An obscure desperado emerges from the dungeon in a lively work of pop history.
On September 29, 1891, the American Express Special, bound from Albany, New York, was robbed Wild West style: as the train neared Utica, a gunman removed a door panel, squeezed through, fired a shot, and relieved a surprised clerk of money and jewelry. He then “wriggled, one foot at a time, back through the floor and . . . disappeared without a trace.” Suitably annoyed, American Express and the railroad called out the gendarmes, writes British historian Spargo (Liverpool John Moores University), and William Pinkerton himself joined the chase. Yet it was only more than four months later that his pursuers caught up with badman Oliver Curtis Perry—after he tried to rob the same train again. “Why had he done it?” Spargo wonders, and though she never quite answers that question, she paints a thorough portrait of a man who was both quite brilliant—he conducted his own defense at his trial, “playing word-games and chopping logic with the witnesses just like a real lawyer,” and was a voracious reader—and quite troubled and troubling, as a succession of wardens and fellow inmates would discover. After years of captivity, Perry blinded himself with a pair of nails, perhaps as a bid to be released from prison. “Far from winning the Governor’s sympathy,” writes Spargo, “his act condemned him as hopelessly insane.” Indeed, and it didn’t work. Spargo sometimes lays it on a little thick, as when she recalls pondering whether to swipe a worn image of Perry from the Library of Congress: “Because he was an outlaw and I was an academic, stealing his photograph would have somehow connected us. Leaving it in the folder felt like a betrayal, a confirmation that we were separated by more than time.”
But that wannabe Etta Place episode and a few other lapses aside: an impressive bit of scholarly detective work, and good fun for true-crime buffs.