With a biblical surname and an employee of a mine called the Golden Rule, he really should have been a more upstanding citizen. It was the golden part of that mine name that caused his downfall, as it does so many.
In July 1905, a single bandit held up the Meadows-Warren stage. Hoping not to be recognized, the robber covered his entire face with a kerchief, not even bothering with eyeholes. The weave of the cloth was probably loose enough for him to see out without witness eyes seeing in well enough to identify him. To complete his outfit, the man brandished a mismatched pair of pistols.
The highwayman demanded that the driver of the coach “throw down the sack.” Pretending not to understand precisely what the bandit was after; the driver threw down a sack filled with bottles. This not being the exact sack the outlaw wanted, he specified that it was the registered mail bag that interested him. The driver reluctantly tossed that to the ground, at which point the bandit told him to jump down and open it.
Once the contents were revealed, the bandit signaled for the stage to move on down the road.
The robber made off with $300 in cash and $1,200 in gold, most of the latter being the property of the Golden Rule operation. That would be the equivalent of about $40,000 today.
John Gideon did not wait a tick to start spending money fast enough to draw suspicion onto himself. No one could identify the bandit, but they had little trouble identifying a shirt and pistols found in Gideon’s possession.
Many men in Idaho’s criminal history paid for murder with a few years in jail. Gideon paid a little more for the theft of gold and currency. Robbing the mail is and was a federal offense. He was convicted of the crime and given a life sentence.
Following the trial, which took place in federal court in Moscow, Gideon came close to a moment of excitement. He confided in a cellmate that he had committed the crime, but he didn’t intend to pay for it. He planned to stomp the leg of the federal marshal assigned to transport him to prison at McNeill’s Island in the Puget Sound, a federal facility. It was a real threat because Gideon would be wearing an Oregon Boot on his foot. That was an iron device designed to make escape more difficult. It was heavy enough to break the bone of a man who might drop his guard. Fortunately, the cellmate told the story before the train left with Gideon, making the marshal sufficiently leery of that booted foot.
After spending about a year in the lockup at McNeill’s Island, Gideon was transferred to the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. It was there that he found another day or two of fame.
On April 21, 1910, Gideon and five coconspirators overpowered a locomotive crew to make an escape. A switch engine was in the prison yard—probably not an uncommon occurrence, there being tracks to facilitate that. Using pistols carved for the occasion to look real, they pressed the barrels of the faux weapons into the necks of crew members. The engineer, valuing his life appropriately, crashed the steam engine through the closed prison gates.
The prisoners were not well-acquainted with train schedules, so did not know when or if an oncoming train might slam into them. One-by-one they jumped off the roaring train. They hadn’t gone more than a mile. All but one of them, including Gideon, were captured within a matter of hours.
The bold escape made headlines across the country, failed though it ultimately was. Perhaps the fame gave Gideon some satisfaction, though it clearly did not make up for a life in prison. He became, as they say, a model prisoner. In 1920, John Gideon walked away from the prison farm where he was working, never to be heard from again.