up a train near Farwell1.

Soon after the hold-up, a local farmer approached a sheriff to tell him that a man had approached him the Friday before the robbery to ask him if he wanted to “make some quick money.” The farmer said sure – if it was legitimate. Smalley is reported to have answered, “It’s on wheels. All you have to do is stop it.” The farmer was savvy to what the robber was saying and declined. But before the conversation ended, the mysterious man told the farmer that he lived in the town of Gilmore in Isabella County.

The description matched Smalley, who had already been suspected in a string of robberies. Local lawmen, along with the train engineer who had been recently robbed, gathered and went to the home of his girlfriend Cora Brown, who some said was Smalley’s wife, while others said she was a lady of ill repute known also known as the “Black Diamond.” John Smalley wasn’t around when they arrived at her house, but the train engineer recognized one of the men who was there – James Brown.

Brown was arrested and confessed not only to the recent train robbery, but several others. And then he rolled over on his accomplices, brothers Abe and John Smalley.

Five days later, on Aug. 25, a posse returned to Cora Brown’s cabin to look for Smalley, and this time he was there. After Cora and her mother fled out the back door, the posse opened fire on the cabin, killing John. He was found with a gun in each hand, fighting to the end.

While Smalley is believed to have robbed up to $1 million over his career, only a small amount of it has been recovered. Treasure hunters believe the rest of the loot is still in the Michigan wilderness, waiting to be found.

Sources :

Chasing the train robbers & John Smalley fatally shot“, Clipped from Fort Wayne WeeklyJournal, August 29, 1989, p. 11.  According to this newspaper article, John Smalley died on August 24, 1895.

#MIHistory – August 25, Michigan Most Notorious Train Robber Killed, August 25, 2014.  According to the Official Blog of the Michigan House Democrats, it was August 25, 1895.

Tobin T. Buhk, Murder & Mayhem in Grand Rapids, contains an account of John Smalley’s death and events preceeding it.

Michigan Every Day

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