Evans was born in 1847 near Ottawa in Canada but settled in the town of Visalia in the San Joaquin Valley of California as a typical farmer and was considered a hard-working and honest man.
But Evans had real or imagined grievances against the Southern Pacific Railroad which he was more than happy share with anyone who would listen, among them his farmhand John Sontag.
Sontag had been employed by the railroad until he was injured in an accident and became bitter because of the company’s ill-treatment of him after he became convalescent. The two men both bore a grudge and decided to take their revenge and make some easy money along the way.
In January 1889 they boarded a train and after a short distance they donned masks and climbed over the tender. They ordered the driver to stop the train then stole $600 from the express car before escaping on horses they had hidden nearby, returning to Evans’ farm.
They carried out a further robbery in exactly the same way a month later stealing a further $5,000 and went on to commit a succession of similar crimes over the following eighteen months becoming more and more daring.
[themedy_pullright colour=”red” colour_custom=”” text=”Evans disabled the train with dynamite then blew open the door of the express car”]In August 1892 they agreed to hold up the San Fransisco to Los Angeles train. Evans and Sontag’s brother George boarded the train and stopped it in the usual way. Evans disabled the train with dynamite then blew open the door of the express car and seized three sacks of money. George Sontag bought a return ticket to Visalia on the very same train which had been delayed by the damage caused by Evans and listened in as his fellow passengers described the hold-up.
Evans and John Sontag returned to Visalia by buggy and the gang were disappointed to discover that their three sack haul of cash contained only $500, the remainder being made up of Mexican and Peruvian notes.
By now, the authorities were determined to catch the gang. The local sheriff heard that George Sontag had been aboard the train during the hold-up and took him in for questioning. The sheriff and his deputy then returned to Evans’ farm where a gunfight ensued with Evans seriously wounding the deputy.
Evans and Sontag escaped but returned to the farm the following night where a small group of local men was waiting for them. Both sides opened fire and one of the men was killed instantly. The sheriff heard the shots and took a posse to the farm but Evans and Sontag had made good their escape.
[themedy_pullright colour=”red” colour_custom=”” text=”Life on the run was hard and Evans and Sontag hatched a plan to escape to South Africa”]The Southern Pacific Railroad put up a $5,000 reward for each of them, dead or alive and so began a ten-month manhunt. Life on the run was hard and Evans and Sontag hatched a plan to escape to South Africa. In June 1893 the authorities got wind that the two were to go to Evans’ farm to collect the money they needed for the journey and a posse lay in wait for them. There followed a thirty-minute gunfight in which Sontag was mortally wounded while Evans again managed to escape.
He made his way to Widow Perkins house who took him in, but her son saw the opportunity to make some easy money and went to the sheriff’s office to let them know of Evans’ whereabouts in exchange for the reward. He took them back to the house and Evans surrendered without a fight.
The exploits of Evans and Sontag quickly became the stuff of legend and in September 1893, after just a week of rehearsals, a play opened in San Francisco reenacting their story. ‘Evans and Sontag or The Visalia Bandits’ played to cheering, standing room only crowds.
Evans was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment at a jail in Fresno. But his story didn’t end there. Two pistols were smuggled in and he and another man again managed to escape killing another man on the way out.
Evans was able to elude his pursuers for several months but was eventually recaptured and jailed at Folsom Prison. While there he wrote Eurasia in which he described his idea of the ideal society.
He was paroled in 1911 and joined his wife in Portland, Oregon, where he died six years later. The story of Evans and Sontag was the subject of a tv programme in 1955 as part of the Stories of the Century series which you can see below.