Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

Tom Vernon | Part 3 of 3
Thrills as Cowboy and Dreary Days In Prison Climax The Colorful Career of Tom Vernon.

Saugus train robber Tom Vernon, left, sits across a table from Maj. Gordon W. Lillie (Pawnee Bill), center, and journalist Jim Hopkins, writer for the Cumberland (Md.) Evening Times. This is the original photographic print used for the photo illustration (below) that accompanied Part 3 of Hopkins' three-part series on Vernon, which was syndicated by the Newspaper Enterprise Association. The print had been cut along a jagged line and glued to move the subjects closer to each other for the photo illustration. We have reassembled the photograph the way it was originally created in the darkroom. Scroll down to see the writing on the back of the photograph.

Webmaster's note.

Justice was swift back in 1929. Tom Vernon robbed the train Nov. 10; he pleaded guilty Dec. 18 and was sentenced the same day to life in prison. This series was published in late December 1929-early January 1930, but the interview was conducted prior to his trial court date.

Pawnee Bill Pays Tribute to Alleged Train Robber's Skill as Rider.

[Original] Editor's Note: This is the last of three articles by Tom Vernon, one of the few surviving old-time western "bad men," who is now in jail charged with train robbery. In previous articles he has told of his youth in the Wyoming cattle country, his adventure as a wild west show rider and a soldier in China and his first jail sentence.

By Tom (Buffalo) Vernon
(As Told to Jim Hopkins, NEA Service Writer)

After a [sic] got out of that Pennsylvania prison I headed west, and landed with Pawnee Bill's Wild West show as a broncho rider. I was the first fellow to make the three-horse jump and the crowds liked it. I was a pretty good rider. Ask Pawnee Bill about it.

(Pawnee Bill — Major Gordon W. Lillie — was in the cell with the reporter while Vernon was telling his story. He nodded approval, "Vernon was the best broncho rider I ever had with my show," he said. "Once he got on a horse there wasn't any bucking him off.")

I stayed with Pawnee Bill's show two years. It was there I got my nickname, "Buffalo." The name Vernon, by the way, had been given me by that white man, Pete, on the Sioux reservation when I was a kid.

In 1908 we landed in California. I quit the show and went to work for a man who owned a livery stable in Cement, Calif.[1] The job was all right; but one day I had a fight with a constable, and I skipped town, taking about $60 of the livery stable money with me.

I wandered to Winnemucca, Nev., and got a job as a cowboy on a big ranch. I got along fine, until one day a horse fell on me and broke my leg. They took me to a doctor in Minnemucca — and there were posters up in the town, offering a reward for me. The town marshal recognized me, and I was taken back to California.

My former boss wanted to drop the charges. But his wife didn't like me — she claimed I used to get him drunk — and I got four years in San Quentin prison.

I got out in three. I couldn't get a job because of my prison record, so I enlisted in the cavalry again. I was sent down to the Mexican border, but after I'd served two years they found out about my prison record, and court-martialed me for fraudulent enlistment. I was given a dishonorable discharge.

I took to punching cattle again. I roamed all over the west. Finally I landed with a rodeo outfit, making my first appearance at the big Pendleton, Ore., roundup. While there I loaned a big, raw-boned cowboy 10 bucks so he could enter the broncho-riding contest. He was Hoot Gibson, and that was the start of the career that made him a famous movie star.[2]

Well, I wandered up and down California in the rodeos, but I didn't have much luck. Most of the judges were moving picture men, and they gave prizes to the movie riders, so's to build up their reputations. I managed to keep going, though, until the World War began.

Then I decided to go to Canada and join the army. I got as far as East St. Louis where I got a job for the English government buying horses and mules for their army. I got along all right until I bought a little roan mare, which suited me so much I kept her for myself. They caught me, and I drew another term in prison.

I served it in Ohio. After I'd served 16 months, Governor James M. Cox visited the prison. The chaplain took him to my cell, and I told him my story. I guess it interested him; anyhow, he gave me a pardon.[3]

I got out in June of 1917, and rightaway I joined the U.S. cavalry — for the third time. They sent me to San Antonio, where I was put in charge of the remount station. I spent a year there, leaving the army in 1919.

Then I headed west again. I broke into the movies, doubling for big stars that couldn't ride, and I thought I was sitting pretty — until one day the foreman of a ranch had me arrested for stealing his horse. As a matter of fact I'd paid for the horse, but I couldn't prove it, and I got ten years in Folsom prison. I served two and a half years before I was paroled.

When I got out I worked as a janitor. I had good luck, and made a killing on the horses at Tiajuana [sic], so I had a big bank account. But I wasn't used to handling money, and first thing I knew I got arrested for being $500 overdrawn. They sent me to Folsom again, and I served five years.

After I got out of prison I couldn't get a job. My prison record was too much for me. So then—

Well, the officers claim that I held up a couple of trains. I'm not talking about those holdups now. When I get into court I'll tell my story. Maybe, if I tell them my life story, they'll think I had a right to be an outlaw.

What I finally did do was come here to try to get a job at Pawnee Bill's ranch. And I'd only been here a couple of hours when they arrested me for those two holdups.

And there's my story. You can decide for yourself whether I ought to be called one of the bad men of the west.


1. Cement, Calif., was a company town in today's Fairfield, established by the Pacific Portland Cement Co. It dried up in 1927 and became a ghost town.

2. Buffalo Vernon was a champion bulldogger at Pendleton, but the years in this story don't add up. He says he arrived in California in 1908 and then did a three-year prison stretch followed by two years in the cavalry before rodeoing at Pendleton. But according to the Pendleton Round-Up centennial anthology, Buffalo Vernon participated in the first Round-Up in 1910. "Buffalo Vernon [was a] champion steer bulldogger in 1911 and winner of $75. That year he won money, but the year before he won prestige when he first demonstrated to Pendleton crowds the art of wrestling a steer to the ground and holding its lip between his teeth to keep it down. At the closing night's dance, Vernon must have beamed brighter than the loud yellow shirt that fans tore from his back and ripped into souvenirs" (Pendleton Round-Up at 100, 2010:181). He's not mentioned in the Pendleton book after 1911. We'd almost be inclined to think "our" Tom might have assumed Buffalo Tom's identity, were it not for the corroboration of Pawnee Bill.

3. Cox served nonconsecutive terms as Ohio governor: Jan. 13, 1913, to Jan. 11, 1915; and Jan. 8, 1917, to Jan. 10, 1921.

Click to enlarge.




Passengers / Earliest Known 11-10-1929


Daybreak 11-11-1929


Newsreel Footage


Loren Ayers x5



Boynton Story


Pollack Story


LAT 11-11-1929


Vernon Captured


Mugshots 12/1929


Extradition 12-12-1929


AP 12-19-1929



REAL: Tom Vernon Prison Records


REAL: Horse Theft 1920


BOGUS: Tom Vernon Letters 1929-1963


BOGUS: Tom Vernon's Fake Photo ID 1962


BOGUS: Vernon's Own Story in 3 Parts


BOGUS: Cattle Kate Story 12-7-1929


BOGUS: Vernon Retells Story in 1953


BOGUS: Sweetwater Incident 1967


BOGUS Sideshow: Lester F. Mead
'Confessor' 11-1929


REAL: Buffalo Vernon 1884-1939



1957-1958 x3


Pardon 1964


Death Cert. 1967


After the Wreck
No. 5042 x3

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