He was too late for the Wild West and too early to be a Prohibition gangster, but the name of Roy Gardner was once well known to the American public as a celebrated outlaw and the most famous prison escapee. Nicknamed with monikers such as The Smiling Bandit, The Mail Train Bandit, and King of the Escape Artists by national newspapers, Roy was the Most Wanted Gangster of 1921.
His first step into professional crime was as a gunrunner during the Mexican Revolution. While smuggling arms to the Carranza army, he got caught by General Huerta's soldiers. The sentence was death by firing squad. Declining to stick around for the sentence to be carried out, Gardner, along with three other American prisoners, attacked the guards at the Mexico City jail and escaped. This marked his first prison break.
Ending up broke in San Francisco, Gardner robbed a jewelry store on Market Street, soon got arrested and was sent off to San Quentin. Here, he made parole after saving the life of a prison guard during a violent riot. Wasn't long out of the pen before he robbed a mail truck, netting about $80,000 in cash and securities. The law caught up with him three days later. For this crime, he was sentenced to 25 years at McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary in Washington state. On June 5, 1920, two Deputy U.S. Marshals accompanied him on the train headed for prison. Employing a simple ruse, Roy looked out the window and shouted, "Look at that deer." When both Marshals looked, he grabbed the gun away from one of them and then disarmed the other at pistol point. Roy handcuffed the two together, stole $200 from them, jumped off the train and headed for Canada.
|McNeil Island Penitentiary 1890|
Trying to conceal his identity by bandaging his face and leaving only one slit for an eye hole, Gardner turned up at the Oxford Hotel in Centralia, Washington. The proprietor became suspicious when he found a gun in Roy's room. Arrested once again, Roy stayed on the train this time and made it all the way to McNeil Island Penitentiary without incident. Third time must've been the charm.
After six weeks of confinement, Roy decided it was time to make a break for freedom. At the Labor Day 1921 prison baseball game when a ball got hit to center field and the tower guards had their attention on the ball, Roy told his two prison buddies that now was the time to go. He cut a hole in a high barb wire fence, then the three crawled through and took off running. Seems Roy had told the other two that he'd bribed the guards to keep looking away, but the three weren't far outside the wire when bullets started flying. Impyn fell mortally wounded, Bogart was badly wounded and Gardner took a bullet in the left leg. Scrambling into the woods, Gardner hid under a log. Guards searched for Roy, but found no trace. Afterwards, Roy hid in the prison dairy barn, living off cow's milk and grain for several days until he swam to a nearby island and made his escape.
Back to robbing mail trains, Roy got captured by a mail clerk during a robbery a few months after his McNeil Island escape. With a third sentence of 25 years received for this train robbery, Roy got packed off to Leavenworth. In 1925, they transferred him to the Atlanta Federal Prison, the toughest penitentiary of its day. After unsuccessfully trying to tunnel under the wall and cutting through the bars of the shoe shop, he later led a prison break, taking guards as hostages. This last escape attempt earned him twenty months in solitary.
Unable to adjust to a life outside of prison and having no desire to go back behind the walls, Roy Gardner pulled his final escape. On January 19, 1940, he left a note on the outside of his door in a San Francisco hotel, sealed his room, dropped cyanide pills into a bowl of acid and breathed in the fumes. He was gone again and this time they wouldn't get him back.