The notorious law-breaking, almost mythical Burns gang set up shop in Angus
By BRANDON HURLEY
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part series detailing the rise and fall of the Burns gang, a group of men - and women - who terrorized local stores, train cars and homes. The second installment can be found in next week’s Jefferson Herald.
The putrid smell slithered its way into Liddie Cave’s home with each gust of Iowa’s late summer breeze, quickly disrupting her brief moment of relaxation.
She had just returned to her place along Pattee Street in Perry in an upbeat mood, all things considered, following the conclusion of her 10-day trip. She reveled in the comfort of her home, opening the windows to hopefully enjoy the beauty of Aug. 15, 1904, some 118 years ago.
Unmistakably, the pungent odor would not dissipate. She at first thought it must be rotting chickens, but the smell was much too rancid.
Outside, her young son was mowing the lawn, and stumbled upon an eight-foot tall patch of weeds near the rear of the Cave’s lot, adjacent to the railroad tracks which rose 15-feet above. The youngster needed help, and called on his mother.
Liddie joined in an effort to trim the weeds, venturing underneath a gang of large Willow trees sitting at the foot of the railroad track embankment, which bordered Lucinda Street.
As they got closer, the awful scent grew stronger. Her son noticed it first as he separated the weeds, a large figure burrowed under the dirt.
“Mama, it’s a dead dog,” he said.
“No, it’s a dead body,” Liddie said.
THE BURNS GANG ARISES
Not long after Angus’ demise did trouble move in. The stories were endless.
The infamous Burns gang was a dangerous lot of 15-20 men in the early 1900s who took up shack on the outskirts of town in an abandoned home. Members of the Burns gang were widely-known as thieves, typically robbing train cars along the Milwaukee and Northwestern train lines. They were often hard to pin down by law enforcement, usually dressed as dirty, unkempt persons to throw off suspicions, allowing them to run rampant well into the 1920s - an impressive multi-decade run.
The desolate lay of Angus was the gang’s winter headquarters, a town which once was a thriving coal community of more than 7,000, home to multiple banks and stores - thriving at the start of the1880s into the early 1890s. Angus in the early 1900s was a far cry from its heyday. When the coal mines dried up so did the population, dwindling to less than 500 residents by the turn of the century. The town quickly transformed into a suitable hideout for tramps, thieves and thugs – with its various mine shafts and abandoned buildings providing perfect cover. As houses were demolished in the early part of the 20th century, potential living quarters diminished quickly. The demolitions were plotted in an effort to deter the “hiding and breeding place for criminals and their crimes,” a 1902 report in the Perry Chief said.
Everyone had a Burns story, and most were aware of the gang and how they operated. Simply stay out of their way and they were likely to leave one be, typically. The Burns gang generally left Angus and the immediate surrounding area of Perry and Jefferson relatively at peace, instead choosing to illegally sell off their stolen goods at bargain prices to the locals.
Several of the Burns gang also operated as safe blowers, or “Yeggman.” Choosing the way of a yeggman was a daring - but often rewarding - move in the early 1900s, often bringing riches in addition constant ridicule and scuffles with the law.
“The yeggman travels alone, wears stout overalls, a heavy jumper and a soft cap, ready to drop down for a sleep in any place, to put up a fight, to make his escape from a pursuer, or to commit almost any sort of a crime,” an account in the Dec. 21, 1905 Bee said. “In cold weather he does not wear an overcoat but adds to his dress simply by donning a greater number of shirts or putting on heavier underclothing.”
The yeggman typically zeroed in on safes at banks and post offices.
Though they mostly stuck to train robberies, the gang would occasionally ransack homes and hold up citizens at gun point. They were difficult to track down, operating in several communities throughout Iowa, stretching from Council Bluffs to the Cedar Rapids area. The members were also known as heavy drinkers, and often spent time in Perry’s bars. And though various gang members were arrested on several different occasions, often leading locals to believe they were done for good, they’d always manage to bounce back, causing even more of a stir.
The Burns gang created such statewide and regional headaches that several police departments attempted to derail the group from the inside, enlisting a number of undercover operations.
One of Perry’s most grotesque murders was the doings of this same Burns gang, a ruckus which intimidated and terrified much of Greene County and the surrounding areas for several decades.
A MURDER ROCKS PERRY
The Aug. 23, 1904 edition of the Perry Advertiser dubbed the Cave’s shocking discovery the most “gruesome find ever made within the city limits of Perry.”
Detectives initially believed the body was of a tramp, or a homeless transient, and reported the person had been murdered via blunt force trauma to the head. Investigators said the death blow was delivered from behind by a rock.
Hundreds of Perry residents flocked to the murder scene in 1904, interested in what indeed had happened. The details were vivid in the Perry Chief, the reporter re-imagined the scene with surgical precision.
The skull - void of any flesh due to animals having eaten away the skin - was crushed by the impact of a heavy, blunt instrument - causing a fracture which extended over the ear to the deceased man’s cheek. The nose was also broken, and only a few stray hairs and clotted blood remained. The eyes and ears had also been eaten, maggots quickly latched onto the flesh.
The decomposing body was accompanied by dark clothes, black with stripes. He was wearing a black cat, and size seven lace shoes. His pockets contained a Rand & McNally map of Iowa (a giveaway to his transient and likely Burns gang lifestyle), blank writing paper, two, red handkerchiefs in his pocket, a pair of socks, a small looking glass, as well as a copy of the August edition of “Home Life,” a Chicago magazine. They also found a strip of the July 27 edition of the Des Moines Tribune in the sweat band of his hat.
Dr. E.R. Aiken, who conducted the autopsy, as told during the trial, believed the man weighed 145 pounds and stood five feet, eight inches tall between the ages of 25-28 years old.
His body was so badly decomposed - detectives say he’d been rotting for at least 10 days – they couldn’t properly identify the person. Detectives, according to the Perry Chief, believe the body was dragged to resting spot under the willow trees by the heels. Investigators say the victim struggled, proven by a ripped shirt and pants.
The Burns gang was no stranger to scuffles and law enforcement’s ire, and very few were surprised as to who was responsible for the grotesque crime.
GANG PREYS ON RAIL CARS
The Burns gang were a sneaky bunch, preying on unattended train cars as well as general stores for many years all throughout Iowa and the Midwest. It’s estimated they stole more than $10,000 worth of goods, which they re-sold at a lower price, often to unsuspecting customers, though many residents, who were aware of their official dealings, still bought from them. The gang knew to flee quickly when the pressure was the hottest. Robbing trains was simple - the thieves were usually long gone by the time conductors were able to take inventory at the next stop.
The gang’s other place of headquarters was in Tama in east-central Iowa.
The Milwaukee railroad, frustrated with the gang’s impact on their business, enacted a law in 1904, making it a fireable offense for any railroad employee to purchase goods from tramps or thieves. The restriction, as reported in the June 14, 1904 issue of the Perry Advertiser, was an effort to stifle the Burns gang.
“It means they will be robbed of the market for their goods and must go to other fields to dispose of their ill gotten plunder,” the proclamation read.
Milwaukee Railroad claimed many of their employees were regular customers of the burns gang, who sold their goods for significantly cheaper prices than the going rate. The railroad company approached the Perry city council to pass a vagrant ordinance to punish any prospective gang members, sentencing them to 30 to 60 days in jail. Company detectives were enlisted to guard the train cars in Perry.
The gang, of course, didn’t solely stick to train cars, and they didn’t always leave locals alone.
The Burns gang was accused of robbing the Oblinger and Grubb clothing store in Scranton in 1920. A total of more than $2,500 of goods were stolen overnight. The thieves swung by the store in a car around 2 a.m. one morning, snatched a bunch of pristine clothing - mainly suits and haberdashery - and departed without leaving a trace. The store owners offered a $250 reward for the arrest of the thieves, who officers believed were members of the Burns gang.
The gang was quite active in 1920, some 20 years after their initial inception, decimating businesses in both Boone and Greene County. They robbed the W.S. Grant & Son General Store in Paton, stealing $500 worth of silks and ladies apparel while they also looted 16 railcars in Madrid. The pair of crimes were executed within days of each other in August of that year. They were seen using a single automobile in Paton, barreling into town before quickly departing, heading toward Des Moines. Another store also owned by Oblinger was also robbed in Grand Junction the summer prior and was linked to the gang, as simiilar goods were taken in the same manner in the middle of the night.
The gang’s confidence was startling, a newspaper account recalled.
“The crooks seem to go back again and again in the same territory without fear of capture,” an Aug. 8, 1920 newspaper story reads. “The methods are always the same, and the thieves seem well acquainted with central Iowa.”
MURDER INVESTIGATION BEGINS
Cave said there was no lingering smell when she left Perry for her trip on Aug. 5, nor had she seen any strange men on her property.
Initially, residents believed the dead body was that of John Adkins of Dawson, who went on a trip three weeks prior but never returned. Others thought it was a local baker. The “accepted” theory among residents, was the man was a member of the Burns gang, and may have perished thanks to a scuffle he allegedly started at a bar in Perry.
A fight had broken out on Aug. 9 between members of the Burns gang. Roughly six gang members, an eye witness said, were in Perry at a local “booze joint” owned by a man named Schreck. The fight erupted when one of the smaller men - who detectives believe was the deceased body - threw a glass at another man seated at a nearby table, shattering against his temple, causing him to bleed profusely.
The bleeding man, who was later identified as Bob, after exchanging a few profane pleasantries, tossed a pair of salt shakers and a snack bowl at the other man, telling him to “throw these at me, too,” as recounted in the Perry Chief.
No one quite knew why the men started arguing and causing a ruckus, but it eventually led to Bob lifting a chair above his head, making his way toward the original offender. This caused the smaller man to pull out a long, bladed knife, taking aim at Bob.
The scuffle set the entire gang off, as a member known as “Slim” pulled a gun from his waistband and pointed it at the man who threw the glass. A bar patron then got involved, using a beer bottle as a weapon to help diffuse the situation. Schreck, the owner, then told the gang members to get out, and if they they wanted to continue, they must battle outside in the alley.
The men seemingly went their separate ways after leaving the bar. At some point later that night, the smattering of Burns gang members reconvened near the train yard at Lucinda Street and Pattee Street, where another fight erupted. The initial blow was a bone-crunching punch to the now dead man’s nose, as uncovered by the coroner. Detectives believe the hit knocked the man off his feet and he rolled down an embankment near the tracks, sending his hat and money from his pocket flying. Witness testimonies from Rowene Wilcox and Viola Pickett both said they heard three gunshots around dusk on Aug. 9 coming from the rail-yard, though no bullet wounds were found on the dead body. Details of the scuffle came forth rather quickly. Pickett said she also noticed the rancid stench of the body a few days later. A member of the Rock Island Railroad Company discovered a home made, leather holster and within it was a revolver.
The death blow was believed to have occurred at the bottom of the hill, from a stone wrapped in a handkerchief. The case went to trial - which was covered heavily by the Perry media - and though they never figured out who the body belonged to, the jury determined the man was murdered, at the hands of the Burns gang.
Angus residents said the Burns gang members kept odd hours, often coming and going at all times of the day and night. They generally kept to themselves, never interacting with other residents. Though, as some residents reported in a 1912 edition of the Perry Chief, they’d throw large banquets in honor of of the returning members - likely after pulling off a large robbery unscathed - celebrations which often included several kegs of beer.
One of these infamous parties occurred shortly after a trio of reported robberies in Dedham and Portsmouth as well as a bank theft in Perry.
The Burns gang typically sold varying goods to Angus residents, highlighted by silk, gold, watches, shoes and clothing. They usually approached prospective buyers without making much commotion, allowing them to stay under the radar.
In next week’s Jefferson Herald, former gang ring-leaders Thomas Burns and “Silver Jim” Edwards will be introduced, as readers learn even more about the group’s far-reaching impact.