The Grey Fox: Legendary train robber and prison escapee Bill Miner

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.

Newspaper page showing text, an illustration of two armed men on horseback approaching a train, a portrait of the author, and photographs of Bill Miner, Shorty Dunn and Lewis Colquhoun.

Article in The Province newspaper on January 18, 1958: “Bill Miner – last of the train robbers” (e011201062-019-v8)

 

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 As stagecoaches had been replaced by ever-expanding railroads, Miner turned to train robbery.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.”

Two photographs of Bill Miner showing a front view and a profile view. They show Miner with his hair closely cut, and his mustache shaved.

Mug shot photographs of a shaven and shorn Bill Miner at the beginning of his sentence at the B.C. Penitentiary (e011201061-128-v8)

Form with physical description and criminal conviction details.

B.C. Penitentiary intake form for Bill Miner (e011201060-009-v8)

 

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.

Map on blue background, labelled to show general locations of penitentiary, asylum, and surrounding streets, park, and the Fraser River. Annotations indicate location of fence where Miner escaped, as well as other details of the local area.

Blueprint of B.C. Penitentiary site, showing location where Bill Miner escaped, as well as the surrounding area (e011201060-179-v8)

Poster showing photograph of Bill Miner, announcing a $500 reward for his recapture, listing details as to his escape, and describing his physical characteristics.

Reward notice for the recapture of Bill Miner, sent to police departments, publications and private detective agencies (e011201060-210-v8)

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.

 

 

Spanish flu pandemic centenary: new Co-Lab challenge and travelling exhibit

By Jenna Murdock Smith and Alexandra Haggert

The Spanish flu, a particularly virulent form of influenza, struck Canada in 1918, killing an estimated 50,000 Canadians. It was an international pandemic; an additional 20 to 100 million people worldwide succumbed to the disease before it ran its course in 1920. The virus was brought to Canada by troops returning from the First World War, and soon spread to even remote parts of the country. Unlike most diseases, which typically target vulnerable members of the population, the Spanish flu tended to attack young adults in the prime of their lives. For a country that had already suffered the loss of 66,000 war dead, the impact of the Spanish flu was profound, leaving a number of families without a primary wage earner and thousands of children orphaned.

1918 marks not only the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, but also the centenary of the Spanish flu pandemic. It is an opportunity to reflect on this grim chapter in our history. Library and Archives Canada has a number of records in its archival collection documenting the political, social, economic, and cultural impact of the flu on the lives of Canadians.

Library and Archives Canada is also launching a Co-Lab challenge on this topic. Co-Lab is a crowdsourcing tool that invites the public to contribute transcription, translation, tags and description text. The public contributions then become metadata that improves our search tools and enhances everyone’s experience of the historical record.

The images that have been made available as part of this Co-Lab challenge make up a complete file created by federal public health authorities in response to the outbreak in 1918. At the time, public health was primarily the responsibility of provincial and local authorities, with the federal government coordinating quarantine services as a branch within other larger departments (i.e., the Department of Agriculture, and later the Department of Immigration and Colonization). The file includes correspondence documenting various attempts at quarantining ships carrying soldiers returning home from the front. Maritime quarantines, which had successfully contained the spread of infectious diseases in the 19th century, did not prove to be an effective means of controlling the Spanish flu.

A colour reproduction of a telegram discussing the Spanish flu.

Quarantine and Immigration: Spanish Influenza – general, RG29, vol. 300, file 416-2-12 (image 82)

Alt-text: A typewritten page discussing the Spanish flu.

Quarantine and Immigration: Spanish Influenza – general, RG29, vol. 300, file 416-2-12 (image 85)

The federal government was widely criticized for failing to provide supplies and coordinate a response to the pandemic. With no vaccine or effective treatment for the Spanish flu, medical practitioners attempting to assist patients and contain the disease looked to the federal government for help. The file demonstrates a lack of coordination by government authorities and a growing sense of urgency amongst medical officials working in quarantine stations across Canada, as the mortality rate rose. This illustrates the need for the creation of a federal department of health, which was established in 1919 as a direct result of this devastating pandemic.

A typed letter and the handwritten response about the Spanish flu.

Quarantine and Immigration: Spanish Influenza – general, RG29, vol. 300, file 416-2-12 (image 6 and image 7)

If you are interested in seeing more historical content on the Spanish flu, Library and Archives Canada is hosting a travelling exhibit by Defining Moments Canada, an organization dedicated to providing digital storytelling tools and commemorative activities for Canadians. From September 4 to 24, Struggle Without Rest: Stories from the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918–1919 will be available for free in the lobby of the Library and Archives Canada building at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa.


Jenna Murdock Smith is a senior archivist in the Government Archives Division and Alexandra Haggert is a project manager in the Public Services branch of Library and Archives Canada