Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys — Or Train Robbers

 “Mama don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.
Don’t let ’em pick guitars and drive them old trucks.
Make ’em be doctors and lawyers and such…”

cowboys headline

September 23, 1892
401 South Hill Street

Eight year old Willie Fisher waited until the early hours of the morning, then lifted $3 from his mother’s purse and disappeared.When Mrs. Fisher realized that her boy was missing, she immediately contacted police. She told them that she believed that the child had boarded a northbound train to become a cowboy, or maybe a lawman.

Detectives combed the city for the budding cowpoke – finally following up on a clue that put the runaway in a vacant lot near Eighth and Spring Streets.  At last, a cop spotted two small boys trying to hide behind an old fence. Sure enough, it was Willie and his best friend, Bob. The youngsters were examining an air gun, and deep in conversation. The detective crept up behind them until he could pounce. The boys were surprised to learn that they were wanted at the police station. On the way to police headquarters, the detective asked Willie why he’d run away from home and what he intended to do. 

“Well”, said Willie, “me an’ Bob here has been readin’ all about them robbers, Evans an’ Sontager, and we made up our minds to get a gun what they couldn’t hear shoot an’ go an’ kill ‘em.”  Then the bantam weight buckaroo went on to explain his plan, “Don’t you see we’s nuthin’ but kids, and they would never take us fur Smithsonian detectives…we’ve got this thing studied out.”

The officer saw Willie’s point, but marched the wee manhunter home anyway, where he was met at the door by his mother. She was slapping a mean looking slipper against the palm of her hand.

It’s just as well that Willie and Bob never got the chance to put their plan into action, as Chris Evans and John Sontag were wanted for train robbery and murder, and they were unlikely to have been felled by an air rifle. In fact, they’d already survived a shoot out with one posse, and it would take at least one more to bring them to justice. Due mainly to the support of people in the San Joaquin Valley, both robbers had managed to evade the law. Southern Pacific Railroad had cut a ruthless swath through California, displacing people and gobbling up their land, so when Evans and Sontag struck out at the much despised company, people cheered. 

sontag death

John Sontag near death as posse looks on.

Neither children nor Pinkerton Detectives ended up capturing Evans and Sontag. On May 28, 1893, the bandits were surrounded by a posse of local lawmen, and a furious gun battle ensued. Both men were wounded. Sontag died of his injuries, but Evans managed to escape. He came upon the home of Mrs. Parsons, who invited him in, and then dressed his wounds and put him to bed. Evans knew that his career as a train robber had ended, and he agreed to let Mrs. Parsons turn him in to the law if she would agree to split the reward she received with his wife – which she promptly did. 

While Evans was awaiting trial, his wife and daughter were contacted by a San Francisco theater company. The girls were offered money to appear as themselves in a production about one of the train robberies. Both mother and daughter agreed, putting the money they’d earned in a defense fund for Chris.  It was to no avail however, and Evans was sentenced to prison for life.

evans playbill

The story doesn’t end there. Evans managed to escape from jail before he could be transported to Folsom Prison.  After a brief taste of freedom, he was recaptured. Evans served his time and was released in 1911. He died in a state hospital a few weeks later.

evans escapes

Here’s hoping that young Willie chose to become a doctor or lawyer, or such.