the daring acts of a smiling bandit

Roy G. Gardner (1884 – 1940) was once America’s most infamous prison escapee.

image found here

He was the most dangerous inmate in the history of Atlanta Prison and was dubbed by newsmen the “Smiling Bandit”, the “Mail Train Bandit”, and the “King of the Escape Artists”. He was said to be attractive and charming, standing just under six feet tall, with short, curly auburn hair and blue eyes.

red haired David Wenham found here

Gardner began his criminal profession as a gunrunner around the time of the Mexican Revolution. He smuggled and traded arms to the Venustiano Carranza forces until he was captured by soldiers from Huerta’s army and was sentenced to death by firing squad, but, on March 29, 1909, he broke out of the Mexico City jail along with three other American prisoners after attacking the guards.

Mexican revolutionaries found here

Eventually, Gardner ended up in San Francisco, where he robbed a jewelry store. He was arrested, and spent some time in San Quentin, but was paroled after saving a prison guard’s life during a violent riot. Gardner landed a job as an acetylene welder at the Mare Island Navy Yard, married, fathered a daughter, and began his own welding company. 

San Quentin prisoners found here

Gardner then gambled all of his money away on a business trip in Tijuana at the racetracks. On the night of April 16, 1920, Gardner robbed a U. S. Mail truck of about $80,000 in cash and securities. The job went smoothly, but the outlaw was arrested three days later burying his loot.  He was sentenced to 25 years at McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary but vowed he would never serve the sentence. As he was transported on a train with Deputy U. S. Marshals Cavanaugh and Haig, Gardner peered out of the window and yelled, “Look at that deer!”. The lawmen looked, and Gardner grabbed Marshal Haig’s gun from his holster. He then disarmed Marshal Cavanaugh at gunpoint. The outlaw handcuffed the two humiliated lawmen together and stole $200. He jumped off the train, and made his way to Canada.

Muntjac deer found here

He slipped back into the United States the next year, and started robbing banks and mail trains across the country. Gardner tied up the mail clerk to Train No. 10 eastbound from Sacramento and robbed the express car of $187,000 on May 19, 1921. The next morning, Gardner told the mail clerk of Train No. 20 to throw up his hands or he would blow his head off. When the train reached the Overland Limited, the elusive bandit darted down the tracks with an armful of mail. 

image found here

Gardner was recognized at the Porter House Hotel and a convoy of police arrived in Roseville . Three federal agents captured him while he was playing a game of cards in a pool hall and he was sentenced to another 25 years at McNeil Island for armed robbery.

Trying to reduce his sentence he told Southern Pacific Railroad detectives that he would lead them to the spot where he buried his loot. The officers found nothing, and Gardner announced, “I guess I have forgotten where I buried it”. He was heavily shackled, with the addition of an “Oregon Boot”, and was once again transported on a train to McNeil Island, this time by U. S. Marshals Mulhall and Rinkell, both fast shooting veterans. During the journey, Gardner asked to use the bathroom, in which an associate had earlier hidden a .32 caliber pistol. Gardner came out of the bathroom, pointed the gun at Mulhall’s protruding pouch, and ordered another prisoner to handcuff the two humiliated lawmen to the seat. He relieved the officers of their weapons and cash before hopping onto another moving train.

Oregon boot found here

He arrived in Centralia, Washington, where he plastered his face with bandages to hide his identity, leaving one eye slit. Gardner told the Oxford Hotel staff that he had been severely burned in an industrial accident near Tacoma. Officer Louis Sonney became suspicious of the bandaged man, and when he saw a firearm in Gardner’s hotel room, he accused him of being the “Smiling Bandit”. Gardner fought back, but was arrested and a doctor removed the bandages to show that he was indeed the notorious train robber. This time Gardner, who was sentenced to another 25 years, was heavily ironed, and finally brought to McNeil Island.

Bandaged Berlusconi found here

After six weeks at the penitentiary, Gardner had convinced two other prisoners, Lawardus Bogart and Everett Impyn, that he had “paid off” the guards in the towers. On Labor Day, 1921, at a prison baseball game, they ran 300 yards to the high barbed wire fence where Gardner cut a hole, and the three men made it to the pasture as bullets whirled about their heads. Gardner was wounded in his left leg, but hid behind a herd of cattle. About the same time, he saw Bogart fall, badly wounded. Impyn was shot dead; his dying words were, “Gardner told us those fellows in the towers couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn“.

image found here

Guards scoured the beaches and confiscated every boat on the shoreline, but no trace of the dangerous outlaw could be found. Gardner lived in the prison barn, getting nutrition from cow’s milk, and then swam the choppy waters to Fox Island where he lived off fruit in the orchards. Roy Gardner was now the “Most Wanted” criminal, and committed several crimes in Arizona before he was captured by a mail clerk during a train robbery in Phoenix in 1921. He was sentenced to an additional 25 years, this time at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. Headlines screamed, “Gangster Gardner brags, ‘Leavenworth will never hold me'”.

image found here

In 1926, he tried to tunnel under the wall and saw through the bars in the shoe shop. The following year, he led a prison break and attempted an armed escape with two revolvers holding the Captain and two guards hostage, but the escape failed. In 1934 he was transferred to Alcatraz. While at Alcatraz, his wife divorced him. Gardner was paroled and released in 1938 after his appeal for clemency was approved.

On the evening of January 10, 1940, Garder wrote four notes at his hotel room in San Francisco, one of which was attached to the door warning: “Do not open door. Poison gas. Call police.” He sealed the door from the inside, then killed himself by dropping cyanide gas into a glass of acid and inhaling the poison fumes. 

“Please let me down as light as possible, boys,” Gardner wrote in a letter to newsmen. “I have played ball with you all the way, and now you should pitch me a slow one and let me hit it.”

Published in: on February 11, 2012 at 8:48 am  Comments (49)  
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49 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “Look at that deer!”

    Fancy falling for that old ruse….

    • I think he might actually have shouted “Look at that, Dear!” and the guards didn’t know which of them he was referring to.

      • I think it was Haigh

  2. …and in that pic Berlusconi bears an uncanny resemblance to Yul Brynner in Westworld.

    • I hadn’t notice that before but you’re right – he does!

  3. Fancy getting parole from Alcatraz after all those repeated 25 years sentences! That’s taking a beleif in rehabilitation seriously.

    • There’s a documentary called Mau Mau Sex Sex featuring an interview with him promising to reform.

      • Mau Mau Sex Sex?! If it were anyone else, I’d think you were pulling my leg 🙂

  4. What a strange way to end a fascinating life.

    • a lot of guys who’ve served long prison sentences can’t make it on the outside

  5. Another great story – and loved that house xxx

  6. If he did get into heaven the fool would try to break out of there too.

  7. The picture of the house is so cool.

    At least he was considerate enough to warn people about his poison gas room.

    • Yes, he definitely had some good points

  8. Today he would be diagnosed with Oppositional defiant disorder. ODD
    a medical illness and then be shackled from the inside with “medications” instead of metal + chains.
    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même.The more things change, the more they remain the same.

  9. It seems to me that once you have a lot of money, especially hot money, sitting down to play cards is a bad idea. Maybe he should have stayed away from mail trains too.

    I also loved the cantilevered house. so cool.

  10. Some have the fire inside.

    • Yes they do. It makes for an interesting personality

  11. he never killed anyone. that was pretty sporting of him… maybe that’s why his wife waited so long to divorce him.

    • I was wondering what took her so long.

  12. All those “additional 25 years” – the man was addicted to robbery & skilled at escaping. Got to admire his tenaciousness and numerous successes – and the fact he was quite considerate as to his suicide. (I was hoping this story would have a happy ending…)

    • there’s only a 50/50 chance of a happy ending at the Gimcrack Beth

  13. Yeah, that cyanide self-execution was so much the Hollywood ending, no?

    Wonder what became of his children.

    • I think he only had one daughter. He asked the press not to make a big deal about his death because she was married and her in laws didn’t know about him.

  14. So presumably he managed to get free of the Oregon Boot before he jumped off the McNeil Island train?

    • I’m thinking so too.

  15. well, no one could call him a quitter.

    • He was pretty single minded about it.

  16. Fascinating post. In some ways it reminds me of Edwin Boyd (Canada). What strikes me is how the circumstances of history can propel a person, with the right combination, of talent and personality, towards a path that will inevitably clash with society.

    • I haven’t heard of Edwin Boyd, will need to look him up.

  17. His having escaped so many times (along with the fact he never killed anyone) makes the ending seem even sadder to me…

  18. He should have worn one of those all concealing mask like the “Lone Ranger, or “Batman and Robin”..No one would have suspected a thing…

  19. I always wanted to be a Lady Gardner.

  20. Quite a guy. And he WAS handsome, although he made a mistake hiring that photographer

  21. We had a muntjac near work (note the past tense). They’re not good in traffic.

  22. Another great story. Don’t you want to root for some villains

  23. All that time trying to break out of jail, and then once he’s finally, he kills himself?

  24. He may not have killed anyone directly, but I think he bears some part of the blame for that one prisoner’s death, especially if he lied and said he’d paid off the guards.

  25. he had no other choice but to run. but i don’t get the suicide though.

  26. Wennie’s looking pretty hit there 😉

  27. That should be ‘hot’ 🙂

    • I knew what you meant. and yes, HOT indeed!

  28. He still managed to get parole after all this?

  29. So what is that? 100 years in prison? Seriously, security in those days must have really sucked.

  30. you know i love these stories of rogue, scoundrels and savants. Roy was a gem.

  31. That’s an amazing story. “Look at that deer!” worked only because they didn’t have Goodyear blimps at the time.

  32. Thank you for reinforcing that all notorious crimes eventually lead to Arizona.

  33. Also, how did you know that David Wenham with his airbrushed abs was one of my favorites?

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