Middle-aged clerk turns to robbing trains

On Aug. 23, 1892, a Gainesville newspaper confirmed the rumored death of a local politician turned train robber. 

Eugene Franklin Bunch did not fit the stereotype of the late nineteenth century outlaw.  He was not an illiterate saddle tramp nor a trigger-happy sociopath but the well-educated son of a Mississippi planter.  So why did he chose a life of crime at the age of 43?

Soon after the Civil War, Bunch moved to Louisiana where he taught school and married a southern belle from the same social class.  Sometime in the early 1870’s, the couple emigrated to Cooke County, Texas, living briefly in Dexter, a source of illegal whiskey for reservation Indians, before settling in Gainesville.

Bunch’s new neighbors thought enough of the schoolmaster and real estate salesman to elect him county clerk in 1876.  A better-than-average public servant respected for his honesty and work ethic, he was rewarded with two more terms.

But the cracks in Bunch’s character eventually began to show.  While it was true he had no use for alcohol or tobacco, he was a chronic gambler and a shameless ladies’ man.  When his vices became the talk of the town, he did not bother to file for reelection in 1882.

Banking on the presumably short memory of the voters, Bunch ran again for county clerk two years later only to be badly beaten by his successor.  Deciding he had no future in Cooke County, he walked out on his wife and son and never looked back.

Bunch spent the next two years in Wichita Falls before winding up in Fort Worth’s red-light district.  Sleeping all day and gambling all night, he felt right at home with the disreputable denizens of the Cow Town underworld.

A rash of North Texas train robberies in 1886 and 1887 brought Bunch to the attention of state and federal authorities.  U.S. Marshal William L. Cabell was convinced the intelligent ex-politician was the brains behind the daring holdups but could not make a case against him.

There was no doubt, however, that Bunch was the lone gunman that relieved the United States Express Company of $30,000 in cash and bonds in November 1888.  The carefully planned train heist, which occurred north of New Orleans in his native state of Mississippi, went like clockwork taking a mere 15 minutes.

The perpetrator was positively identified by his latest female companion, who spilled the beans in exchange for immunity from prosecution and a one-way ticket home to Tyler.  But her lover boy was nowhere to be found.

The middle-aged bandit was the subject of a multi-state manhunt and wild speculation in the press.  Conflicting newspaper reports had him hopping a freight for Tombstone, giving private detectives the slip in Mexico and, according to the Dallas Morning News, resurfacing in Gainesville disguised as an old hobo.

After three years on the run, Bunch was back where he had started and ready to resume robbing trains.  Calling himself “Captain Grice,” he recruited two accomplices:  a farmer named Curnell Hobgood and Henry Carneguay, a dimwitted 21 year old.

In April 1892, the three boarded the Illinois Central northbound out of New Orleans. They ignored the mail car and passengers settling for the contents of the safe in the express car.  The take was hardly worth the trouble -- $500 in folding money and three bags of cheap jewelry.

To make matters worse, the petty crime renewed the interest of the law in the train robber that got away.  “If the notorious Captain Bunch was not with them,” declared the New Orleans police chief, “the trio were his pupils.”

A relentless posse tracked the Bunch Gang for four months.  A fake lynching convinced Carneguay to cooperate, and the terrified youth led the lawmen to Hobgood’s farm in southern Mississippi not far from the Louisiana line.  The same extreme tactic extracted Bunch’s whereabouts from Hobgood’s brother. 

On an August morning in 1892, the five possemen spotted Bunch across an open field on the edge of a thicket.  The outlaw fired once and turned toward the underbrush.

A volley from the pursuers stopped Bunch dead in his tracks.  Four bullets hit him in the back, and the fifth entered his neck and exited his forehead.

Many people, including an influential judge, did not accept the official version of Bunch’s demise.  It was widely believed Curnell Hobgood shot his partner in his sleep, and the posse riddled the body to cover up a cold-blooded killing.

The public outcry resulted in the trial of Hobgood for the murder of the train robber romanticized in death as “The Prince of Outlaws.”  He was found not guilty and never did time for any of his crimes.

Eugene Bunch would have long since been forgotten if not for an amateur historian.  Rick Miller, former chief of police in Killeen and Denton, spent years piecing together the story of the county clerk, whose mid-life crisis led to a life of crime, for his 1983 book “The Train Robbing Bunch.”  

 “Unforgettable Texans,” Bartee’s latest book, is in stock and ready to ship! Order your autographed copy today by mailing a check for $28.80 to “Bartee Haile,” P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77389.  

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