Historical Society of
County Seat Council Bluffs, Iowa
They expected hundreds but got millions.
They figured to be pursued by a half-hearted railroad detective,
but instead found themselves America's most wanted.
Newspapers were calling it:
"The Biggest Robbery in the History of the World."
One hundred years ago-- November, 1920-- in a Council Bluffs rail yard, a pair of young brothers and their two confederates managed to unwittingly pull off the biggest mail robbery in history. Their deed triggered a rash of copycat mail robberies and changed how postal security was handled and the role of the insurance industry in covering registered mail.
The mail of Burlington #8, much of it just having arrived from the West via Union Pacific #6, was loaded at the mail terminal transfer yards. Twenty-year-old Merle Phillips, a railroad mail handler, walked to the engine of #8 and asked engineer Alonzo Quinby for a ride to the Burlington passenger station, a few blocks away. Phillips kept Engineer Quinby engaged in conversation and no one noticed Orville Phillips, seventeen, and Fred Poffenbarger, nineteen, breaking into a mail storage car on the train.
Six blocks away was a switch where the Illinois Central and Burlington tracks cross and #8 would need to make a complete stop. Fourth confederate Keith Collins, twenty-four, waited in a stolen Maxwell sedan. Train #8 departed on schedule and stopped at the dead switch at 11th Avenue between 14th and 16th Streets. Orville Phillips and Poffenbarger kicked open the door and tossed 10 mail sacks to the ground; they closed the door and carried their loot to the sedan. Had they not carelessly in their haste left a bag behind on the ground their deed likely would not have been discovered until the train reached Chicago.
Engineer Quinby mentioned Merle Phillips’ name to investigators as having possibly been acting suspiciously at about the time of the robbery and Phillips was arrested at the UP transfer when he came to work the next day. He was uncooperative at first, saying he had nothing to do with the robbery itself but merely stood watch on the locomotive at the insistence of two met he had just met in a pool hall. He later said he had been double crossed; he was to meet the others at 12th Street and 5th Avenue to divide up the take, but waited for two hours and nobody ever showed up to cut him in.
It’s believed the robbers were seeking whatever they could fortuitously come across in cash and expected at most a half-hearted pursuit by a railroad detective or two. Poffenbarger’s last heist— a robbery at the Howard Cafe— netted just three dollars. They had no idea that their haul this time would be worth over $3,500,000.00, immediately putting the entire Council Bluffs and Omaha law enforcement departments on high alert and sending postal inspectors and U.S. Marshals from across the country racing to Council Bluffs.
After spending $90,000 in the investigation on legal and detective fees the insurance company, Fireman’s Fund, settled by paying the full claim for the $500,000 of stolen bonds. For insuring the bonds the company had collected a $36 premium.
The loss from the Council Bluffs robbery was followed by a rash of robberies and holdups aimed at stealing mail including a $275,000 heist of a mail truck in California by two gunmen in September of 1921. Judge Wade, who sentenced Poffenbarger, Collins, and the Phillips brothers summed up the situation by stating, “This mail robbery has caused more big crimes in the country than anything that has happened for a generation. Robberies of the mail have become so frequent that the government will be obliged to place guards on all mail cars when anything of value is carried.” The postal service armed all of its Railway Mail Service staff and it’s transfer clerks. Some insurance companies, led by the insurer that took the loss over the Council Bluffs robbery, withdrew from insuring registered mail entirely. The Council Bluffs robbers were sentenced to terms of twelve to eighteen years in Leavenworth Prison. The insurance company that suffered the loss assigned an investigator to work full time on the case and lo-cate the missing bonds. Searchers dragged the Mis-souri River again and the pris-oners were inter-rogated several times, all to no avail. 100 years later the money has never been recovered.
As it happened Burlington foreman Dan Newbury was hitching a ride on the back of the train to the city depot so he could walk from there home for dinner. He noticed the mail sack laying track-side and alerted railroad officials when the train stopped at the passenger station on South Main Street
$50,000 of the take was in cash and Collins and Poffenbarger had apparently double-crossed the Phillips boys and split the money. All but $2500 of the cash was recovered from an assortment of hiding places ranging from a bread tin to a can hung by a string from the seat of an outhouse. Of more of a financial concern was $500,000 in unregistered Liberty Bonds. Collins claimed he found them in the bags, put them in an old suitcase weighted with rocks, and tossed them into the Missouri River from the Douglas Street Bridge. Despite dragging the river bottom and repeated sessions with Collins including an offer of $10,000 to be paid to Collins and Poffenbarger if they would help recover the bonds no trace of the bonds was ever found.
(Story by Richard Warner. Dr. Warner serves on the board of directors of the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County.)