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Robert E. Lee FOLKES





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Rapist - Called the most famous railroad murder in US history
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: January 23, 1943
Date of birth: 1923
Victim profile: Martha Virginia James, 21
Method of murder: Cutting her throat
Location: Linn County, Oregon, USA
Status: Executed by asphyxiation-gas in Oregon on January 5, 1945

Murder Rides the Rails

The murder of Martha Virginia James on Jan. 23, 1943, sounded like something out of a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Here was a beautiful young woman, riding the West Coast Limited train from Seattle to San Diego, alone. Suddenly, a bloodcurdling scream echoes through the sleeper section, and Martha James' body tumbles out of the sleeping berth, her throat slashed.

A coroner's report indicated the victim died of a deep wound to her throat, possibly caused by a sharp instrument such as a razor or a sharp butcher or cutting knife.

The murder apparently occurred just north of Tangent in Linn County, but the train was allowed to continue to Eugene. While Lane County Sheriff Roy Sutherland and his men were searching the train in Eugene, Linn County Sheriff Herbert Shelton and his men were launching a wide-scale manhunt in and around Tangent.

They discovered bloody footprints along a section of railroad tracks, but the lead turned sour when they learned that a farmer delivering milk to one of the train cars had suffered a bloody nose. His bloody handkerchief substantiated the farmer's story.

With that, Shelton telegraphed authorities in Klamath Falls that the murderer apparently was still aboard the train.

Back on the West Coast Limited, a young Marine was telling authorities he chased a man he had seen near the dead woman's berth to the end of the train, but lost him somewhere in between. Others on board said they had seen a young man with a brown pin-striped suit in the sleeper section earlier in the evening. Two women said a young man, wearing a dark coat, had made advances toward them, but each rejected the man.

Authorities checked out their tips. A brown pin-striped suit was found in the luggage of a 30-year-old dining car waiter. But the waiter claimed he was in his own sleeping berth when he was awakened by all the conversation about the young woman's death.

One of the women who claimed she was molested by a young man on the train could not positively identify the waiter as her assailant. Investigators later learned the young victim was traveling alone because her husband, a Navy Ensign, could not get the same train to San Diego. He left on an earlier train and she followed on the West Coast Limited. They had just recently been married.

The sleeper car was disconnected from the other cars on the train and remained in Klamath Falls for further inspection while the remaining cars of the West Coast Limited continued on into California.

The investigation had hit several snags until a woman in Klamath Falls reported she also had been accosted on the West Coast Limited 12 days earlier by a man with a butcher knife. Authorities immediately turned their attention to the train's kitchen crew -- the only ones on board who had ready access to butcher and sharp cutting knives.

The Marine told investigators while chasing the mystery man to the end of the train he had run through the kitchen and spotted a cook working. The cook said he did not see anyone go through the kitchen, however, but the Marine said the cook was sweating profusely although it seemed fairly cool in the kitchen.

With that, Shelton contacted the railroad company and learned that a 20-year-old-cook named Robert Folkes had been on the West Coast Limited the night Martha James was murdered.

When first brought in for questioning, Folkes remained cool and unflustered by all the questioning. He denied ever being in the sleeping car the night of the murder.

But authorities laid a trap for Folkes and he stumbled into it head first. They had Folkes "mugged" and supposedly sent the photo to Klamath Falls for identification by Folkes' earlier victim. Then they told Folkes the woman in the Klamath Falls incident had positively identified him as the man who attacked her. Folkes lost his composure and quickly confessed to murdering Martha James.

Folkes later was executed in Salem for his crimes.


Robert E. Lee Folkes - Scandalous 1943 Railroad Murder Mystery

December 6, 2003

He was prosecuted in Oregon in a famous murder case. He was a diner cook on the Southern Pacific Railroad, and lived in Los Angeles on East 25th with his common law wife Jessie Wilson. He was born in Arkansas and was 20 years old in 1943.

The case was heavily publicized, and he allegedly confessed to the murder of a 21 year old Navy bride, Martha Brinson James, of a prominent Norfolk Virginia family. She was described as a very pretty blonde and was a graduate of Sweet Briar of the College of William and Mary.

The Los Angeles Herald Examiner had a large front page photo of her and story on her murder - called "the murder of the lady in berth 13". Her throat was slashed and she died in a Pullman sleeper car at 430AM, on a train bound from Portland, Oregon to Los Angeles in January 1943. She was sleeping in her berth when attacked - this story was on Discovery Channel and called the most famous railroad murder in US history.

There were numerous suspects, and a marine who was first on the scene, and also a prime suspect, originally told police the assailant was a white male. The L.A.P.D. subsequently obtained a confession out of Folkes, but apparently got him drunk on whiskey and gave him the "third degree". Folkes was African American and was a "Zoot Suitor". He was executed in Salem, Oregon on January 5, 1945 in the gas chamber. His mother was Clara Folkes. The only signficant evidence leading to his conviction was his confession, leading many to think he was "railroaded" by the district attorney and police.

This information is obtainable by reading newspaper articles on Robert Folkes available on


Murder on the Southern Pacific Expres

21 year-old Martha James is murdered while riding on a Southern Pacific train between Seattle and Los Angeles.

At 4 am, while Martha slept, she was attacked. Other passengers heard her scream, "My God, he's killing me!" A Marine private, sleeping in the compartment above Martha, heard the commotion and awoke to see a man running down the train's aisle. He found Martha with her throat cut, blood was everywhere. The private tried to chase after the man, but lost him.

Detectives got on the train at its next stop, Eugene, Oregon. Faint traces of blood were tracked to the observation platform at the back of the last car. Assuming the attacker must have jumped off the train from there, the surrounding area was searched but nobody was found. Detectives decided to interview everyone on board the train as it continued on to Los Angeles.

The prime suspect was an African-American cook that the Marine private had encountered during his initial search for the attacker. The cook, Robert E. Lee Folkes, was found to have a record of sexual attacks. Folkes claimed that he had never even seen Martha James, however it was revealed that he had, earlier, mentioned to colleagues that she was 'the best looking woman on the train'.

Detectives managed to find the knife he used and the blood stained uniform he wore during the attack. Folkes received a death sentence in Oregon and in January 1945 he went to the gas chamber.



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