Almost as long as there have been trains, there have been train robberies.
It was 104 years ago when a young Pensacola bank teller walked away with the present-day sum of more than $1.6 million in cash in what was undoubtedly one of the most daring — and among the most foolheartedly — robberies in the southern United States during the early 20th century.
The story of how 20-year-old bank clerk William H. Bell took off with that amount of cash, however, isn’t quite the “Wild West” story you might expect.
By 1912, the young bank clerk had been in the employ of Pensacola’s prominent First National Bank for two years. On the evening of September 15, he made a bogus package — similar in shape and size to the payroll package of money — filled with magazine slips.
On Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 17, when the payroll of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad’s regional district was being fixed for shipment to Flomaton in nearby Alabama, Bell slipped the package containing $55,000 — equivalent to nearly $2 million today — into his locker at the bank and substituted a package of magazines in its place.
That evening, after his shift at the bank ended, Bell took the package of money, stuffed it into a suitcase, and rode the streetcar to his home just blocks away.
According to the testimony of local bank officials after the robbery, no one noticed the swap of the money and the paper. The bogus package — together with a shipment of $20,000 — was taken to the Southern Express office behind the county courthouse where it would wait for delivery to Flomaton the following day.
When the robbery became known, however, police detectives and railroad officials from New Orleans launched a rigorous investigation. Bell felt a deep and immediate sense of regret, and feared police might suspect his brother instead of him.
In what was undoubtedly a change of heart come too late, Bell wrapped the package in a newspaper and after notifying the cashier of the First National Bank where the missing money would be found, he placed it on the back steps of the bank building.
The cashier at the bank disregarded the anonymous telephone message, playing it off as a ridiculous prank. Several hours later, though, the cash-filled package was found by a janitor on the back steps of the bank on South Palafox Street.
Bell later pleaded guilty to what is considered the largest robbery in the history of the city. On account of his young age and his remorse over his recent thievery, a judge sentenced Bell to two years in a federal reform school in Washington D.C.