by Robert A. Waters
In 1937, Wisconsin-born Henry Lorenz Loftus, 22, and Canadian Harry Dwyer Donaldson, 27, longed to see the Wild West they’d read about in the pulp magazines. Slaving away in a Brooklyn, New York factory, the friends dreamed of riding the range, gunfights, and rescuing fair damsels in distress. After saving nearly $200, they quit their jobs and boarded a train for the border town of El Paso.
Rattling along the tracks, Loftus and Donaldson fantasized about adventures to come. But when they disembarked, the friends found El Paso not so much different than Brooklyn. The wannabe cowboys were disappointed to find paved roads, automobiles, telephone wires, and thriving neon-lit businesses. Undeterred, they spent $140 on horses, saddles, pistols, and hand-tooled leather holsters. Traveling across the border to Juarez, Mexico, Loftus and Donaldson purchased black sombreros and fancy Mexican boots. Now, dressed like dime-novel cowboys, the friends paraded around El Paso, much to the amusement of local residents.
While townspeople laughed at the northern “drugstore cowboys,” the Southern Pacific passenger train, nicknamed the Apache Limited, made its daily run through the city.
On November 24, 1937, at 11:20 p.m., the Limited headed out of El Paso, bound for Los Angeles. Jim Velsir, a brakeman on the train, described what happened next: “These two fellows got on the train at El Paso with tickets for Hermanos, N. M.,” he said. “They were in the first day coach. We were about 40 miles out when they pulled out their guns and ordered everyone to put up their hands. Everyone did.”
While Loftus covered conductor W. M. Holloway, Donaldson began moving down the aisle collecting valuables from passengers, including cash, watches, and jewelry. Loftus then moved to the engine room and ordered brakeman Velsir to stop the train.
Back in the passenger coach, Jose A. Rodriguez of El Paso “made a sudden move,” and Donaldson took a shot at him. The bullet hit Rodriguez’ pocket watch, saving his life. However, the shot caused other passengers and crew to react.
Roger Moon, Southern Pacific yardman, swung from the hip and knocked the gunman down. As Donaldson was being beaten senseless by about twenty passengers and crew, Loftus rushed back to help his partner. He, too, was tackled by W. L. Smith, a Southern Pacific employee traveling as a passenger. Struggling on the floor of the coach, Loftus shot Smith. Several passengers, including two sisters, Margaret and Beatrice Breton, disarmed Loftus and beat him until he stopped struggling.
The enraged crew and passengers lashed the robbers to seats, and tended to the mortally wounded Smith. The train continued to Deming, New Mexico, where Loftus and Donaldson were arrested. Donaldson had been beaten so badly he could hardly speak. The El Paso Herald-Post reported that “a bloody bandage draped his forehead. His jaw was swollen twice its size and his mouth was bruised out of shape.” Loftus had a broken nose.
They quickly confessed to their crimes, and both provided written details corroborating accounts of the crew and passengers.
Deputy Sheriff Jack Robertson decided to have a little fun with the city dudes. “So you thought you'd come out here and get tough, huh?” he said.
Loftus responded: “Well, we just decided on this stunt after our money got low. We wanted to go on west to California.”
Describing the area where the attempted holdup occurred as “sandy wastes” near the Mexican border, Robertson asked, “How do you think you could have gotten away in that sand with your high-heel boots?”
“We hadn't thought of that,” Loftus said.
W. L. Smith’s distraught wife explained to reporters that her husband had taken the Apache Limited to California so he could visit his seventeen-year-old daughter, who was ill. “I hadn't thought of his bravery until early this morning,” Mrs. Smith said. “It's wonderful to think that he would ‘go after’ those criminals to save others’ lives and protect property.”
On February 21, 1938, Loftus and Donaldson pleaded guilty to second degree murder. Each expressed remorse for killing Smith. After the judge sentenced each man to 50-75 years in prison, they were transported by automobile to the New Mexico Penitentiary in Santa Fe. There the robbers served out their time, ending the sad yet comedic saga of the “drugstore cowboys.”