Part II: The Burns gang’s ring-leaders and their eventual demise

By Brandon Hurley

Managing Editor

EDITOR’S NOTE: This marks the second part of a series on the notorious Burns gang, a crime syndicate who used the old coal town of Angus as their headquarters in the early 1900s. The group often robbed trains, stores and occasionally committed murder.

Perseverance was perhaps one of the Burns gang’s greatest qualities.

Their elusiveness could likely be credited to the widespread reach of the gang. They drew members from Iowa, of course, but also guys from New York, Denver, Minneapolis, Louisville, Kentucky and the Chicago area.

They resisted law enforcement’s repeated attempts to dissolve the crime syndicate, with massive gang arrests being made years apart. The struggle to contain the Burns gang only added to their mythical reign in Iowa.
It seemed as if law enforcement had trouble proving the Burns gang was actually involved in criminal activity, though they often arrested members of the crew on various charges. The gang was apparently quite skilled at either quickly selling the stolen items or knowing how to properly hide them from authorities.


Hattie Foote casually knitted as the Dallas County sheriff tore through her room
Sheriff Stcey was in search of goods he believed the former Jefferson resident had stolen.

Foote was confident no one could find her treasured items, believing she was too good of a criminal to get caught.

The year was 1919 and petty theft, popularized by the widespread Burns gang, was still the crime of choice. Despite her own reassurance, the sheriff eventually made his way to her bed posts where he carefully unscrewed the top of the brass post, revealing the loot. Foote was found in possession of several items of silk, silk shirts and other goods. She was immediately arrested and sent to a Des Moines detention center.
Her bond was set at $1,500 after initially coming in at $500 before a judge decided to raise it. Naturally, Foote bonded out with cold, hard cash, likely supplied from her previous illegal dealings. Officers were convinced her arrest would lead to vital information of the Burns gang, likely believing they could turn the former Greene County resident. By all indications, no other dominoes fell, though a few members continued to get apprehended as the years wore on.

While Foote was a minor cog in the massive Burns machine, it’s a telling tale of how easily citizens could get wrapped up in the theft ring and how difficult it was to pin down the syndicate with actual evidence.


The Burns gang typically stuck to small thievery, but similar to what shook the residents of Perry, they occasionally were involved in violent crimes. The gang was pegged for a murder a few hundred miles to the east in 1901. Several members were attempting to rob a bank in Chelsea, a few miles to the east of Tama. They first kidnapped a young man who had recently left a party, tying him up and gagging him. They then used him as their night watch, to keep an eye out for law enforcement.

As soon as they forced their way into the bank, a night guard appeared, sending the gang into a violent panic. A few gun shots later and the brave resident was killed. The gang members immediately departed, stealing a hand cart, fleeing west down the Northwestern train line, which they later abandoned to walk across the county line. The gang-bangers hopped on a Milwaukee train and headed east toward Van Horne, where all traces of the murderer’s were lost. Detectives were eventually able to trace the gang headquarters in Tama, where they consulted several of the members. The police discovered names of six different men, posting wanted messages all over the Midwest. It took two months before the group was arrested – and convicted – in Missouri.

The Burns gang wasn’t the brightest - nor the most covert - bunch, and they couldn’ quite stay away from crime for long, as the murderers robbed a bank in Camden Junction, Missouri a few months later. They quickly fled the town following the theft but were captured while crossing a bridge over the Missouri River near a town called Leavenworth. Officers were waiting for them to cross, and easily nabbed the criminals. The four men who were convicted were sentenced to eight years in prison.


Two of the gangs most highly-ranked members were suspected founder Thomas Burns as well as Silver Jim Edwards.
Burns was rumored to have led the gang through at least 1912, generally avoiding arrest for much of his reign.
Jim Edwards was the leader of the Burns syndicate which held headquarters in Tama.

Edwards wasn’t nearly as elusive as the previous ring-leader, landing himself in jail several different occasions. He was sentenced to a Nebraska prison when he was 63 after robbing a store in Boone County. He served four years before being transferred back to Iowa for a charge of shooting and killing a restaurant owner in Tama in 1913.

Edwards also served previous prison terms in Kansas, South Dakota and Missouri.
A man by the name of Pete Kelly, believed to be a member of the gang, was put on trial in 1912. He was eventually released due to there not being enough evidence to convict him for theft.


Local law enforcement tried their darndest to curtail the Burns gang, executing mass arrests a number of times throughout the years.

The earliest arrests arrived in 1904 when members of the gang were captured in Tama. The thieves were making noise on the local Milwaukee line, which led employees to rat them out. Six men in all were arrested on Nov. 12 that year, charged with a robbery in Wheatland 10 days prior. They were implicated in a shootout that had taken place in Tama as well, though no injuries were reported. Officers also believed each of the criminals provided fake names.
State officers initially thought they had dismantled the gang again in 1905 because they had captured the elusive Thomas Burns, leader of the gang, as a Perry Advertiser headline read “Tom Burns in Toils at Last.” Another headline, this one in the Des Moines Tribune read “Burns is taken to the pen.” The Iowa media thought the crime syndicate was done forever, writing “One of the greatest yegg gangs known in Iowa has been broken up.” Papers noted how it was the first time anyone had ever captured a picture of Burns, which was why it was so difficult to track him for many years.
Burns, along with two of his fellow gang members, were caught trying to steal from the Robinson Clothing Company in Perry. Burns was sentenced to serve prison time in Fort Madison. He was caught robbing a clothing store in Adel in November of 1905.

A few years passed until 14 men - along with Burns - were arrested in 1912 in Perry. Twelve of the gang members were arrested in Perry near the railroad line, though no suspicious items or money were found on any of the persons. The suspects told law enforcement they were in the railyard looking for work.

Officers arrested Burns and another gang member a few hours later. The Des Moines Tribune said officers believed the suspect had hidden their stolen goods and burglary tools prior to entering Perry.
The Burns gang didn’t stay down for long, as they were quite active in 1914, charged with blowing and robbing a safe Jan. 23 at the Panora post office. They broke in through the back door, cracking the safe by use of nitroglycerine, a product found in dynamite. The gang escaped with more than $100 in cash and were rumored to have fled in a stolen Milwaukee Railroad gasoline car. Unfortunately, a heavy snow fall blew through that night, covering any traceable tracks.

Several county sheriff’s from Dallas and Boone Counties as well as law enforcement in Des Moines executed a significant raid in 1914. Acting on a tip of the gang’s whereabouts, the officers arrested three members of the Burns gang in Angus, catching them as they ate dinner. They apprehended the suspects and searched the headquarters, uncovering several pairs of shoes, ladies clothing, grips and a “big,” Colt revolver.
Once again, this time a year later in 1915, court officials and law officers thought they had the Burns gang under wraps. A Cedar Rapids Gazette headline from the April 8, 1915 issue read “Judge Reed closes one of most notorious chapters in Iowa crime annals,” followed by a subhead that simply stated “Burns gang gone.”

Nine gang members were sentenced that day, with four of the crooks convicted of larceny of goods in interstate traffic. Five others pleaded guilty to stealing goods in interstate transit. Officials estimated the Burns gang had cost the local railroad companies roughly $3,000 in stolen goods in just an 18 month span. Officers were able to track down several items of stolen property to help support their case, including car tires, phonographs, clothing and fur coats while many more items were sold to unsuspecting residents.
These sweeping sentences were believed to silence the Burns gang forever, but as noted in the case with Foote in 1919 and several local robberies in Greene County in 1920, the crime syndicate was tough to keep quiet.


The Burns gang is perhaps one of Iowa’s most successful and corrupted gangs, terrifying much of the state for several decades. They eventually fizzled out - likely to old age and various arrests - but not before stealing and murdering their way into the history books. Edwards would not give up easily. He was charged with murder in 1931 at the age of 63, though he was found not guilty by a grand jury, saying they could not find enough sufficient evidence to convict him. Despite this narrow escape, Edwards refused to stop his illegal ways, robbing a jewelry store in Perry in 1932 at the age of 70. He first gave a fake name of James Martin to law enforcement, saying he just “drifted in” from Texas before later admitting to being “Silver” Jim Edwards of Burns gang fame.

That 1932 arrest is the last known remnant of the notorious Burns gang.

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