The Grey Fox
Bill Miner, the man who committed Canadas
first train robbery, was unfailingly polite as he stuck up his victims.
That earned him a description as the gentleman bandit,
and it may have been his success in escaping prison that led to
his being remembered as the Grey Fox.
Greg Dickson, the co-author with Mark Forsythe of
The B.C. Almanac Book of Greatest British Columbians, gave
a fascinating talk to the Vancouver Historical Society some time
back on the curious (and ultimately pathetic) career of the Grey
Fox. Gregs interest in Miner was a long-standing one: hed
first heard of this celebrated thief as a boy of 12 in Keremeos,
when he saw a display of old photographs by Kamloops photographer
Mary Spencer. She had snapped off mugshots of Miner and the members
of his gang shortly after theyd been captured for a robbery
in the area.
Getting captured was a constant in Miners life: he spent
a great deal of it behind bars.
as The Grey Fox. Jackie Burroughs is the lady.
Good as it was, Greg says, the 1982 movie The
Grey Fox played fast and loose with the facts of Miners
career. He just wasnt very good in his chosen line of work.
He was born December 27, 1846 in Onandaga, Michigan as Ezra Allen
Miner. (Another source says he was born in 1847 in Bowling Green,
KY, and his birth name was McDonald.) By age 16 he was stealing
horses, at 17 he joined the Union Army during the Civil War (but
deserted after a year), at 18 was back to stealing horses . . .
and watches and money from his employer. His first conviction came
in 1866 and he was sent off to San Quentin for a year.
He almost always ended up in jail, Greg
said. But, Miner once said in his defence, I never
robbed the little guy. Well, Greg replies, the
record reads a little differently.
Miner never worked alone, always had a coterie of
younger, dimmer cohorts. He was a bit of a swell, liked fancy
duds, spread money around when he had it, and would not refuse
the attentions of young ladiesalthough he did desert one he
had married. Miner was genuinely charming and polite, even during
his robberies, hence his title of the Gentleman Bandit.
His politeness while robbing a California stagecoach of $3,000
(a lot of money for the time) didnt help him when he was caught
and charged. The sentence: 25 years in San Quentin. There he was
occasionally attacked by knife-wielding fellow prisoners, and occasionally
wielded a knife himself. Nobody ever accused Bill Miner of being
He was 55 when he got out, having spent (so far)
33 years of his life in jail. Not long after his release, following
two unsuccessful attempts near Bellingham to rob trains, he fled
into Canada. A lady named Amelia Alice McDermott, who knew him in
Princeton, later wistfully recalled him as having a kindly
and courteous disposition, and added that he was a good
fiddler and a good dancer. He was calling himself George Edwards
at the time.
On Saturday, September 10, 1904 Bill Miner and his
gang du jour robbed a CPR train at Mission. It was Canadas
first train robbery, and we were thrilled by it. Greg Dickson thinks
it possible that Miner knew Morse code, the means of train communication
at the time, and may have known what the train was carrying. This
was the most successful robbery in Miners career, says
Greg Dickson, and one of the better planned. He even had a
Theres a dispute over what he got away with. Some estimates
put it at $7,000, and some go all the way up to $300,000 in bonds.
(One theory is that the CPR wanted the amount kept unknown to preserve
the railways reputation.) Whatever the amount, Miner was flush
enough soon after to show a lady friend a wad of money that included
a $1,000 bill. The lady later recalled that he was also packing
His success was short-lived. A 1906 train robbery
in B.C. netted the gang $15 and some liver pills. And
they lost their horses during the heist. And by now everyone was
hot on his trail: the Pemberton Detective Agency was after him,
so was the Field Detective Agency and a Calgary contingent from
the Northwest Mounted Police.
They caught him, of course (near Douglas Lake) and he ended up
in the B.C. Pen in New Westminster. He escaped from there within
a year and hurried back into the States . . .
Where he started robbing trains again. Or tried to. During one
of his flights from the authorities, desperate with thirst, he drank
some swamp water. It made him ill, and his capture followed swiftly.
He died in prison in Georgia in 1913 and the locals paid for his
His was a full life, just not a particularly successful one.
One fascinating artifact that Greg showed at the talk was the set
of leg irons used to hobble Miner during his arrest in Canada. Theyve
been preserved and are held in the Vancouver Museum.
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