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Found 16 Resources

the herdsman

National Museum of American History
Rudolf Eickemeyer, Jr. (1862–1932) used a wide variety of printing processes, printing out some negatives in more than one medium. In his lectures, he pointed out that this approach to photography was important because in the hands of a photographer who “lives and understands the infinitely varied moods of nature, photography can be made to express and interpret them.” In correspondence with Dr. Olmstead at the Smithsonian, as the presentation of his gifts and bequest to the museum was being arranged, Eickemeyer wrote: “The collection illustrates the use of every important process and will, I believe, be of real educational value.”

The first of the Eickemeyer photographic collection came to the National Museum’s Department of Arts and Industries (the “Castle”), Division of Graphic Arts in 1922 at the close of a large exhibition of Eickemeyer’s work at the Anderson Gallery in New York. It was a gift from the photographer of five framed prints from the New York show that he considered representative of his work.

In 1929, Eickemeyer gave the Smithsonian 83 framed prints (including copies of the prints that he had previously given the museum), 15 portfolios, his medals and awards, and several miscellaneous photographic paraphernalia. In 1930, he made a will bequeathing most of his remaining prints, negatives, photographic equipment and other objects relating to his 30-year career as a photographer to the Smithsonian Institution.

Upon Eickemeyer’s death in 1932, an accession consisting primarily of photographic equipment from his studio came to the Smithsonian. Included in the bequest were 2 cameras, several lenses, scales, timers, printing frames, plate holders, dry mounters and a lecture case with slide projector and hand-colored lantern slides. Also included were 43 albums, journals and portfolios and assorted negatives and contact prints, many marked “discards.” There are 58 albums, notebooks and portfolios in the collection. Eickemeyer requested in his will that his gifts and bequests be called The Rudolf Eickemeyer, Jr. Collection.

The Clamshell Cave and Herdsman Island, Staffa

National Museum of American History

The divine herdsman and a weaving princess

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Return of the Herdsman

National Museum of African Art
Watercolor painting on paper consisting of a blue circle in the upper part of the painting with circles and geometric motif within, and three undulating lines in blue, probably representing water.

Large Trees on a Road; Sheep Crossing a Stream

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
A clump of large trees borders a road, right. In the left distance a herdsman drives sheep across a shallow stream.

Fingal's Cave, Staffa

National Museum of American History

Thirteen Apollo Subjects for Ceiling

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Center, octagonal representation of Apollo and Muses. Captions written in red crayon: Apollo e le Muse/ Mercurio robo li bovi/ dapello/ e larco/ con la faratia. Octagon surrounded by eight circles, showing Latona visiting Jupiter, inscription above: giove latona; Latona with her children Diana and Apollo, inscription: Latona Diana e/ Apollo. Clymene kneeling before Apollo, inscription: apollo fetonte/ cliomene. Apollo standing besides drinking Pegasus, inscription: Apollo cavallo/ pegasso. At left, Apollo appears to two praying girls, probably Leucothoe and Cythera, inscription: Leucotea Apollo. Bottom: Apollo and Neptune shown seated beside Python, inscription: serpente pito/ ne. Apollo pursuing Daphne, inscription at right, Apollo e Dafne. Rows of two circles shown at outmost left and right. Apollo in sun chariot drawn by four horses, inscription: carro d'Apollo. Apollo as herdsman, inscription at left: apollo pastor. Woman shown seated and sacrificing, inscription: la pitaneza sacia/ Apollo. Apollo shown supporting Hyacinthus, inscription: Apollo e Giancinto.

Torre di Schiavi

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Vandals Deface Rock Art In Chad's Ennedi World Heritage Site

Smithsonian Magazine

Last July, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization officially added part of the Ennedi Massif in the Africa nation of Chad to its World Heritage List. While the global body may have respect for the natural landscape of cliffs and canyons, inscribed with one of the largest collections of ancient rock art in the Sahara, it seems a few locals don’t feel the same. The BBC reports that some of the area’s ancient cave paintings and rock art have been defaced by vandals.

According to the BBC, the graffiti artists wrote their names in French and Arabic over some of the paintings. According to AFP, the last inscription is dated January of this year. Authorities believe local youth are involved in the crime. The nation’s cultural minister Mahamat Saleh Haroun calls the act a "tragedy."

“It’s an African story and they wanted to destroy that,” he tells the BBC. “That’s why I’m talking about a tragedy, because it’s part of us.”

Experts have been deployed to Ennedi to assess the damage, and the UN representative for culture in Chad, Abdelkerim Adoum Bahar, tells the BBC he believes the paintings could be repaired.

According to Ra Moon at Atlas of Wonders, the Ennedi Plateau is an arid region full of sandstone arches, spires and bridges similar to formations in southern Utah. African Geographic reports that more than 100 rock art sites have been discovered on the Plateau, some of which date back 8,000 years. The rock art shows a very different world than the arid desert that now surrounds the rocky Ennedi. The art includes animals like cheetahs, giraffes, elephants and rhinos. It also depicts communities of people living on the plateau, and shows dancing, warriors and herdsman tending cattle.

It’s not the first time vandals have attacked priceless rock art. In May, authorities discovered that vandals had scratched hands stencils that were thousands of years old at Tasmania’s Nirmena Nala rock shelter. Some of the handprints were scratched completely off. In August, some boys in Norway scratched a 5,000-year-old image of a skiing man, a piece of rock art that is considered a symbol of the nation. While the boys thought they were improving the art by incising it deeper, they scratched away the original markings. And in 2015, geology students from Ohio State University used a marker to draw a heart and their names over a pictograph of a red horse during a field trip to Utah’s Manti-La Sal National Forest.

Rock art from the Ennedi Plateau (Comité Technique/ Sven Oehm/UNESCO)

Art to Zoo: Africa Behind and Beyond the Headlines (1980)

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Lesson plan introducing students to the interplay between environment and traditional culture in sub-Saharan Africa. Students learn about the significance of African masks and create their own masks.

Gulyásleves: The Great Ancestor of Hungarian Cuisine

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

Literally translated as “herdsman soup,” but commonly known as goulash, gulyásleves can be traced back to the ancient nomadic tribe of Magyars, who settled the Carpathian Basin in the ninth century. It is an ancestral stew from which many traditional Hungarian dishes have been derived.

Gulyásleves became popular in the Middle Ages among herdsmen tending cattle in the Hungarian Puszta (Great Plains) and leading them to distant markets in Venice, Moravia, and Nuremberg. Along the way, they would slaughter animals deemed too feeble to sell, and these provided the beef for the stew, which they would cook in a cauldron over an open fire.

Over the years, the dish has evolved, as different communities have adapted it. In the late nineteenth century, Puszta cooks added paprika powder to season and preserve the meat, producing a spicier gulyásleves, which evolved into a dish known as pörkölt. Upper-class chefs softened the paprika’s strong flavors with sour cream, and diluted the stew into a soup. They also varied the gulyásleves by turning the paprika-based broth into a sauce, pouring it over chicken and serving it with side dishes such as galuska/nokedli or tarhonya (egg noodles). Thus was born paprikás csirke or chicken paprikash.

Moreover, gulyásleves has served as a symbol of national cohesion in the struggle to preserve Hungarian identity against attempts to homogenize various peoples within the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867 to 1918). Gulyásleves was eventually adopted as Hungary’s national dish. While indoor cooking pots have replaced cauldrons in urban households, outdoor cauldron cooking remains popular for social gatherings in Hungary today, not unlike family barbecues in the United States. Hungarians all over the world also prepare indoor variations of these traditional dishes. Indeed, there are as many versions of gulyásleves as there are Hungarian grandmothers.

Gulyásleves, in its more modern soup form, will be available for sale at the Budapest Bistro concession during the Festival. The soup contains cubes of beef, smoked bacon, onion, carrots, potato, tomatoes, caraway seeds, paprika, and pepper. Paprikás csirke, as a stew of creamy, rich paprika sauce poured over slow-cooked chicken, will also be served. Stop by and enjoy these tasty expressions of Hungarian heritage.

The culinary portion of the Hungarian Heritage program will showcase cauldron cooking in general and gulyásleves in particular.

Lili Kocsis is the Participant Assistant for the 2013 Hungarian Heritage Festival program. She graduated from Harvard University in 2011 with a B.A. in linguistics. She dedicates her spare time to purposeful travel, food photography, and writing about regional cuisine.

Forget Wristbands, Health Trackers of the Future Will Be Skin Patches

Smithsonian Magazine

As trendy as health-tracking bracelets may be, it might not be long before they seem as dated as dial-up Internet and as subtle as a boom box.

An even more sophisticated type of wearable tech is evolving quickly, one that while barely noticeable, could transform personal health care.  It’s the electronic skin patch, and two studies published this month hint at what may be possible with this rectangle of soft, flexible material filled with tiny components. Able to stick to—and move with—a person’s skin like a temporary tattoo, the latest models show that these patches could provide a wide range of medical treatment—from gathering, storing and transmitting data about what’s going on inside a person’s body 24/7 to detecting when that person needs medication and then dispensing it.

Based on research published in the journal Science, a device developed jointly by engineers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Northwestern University could have a broad application, capable of tracking vitals and muscular activity, but also of monitoring symptoms related to a specific illness.   

For instance, the lead scientists on the project, John Rogers at Illinois and Yonggang Huang at Northwestern, say their patch proved to be just as accurate as conventional equipment in recording EKGs of heartbeats and EEG readings of brain activity—which means that kind of data could be gathered without a person needing to get wired up in a doctor’s office or clinic. That, Huang points out, makes the patch particularly well-suited for situations where a doctor needs to collect data from a patient over a long stretch of time, such as when diagnosing sleep or heart problems, or conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.

The goal, he says, is to use “stretchable electronics” to continuously monitor a person’s health without them noticing it, and then have it send that information wirelessly to a computer or smart phone. This patch is the latest iteration of what Rogers, a leader in the field, has called “epidermal electronics.” He contends that components adhered to skin through a patch can provide a richer, more precise set of data than a wristband subjected to random movements.   

The most ingenious aspect of the device is a design that allows sensors, capacitors and batteries to fit into a patch as thin as a human hair while still maintaining the flexibility to move with the skin. The key is the use of microfluidics—the patch is actually filled with fluid in which the components are suspended—and wires folded like origami so that no matter which way the device bends or stretches, they adapt to the motion. That flexibility has allowed the engineers to use cheaper off-the-shelf parts rather than the customized ones in an earlier version. And that makes this patch more commercially viable, although it’s still probably two years away from being available to doctors.

Body language

The other study, which appears in the April edition of Nature Nanotechnology, focuses on the research of a team in South Korea that has developed a somewhat different kind of electronic patch. It addresses a drawback of devices that provide a continuous flow of medication into a patient’s body. The problem is that these drug-delivery systems have no way of checking a patient’s vitals, so they dispense the same level of medication no matter his or her current condition.

Sensors in the patch created by engineers at Seoul National University can, based on tension and compression of muscles, determine when drugs are needed and when they’re not. For example, when a Parkinson’s patient starts to have tremors, the patch can pick up on the motion and distinguish it from normal arm movements, then deliver the necessary drugs. Same thing when someone with epilepsy has a seizure. The device can also store data that can help doctors spot patterns and see how patients respond to medications. The prototype focuses on treating motion disorders, but the researchers say the patch can be adapted to track things like perspiration, temperature, heart rate or blood oxygen levels and use that data to trigger treatment of other conditions.

The researchers acknowledge that their patch is still years away from coming to market. It still doesn’t have the capability to wirelessly transmit the data it captures and stores to another device. But it does add another dimension to what these devices can do. Now a single, two-inch wearable patch can diagnose a condition and treat it.

What they’re wearing

Here’s other recent news on health-tracking devices:

Gut instincts: Researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York are studying whether a patch could be used to treat Crohn’s disease. It’s still not clear what causes the inflammatory bowel disease, but scientists want to see if they can retrain the immune system to work properly by delivering T cells to the gut.

An Apple a day: According to the website 9to5Mac, which tracks what’s going on behind the scenes at Apple, the company is going to plunge into the health-tracking business this fall with the launch of an app called Healthbook. The app will reportedly be able to track all kinds of personal data, including physical activity, heart rate, blood oxygen level, blood pressure, hydration levels, blood sugar and sleep patterns.

The heat is on: A company called the Silent Herdsman has developed a collar for cows that can monitor their behavior and let farmers know such important things as when they're in heat. 

St. Barts Is Like the Galapagos for Linguistic Diversity

Smithsonian Magazine

The island of Saint Barthélemy isn’t just a popular vacation playground for the rich and famous — it’s also a destination for scholars of languages. Though it is tiny, St. Barts in the Caribbean’s Leeward Islands is home to four different languages, all connected to the island’s history. In the Christian Science Monitor, Ruth Walker, describing the findings of a 2013 book by linguist Julianne Maher, writes:

Today St. Barths is a French territory of eight square miles and about 8,000 people. Professor Maher’s map shows the island’s four sections with their languages: St. Barth Patois in Sous le Vent (the leeward, or western, end); St. Barth Creole in Au Vent (the windward, or eastern, end); “Saline French,” named for local salt ponds, in the center; and English in Gustavia, the capital, built by internationally minded Swedes.

Maher’s book is called The Survival of People and Languages: Schooners, Goats and Cassava in St. Barthélemy, French West Indies; it alludes to three traditional communities on the island—the seafarers, the herdsman and the farmers. The island may be small, but has such strict boundaries that these communtiies all have different blood types, Walker reports. And different languages.

After French settlers arrived in the 17th century, three dialects arose and diversified. Now, the Patois is different from that found in Cajun French or Canadian French; the creole is similar to that of Martinique; the Saline French was mostly spoken by older people, at the time Maher visited, and "very fast." English in the capital cropped up when France’s King Louis XVI gave the island to the Swedes in 1784. Sweden returned St Barts to France in 1978.

Gathering recordings of the different dialects for required hard work, Maher writes in the introduction to her book:

The St. Barths were suspicious of outsiders and their language varieties were used only with family or close friends, not with strangers. And to record their speech? Absolutely not! Initial contacts were very discouraging.

The reluctance, she suggests, lingers from the disparaging attitude that surrounding islands and France took toward people from St. Barts. But dozens of visits over the years built up enough trust for Maher to document the languages. 

The island is more than just a good place to study how distinct languages can emerge even in a small population. It’s also a place to study how languages die. Maher, Walker writes, tells the story of the island’s languages with "an awareness of reporting on phenomena that are vanishing almost as she writes. Many of those she interviewed have since died."

Saline French is "probably already gone," and St. Barts Creole is in decline. Standard French is gaining ground (even pushing English out). But St. Barts Patois is hanging on as a mark of St. Barts identity. But as the isolation of the past fades in the face of tourist traffic and increasing prosperity, that too may change. Maher notes:

My hope is that the reader will come to appreciate not only this distinctive society but also its courage and fortitude in its centuries-old struggle with adversity." 

New Book Clarifies Butter’s Spread and Chronicles Its Wars With Margarine

Smithsonian Magazine

What is butter? Is it a condiment? A baking fat? The scientific product of an intense process involving matters like temperature, friction, and fat content? Or something more like a miracle? It’s all of the above, argues food writer Elaine Khosrova in her new book, Butter: A Rich History.

Butter was discovered, most likely, by accident. Khosrova suggests it was probably the result of a Stone Age herdsman storing his milk inside an animal skin, and a bumpy ride agitating that milk into greatness. Khosrova writes that early people couldn’t understand the seemingly magical process by which liquid cream was whipped and beaten into a rich, golden, semi-solid state. Nor could they always reliably make it happen. This unpredictability cloaked butter in an aura of mystery and reverence. In preindustrial Europe, Khosrova writes, the dairymaid occupied a vaunted status, “at once a paragon of domestic virtue and a hidden dairy cabalist.”

Butter’s history is spread worldwide, meaning Khosrova’s journey to study its origins had her hopscotching the globe. Along the way, she traveled to Bhutan to witness the making of yak butter in an ancient style, toured the Butter Museum in Ireland, and watched the ritual sculpting of the Iowa State Fair butter cow. She also studied 20th century health fears about butter, which have, in recent decades, begun to turn around. (American butter consumption recently hit at a 40-year high, with each of us eating an average of 5.6 pounds a year.)

We interviewed Khosrova about humankind’s long, torrid, not-always-smooth affair with a food many of us love but take for granted. You’ll never look at this golden toast-topper the same way again.

How did you get interested in this, er, rich topic?

I’ve been a food writer since 1990. Before that I was a pastry chef. For most of my career, I was deeply involved in food—whether it was hands on or writing about it— but I didn’t give butter much thought at all. It’s sort of an incredible irony that I sort of woke up one day to how unique and almost mysterious it is.

About nine years ago, I was working for a restaurant trade magazine and I had to do a lot of product tastings and write them up as product reviews. One day I had 12 or 15 different butters on the table. I wasn’t thinking much about it—it’s so elemental, butter; how different could they be? I had tasted really nice French butter, I knew the difference [in taste of] a higher fat butter, but I hadn’t really give it much attention.

That one day was a little bit of an epiphany because I had them all in front of me. The textures were impressively different, from kind of slack and greasy to an almost fudgy, waxy rich texture. And the flavors evolved from something kind of sweet and milky to something quite tangy, and others were pretty salty. I was like, “Huh, I can’t really explain how this happens.” I went to get a book on butter—and there wasn’t one.

I’ve always loved butter. So now I really wanted to understand it better. I got to understand how dynamic the butter-making world is, where you have three things that come together: man, land and beast. If you look at this globally, there’s so much variety among those three elements.

You write that “since many large dairies succeed or fail based on the volume of their milk production, Holstein (cows) continue to be the most common cow in our national farmscape. They’ve been bred to ably top the charts of milk output … but not necessarily make the most or best butter.” Can you tell me more about what breeds of cow make the best butter?

Holsteins produce a ton of milk. It’s perfectly good milk. But when you get into butter makers and cheese markers who are really concerned about the protein content, the solids, the butterfat content, they’re looking at other breeds. Jerseys are really popular; Guernseys make fabulous cream; Brown Swiss is another good breed.

Much depends on what that animal is fed, how old the animal is, and the period of lactation. —There’s an incredible number of variables. But, in general, if I was going to go out and make butter tomorrow, I would love to get my hands on Guernsey cream.


Butter: A Rich History

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We know that butter-making goes way back. Neolithic communities used animal skin pouches that they filled with milk, hung and rocked for butter making, while you write that “Sumerians of 2500 BCE used special terra-cotta jugs for holding the milk and a plunger-type tool” for churning. By the first century CE, you write that butter was common in much of the developing world, although olive oil was more popular in the Mediterranean. Tell me about some of the more unusual historical uses for butter.

The Greek and Romans didn’t consider butter really food. They didn’t like it; it wasn’t part of their cuisine at all. But it was in their medicine chest. They used it to make different ointments, and they had weird remedies using butter applied to various orifices on the body.

It was considered a mystical, magical compound and many early cultures really did feel that way because they couldn’t explain how it happened—how is it that you have milk and hidden within that milk is this substance we get when we churn it, although sometimes we don’t get it when we churn it? They didn’t have the science to understand how butter happened, they just knew it was kind of this magical thing, like rainbows, and pearls in oysters. So butter always had that quality and that mystique about it. That’s why you found so much butter used as a ritual tool in early civilizations—from the Sumerians to the Vedic Aryans to the Druids. And certainly the Tibetans with their tormas, their butter carvings, that are still being done today.

You write that in pre-industrial Europe, butter was often adulterated. I’m curious what it was adulterated with.

Usually anything that would add weight, because they were selling it by the pound. So you could get rocks in the butter, old turnips, things that were dense. There was also a lot of coloring added. You had “May” butter, a beautiful golden butter, which was natural, because cows were on fresh grass getting more beta carotene, so that made their butter this gorgeous yellow color. But people figured out that they could dye the butter and get more money for it. There were all kinds of shysters in the butter world.

You say that “milk fat is a complicated mistress.” Can you elaborate?

I’ve made butter myself a lot. You need headspace [room for air in the churn], and the right temperature, and the right proportion of fat. But also, in the industrial world, it’s complicated because they’re going for a really velvety cohesive beautiful texture, and the way that you get that is by tempering the cream—it’s called physical ripening. The process changes depending on the season of the milking. The temperature goes up, and then they bring it down, and then it goes up a little bit, over 12 to 14 hours. The aim of tempering to get this ideal ratio of liquid and crystalline fats. If you have a lot of liquid fat you end up with a greasy butter, and if you have a lot of hard fat, you end up with one that’s more brittle, that doesn’t spread nicely.

[The home chef] could sometimes get lucky and end up with a cream that just naturally has the right proportions, and I’ve had a couple of butter batches that I was very pleased with, but the amateur can’t really control that very much.

Is butter always the best fat for a baked good in your opinion?

Certainly for flavor, you can’t beat butter. As far as getting great texture, you can get great textures from margarine products. But it won’t have the same mouthfeel, it won’t dissolve in your mouth the same way. Butter can trap air and make things lighter. It makes things richer and lighter. I do like lard in pastry crust, it’s really great to work with, but most people are put off by lard. It can have a slightly meaty quality.

If you put in oil, you would find that [baked goods] are heavy. If you want the texture of a carrot cake or a dense muffin, oil is great. But if want a fluffy tender buttermilk cake or a lovely layer cake, you can’t beat butter.

For decades there’s been a huge butter versus margarine debate. You really looked into this—what’s the latest science on the health differences between them?

They’ve taken the trans fats out of margarine, so we can’t make that an indictment anymore against margarine. [Editor’s note: According to the Food and Drug Administration, “various studies have consistently linked trans fat consumption to heart disease.”] However, vegetable oils [that go into margarines] for the most part are a highly synthetic food. They go through a 20-step process involving a lot of chemicals and bleaching agents and things that vacuum off any flavors and change the color. So it’s a very unnatural product.

Looking at the big picture, when we started to have more heart disease after the Second World War, we were essentially increasingly doing everything that was bad for our hearts. We were eating more processed foods, we had the trans fats from margarine, we were more sedentary, we were eating more sugar, we smoked more, we had more stress—all of these things were on the rise. And we’re blaming butter for heart disease when butter’s been around for thousands of years! We’re so eager to have one demon that we can slay, and its mostly fallen on butter.

You suggest in the book, though, that there is such a thing as eating too much butter. Why is that?

It’s a very rich food, and unless you’re a lumberjack, you can’t use that much caloric download every day. I study food and nutrition and I keep coming back to the same old not-sexy message of moderation. I wouldn’t tell people to eat a stick of butter a day. But they should certainly enjoy a nice big piece on their mashed potatoes or cook their fish in it with some fresh herbs. You don’t need a lot of butter. A little goes a long way.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Big Mystery Behind the Great Train Robbery May Finally Have Been Solved

Smithsonian Magazine

Gordon Goody is the type of gentleman criminal celebrated by George Clooney’s Oceans trilogy. In the early 1960s, Goody was a dashing, well-dressed, seasoned thief who knew how to manipulate authority. At the height of his criminal game, he helped to plan and execute a 15-man heist that resulted in the largest cash theft in international history. Scotland Yard’s ensuing investigation turned the thieves into celebrities for a British public stuck in a post-war recession funk. Authorities apprehended Goody and his team members, but they failed to uncover one important identity: that of the operation’s mastermind, a postal service insider. Nicknamed “The Ulsterman” because of his Irish accent, the informant has gone unnamed for 51 years.

“It was a caper, an absolute caper,” says Chris Long, the director of the upcoming documentary A Tale of Two Thieves. In the film, Gordon Goody, now 84 and living in Spain, reconstructs the crime. He is the only one of three living gang members to know “The Ulsterman’s” name. At the end of the film, Goody confirms this identity – but he does so with hesitation and aplomb, aware that his affirmation betrays a gentleman’s agreement honored for five decades.


At 3 a.m. on Thursday, August 8, 1963, a British mail train heading from Glasgow to London slowed for a red signal near the village of Cheddington, about 36 miles northwest of its destination. When co-engineer David Whitby left the lead car to investigate the delay, he saw that an old leather glove covered the light on the signal gantry. Someone had wired it to a cluster of 6-volt batteries and a hand lamp that could activate a light change.

An arm grabbed Whitby from behind.

“If you shout, I will kill you,” a voice said.

Several men wearing knit masks accompanied Whitby onto the conductor’s car, where head engineer Jack Mills put up a fight. An assailant’s crowbar knocked him to the ground. The criminals then detached the first two of the 12 cars on the train, instructing Mills, whose head bled heavily, to drive half a mile further down the track. In the ten cars left behind, 75 postal employees worked, unaware of any problem but a delay.

The bandits handcuffed Whitby and Mills together on the ground.

“For God’s sake,” one told the bound engineers, “don’t speak, because there are some right bastards here.”

 In the second car, four postal workers guarded over £2 million in small notes. Because of a bank holiday weekend in Scotland, consumer demand had resulted in a record amount of cash flow; this train carried older bills that were headed out of circulation and into the furnace. Besides the unarmed guards, the only security precaution separating the criminals from the money was a sealed door, accessible only from the inside. The thieves hacked through it with iron tools. Overwhelming the postal workers, they threw 120 mail sacks down an embankment where two Range Rovers and an old military truck awaited.

Fifteen minutes after stopping the train, 15 thieves had escaped with £2.6 million ($7 million then, over $40 million today).

Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS. The train after the initial police investigation in Cheddington, Buckinghamshire. (original image)

Image by Bettmann/CORBIS. Detectives at Cheddington Station inspect one of the cars of the traveling post office. (original image)

Image by Bettmann/CORBIS. Interior of one of the train's ransacked mail cars. (original image)

Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS. Leatherslade Farm served as a hideout for the bandits after the robbery, as evidenced by the empty mailbags and getaway vehicles found by Scotland Yard on the premises. (original image)

Image by Gary Ede/Corbis. Seven of the Great Train Robbers in 1979. From left: Buster Edwards, Tom Wisbey, Jim White, Bruce Reynolds, Roger Cordrey, Charlie Wilson, and Jim Hussey. (original image)

Image by © Lee Thomas/Demotix/Corbis. Members of the Hells Angels led the procession for Ronnie Biggs's funeral on January 3, 2014. (original image)

Within the hour, a guard from the back of the train scouted the delay and rushed to the closest station with news of foul play. Alarms rang throughout Cheddington. The police spent a day canvassing farms and houses before contacting Scotland Yard. The metropolitan bureau searched for suspects through a criminal index of files that categorized 4.5 million felons by their crimes, methodologies and physical characteristics. It also dispatched to Cheddington its “Flying Squad,” a team of elite robbery investigators familiar with the criminal underground. Papers reported that in the city and its northern suburbs, “carloads of detectives combed streets and houses,” focusing on the homes of those “named by underworld informants” and also on “the girlfriends of London crooks.”

The New York Times called the crime a “British Western” and compared it to the darings of the Jesse James and the Dalton Brothers gangs. British papers criticized the absence of a national police force, saying that a lack of communication between departments fostered an easier getaway for the lawbreakers. Journalists also balked at the lack of postal security, and suggested that the postal service put armed guards on mail trains.

“The last thing we want is shooting matches on British railways,” said the Postmaster General.

The police knew that the crime required the assistance of an insider with a detailed working knowledge of postal and train operations: someone who would have anticipated the lack of security measures, the amount of money, the location of the car carrying the money, and the right place to stop the train.

The postal service had recently added alarms to a few of its mail cars, but these particular carriages weren’t in service during the robbery. Detective Superintendent G. E. McArthur said the robbers would have known this. “We are fighting here a gang that has obviously been well organized.”

All 15 of the robbers would be arrested, but the insider would remain free. For his role in planning the robbery, the Ulsterman received a cut (the thieves split the majority of the money equally) and remained anonymous but to three people for decades. Only one of those three is still alive.


Director Chris Long says that Gordon Goody has a “1950s view of crime” that makes talking to him “like warming your hands by a fire.” Goody describes himself at the start of the film as “just an ordinary thief.” He recounts the details of his criminal past – including his mistakes -- with a grandfatherly matter-of-factness. “Characters like him don’t exist anymore,” continued Long. “You’re looking at walking history.” While his fellow train gang members Bruce Reynolds and Ronnie Biggs later looked to profit from their criminal histories by writing autobiographies, Gordon Goody moved to Spain to live a quiet life and “shunned the public,” in Long’s words.

The producers trusted Goody’s information the more that they worked with him.  But they also recognized that their documentary centered on a con artist’s narrative.   Simple research could verify most of Goody’s details, but not the Ulsterman’s real name; it was so common in Ireland that Long and Howley hired two private investigators to search through post office archives and the histories of hundreds of Irishmen who shared a similar age and name.


Scotland Yard reached a breakthrough in their case on August 13, 1963, when a herdsman told police to investigate Leatherslade Farm, a property about 20 miles away from the crime. The man had grown suspicious over increased traffic around the farmhouse. When police arrived, they found 20 empty mailbags on the ground near a 3-foot hole and a shovel. The getaway vehicles were covered nearby. Inside the house, food filled kitchen shelves. The robbers had wiped away many fingerprints, but police lifted some from a Monopoly game board and a ketchup bottle. One week later, police apprehended a florist named Roger Cordrey in Bournemouth. Over the next two weeks, tips led to the arrests of Cordrey’s accomplices.

By January of 1964, authorities had enough evidence to try 12 of the criminals. Justice Edmund Davies charged the all-male jury to ignore the notoriety that the robbers had garnered in the press.

“Let us clear out of the way any romantic notions of daredevilry,” he said. “This is nothing less than a sordid crime of violence inspired by vast greed.”

On March 26, the jury convicted the men on charges ranging from robbery and conspiracy to obstruction of justice. The judge delivered his sentence a few weeks later. “It would be an affront if you were to be at liberty in the near future to enjoy these ill-gotten gains,” he said. Eleven of the 12 received harsh sentences of 20 to 30 years. The prisoners immediately started the appeals process.

Within five years of the crime, authorities had incarcerated the three men who had evaded arrest during the initial investigation – Bruce Reynolds, Ronald “Buster” Edwards, and James White. But by the time the last of these fugitives arrived in jail, two of the robbers had escaped. Police had anticipated one of these prison breaks. They had considered Charles F. Wilson, a bookmaker dubbed “the silent man,” a security risk after learning that the London underground had formed “an escape committee” to free him. In August of 1964, Wilson’s associates helped him break out of the Winson Green Prison near Birmingham and flee to Canada, where Scotland Yard located and re-arrested him four years later.

Ronnie Biggs became the criminal face of the operation after escaping from a London prison in 1965. On one July night, he made his getaway by scaling a wall and jumping into a hole cut into the top of a furniture truck. Biggs fled to Paris, then Australia before arriving in Brazil in the early 1970s. He lived there until 2001, when he returned to Britain to seek medical treatment for poor health. Authorities arrested him, but after Biggs caught pneumonia and suffered strokes in jail, he received “compassionate leave” in 2009. He died at the age of 84 this past December.

Police recovered approximately 10% of the money, although by 1971, when decimalisation led to a change in UK currency, most of the cash that the robbers had stolen was no longer legal tender.


Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the Great Train Robbery, inviting the type of publicity that Gordon Goody chose to spend his life avoiding. One reason that he shares his story now, says Chris Long, is that he has become “sick of hearing preposterous things about the crime.” In addition to recounting his narrative, Goody agreed to give the filmmakers the Ulsterman’s name because he assumed the informant had died --- the man had appeared middle-aged in 1963.

At the end of A Tale of Two Thieves, Goody is presented with the Ulsterman’s picture and basic information about his life (he died years ago). Asked if he is looking at the mastermind of the Great Train Robbery, Goody stares at the photo, winces, and shifts in his seat. There is a look of disbelief on his face, as if he is trying to understand how he himself got caught in an act.

Goody shakes his head. “I’ve lived with the guy very vaguely in my head for 50 years.”

The face doesn’t look unfamiliar. Gordon Goody’s struggle to confirm the identity reveals his discomfort with the concrete evidence before him, and perhaps with his effort to reconcile his commitment to the project with a promise he made to himself decades ago. Goody could either keep “The Ulsterman” in the abstract as a legendary disappearing act, or give him a name, and thereby identify a one-time accomplice.

He says yes.