Life has its own moments of ironic justice. If you don’t believe me, ask the famous Great Train Robbers who were caught for committing the most stupid mistake in a criminal investigation by playing a game of Monopoly and leaving the board at the crime scene. Considered one of the greatest heists in history, this event became a turning point in the development of criminal investigation in the world, and also an important legend that’s still inspiring several films, TV series, and literature through the romanticization of outlaws. But how did this gang, who planned even the smallest detail, have forgotten about one simple thing?
On the morning of August 8, 1963 a train of the English Royal Mail stopped in an unscheduled station. The traffic light was red and although the driver knew they were carrying a valuable cargo and shouldn’t have changed their schedule, he decided to obey the red light that insisted on making him stop. He stopped and waited for a while, but it wouldn’t change to green, which startled him, he asked his assistant to get off and talk to the central station to notify the curious incident via the telephone cabin. He went there only to find that the wires have been cut. Suspicious, he attempted to run back to the train but was captured by some men who restrained him. He knew something bad was going to happen, but by then were unable to notify the rest of the staff.
As you can see, this was completely planned. The gang had studied the train’s route, its schedules, and security measures they had. They’d even chosen the perfect date to get the biggest treasure. This train normally carried about £300,000, but it had been a Bank Holiday weekend and on this particular occasion they were transporting around £2.6 million (about £49 million today). They knew they had to do it in a strategic spot where no one could see them, so they could have plenty of time to unload the train and escape before anyone could call the police. Then, they manipulated the traffic light to force the driver to stop at that remote spot.
Other members of the gang entered the driver’s carriage and hit him in the head, leaving the man semiconscious, with injuries that would affect him for the rest of his life. Then they proceeded to take their haul. There was no security among the crew of the locomotive, only post officers, so, naturally, they couldn’t do anything to stop these men. They were forced to lie face down while the wagons were being emptied. The robbery lasted about half an hour, and once they escaped, the crew informed the police about what had happened, but by the time they arrived at the place, the robbers were already far away from it, and nobody had a clue of who they were.
The sixteen members of the gang hid at a farm in Leatherslade (27 miles from the robbery) where they counted and split the haul into equal parts, but here comes the tricky part. Imagine you have to hide for a while in a remote place without being able to get out to even get some fresh air. What do you do? For these men, the option was simple. They played a board game to pass the time. They had found a Monopoly at the farm and decided it was a great way to entertain themselves. Moreover, to make it even more interesting, they had the brilliant idea of using some of the money they had recently acquired. If playing this particular game is a great way to get mad at your friends, imagine if there’s real money involved! But that’s only a supposition.
Now, they had been listening to the police radio signal and realized that they might find the farm way before they had expected it and decided to flee before this happened, but they needed to clean the place. They selected one of the members to take care of the task and even asked him to set the place on fire, which he didn’t do. When the police arrived, they found no strong evidence to find the criminals. What they did find was a board game that had been recently played. The box was open and some of the cards were still next to the metal pieces, one of which, ironically, was a replica of a train. The police didn’t pay too much attention to the game, but one of the officers thought it could be a definite evidence, so he inspected it.
He had been right. The story says that they only found a complete fingerprint on the board, which was allegedly set on the prison box of the game (see the irony?). They found the members of the gang and captured them. However, in the trials, only 11 out of 16 were sentenced to an average of 30 years in prison. Some of these men were not willing to spend the best years of their lives secluded, and five managed to escape. As for the money, it was never recovered.
As I mentioned, this robbery became a sort of popular legend that has been the inspiration for countless movies and TV series. In 2004, a company even wanted to create a video game, which never happened. Still, it’s a shocking event that shows us that even the smartest crime can be shattered by the most stupid, yet massive error, like playing with a Monopoly board and leaving it at the crime scene.
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