Chris Evans asserted until he died that he never robbed a train and that he only killed in self defense. His exploits with John Sontag divided people in Tulare County: those who believed the evidence to the contrary and those, who despite evidence, were united in friendship and revenge.
The Southern Pacific Railroad made inroads in transportation in California, but it also made enemies. In the name of the greater good, the railroad company put progress over people, and displaced many from their property, including Evans.
Chris Evans had an adventuresome spirit. He worked at many different jobs as a laborer and lived in a house with a barn in Visalia. His marriage to Molly Byrd yielded seven children.
John and George Sontag were brothers. John worked for Southern Pacific Railroad and was injured in an accident. He had several broken ribs which put pressure on his lungs and a broken leg which caused a permanent limp. He was no longer fit to work for the railroad company, so they canned him. He lived with Evans for a while working odd jobs. Younger brother George was also on the scene, but not as much is known about him.
On August 3, 1892, men dressed as tramps hopped on a train bound for Fresno. They each wore masks, had a double barrel shotgun and a revolver. In response to an invitation to get off the train, the men opened fire. Then they blew up the express car and absconded with over $10,000 dollars in gold and silver coins. Accomplices who were hiding behind the nearby school house helped the robbers escape.
Coincidentally, the following day Evans was seen in Visalia after a long absence, and John Sontag suddenly appeared claiming to have been in the East. The sheriffs were suspicious. They knew that George Sontag was a passenger on that train, so they assumed he was a collaborator, took him to the station for questioning, and then locked him up.
Trying to play it cool and not make a scene, Detective Smith and Deputy Sheriff Witty decided to arrest John next and then go back for Evans the following day. When they arrived at Evans’ house, the law men were greeted with a spray of bullets. Not being able to react fast enough, Smith and Witty were wounded, chased off the property and forced to leave their horse and rig behind.
Evans and Sontag headed for the hills. They returned the next morning and hid with the horse and buggy in the barn. The sheriffs came back for their transportation and set up a stake out. When they knew the outlaws were back, they started shooting into the barn. The robbers returned fire and killed one man. The sheriff’s bullet did hit a target, and the groans of someone dying were heard. When they entered the barn to make an arrest, the sheriff’s horse was dying, and Evans and Sontag had escaped on foot.
Evans and John Sontag had been the presumed perpetrators of previous train robberies, including one in Minnesota, but there was never enough proof to pin it on them. For this so called Collis Robbery, however, they were wanted, and Southern Pacific Railroad put up a $5000 reward for each, dead or alive.
Thus began a ten month man hunt. Since sentiment against the Southern Pacific was so strong and the Evans had lots of friends, the runaways got help at every turn. Several posses followed numerous leads and often got close. In one incident, Evans’ oldest daughter, Eva, overheard talk that a posse knew where to find her dad and his accomplice. Eva and Evans were very close, and she wanted to do something to help. She hopped on her horse and bravely followed the posse into the woods to warn the fugitives. She fired a warning shot into the air that alerted the bandits. Her plan was successful. Evans and Sontag eluded capture, and Eva returned home unscathed.
After being on the lam for ten months, Evans and John Sontag were exhausted, and Sontag’s railroad injuries made it extremely difficult for him to stay on the move. They devised a plan to escape to South Africa, but they needed money. Evans got word to his wife to wire Sontag’s dad and ask for $100.
On June 11, 1893, the sheriffs got wind the outlaws were going to sneak back to the Evans’ Visalia home to pick up the dough. The sheriffs were waiting and picked off the men as they approached. During the thirty minute gun battle, both Sontag and Evans were wounded. Sontag’s injuries were nearly fatal, and he begged Evans to finish the job. Evans couldn’t bring himself to do it, so Sontag tried to do it himself. He held his gun to his head, but he was too weak to pull the trigger. He lay unconscious in a bed of straw until the sheriffs came back the next morning and carted him off to jail. He died there on July 3.
Evans was debilitated but managed to run away. He ended up at widow Perkins’ house and because they were friendly, she invited him in. Her son saw immediate benefit in having Evans around. He rode to Visalia and offered to tell the sheriffs Evans’ whereabouts for the reward. When the posse showed up at the Perkins’ home, boy Perkins carefully removed the gun from under the sleeping Evans’ pillow and invited the posse in. Evans surrendered and was taken to jail without incident.
The exploits of Evans and Sontag quickly became the stuff of legend. After one week of rehearsal, on September 19, 1893, a play opened in San Francisco reenacting their saga. “Evans and Sontag or The Visalia Bandits” played to cheering, standing room only crowds. Audiences went wild when the real Molly and Eva Evans walked on stage to play themselves. Understudies played the roles so the women could attend Evans’ trial, but they resumed performing when the play went on tour.
Evans was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. His life in the Fresno jail was comfortable, and he had dinner with his wife almost every night. On December 28, a guy named Morrell brought the Evanses their dinner tray and hid two pistols under it. Evans had a kid paid off to spread a rumor that another train robbery was about to happen, and this preoccupied the sheriffs. Having a gun pointed at him convinced the guard to let the men walk, and after killing one man on their way out, Evans and Morrell were free. Molly Evans had no previous knowledge of the plan and was not arrested as an accomplice.
For a couple of months Evans and Morrell managed to stay ahead of the sheriffs. On February 13, 1894, a posse snuck up on their camp and fired three shots. The bullets missed, and Evans and Morrell high tailed it out of there leaving everything behind. They eluded the sheriffs for another month or so.
The outlaws ended up at Grandma Byrd’s home in Visalia, and Evans was reunited with his family. When the lawmen learned where the criminals were hiding, they again formed a posse and surrounded the house. News of a possible capture spread quickly, and a crowd gathered eager to watch the events unfold first hand. Evans exchanged notes with Sheriff Kay via Evans’ son. His only demand was to get rid of the crowd and for Kay and one other man to come up to the house. Evans and Morrell walked out onto the porch unarmed. Evans kissed his children goodbye and both men surrendered.
Evans served the rest of his time at Folsom prison. As an inmate, he worked in the hospital and library. He wrote a book called Eurasia about a country with a socialist government. Evans was released on parole in 1911 and joined his wife who had moved to Portland, where he died six years later.
George Sontag was convicted for his part in the train robbery, and Morrell was convicted for his efforts in helping Evans escape from jail. Both men ended up at Folsom. George made one unsuccessful escape attempt. Both were eventually released.
QUESTION: Would you be able to help a friend die if they asked you to?
© 2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved
Maxwell, Hu, Evans & Sontag. Fresno, CA: Panorama West Books, 1981.
Menefee, Eugene L. and Dodge, Fred A., “History of Tulare and Kings Counties, California,” Historic Record Company, Los Angeles, California, 1013.
Smith, Wallace, Prodigal Sons. Boston: The Christopher Publishing House, 1951.