The Sontag Brothers
The brothers' parents were Jacob Contant and the former Maria Bohn. After the death of their father in 1867, John took the name "Sontag" from the mother's second husband, Matthias Sontag, who had served in the 2nd Minnesota Regiment in the Union Army during the American Civil War.
At the age of fifteen, George, who maintained the original name of Contant, was sent to the reform school in the state capital in St. Paul for having stolen cigars from his employer. Later after another theft conviction, he was ordered to the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Omaha, Nebraska.
John Sontag came to California to work for the Southern Pacific Railroad but was injured with a crushed leg while attempting to couple rail cars in the yard in Fresno, California. Sontag was embittered toward Southern Pacific because he believed that the company did not provide him with adequate care of his on-the-job injuries and then refused to rehire him after he had healed. In 1889, John Sontag, unable to find many productive labor opportunities, was hired to work on a farm near Visalia in Tulare County by Christopher Evans, a native Canadian, who also had a hatred for the Southern Pacific because of high freight rates and strong-armed pressure applied to landowners to sell their property to the railroad. The seizure of valuable farmland growing mostly wheat is known as the Mussel Slough Tragedy. Under another name, the Southern Pacific is the focus of the Frank Norris muckraking novel The Octopus.
Sontag and Evans leased a livery stable in Modesto, California, but after a year the structure burned, and their horses were lost. Fueled by hatred for the Southern Pacific, the pair then began robbing trains near Visalia in Pixley, Goshen, Ceres, and Atila (later Earlimart), California. After each robbery, the gang remained in hiding in the foothills near the Eshom Valley, where they hid out in Sampson's Flat, Camp Manzanita, or Fort Defiance.
The bandits used a successful but simple method of operation in carrying out their robberies. They began with the placing of horses for getaway at the site near the railroad track where they intended to stop the train in passage. Then they walked back to the train station and sneaked onto the locomotive. When the train reached the designated spot, they would come from hiding and order the engineer to halt the train. They used dynamite to blow up the express car and to gather the loot on board. Then they grabbed the horses and made a quick getaway.
After George was released from prison in Omaha, he joined his brother John and Chris Evans on a trip to Minnesota. On July 1, 1892, the trio tried to rob a train between St. Peter and Kasota along the Minnesota River. They acquired nothing of value during this holdup, but their activities came under the review of Pinkerton detectives.
On August 3, 1892, after returning to California, the trio robbed the train at Collis (now Kerman). They acquired in the loot only $500 and bags of Mexican and Peruvian coins of no practical value to them. The coins were hidden on Evans’s property. Several days after the robbery, law-enforcement officers arrested George in connection with the crime, but John Sontag and Chris Evans escaped and became fugitives. The manhunt for the two lasted another ten months and attracted national attention with their apprehension in what is known as the Battle of Stone Corral near Visalia.
Death and aftermath
In October 1892, George Contant, sometimes referred to as George Sontag, was found guilty of train robbery and incarcerated for fifteen years at Folsom State Prison in Folsom, California. The following June 1893, John Sontag died of severe wounds in the forehead and chest and tetanus while in custody in Fresno. His injuries came from the gunshots fired by a four-man posse from Visalia. John Sontag was apprehended lying in a pile of straw and manure near the abandoned Bacon's Cabin at Stone Corral. Chris Evans was also badly injured – he lost an eye and a left arm - but surrendered and was also sent to Folsom, where he remained for seventeen years until he was pardoned by Governor Hiram Johnson. He was banished from California and spent his last years in Portland, Oregon, where he died in 1917.
After his release from prison, George Contant, with Opie Warner, penned an autobiography entitled "A Pardoned Lifer." He went on the lecture circuit to warn of the failures of a life outside the law. He appeared in Minneapolis and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and at the Mankato Opera House in his hometown. About 1915, George Contant Sontag produced a film in Chico, California, The Folly of a Life of Crime. There are no known copies.
John Sontag is interred at Calvary Cemetery in Fresno, where he died at the age of thirty-two. Oddly, his tombstone has the wrong year of his death, 1892, instead of 1893. The location and time of George Contant’s death are unknown. He was listed in May 1929 as a surviving son and a resident of San Francisco in the obituary of his mother.
The Sontag-Evans case is featured in a 1955 episode of the syndicated television series, Stories of the Century, with Jim Davis and Kristine Miller as railroad detectives investigating the California train robberies. The late actor John Smith, later a star of the NBC Laramie western series, played John Sontag, and Morris Ankrum, a former lawyer, was cast as Chris Evans. Though Evans was fourteen years older than Sontag, Ankrum was thirty-four years older than John Smith. Sontag was engaged to marry Evans’s daughter, Eva, but the television episode reflects on a courtship between Sontag and Sue Evans, Evans’s niece, played by the actress Claudia Barrett, who was born eight years before John Smith.
In the story line, the railroad detectives devise a trick in which the Kristine Miller character poses as Sontag's “wife” so that an irate Sue will lead the authorities to the outlaws’ hideout. Actor Howard Negley plays Sheriff Nate Owens, apparently a fictitious character. Sheriff Owens in the story line links Sontag and Evans to the train robbery in Collis through the discovery of one of the Peruvian coins on Evans's property. Owens had also been a friend of Evans, whom many in Modesto and Visalia recognized as an outstanding citizen and were willing to help him when he was on the run from the law.
- The Sontag Brothers: Southern Minnesota's Own Train Robbers. mnriv.com. Retrieved on November 28, 2012.
- Sontag and Evans. eshomvalley.com. Retrieved on November 29, 2012.
- A Brief History of Evans & Sontag. Retrieved on November 29, 2012.
- Thomas Samuel Duke, Celebrated Criminal Cases of America, pp, 277-286. James H. Barry Company, San Francisco, California, 1910. Retrieved on November 29, 2012.
- John Sontag. findagrave.com. Retrieved on November 29, 2012.
- "Sontag and Evans", Stories of the Century’’, February 8, 1955. Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved on November 29, 2012.