The Canadian Depot robbery

Books | The consequences of a perfect crime gone wrong
by John R. Erickson
Posted 10/12/20, 06:13 pm

Many of our readers have told us how much they appreciate the writings of John R. Erickson, the author of the popular Hank the Cowdog series of children’s books. Over the past few months, thanks to the University of North Texas Press, WORLD has published as part of our Saturday Series chapters from his Through Time and the Valley. The book, first published in 1978, recounts Erickson’s journey in 1972 on horseback through the Texas Panhandle’s isolated Canadian River valley. Along the way, he and a friend attempt to piece together the history of the region, with its lore and abundance of colorful characters. We hope you enjoy our selections from their journey, including our installments from July, August, and September. —Mickey McLean

George Isaacs had three brothers who settled in Hemphill County and became landowners and respected citizens. But somehow things had never worked out right for George. At the time his brothers had been settling on land, he had been over in Randall County cowboying for the T Anchor Ranch. That had been a good life, an exciting life, and he had worked his way up to a responsible position on the T Anchor. But when the time came for him to think about marrying and settling down, he discovered that all the good land in the Panhandle had already been bought up. He envied the prosperity and solid respectability of his brothers and told himself that they had just been lucky. Good judgment and hard work might have come closer to explaining their success, but George couldn’t bring himself to admit that, since it would have carried with it an implicit criticism of himself. George had never been blessed with good judgment, but instead of admitting it, he went on compounding mistakes with more mistakes and explaining the world in terms of good and bad luck.

By the year 1896 when the story opens, he had taken a wife, sired several children, and acquired a little hardscrabble farm in Indian Territory. He was tired of farming and pressed for money. As usual, he found an explanation outside himself: the country was sorry, the drought had bitten him, the grasshoppers had singled his crops out for destruction, he’d just suffered a run of bad luck, that was all. With a little time and some quick cash, he could get ahead of the game.

Before Indian Territory became the state of Oklahoma, it was a refuge for outlaws, from cattle rustlers and horse thieves to train robbers and bank robbers. It drew a restless breed of men who could appreciate George Isaacs’s quick-cash-and-get-ahead view of the world. George himself was not an outlaw, and left to himself he might never have gotten into serious trouble. But stripped of the niceties of rhetoric, his philosophy of life and that of the outlaws differed only slightly, and that was primarily in the fact that George confined himself to carping about his bad luck, while the outlaws were more inclined to do something about theirs.

George had never been blessed with good judgment, but instead of admitting it, he went on compounding mistakes with more mistakes and explaining the world in terms of good and bad luck.

So, perhaps it was inevitable that the two finally found each other. One night two men named Jim Stanley and Bill Doolen appeared on the front porch of the Isaacs house and said they had something to talk over with George. We might imagine that George was hesitant at first. He didn’t know these men and he didn’t particularly like their looks. But he was the kind of man who was al­ ways looking for auguries that would signal the beginning of his good fortune, and he simply couldn’t deny fate the chance of finding him.

Stanley and Doolen outlined their plan. Suppose a man shipped some cattle to Kansas City and sold them for, say, $500. Now, if a man was careful, he wouldn’t carry that kind of money on his return trip; he’d deposit it at the express company office and let them transport it home in a guarded express car. And if the train happened to be robbed, he could always get his money out of the express company. That was the normal way of doing business. Smart cattlemen did it all the time. But just suppose a man had told the express company that he was shipping $25,000 instead of $500; if the train were robbed, he would get $25,000 back. Now, that was a quick and easy way of making money without hurting anyone but the express company, and they were big enough to absorb the loss.

George must have thought this was the perfect crime. His part was easy. All he had to do was deposit the money with the express company and collect on the loss. Stanley and Doolen would rob the train, and they assured him there would be no bloodshed. There was no way it couldn’t work.

In subsequent meetings the details of the crime were firmed up. Around the twentieth of November, George would ship a small number of cattle to the Kansas City market, enough to bring about $500. The money would be sent by express to Canadian and George would ride the same train. Canadian was chosen for several rea­ sons. A small town, it had only one sheriff; it was far enough away from their home base in Indian Territory to confuse the authorities; yet it was close enough to the state line so that the robbers could escape Texas law. Furthermore, George had family living there, which not only gave him a convenient excuse for going there, but also a place to hide in case something went wrong.

George must have thought this was the perfect crime.

In Kansas City, George sold the cattle to a commission company, cashed the check for $500, and checked into a hotel for the night. After locking the door behind him and pulling down the shades, he laid out five stacks of paper strips, the size of a currency bill, and on top of each stack he placed a few ten-dollar bills. Then he put each stack in a box, wrapped and sealed it, and marked “$5,000” on the outside of each. The next morning he deposited the “$25,000” at the express company office. The teller did not count the money because he recognized the name Isaacs. Apparently he had done business with George’s brothers and knew that they were reputable cattlemen.

George and the money rode the same train to Canadian, and when it stopped at the station he hurried away and checked in at the hotel in town. We might imagine that as he signed his name in the guest register, he heard gunshots echoing up the street.

Jim Stanley had ridden into town that evening with three men: Jim Harbolt, Bill Doolen, and Tulsey Jack Blake. A woman had seen them down by the stockyards and had reported it to Sheriff Tom McGee, who had already been notified that a large shipment of cash was coming in on the train. Concerned about the report of strangers lurking down by the stockyards, he went to the station to investigate. What happened then is not clear, but Sheriff McGee was shot dead and the robbery was aborted. The robbers made a run for their horses and galloped out of town. Late that night Hugh Burton, a horse wrangler for the Laurel Leaf Ranch, was awakened by four men. They said they were going to trade their jaded horses for four fresh ones from the remuda. Burton saw that they were armed and did not try to stop them. The men saddled the fresh horses and rode on east to the state line.

The next day the whole town of Canadian was buzzing with the story of Tom McGee’s murder. At nine o’clock in the morning the commissioners’ court held a special meeting to examine the contents of the packages that had come in with the express shipment. When they discovered the phony paper inside, they ordered the arrest of George Isaacs on a charge of murder. The trial was held in Hardeman County in the district court of Judge J. M. Standlee. Under an indictment for murder, George Isaacs was charged with one count as principal and one count as accomplice. The jury found him guilty. Attorneys for the defense filed some fifty bills of exception and assignments of error in the record, and the case was taken to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. After studying the record and the bills of exception, Justice Hurt upheld the conviction. George Isaacs went to the state penitentiary to serve a life sentence.1

But George wasn’t finished yet. After serving two weeks of his life sentence, he was freed on a pardon signed in the governor’s hand—only the governor hadn’t signed it. The document was a forgery. It wasn’t discovered until a month later, and although the governor was furious and demanded that the prisoner be brought to justice, by that time George had fled to Arizona territory.

Who forged the pardon? Almost a year to the day after John Isaacs told us this story, I received a letter from a man named Clyde Hodges, a farmer in Roberts County who had heard of my interest in the Canadian Depot Robbery. “I can tell you the man’s name who went to the prison and forged the governor’s name and got George Isaacs out of the pen,” he wrote. “It was my dad’s cousin Billy Washington. I have heard my dad, the late George Hodges, tell about what Billy told him many times.” A few days later I drove out to the Hodges place west of Miami and listened to the story of Billy Washington.

On July 31, 1949, the Daily Oklahoman ran an article on an old house in Marietta, Oklahoma, which it called one of the most unusual homes in the state. The house was built in 1888 by William E. Washington, “one of the fabulous cattle kings of pre-statehood days in the Chickasaw Indian nation.” Washington, the article said, “was a combination of the often ruthless, sometimes softhearted men of an era when you got all the grassland you could take and hold.” He was married to a full-blooded Chickasaw Indian woman and started his empire on Indian lands. Controlling a huge spread, he employed as many as a hundred cowboys and laborers and paid them in his own paper and pewter currency, which was negotiable in stores and commissaries on the ranch. In 1886 Washington began construction of the house in Marietta, which took two years to build and cost $50,000, an enormous sum of money for the times. It contained beautifully inlaid hardwood floors, speaking tubes in every room, and walls filled with gravel to a height of six feet.

Such a man could never enjoy a quiet evening in a house with thin walls.

The gravel in the walls was not insulation, but to prevent some­ one from shooting into the house. Billy Washington had acquired a fortune in land and cattle, and in the process had made a number of enemies. It was said that he killed several men in his lifetime, one of whom he shot in the throat at the railroad depot in El Reno, Oklahoma. Until the day he died, Billy carried a .45 pistol in a cloth scabbard sewed on the inside of his pants. Such a man could never enjoy a quiet evening in a house with thin walls.

I don’t know exactly how or why Billy Washington became involved in the misfortunes of George Isaacs. It is possible that he knew George in Indian Territory and was involved in the Canadian Depot Robbery from the very beginning, and that he forged Isaacs’s pardon to get him out of the country before he revealed too much. This would make a fine story, but unfortunately there is no proof that it happened this way. It is more likely that by 1896 he had lost his fortune and was in need of money. One way or another he arranged with the Isaacs family to forge the pardon for a price. Billy Washington was a millionaire at the age of thirty-eight, and he made and lost a fortune three times during his life. From Oklahoma he moved to Carlsbad, New Mexico, where he established another large ranch and built another palatial mansion. But there his fortunes declined again. Enemies burned down his house and he lost all but his two-hundred-acre homestead. In the late 1940s he died in poverty, leaving his Indian wife to live in a mud house amid the desolation of the New Mexico desert. Shortly after Billy’s death, the roof of the house caved in and buried her.

And what about George Isaacs? One day many years after the Canadian Depot Robbery, George’s son happened to be in San Antonio. As he walked down the street, he met a ruined old man, his father, who had never returned to his family in Oklahoma. He gave the old man a twenty-dollar bill and went on. Here the books close on George Isaacs, as he was never seen or heard from again.

Excerpted from John R. Erickson., Through Time and the Valley (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1995). Copyright 1995 by John R. Erickson. Reprinted by permission.

ENDNOTES

1. Justice Hurt’s opinion on Isaacs v. State appears in Southwestern Reporter, vol. 38, pp. 40-43. (This is a law book, not a magazine, and can be found only in a legal library.) It contains a good factual account of the Canadian Depot Robbery.

John R. Erickson

John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.

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