Everybody Loves Mayhem

At Plano’s Interurban Railway Museum, we’re always looking for different ways of understanding the past. A search for railroad oddities revealed a darker side of the Texas Electric Railway’s history that demanded our attention. What we found for this new exhibit mirrors the course humans take with any new technology – simultaneous exploration and exploitation, a simple recipe for mayhem.

“Mayhem on the Interurban” explores two kinds of chaos: accidental and intentional. The unintentional chaos came from a combined absence of respect and understanding for electricity and its dangers. For many Plano residents, the interurban railway brought electricity to their homes and storefronts when the substation opened in 1908. There was no easy way to communicate to every person the cautions they should need to take, since they certainly didn’t have email or Google. Communication took the form of newspapers, word-of-mouth and letter mail, all of which could carry falsities with few repercussions.

The electric railway’s profits and popularity drew the attention of criminals who might have otherwise considered banks or jewelry stores for their misdeeds. Having no security cameras and scarce forensic science in the early 1900s meant that most vagrants were able to get away with their wrongdoings.

Mayhem on the Interurban Railway // courtesy Johnnie J. Myers
Mayhem on the Interurban Railway exhibit // photos from Johnnie J. Myers Collection

However, this also led to repeat offenders, who were more likely to be caught and given harsher punishments. One local robber we discovered, Oscar Lafferty, had notable connections. Lafferty’s partner in crime was Roy Thornton, the husband Bonnie Parker left behind to commit atrocities with Clyde Barrow. Thornton chose a life of crime in order to get his revenge, but died attempting to break out of prison. Lafferty, caught robbing a station, died serving life in prison for his recurring offences.

We remember the interurban railway for its ability to connect people and places, to encourage local cultural exchange and neighborliness, but every bit of advancement came with consequences. The issues we unearthed seem easily solved by today’s advanced safety and mass communication technologies, but humans have always found a way to create new obstacles. The interurban railway was essentially a medium for both problems and prosperity.

You can see the duality of human endeavors at the Interurban Railway Museum, where “Mayhem on the Interurban” will be open to the public from October 24, 2018 to January 4, 2019. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays.

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