The Infamous Black Bird Southern Oregon History, Revised

The DeAutremonts
And the holdup at Tunnel 13.

The Siskiyou Tunnel Robbery
By Edgar Sisson
NOT even the gangsters of the crowded cities, "hopped up" to fiendishness by drugs, were ever guilty of murders more cruel and inhuman than those committed by the D'Autremont brothers, small-town boys without criminal background. And neither the man-hunters of Scotland Yard nor the Sherlock Holmes and Lupins of imaginative fiction can boast any greater triumph of detection than that achieved by an unsung college professor, working with his microscope in the laboratory of the University of California.
    Ray and Roy D'Autremont, twenty-three-year-old twins, and Hugh, a younger brother of nineteen! Their names will live long in American police annals, not only for the atrocity of their crime and for the miracles of science that led to their identification, but also for the fact that their pursuit has no parallel for length of time and cost. Four long years elapsed before detectives laid their hands upon the shoulders of the killers, and a sum of money well above a million was spent on the chase that led beyond the borders of the United States.
    It was at noon on October 11, 1923, that the first section of the Southern Pacific's Portland-San Francisco express pulled out of Ashland, a division point well up in the Oregon foothills. At the throttle was Sid Bates, one of the oldest engineers on the line; Marvin Seng, the fireman, had just said goodbye to a wife and baby girl; E. E. Dougherty, the young mail clerk, was also a husband and father, and others of the crew were J. O. Merritt, the conductor, and brakeman
C. O. Johnson.
    Late that afternoon, when the telegraph wires sent officers of the law and railroad representatives hurrying to the little mountain town of Siskiyou, Bates was found dead in his cab, the lifeless bodies of Seng and Johnson lay beside the tracks, and poor Dougherty had been blown to fragments by the dynamite that made a wreck of the mail car. Of all the Ashland crew that had left their homes in health and happiness, only white-faced Merritt remained alive. Four years passed before the details of the tragedy were learned exactly, and then the confessions of the killers laid bare a stupid butchery unrelieved by a single trace of human pity.
    The three D'Autremonts, resolving upon train robbery, had picked Siskiyou for certain very good reasons. After leaving the lonely station, all Southern Pacific trains slackened speed before entering a tunnel at the top of the range, and made thorough air tests as the down grade began at the southern end. This, the bandits figured, would do away with the necessity for flagging or derailing. From a camp in the forest a mile distant the brothers watched and waited for days before deciding to strike.
    Fools that they were, no effort had been made to find out what trains carried shipments of money or valuables. To their simple minds every mail car was a treasure vault, and all that they had to do was to blow it open, load themselves down with gold coin, and then make a getaway. From some construction camp they had stolen thirty pounds of dynamite, a blasting machine and a bunch of wire, and the twins fancied themselves as experts because they had blown up stumps.
    As the train slowed down at the tunnel entrance Roy and Hugh leaped from their covert in the bushes and were in the cab before Bates and Seng could lift a hand. Jamming guns into the faces of the helpless men, the young desperadoes ordered the engineer to run his train through the tunnel to the south exit, and there they pushed him and the fireman out, and drove them back to the mail car. Now Ray rushed up, dragging the blasting machine after him, all set for his part of the job.
    Dougherty, the mail clerk, looked out at this moment to see what had stopped the train, and Hugh fired at him with a shotgun but scored a complete miss. Straightway Dougherty slammed the door shut, whereupon dynamite was placed against the car, the wire connected and the charge exploded. Here again the brothers proved themselves clumsy fools, for the explosion wrecked the entire car, blowing Dougherty into bits and everything else as well. More than that, the bunglers had stopped the engine while the mail car was still in the tunnel, and all were now choked by smoke and gas.
    Realizing their blunder, Hugh and Ray forced the engineer back into his cab, and bawled at him to pull ahead a hundred feet. Roy, left on guard over the fireman, began to uncouple the mail car from the rest of the train. Even as he tugged away, keeping one eye on Seng, brakeman Johnson came hurrying up through the smoke and dust, yelling questions as to what had happened. He had been seated in the first of the passenger cars, and was several minutes ahead of the more cautious general advance.
    Roy, gun pointed, ordered Johnson to "stick 'em up," and then told him to go forward and tell the others that he had finished uncoupling, and for them to pull ahead. Ray and Hugh, seeing Johnson, fell into a panic and did not wait for him to deliver his message. Ray let him have it with a revolver and Hugh with his shotgun, and then the latter, carried away by panic or bloodlust, sent another load of slugs into the body of the dying man as he lay crumpled on the ground. Now Hugh, climbing into the cab, ordered the engineer to get moving, but the air brakes locked, and Bates could not obey.
    "We're stalled," Hugh called down.
    "Stay there," Ray ordered, and then ran to where Roy stood guard over the fireman. Back in the tunnel there was a noise of shouting and tramping feet as passengers jumped down from the cars to find out the trouble. Desperate, cursing, the twins debated the best course. Even had there been time, the total wreck of the mail car made plunder an impossibility. They had failed as bandits and they had killed two men. Two remained alive to identify them. With an oath Roy made a decision for all three brothers.
    Jamming his gun into the back of Seng's head, he blew out the brains of the hapless fireman, and then yelled a savage command to Hugh. "Bump off the old man," he cried, "and let's get out of here." Hugh fired into the back of the engineer as he worked over the throttle, and the body slumped and fell. Bloody work indeed; and every hand was red. Roy and Hugh each had shot the brakeman, Roy had killed the fireman, and Hugh the engineer. The dynamite they had exploded had killed the mail clerk. Equally they were pitiless murderers, and as stupid as cruel, for they fled into the wilderness without a cent to show for their savagery.
    There, then, we have the true story of the Siskiyou holdup as it was told by the murderers themselves four years later. At the time, however, the crime stood as a mystery, and one that had small chance of being solved, for the killers seemed to have made a clean getaway, leaving no helpful clues behind them. They were gone when conductor Marrett and the remainder of the train crew reached the victims. Brakeman Johnson, although yet alive, was unconscious and breathed his last as the conductor bent over him. The mail car was flaming. In the débris, after the fire was put out, the scattered parts of Dougherty's body were found. The wreckage was left as it was until experts could arrive.
    The marvel of the quest for the identity of the perpetrators, and then the manhunt, was its patient thoroughness from the very beginning, its impersonal massing of myriad forces. Within a few hours two post office inspectors and the chief special agent of the Southern Pacific Railway Company were on the scene, making a minute survey of the débris. They found the blasting machine and the wiring, and near the dynamiting device a pair of overalls and six foot-pads made out of gunnysack soaked in creosote. Near the north tunnel entrance where the engine had first been boarded a .45-caliber Colt's revolver was found.
    A company of Oregon state militia, called to scour the surrounding country, soon discovered an abandoned camp in the mountains. An attempt had been made to burn the equipment, but in the ashes were the steel of knives and forks, sheet-iron straps which from their shape seemed to have bound a wooden box, and the charred remnant of an express tag.
    Three bunks were in the half-burned cabin, and this fact, taken in conjunction with the six footpads, proved conclusively that the bandits were three in number. But what three? The unmarked overalls. the undecipherable express tag, and a standard pattern revolver seemed to offer little hope of identification.
    Science, however, read in one exhibit a clue that would have led to the D'Autremonts had it been alone. The overalls were sent for analysis to Professor E. C. Heinrich, criminologist of the University of California at Berkeley. His microscope disclosed that there was resin in spots where the owner had wiped his hands, and that embedded in the sticky substance was the sawdust of the Douglas fir, along with a few light brown hairs. From measurements of girth and of trouser leg Professor Heinrich built up a further picture until he was able to declare positively that the wearer was a five-foot, six-inch lumberman who had worked in a Northwest camp, had light brown hair, and weighed about 140 pounds.
    Still not content, Professor Heinrich ripped out all the seams of the overalls. On the bib was a narrow pencil pocket which had seemed to contain nothing. 'Taken off, a tiny wad of half-disintegrated thin paper was at the bottom, pressed down by the frequent return of pencil to pocket. Treated, mounted and photographically enlarged, the scrap showed a numbered receipt for a registered letter, and that the receiving post office was Eugene, Oregon. The number, when compared with the records at Eugene, was that of a letter receipted for by one Roy D'Autremont.
Thus did a college professor, working in a laboratory hundreds of miles from the crime, uncover the identity of one of the murderers, and point a sure way for officers of the law. Picking up the scent with the speed of hounds, railroad detectives and government inspectors swarmed to Eugene, followed a back trail from there, and in a comparatively short time had the whole life history of the D'Autremonts before them.
    A simple, everyday history but for its terrible ending. First in line came Paul D'Autremont, the father, a lighthearted singing man of French-Canadian descent, whose whole life showed not a trace of criminal instinct. A nomadic barber, moving from town to town, Roy and Ray, the twins, had been born in Williamsburg, Iowa, in 1900, and Hugh came into the world in 1905, in Mena, Arkansas. Now with a shop of his own, and now a humble journeyman, Paul D'Autremont traveled with his family from state to state, and finally came to a stop in Salem, Oregon. Roy and Ray were with him, while Hugh remained with his mother in New Mexico.

WHEN America entered the World War, the seventeen-year-old twins were too young for military service, but all on fire with patriotic ardor, they went to work in the Oregon lumber camps, hewing pine and fir for the shipyards. Decent enough lads at the time, and the chances are they might have remained so but for the evil associations of their new job. In the logging camps of the West were many of those malcontents and troublemakers who called themselves Syndicalists or I.W.W.'s, preaching revolution and class war.
    Roy D'Autremont fell an easy convert to the mouthers, and Ray followed him, first as a matter of course, and then came under the sway of the wily leaders so completely that he outstripped Roy, and was made an organizer. Two years of this tutelage did for the brothers. Some agitator spouted about Nietzsche in their hearing, so they added "Pity is an infection" and "Living consists in living at the cost of others" to their list of slogans. They looked upon themselves, contradictorily but satisfyingly, both as Nietzschean supermen and as Bolshevik "enemies of capitalistic society."
    Robert Service, poet of Alaska and Paris, was their last hold on any rugged or healthy life. They clung to him as they did to their hymns, and more honestly. Had they ever known that Service, who once may have thought of himself as a rebel poet, laid down his pen to drive the wounded of France from battlefield to hospital, was himself wounded at Verdun and later as an American soldier left an arm in the Argonne, the epic might have affected them enough emotionally to have given them a new ideal.
    In 1920 a job of wanton destruction was traced to Ray, and he was arrested on a charge of criminal syndicalism, convicted and sentenced to a year in the Washington State Reformatory. After his release he joined Roy in Salem, and when the father moved his barber shop to Eugene, the twins went with him. The jolt of Ray's imprisonment seemed to have brought both boys up short, but in reality they had only become more sullen and secretive.

IN THE spring of 1923, Hugh came on from New Mexico, a rather handsome lad of nineteen, brighter and much better educated than the twins, for he had gone through high school, attaining some local distinction as an athlete and debater. Although the youngest, he soon proved the boldest, and his was the idea that the "D'Autremont boys" should win to equal fame with the "James boys."' and by the same methods. A bandit trio, if you please, holding up trains, looting banks and spreading terror by the very mention of their name. It was not long after Hugh's arrival that Ray and Roy put aside their razors and strops, and announced that the three were going to work as loggers in some lumber camp.
    All this the detectives and government inspectors learned by patient investigation, and at the end they were convinced that the D'Autremont brothers were the men they wanted. Much, however, remained to be done before the chain of evidence was complete to the last link, and again the manhunters took to the trail. They followed the tracks of the three from Eugene to a lumber camp near Silverton where the brothers lived in a cabin by themselves, spending all their spare time practicing marksmanship with rifles, revolvers and shotguns. They learned that the weapons were kept in a wooden chest, bound with strap iron, and descriptions of this chest made them sure it was the same one found half-burned in the Siskiyou cabin.
    From Silverton they traced the D'Autremonts to Portland, where they bought a motor car with a $200 down payment in Roy's name, also a camp outfit. The merchant, shown the knives and forks taken from the Siskiyou cabin, identified them as the ones he had sold to the twins. In the little town of Albany they found the store where Ray had bought a .45-caliber Colt's revolver, the same gun that had been left beside the ruined mail car. The signature was in the name of William Elliot, but the handwriting was Ray D'Autremont's. By this time they were ready to attack directly, and from the barber father additional details were secured.
    In the third week in September, he said, the boys had told him they were going on a long camping trip up Puget Sound way. Three weeks later Hugh came driving into Eugene telling a long, glib story about how the camp had been burned. He was leaving the car at home, he explained, and meant to take the train to Silverton where Roy and Ray were waiting for him. The next morning he went away, and from that time, Paul D'Autremont swore tearfully, he had never seen nor heard from any of them.
    Now began the chase. The government, the Southern Pacific, and Oregon offered rewards totaling $15,900, and an advertising campaign was launched that covered the Western Hemisphere. Not only did the circulars contain full physical descriptions of the brothers, but even their photographs. Ray's prison picture was secured, together with his fingerprints; there was also a good snapshot of Roy, and from New Mexico came pictures of Hugh. These circulars were printed in hundreds of thousands in English, Spanish and French. Canada, Mexico and the Central Americas were completely circularized.
    The measurements of the eyes of both Roy and Ray were listed, secured from the optician who fitted them with glasses. The dental work of all three was set forth minutely. The final form of the printed tocsins was a spectacular summons to universal attention. The story of the murders was given, the life history of the brothers, their habits, their likely haunts. The talk was to the public as to a person, concluding:
    "Help the government catch the vicious criminals who committed this terrible crime. Some day they will be apprehended. Criminals often are found where least expected. They may be in your vicinity now.
To the Barbers--
    Have either of these two men been employed in your shop since the holdup? Are they there now? It is probable they may be following some other employment and working as barbers in their spare time. Retain this folder for future reference.
To the Logging Camps--
    All three of these men have worked as loggers. They lived by themselves and did not associate with other employees.
To the Large Industrial Establishments--
    Are any of these men in your employ? Do not pass this up. If you are satisfied they are not there now, retain this folder for future reference.
To the Libraries--
    Ray and Roy D'Autremont have been in the habit of borrowing books from public libraries. They usually obtained books on sociology and poetical works. Study their description and characteristics and you will know them when you see them. Please check your records for handwriting of these men."
    And so on to jewelers, with description of the D'Autremont watches. and to opticians and dentists, with technical detail for each. Every post office was placarded also. At the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial as late as 1926, 85,000 circulars were distributed. It would seem as if the brothers could not go anywhere on any day without betraying themselves in some small, sure way. They avoided snares, however, for Roy and Ray never worked again as barbers, or any of them as loggers. The twins went without glasses, all kept away from dentists or public libraries and they destroyed their watches.
    Two years passed, then three, and nearly four. Not a track of any of the brothers had been found, but the hunt never lessened. Inspectors had gone to England, Mexico and South America, eliminating one suspect after another. The case was the glory of imaginative amateur trailers and identifiers, and the bane of the government men, who were obliged to consider the possibility of truth in every lead. Hardly an inspector in all the main offices of the country who did not work on the case at one time or another, and "tips" ran into thousands. Honest folks were sure they had worked with one of the D'Autremonts. Their victims, equally honest, had to be examined and then soothed.
    By this time the D'Autremonts had cost the government a great sum, far above an approximation of visible expense, which would not include the salaries of those who gave their time to the chase. Outsiders have made an estimate of $3,000,000, but to this the government does not agree. A minimum estimate has been half a million dollars, which one must regard as much too low. In the summer of 1926 there had not been the least tangible return.
YET the geared system of power was about to begin to win. Thomas Reynolds, a soldier in the United States army in the Philippines, ended his period of enlistment and returned in July to San Francisco. He reported to the post office inspector there that he believed Hugh D'Autremont was a private in his company, serving under the name James Price. The circulars had been sent to all foreign military posts of the United States, and Reynolds, seeing one of them, had been attracted by the resemblance of Price to the picture of Hugh, and had studied his mannerisms.
    A joint army and post office inquiry was set afoot at once. In his enlistment papers (he had joined up in Chicago on April 22, 1924) Price gave Houston, Texas, as his birthplace, and William Adams of Emmett, Arkansas, as his next friend. There was no record of birth at Houston and no William Adams at Emmett. Further inquiry confirmed suspicion and in early 1927 an inspector was sent to the Philippines. Convinced that the man he faced was Hugh D'Autremont, though he denied the identity, the inspector made the arrest on February 11. Before the transport delivered him at San Francisco, the prisoner owned up that he was Hugh D'Autremont, although he would not admit either guilt or any knowledge of the whereabouts of his brothers.
    Of his own movements, he said that in the autumn and winter of 1923 and '24 he worked with a construction outfit in California, had been a laborer in Arizona and Texas, and finally had drifted to Chicago. He was a tramp, cold and hungry, and frightened, as he admitted, by the size and look of the city. One night a policeman warned off a rough pair he had seen watching the boy and told Hugh in friendly fashion that the district was too rough for a lad like him, advising him to go home. The next day Hugh saw a picture of the tropics on an army recruiting poster, visioned enlistment both as a pleasant way of escape from his physical hardships and as a route to safety. He straight way applied, was accepted, sent to Fort Sheridan, and in a few weeks was outside the country. He was a colorless, quiet soldier.
    The trial of the single captive was held in June, in Jacksonville, Oregon. He pleaded not guilty, and the fact that the evidence against him, while conclusive, was entirely circumstantial, no one being able to testify to having seen the murders, kept the jury from voting the death penalty. The first ballot, however, decided his guilt. He was sentenced by the jury to life imprisonment. The verdict had the effect, also, of saving Roy and Ray from the hangman. For they had been taken and were on their way to Oregon as Hugh's trial was ending. The machine got them, almost in the manner it had enmeshed Hugh, and in consequence, too, of his arrest.
    Taking advantage of the new public interest in the D'Autremonts caused by Hugh's capture, the chief post office inspector at Washington gave out a syndicated interview in which he charted the entire case and included pictures of the twins. Albert Collingsworth of Portsmouth, Ohio, was recovering from a nearly fatal accident in which he had lost both legs and one eye. Reading with his single eye was about the only way he had of passing his time. He came across the illustrated D'Autremont article in the Portsmouth Times of April 19, and Ray and Roy looked like persons he had seen somewhere. He studied the likenesses. Then he asked his wife if the Goodwin boys resembled the D'Autremonts. She thought they did.
    Neither of them had seen the Goodwin boys for three years nor knew where they were. They had been living then in Hanging Rock, Ohio. The Goodwin boys, Clarence and Edwin, known locally as the "Arkansas Twins," were working in a lumber mill there, and one of them had married a town girl. They were ordinary workmen, hadn't acted as if they were running away from trouble, and Collingsworth thought his one eye probably had tricked him. Still, there was that big reward, and if the Goodwins were all right, an investigation wouldn't hurt them.
    Too crippled to travel, he sent a friend to the postal inspector at Columbus. As a part of the order of the day, the official sent a deputy to Hanging Rock. The Goodwins had moved to Steubenville and were working in the steel mills. Not hard to trace. The inspector scanned their faces from a point of vantage and felt convinced that they were Roy and Ray D'Autremont. That evening, at Ray's cottage, police and postal men, in force, arrested them. They did not fight.
    Ray was the one who had married. As a family man he thought he was established in the community, safe from pursuit. Ohio had seemed far away from Oregon. He would have been safe a longer time, at least, except for the tie that bound him fast to his twin. The two had shaken off Hugh without compunction. but never had considered separation for themselves. Chicago had sheltered them for a time, though they never knew that Hugh had been there, and from Chicago they had gone to Detroit and then straight to Hanging Rock.
    They put on a bravado air after arrest, made no trouble for the officers, and admitted that they were the D'Autremont twins. They reached Jacksonville, Oregon, on the last day of Hugh's trial, and when they learned the verdict against him they offered a full confession. They entered pleas of guilty on June 23, 1927, and were sentenced to life imprisonment in Salem penitentiary. The D'Autremont brothers entered the prison gate together, and its clang shut them away from the world of free men.
    What had they cost the nation? It is doubtful if three more expensive youths were ever raised within its borders. Added to the outlay for their pursuit and capture were the irreparable loss of human life and the wreckage of the families of the dead.
    How had they come? By the road of undisciplined emotions, from a family broken by divorce, through towns and states that had felt no responsibility for them, into the hands of those who were willing enough to teach them to be enemies of society, and so onward to murder and to penalty.
The Elks Magazine, December 1931, pages 13+

Last revised February 3, 2024