09 January 2015

Gone Again

by R.T. Lawton

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.

Roy Gardner
Born on January 5, 1884 in Trenton, Missouri, Gardner was later raised in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He stood about five foot nine in early adulthood, had curly auburn hair and blue eyes, was considered as attractive and had a charming manner. Drifting to the Southwest, he acquired the trades of farrier and miner. To get out of the mines, plus avoid a life of crime and reform schools, he allegedly joined the U.S. Army, but soon deserted and headed to Mexico.

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
The following year found Roy Gardner back in the U.S. robbing banks and mail trains. By now, he had a $5,000 reward posted for his arrest. He was recognized in the Porter House Hotel in Roseville, California and was subsequently arrested while playing cards in a pool hall. Once again, he was sentenced to 25 years at McNeil. As a ploy to reduce his sentence, Roy offered to show the Southern Pacific Railroad detectives where he buried some of his loot. They found nothing, so Roy was once more placed on a train headed for McNeil Island Penitentiary. This time, he was guarded by two different U.S. Marshals. During the trip, Roy went into the train car's bathroom and came out with a pistol which had been concealed there by a friend of his. He robbed the Marshals of their guns and money and left them handcuffed together while he jumped off the train. The biggest manhunt in Pacific Coast history was quickly launched for the boldest and most slippery criminal to ever be arrested.

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.

Roy's book
1934 saw Gardner transferred to Alcatraz where he rubbed shoulders with Al Capone. Roy was contemplating another escape when he was granted clemency in 1938. While in Alcatraz, Roy channeled some of his creative talent into writing his autobiography, Alcatraz: My Story. In 1939, his book was made into a movie, I Stole a Million, starring George Raft. The movie had good reviews, but tanked at the box office.

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.


  1. Now there's an interesting criminal. Put him in a story!

  2. He had grit and gall, that's for sure - and was, apparently, really good at escaping. Great post!

  3. Interesting choice in suicide methods--his own private gas chamber. He might have received the same end in prison had he continued. Ironic, and fascinating. Thanks, R.T.!

  4. Fascinating tale, RT. I thought the same thing as David– his own gas chamber.

  5. R.T.- anyone who has ever spent five minutes on McNeil Island (which is about twenty miles from my front door) would be at least as motivated as Ol' Roy was to beat feet, pronto.

    What a character!



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