Piney Woods Journal Correspondent
Eugene Bunch wasn’t just a train robber. He was “jovial, jolly and gay – a typical bandit, who thought his profession of road agent a brave and proper one,” according to the railroad detectives who chased after him. He reportedly tipped his hat to female train passengers and declined to take their handbags. He was equally courteous to his male victims but did relieve them of their wallets. Express agents noted he never raised his voice when he threatened to blow their heads off if they didn’t open their safes. His take from a host of robberies was estimated in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
For five years, from 1887 to 1892, Bunch stayed a jump ahead of a bevy of railroad detectives as he robbed trains in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida. His home in Washington Parish near the Pearl River provided plenty of remote hiding spots if the law got too close.
Eugene F. Bunch was born in Mississippi in 1843 to well-respected parents. The family moved to Tangipahoa Parish in his youth and ensured he received a good education. During the Civil War, he enlisted in the 3rd Louisiana Cavalry and apparently served well in the campaigns around Baton Rouge and Port Hudson, although he developed serious drinking and gambling habits.
At the close of the war Bunch returned to Tangipahoa Parish and opened a school at Amite. He married a Louisiana girl, Flavia Flynn, in 1869. School teaching didn’t agree with him—probably because of his excessive drinking—so Bunch loaded up his pregnant wife and moved to Gainesville, Texas in 1874.
Bunch taught school briefly in Gainesville before being elected to three consecutive two-year terms as the Cooke County clerk. He apparently used his position as an insider to discover buying opportunities and operated a profitable land speculation business. Grumbling among the populace over this conflict of interest deterred Bunch from seeking a fourth term.
After leaving his government job, Bunch’s difficulties with alcohol and gambling returned. With financial problems and a strained marriage, he left the family in Gainesville and moved to Wichita Falls where he briefly worked as a real estate agent and edited a newspaper. He abandoned his family in 1886, never to see them again, and started a new career as a train robber.
His string of robberies across the South rivaled those of the James-Younger gang in the Midwest. His gang was rather small and included a “Colonel Hopgood” who was wanted for murder in Mississippi. Sometimes Bunch boarded and robbed trains single handedly.
Railroad detectives chased after Bunch for years. After robberies, he would return to the Pearl River area separating Louisiana and Mississippi. The remote area along the state line was the perfect hiding place with is swamps teeming with alligators and cottonmouths.
But eventually the Detectives Thomas Jackson and C.O. Summers tracked Bunch down near his home. Jackson had been responsible for capturing the Rube Burrow gang, the other notorious train robber of the South. Newspapers across America gave a graphic account of the August 21, 1892 confrontation:
“Eugene Bunch, the noted train bandit, who in the past five years has held up many trains in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida was riddled with bullets and instantly killed yesterday morning near Franklinton a small town in Washington parish, Louisiana by Detective Jackson, the tireless pursuer and destroyer of the Rube Burrow gang.”
“About two weeks ago Detective Sterling, who had wormed himself into the good graces of the Bunch gang became suspected by them and was ambushed and killed. Since then Detective Jackson has been hot on their trail. Such information was obtained from two of the gang captured last week that Bunch and his chief henchman, Colonel Hopgood, were located and yesterday morning upon obtaining a sight of them, the entire posse opened fire on Bunch, riddling his body with bullets. Bunch died game, firing back two or three times, but without effect. Probably from his injuries, Hopgood surrendered without a struggle.”
“Bunch’s remains were fully identified and there is no doubt that one of the most desperate and successful train robbers known is now no more.”
Wesley Harris is a native of Ruston who writes extensively on Reconstruction era crime. His books include Greetings From Ruston: A Post Card History of Ruston, Louisiana and Neither Fear nor Favor: Deputy United States Marshal John Tom Sisemore, available from amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out his Louisiana history blog at http://diggingthepast.blogspot.com