We think of Bremen as a sleepy Midwestern town, but in the days before 1900, it could be as wild as any western town. Take the incident in April of 1896, when the call came to apprehend a gang of thugs on the overnight train from Garrett, and it resulted in a genuine Old-West-style shootout.

In the wee hours of a Wednesday morning, telegraph operator Frank Koontz (the same who was partners with his brother Charles in the Koontz Brothers Drug Store), got a message from the night operator in Garrett to have sufficient manpower to arrest five or six men on the number 47 limited express train, in which Bremen was one of the few stops.

Only later would the townsmen learn that the men had beaten and robbed a passenger on the train as it pulled out of Garrett and then thrown him off while it was at full steam. The man survived to return on foot to Garrett and raise the alarm. They had even callously thrown away a little book that contained a lock of hair from a child the man had only recently lost.

But what even he didn’t know was that the desperadoes had proceeded to go thru the sleeping cars and hold up nearly every passenger on the train, relieving them of their valuables at gunpoint.

Koontz had an assistant who could run to Bremen’s night policeman, Deputy Marshal John Huffman. Huffman arrived and got the request with only minutes to spare before the number 47 arrived at 4:33 AM. He quickly rounded up men who lived nearby and swore in his posse as deputies:

  • Frank Koontz, the night telegraph operator
  • John VanSkyhawk, well-driller and fireman
  • Lawrence Edel, carpenter
  • John Brown, carpenter
  • Philip Brown, his brother
  • Frank Fowler, Koontz’s 20-year-old assistant at the telegraph office

When the train pulled in, five toughs were found on the platform between the baggage car and the express car. Deputy Huffman and his deputies approached with shotguns and pistols and informed them they were under arrest, but the men resisted, drawing pistols. Several shots were exchanged, attracting the attention of the train’s crew, who rushed to help the townsmen. In ten minutes, the gang was subdued with no injury among their captors.

The group started the long walk to the police station. Now, in those days, Bremen did not really have a police station, per se. What we had was a calaboose in the office of the late justice of the peace, Moses Keyser, who had died in 1893. (The new justice of the peace was CC Yockey, who kept his own office). A calaboose was a kind of free-standing cage-like jail cell; the Nappanee History Center has their strap-iron calaboose on display. Keyser’s office was on the second floor over the George Sunderland grocery (today the offices of The Accounting Firm).

A strap-iron calaboose; it’s unclear if Bremen’s cell was of this type.

After a few blocks, now about 5 AM, one of the criminals said he’d like a puff on his captor’s pipe and pulled it from the man’s mouth, at the same time brushing his hat off. When the man stooped to retrieve his hat, the thug slugged him across the back of the neck, and pulled his concealed pistol (the habit of frisking suspects not yet being standard procedure), and ran. All hell broke loose.

The gunman began firing wildly as he ran away. The other members of the gang shook off their captors and made to escape as well (it’s unclear if they also had extra pistols or if they merely ran). The posse drew their own weapons and returned fire and made a pursuit as they could. After 25 or 30 shots had been exchanged over a long run of many blocks, three of the criminals had been recaptured and two had escaped, leaving behind trails of blood.

Soon enough, Marshal Jacob Kaufman caught up to them and set out to try to track the escaped men. The remaining three were brought to the station and locked in the calaboose.

Dr George F Wahl, 1908

Dr G F Wahl was summoned to examine the men, and he found that one had taken a severe wound in the abdomen and a shattered hand caused by the bullet striking him in the knuckles and passing down the length of the hand to exit at the wrist. Another man, particularly burly, appeared wounded but refused to be examined. This man was later found to have been shot in the leg, back, and arm, likely from shotgun shot, since none were very serious.

The desperadoes’ victim, Theodore Beilstein, accompanied Officer John J Schreiner and Deputy JH Hathaway to Bremen on the 3:43 PM train and identified the thugs, altho the burly one had worn a mask. Mr Beilstein had been returning home to his family in Chicago with a car load of livestock for his employer, the meat-packer Swift & Co. It came out at the trial that the robbers’ intention was to rob the safe in the express car in the marshy land west of Bremen and that they initially thought Beilstein was the express messenger with the keys.

Theodore Beilstein woodcut from The Chicago Tribune – 3 Apr 1896

The story was reprinted all over the country with headlines like “Battle With a Posse” and “Train Robbers Foiled” and “B&O Train Held Up – Daring Work of Five Masked Men Near Bremen, Ind.”

The two escaped men managed to cover their tracks and could not be found. In mid-May, the members of the posse went to DeKalb county to testify to the grand jury against the three remaining prisoners: Joseph Gaylor, Charles Reynolds, and William Anderson, alias John Moore. In June, Gaylor and Reynolds got five years in the state penitentiary; Anderson got just two years.

For further details about the harrowing experience, click on the original news article below to go to its page on our Flickr account. (Note that some of these details in this article were gleaned from other newspapers’ accounts.)

1896 - thugs rob train - Enquirer - 3 Apr 1896