The Dumb Gray Fox

Whenever watching western films, particularly those produced between 1950-70, a standard line of dialogue in a hold up might begin with, “Hands up!”  The man actually responsible for this phrase was a real-life bandit by the name of George Anderson —also, Ezra Allen Miner, popularly known as Bill Miner.  Bill was born near Onondaga, Michigan on 27 December 1847 but raised near Bowling Green, Kentucky[1].

Bill_Miner

Ezra Allen (Bill) Miner

As with many of these old timers, we do not know much about Bill Miner’s formative years; what we do know is that he began his life of crime early in his life.  He was first arrested when he was 19 years of age, in 1866 and served time in three California counties: San Joaquin, Placer, and Calaveras.  Whether these jail periods represent three separate convictions, we do not know, but by 1880, Bill Miner was a veteran outlaw —one who learned no important lessons from his past mistakes.

Not long after he was released from prison in 1880, Bill formed a partnership with a fellow outlaw named Bill Leroy (also known as W. A. Morgan) to rob stagecoaches.  Their association would be a short one.  While it can be said that Bill Miner was an energetic outlaw, he wasn’t very bright.  On their first stagecoach robbery, Leroy/Morgan was apprehended by vigilantes who dispatched him to the promised land.  Miner escaped the lynching but was later arrested for another robbery in Tuolumne County.

After his release from San Quentin Prison in 1901, Bill Miner relocated to British Columbia.  He may have been looking for a fresh start in life —or perhaps he was simply looking for a place where no one knew him.  In any case, Bill changed his name to George Edwards.  In September 1904, someone robbed a stagecoach near Silverdale, some 30 miles east of Vancouver.  We do not know the identity of the robber, and it may have been a mere coincidence that Miner/Edwards was living in the area at the time, but there were folks in the neighborhood who later claimed that had it not been for Bill Miner, no one in Canada would have ever experienced a genuine stagecoach robbery.

A few months later, unknown persons attempted to rob a train near Kamloops, Canada.  The incident stands out in history as an example of what NOT to do during a train robbery.  Initially, lawmen weren’t sure who pulled the job.  What they did know was that three armed men boarded the train, robbed the wrong train car, and ended up with around $15.00 and a small bottle of kidney pills.

An extensive manhunt conducted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police netted three suspicious characters near Douglas Lake: George Edwards, Tom “Shorty” Dunn, and Louis Colquhoun.  The boys were enjoying a meal over a campfire when the law moved in and made their capture.  George, the brightest of the three, stepped up as their official spokesman.  He told the Mounties that they were prospectors.  The lead investigator, noting the absence of prospecting equipment, promptly arrested them.  Shorty Dunn, the least bright of the trio, avoided trial by drawing his six-shooter and firing at the RCMP.  Bill Miner was convicted on the strength of a bottle of kidney pills found on his person.  Ignoring the fact that kidney pills could be purchased at any number of apothecaries in Canada, a jury nevertheless decided that the bottle was sufficient evidence to convict Edwards for the train robbery.  Miner was transferred to the penitentiary at New Westminster.

But Bill Miner had become a cause célèbre in Canada; literally hundreds of people lined the railway tracks to give him encouragement as he made his way back to prison.  Apparently, Canadian prisons weren’t as comfortable as those in the United States, prompting Miner to escape from confinement and return to the United States in 1907.

In 1909, Miner continued his career by robbing a train near Gainesville, California.  He was again arrested and sent to jail but managed to escape two more times.  Bill’s end came while still a prisoner on 2 September 1913.  By this time, he was around 66 years old.  History recalls Bill Miner as the Grey Fox, a well-mannered old fellow who never harmed a fly.  A 1982 Canadian American film production of Bill Miner’s story starred Richard Farnsworth in the title role.  It was certainly true that Bill Miner was gray, but the man was no fox.  Polite or not, Bill Miner may have been the least successful outlaw in the history of the old west, although Shorty Dunn gave him a run for that title.

Source:

Dugan, M. and John Boessenecker.  The True Story of Bill Miner, Last of the Old Time Bandits.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Endnote:

[1] The first Anglo settlers in this area arrived around 1775.  It was first known as McFadden’s Station, which was situated on the north bank of the Barren River.  Present-day Bowling Green was erected from homesteads constructed by Robert and George Moore and General Elijah Covington.  The Moore brothers arrived from Virginia around 1794, two years after the formation of Warren County.  The Commonwealth of Kentucky incorporated Bowling Green on 6 March 1798.  By 1810, 154 people lived in Bowling Green.  The area developed around river commerce.  The first railway was in place by 1832.  Most people made their living in agriculture, the likely vocation of Bill Miner’s father.  If true, then we can probably assume that Bill Miner’s formative years involved back-breaking labor on his father’s homestead.

About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
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2 Responses to The Dumb Gray Fox

  1. Andy says:

    It seems Miller spent his whole life trying to become a good outlaw. He failed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      I’m guessing he spent his entire life between slow and stop. I wouldn’t be surprised if he put up his own picture on the Sheriff’s wanted board.

      Like

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