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How An Ashland Train Robbery Helped Establish Forensic Science

OPB | Jan. 10, 2014 12:35 p.m. | Updated: Jan. 10, 2014 1:46 p.m.

The criminals dynamited the mail car on the train in order to gain access. They may have also accidentally incinerated the valuables they were after.

The criminals dynamited the mail car on the train in order to gain access. They may have also accidentally incinerated the valuables they were after.

On October 11, 1923, three brothers climbed aboard the Southern Pacific train #13 as it was stopped on the Siskiyou Pass just south of Ashland, Oregon. When the train entered a tunnel, the brothers held the engineer at gunpoint and entered the mail car, where they believed something of value was being kept. Whether or not the brothers found what they were looking for remains unknown, but by the time they fled the train, they had killed four men.

Law enforcement officials in the area were stumped by the case, so they enlisted a chemist working at the University of California at Berkeley who was pioneering a new field of study: forensic science. The professor, Edward Oscar Heinrich, made some incredible discoveries from a pair of overalls found at a camp near the scene:

“From a microscopic examination of the dust, hair, and fibers collected from the pockets, chemical analysis of the stains on the garment, and a study of the set of his garment induced by wear, I am of the opinion that the wearer and owner was a lumber jack employed in a fir or spruce logging camp…a white man not over five feet ten inches tall, probably shorter; weight not over 165 pounds, probably less. Age between 21 and 25. When in city clothes he is a careful dresser, neat in appearance, has medium light brown hair, complexion fair; has light brown eyebrows; well developed and small hand and feet.

This work led to the identification of the criminals as brothers Roy, Ray, and Hugh DeAutremont, and, after an extensive manhunt, they were apprehended. Perhaps more significantly, the work also established forensic science as a new and powerful approach to solving crimes, and crime labs began to spring up around the country.

GUEST:

  • Ed Espinoza: Deputy director of the National Fish and Wildlife Forensic Lab

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