By Caitlin Webster
Nicknamed “The Grey Fox” and “The Gentleman Bandit,” Bill Miner was a legendary criminal on both sides of the Canada–U.S. border. Although he committed dozens of robberies and escaped from multiple prisons, many saw him as a generous folk hero who targeted exploitative corporations only. Library and Archives Canada holds many documents, publications, sound and video recordings, and other materials relating to Miner, and hundreds of these documents are now available on our website as a Co-Lab crowdsourcing challenge.
Born Ezra Allan Miner on December 27, 1846, Miner began his criminal career as a teenager, stealing horses and robbing merchants in northern California. He later moved on to burglarizing homes and robbing stagecoaches in California and Colorado, where he and his accomplices often took away thousands of dollars in cash, gold dust, bonds and other goods. His polite, conversational manner during robberies earned him the nickname The Gentleman Bandit. Law enforcement eventually caught up with Miner, and despite multiple escape attempts, he spent decades behind bars in San Quentin State Prison.
When Miner was finally released in 1901, it was to an unfamiliar 20th-century American West. After trying his hand as an oyster farmer, he soon returned to a life of crime. As stagecoaches had been replaced by ever-expanding railroads, Miner turned to train robbery. He tried and failed twice to rob express trains in Oregon, and escaped across the border to settle in Princeton, British Columbia. There he established himself as a cattle trader and ranch hand, using the alias George Edwards. Known for his generosity, Miner was well liked in the small town.
By 1904, Miner had recruited new accomplices and was ready to target another train, this time in Canada. On September 10, along with partners Jake Terry and Shorty Dunn, The Grey Fox robbed a Canadian Pacific Railway train at Mission Junction, B.C. After taking thousands of dollars in cash, gold, bonds and securities, the bandits evaded capture for over a year and a half. Then on May 8, 1906, Miner, Dunn and a new accomplice named Louis Colquhoun held up a CPR train at Ducks (now Monte Creek), near Kamloops. However, this job was an abject disaster. The take was only $15.50, the men were forced to flee on foot, and they were captured five days later. Yet with his popularity in the area and the anti-CPR sentiment at the time, crowds of supporters greeted Miner as the Royal North-West Mounted Police brought him in to Kamloops.
On June 1, 1906, all three men were tried and convicted, and the next day Miner began his life sentence at the B.C. Penitentiary in New Westminster. During his stay, Miner expressed no remorse, reportedly telling the visiting Reverend A.D.E. Owen, “I am what I am, and I have done what I have done, but I can look God and man in the face unashamed.” The same clergyman observed how Miner charmed fellow inmates and penitentiary staff, and warned the acting warden, “Old Bill is a man who is well worth watching.”
The warning was prophetic, as Miner escaped from the penitentiary on August 8, 1907. Guards and police searched the surrounding area, and then the wider Vancouver region, with no success. Rumours spread that he had received outside help to escape, in exchange for the return of bonds and securities he had stolen in the 1904 CPR robbery. In addition, newspapers reported high levels of public sympathy for Miner, with many expressing their wish that he never be recaptured.
In the end, Miner returned to the United States and lived in Colorado until his money ran out. In 1911, he robbed a train in Georgia. He and his accomplices were caught within days, and at 64 years old, Miner was sentenced to 20 years in prison. After escaping in 1911 and 1912, Miner died in prison on September 2, 1913.
Library and Archives Canada holdings include records from the B.C. Penitentiary that provide fascinating details on Bill Miner and his escape from the prison. These documents are now available as a Co-Lab challenge, and include intake forms and mug shots of Miner, reports of prison officials, newspaper clippings, and letters from individuals claiming to have spotted The Grey Fox, even years after his death. Co-Lab is a crowdsourcing tool that invites the public to contribute transcription, translation, tags and description text. The public contributions then become metadata to improve our search tools and enhance everyone’s experience of the historical record.
Caitlin Webster is an archivist in the Vancouver office of the Reference Services Division at Library and Archives Canada.