Robbery at Council Bluffs

On November 13, 1920, $3.5 million was robbed off a train near Council Bluffs, Iowa. During investigations it became evident that the criminal masterminds were teens, well versed in how to successfully rob a train.

The Robbery

On the night of November 13, 1920, the Burlington No. 8 mail train slowly approached the Union Pacific transfer platform just outside of Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Awaiting the arrival were 4 teenagers, Merle Phillips (20), Orville Phillips (17), Fred Poffenbarger (19), and Keith Collins (20). Merle, a mail sorter, was aware the car next to the engine contained an enormous shipment of valuable registered mail.

As the train idled, Merle approached the Engineer, Alonzo Quinby, and asked for a ride to the Burlington passenger station to deflect his attention.

While Quinby was in conversation with Merle, Orville and Fred broke into the mail car. As the train stopped at the dead switch the boys kicked open the door and tossed ten mail bags on to the ground.

The Robbery Cont.

Keith Collins was waiting a couple blocks away in a Maxwell sedan. But he had planned to double-cross the others. He kept the car in idle and as the boys tossed the mail bags in, he sped off with 4 bags leaving the others behind.

Flustered, Fred and Orville took off, leaving a bag on the ground. Dan Newbury, a foreman who had been hitching a ride, noticed the stray bag and alerted officials.

Merle Phillips was arrested at the Union Pacific station the next day when he went to work. In his account, the other three were supposed to meet him, but after two hours he knew they had left him and taken the money for themselves.

Collins took off with the largest amount of cash; the rest was predominantly insurance and Liberty bonds. The loot totaled over $3.5 million.

The Investigation and Capture

The abandoned bag was the demise of the boys. It put Merle on the radar. Despite him withholding information, Postal Inspector Claud Glenn was able to track down the other three.

Investigators found several of the bonds and cash with Fred Poffenbarger’s brother and father (Clyde and Fred Sr.) However, they claimed they burned most of it, stating they only desired cash and valuables.

Keith Collins was turned in by his fiancé, who had noticed his rapid increase of wealth directly following the robbery. Collins attempted to flee but was caught not long after the others. The four boys were convicted and sentenced to 12-18 years in prison by Judge Wade.

The Council Bluffs Train Robbery sparked a massive wave of copycat mail robberies around the country. Postal security drastically changed the way traveling mail was protected. In 1921, the Post Office Department armed all its Railway Mail Service and transfer clerks.


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