Sadly, most of us have someone in their lives who is a train wreck, that self-destructive, impossible-to-stop force that careens off the rails and crashes in spectacular fashion. There certainly have been crimes more heinous, evil and tragic. But of all the cases The Mighty Signal has covered in its 100-year history, the derailment of the Owl Speedster passenger train, speeding through Saugus at 7:45 on the night of Nov. 10, 1929, was the most spectacular, one that lives on not only in local lore, but also American history.
“Buffalo” Tom Vernon — and that most likely was not his name — was a double threat. His life was a train wreck. He was a train wrecker. Literally.
If there ever was a criminal who screamed to be caught, “Buffalo” Tom was the shining prototype. He was a fibber of Homeric proportions. A PowerPoint presentation could hardly unravel his confusing identity
Perhaps These Bulleted Points Might Help:
- “Buffalo” Tom Vernon was born in 1884, in Ontario, Canada. Name on the birth certificate? Jesse Shisler.
- Shortly thereafter, Jesse went bad.
- And delusional. And complicated.
- At 12, Jesse and his brother, Dick, moved to Buffalo, New York. They both changed their names to Vernon. Their last names. Not their first names.
- As a teen, Jesse was a talented rodeo roper. The cowboys on the circuit called him “Buffalo” or, “Buff.” So, Jesse Shisler made the metamorphosis to “Buffalo” Jesse Vernon.
- Adding to the confusion, there ALREADY WAS a real, actual rodeo cowboy champion — named “Buffalo” Jesse Vernon.
- So. Our Canadian-born future train robber posed as the REAL Buffalo Vernon.
- Still with us?
- THEN, our villain changed his name to Tom Averill, alleged son of the legendary Wyoming whorehouse madam and saloon owner Ellen Liddy Watson. It seems EVERYBODY in the West loved a good pseudonym. Ellen was better known as Cattle Kate. She married Jim Averill. They became a legend when Wyoming cattle barons hanged them both to get their land. One of Hollywood’s biggest film flops, “Heaven’s Gate,” was based on their lives and deaths.
- Our “Buffalo” Tom claimed that an attorney working for the cattle barons left him chained to a stump to die when Tom was 5. Another story from Tom was that he was 6 and the vigilantes left him shivering next to the corpses of his dead parents after they were cut down from the gallows and that a passing Indian, Chief Iron Tail, rescued him. Don’t go away. It gets better. Chief Iron Tail was the Native American after whom the nickel was designed.
- This actually makes me wince to write this, but the nickel in question was called the “Buffalo” head nickel. Not making that up.
- Chief Iron Tail would later work in (sorry!) “Buffalo” Bill’s Wild West Show where “Buffalo” Tom Vernon would be employed as a trick rider. BTV would be gored by a bull, which ended his rodeo days.
- Bottom line, that’s a lot of buffaloes.
A Life Of Crime
Our “Buffalo” Tom became well acquainted with prison life. He served terms in Pennsylvania in 1905 for grand larceny and Folsom Prison here in California in 1906 for the same charge. He was in the Ohio state pokey in 1915 for horse thievery. He made it here to Santa Clarita to continue his life of crime in the early 1920s.
The Mighty Signal noted in 1923 how “Buffalo” Tom, fresh out of jail, was arrested for buying cattle from a couple of Canyon Country ranchers, H.E. Slayton and Louis Radmacher. BTV wrote a bad check. He represented himself as a movie producer and said his company was going to use the cattle for a local shoot. He sold the cows for cash. Same year, The Signal noted how he moseyed over to San Francisquito Canyon and liberated the milking cow of Olive Carey, stage and screen actress and wife to one of the most famous cowboy stars on the planet, Harry Carey. “Buffalo” Tom Vernon went back to lodge at one of California’s fine institutions, San Quentin. It was a crime school for him. There, he worked on the penitentiary’s on-grounds trains as a fireman. Detectives later put together he was taught everything he needed to know about derailing a train with minimum damage.
Derailing the Owl
On Nov. 10, 1929, “Buffalo” Tom upped his criminal ante by derailing the West Coast Limited at 7:45 p.m. right behind the Baker Ranch (which today is Saugus Speedway).
Buff-T had loosened several yards of track behind where Del Taco sits today. He crouched by a tool shed and watched the locomotive slide in a horrendous cacophony of gravel, steam, sparks and fire before flipping over. The passenger cars were left standing.
Then, calm as can be, “Buffalo” Tom walked aboard, posing as a train official. He meandered among the injured passengers, pretending to help before pulling his pistol. “Buffalo” proceeded to liberate the passengers of about $400 in valuables, then disappeared into the night.
It wasn’t hard figuring out who derailed the 5000 series locomotive and the cars behind. Using oil lanterns in the cool SCV evening, The Signal was on the scene that November night, as local sheriff’s deputies backtracked Buff’s trail to that rail equipment shed. The cops figured the perp crouched while watching the train go by. They also deduced it was “Buffalo” Tom who derailed the train and was headed for Kansas to visit a prostitute friend.
What miracle of tracking revealed all this?
It seems that while “Buffalo” Tom was squatting in the dark, a slip of paper fell out of his back pocket, complete with his name and itinerary.
The Great Escape
An all-points bulletin was quickly launched and roadblocks set up. The Southern Pacific Railroad offered a $10,000 reward for the capture of bison boy. But it seemed Vernon just missed getting caught in Saugus when he thumbed a ride into Los Angeles.
There, he visited a lady friend, Victoria Bonner, in a Hollywood hospital. There were Signal reports later at Buff-Tom’s trial that he robbed the train to pay for an abortion for Ms. Bonner. After that, he visited ANOTHER lady friend in Los Angeles, then hightailed it for Denver, then, Wyoming. There, on Dec. 1, 1929, he reportedly derailed ANOTHER train, holding up passengers for essentially pocket change.
As often is the case with the media, rumors instantly flew. The first was that the engineer was scalded to death by the huge boiler. The engineer was burnt, but not severely.
The second rumor was that police caught the robber two days after the spectacular derailment. On Nov. 21, 1929, The Signal reported that “Lester Mead, insane fellow,” walked into the Newhall Sheriff’s substation 6 and nervously confessed that HE was the mastermind and perpetrator of the Great Saugus Train Robbery. After just a few minutes of questioning, deputies ascertained that Mead wasn’t the criminal. A little record-checking and they further found out the confessor sported a lengthy mental illness record.
One thing was certain: This was a major 1929 media event. Newspapers all over America covered the story. In the Midwest, especially Wyoming, “Buffalo” Tom became a bad boy celebrity, what with his alleged ties to the Cattle Kate/Wyoming range war folklore.
The media, especially in the Midwest, ate up his tales of being an orphan, nearly murdered by evil cattle barons. While awaiting trial in Los Angeles Superior Court in December 1929, Vernon gave an in-cell interview to NEA wire service correspondent Jim Hopkins. “Buffalo” Tom’s own words, however untruthful, were moving:
“Kate was my mother and Jim Averill was my dad. When I was 5 years old, I saw the two of them hanged — hanged as cattle rustlers by a gang of cattlemen in a little meadow of cottonwoods in Wyoming. The gang that hanged them also shot my 10-year-old brother dead and put a bullet through my jaw when we tried to help our mother. That was my start in life. It’s about the earliest thing I remember. Now I’m going to be tried for a train robbery, and they’re calling me ‘the last of the bad men.’ I never killed a man in my life — but I do think that I almost had a right to.”
Adding to the fib list, Buffy claimed:
- He served eight years in the army;
- He was wounded in the Boxer Rebellion in China;
- Was a movie actor;
- “Punched cattle all over the West;”
And, my favorite line:
- “I’ve been everywhere but to school and hell.”
“Buffalo” Tom Vernon, aka, Tom Averill, aka, Jesse Shisler, was his own, personal train wreck and carried the seeds to his own self-destruction.
Besides dropping his personal itinerary out of his pants pocket overlooking the Great Saugus Train Robbery, Mr. Buffalo consistently left letters with women as to his whereabouts. He left a paper trail that included letters to the secretary of the governor of Wyoming (where he had just derailed one of their trains!) and to a Wyoming woman historian. His last “Please Catch Me” correspondence was to a fetching chambermaid in a Denver hotel, telling her that he’d be in Pawnee, Oklahoma. That’s where he was arrested on Dec. 1, 1929.
“Buffalo” Tom gave up without a fight. There, at a wooden table in the Oklahoma sheriff’s office, he made a full confession — not to the Wyoming train derailment/robbery, but just to the Saugus one.
Seems Wyoming had two choices for derailing a train: 1) the death penalty, and, 2) the death penalty. He didn’t fight extradition to California. Santa Clarita sheriff’s deputy Thomas J. Higgins picked him up and rode back — on a train — so he could be tried here in Newhall.
On Dec. 17, 1929, The Signal reported that “Buffalo” Tom Vernon was dragged back to Saugus in shackles to re-enact his famous train robbery of a month earlier. Vernon led railroad authorities and local sheriff’s deputies along the tracks to show just how he derailed the “Espee.”
He was tried in Superior Court in Los Angeles. The prosecution wanted the death penalty, because of his habitual criminal status and the fact that he put the lives of nearly 100 people in danger. This newspaper noted that on Dec. 18, 1929, “Buffalo” Tom Vernon was sentenced to not one, but two consecutive life-in-prison sentences, without the possibility of parole. Within a few days, he was in Folsom. “Buffalo” Tom would eventually get out early.
It’s interesting the themes, real and imagined, that weave in and out of our lives.
Vernon’s imaginary mother, Cattle Kate, was a prostitute and whorehouse madam. He was captured because in a span of three weeks, he left no less than six letters to women, detailing exactly where he’d be.
His motive for the Great Saugus Train Robbery?
To raise money for another entertaining lady in Los Angeles who needed an “operation.”
Of course, knowing Buff, that could be a lie.
Did Buff Act Alone?
There are still mysteries to be cleared from the twisted steel and burning train cars of that evening 76 years ago.
How could so slight a man at 5-foot-5 have single-handedly pulled out the spikes and moved the heavy rails?
Five years after the great crime, The Signal reported in 1934 that one Jess C. Rumsey confessed that he was the one who wrecked the train and that Vernon was innocent. Rumsey was not arrested.
As former valley historian Jerry Reynolds noted, “Buffalo” Tom was finally released from Folsom in 1964, an aged and decrepit man.
But, in 2004, a Citrus Heights woman wrote to The Signal:
“I know for a fact that he (Vernon) was not in prison in 1957-1958 because he was living with my family in Sacramento, California, in 1957 and 1958,” claimed Carolena Rezendez from her home near Sacramento.
“As to how he died, it was TB (tuberculosis). Our family buried him.”
Bonus? Mrs. Rezendez had a photo of “Buffalo” as an old man.
One thing is certain.
Fame and infamy are forever.
The Great Saugus Train Robbery of November 1929, oddly enough, was a short-lived boon to the local economy.
The train wreck site became a large tourist attraction for the next week as work crews labored to remove the monster engine and cars and rebuild “Buffalo” Tom’s carnage.
His legend was still alive in August 1991. The Saugus Speedway held the strangest destruction derby race called The Buffalo Tom Vernon Memorial Figure 8. A series of souped-up stock cars pulled three shell bodies of jalopies behind, like locomotives pulling passenger cars.
John Boston is the local historian, author and columnist for The Mighty Signal. Come back next Saturday for installment No. 16 on The History of The Mighty Signal.