May 27, 1861|
Mankato, Blue Earth County
|Died||July 3, 1893
Jail in Fresno, California
|Cause of death||Tetanus; Gunshot wounds|
|Resting place||Calvary Cemetery in Fresno|
|Parent(s)||Jacob Contant and Maria Bohn Contant Sontag|
|Relatives||Brother George Contant|
Sontag was the older of two sons of Jacob Contant and the former Maria Bohn. After the death of his father in 1867, he took the name John Sontag from his stepfather, Matthias Sontag, his mother's second husband, a veteran of the Union Army during the Civil War. Sontag's younger brother, George (born 1864), kept the name Contant. The two were frequent partners in crime and known as The Sontag Brothers. After he stole cigars from an employer, George Contant was sent to reform school in St. Paul, Minnesota. A subsequent conviction for theft led to Contant's imprisonment at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Omaha.
Sontag came to California to work for the Southern Pacific Transportation Company. He crushed a leg while coupling rail cars in the company yard in Fresno. He accused Southern Pacific of failure to care for his on-the-job wounds and then refusal to rehire him after he had healed. In 1889, John Sontag was employed on a farm in Tulare County near Visalia by Christopher "Chris" Evans, a Canadian who had migrated to California. Evans was outraged over the dealings of the Southern Pacific, for high freight rates and the application of undue pressure to force landowners to sell their property to the railroad. The seizure of particularly valuable wheat-farming land is known as the Mussel Slough Tragedy. Though called the Pacific and Southwestern, the Southern Pacific is the actual villain of Frank Norris' 1901 muckraking novel, The Octopus: A Story of California, a dramatization set in the San Joaquin Valley and stemming from the injustice of Mussel Slough.
A life of crime
Sontag and Evans leased a livery stable in Modesto, but after a year the structure burned, and the horses were tragically lost in the fire. The two began robbing trains near Visalia in such locations as Ceres, Goshen, Pixley, and Atila, later Earlimart. After each robbery, the gang hid in the foothills of the Eshom Valley in such remote places as Fort Defiance, or Roop's Fort near Susanville, California. The bandits placed horses at the spot near the railroad track where they intended to stop the train. The outlaws then walked back to the depot and secretly boarded the train. When the train reached the area with the waiting horses, the bandits would burst forth from hiding and order the engineer to halt the train. The outlaws dynamited the express car to gain access to the money on board. Finally, they mounted their waiting horses and embarked on a hasty getaway.
After George Contant was released from prison in Omaha, he, Sontag, and Evans traveled to Minnesota, where on July 1, 1892, they attempted to rob a train while they were riding along the Minnesota River between St. Peter and Kasota. They acquired nothing of much value, but their crime aroused the concern of Pinkerton detectives.
A month later, back in California, the trio robbed a train at Collis, now Kerman in Fresno County. This time, they acquired $500 and bags of Mexican and Peruvian coins of no apparent value. Several days after the robbery, law-enforcement officers arrested Contant in connection with the crime, but Sontag and Evans fled as fugitives. The manhunt for the two about Visalia lasted for nearly a year. Their capture resulted in what is called the Battle of Stone Corral.
Death and aftermath
Found guilty of train robbery in October 1892, Contant was incarcerated for fifteen years at Folsom State Prison. The following June 1893, John Sontag sustained severe wounds in the chest and forehead and died, if not from the wounds then from tetanus, while he was in custody in Fresno. He had been injured by shots fired from a posse sent from Visalia. Sontag was captured while lying miserably in straw and manure near a deserted cabin at Stone Corral. In the shootout with the posse, Chris Evans lost an eye and his left arm and surrendered. He too was sent to Folsom, where he remained for seventeen years until pardoned by Governor Hiram Johnson. Evans denied that he had ever robbed a train and when he killed, he claimed to have done so only in self-defense. He was banished from California and spent his last years in Portland, Oregon, where he died in 1917, having in prison turned to socialism as his remedy for what he perceived as the corrupt practices of business conglomerates.
After his release from prison, George Contant wrote an autobiography, A Pardoned Lifer, with Opie Warner as his ghostwriter. He lectured on the folly of living outside the law. His many lecture appearances brought him to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Minneapolis, and at the Mankato Opera House. About 1915, Contant produced a film, The Folly of a Life of Crime; all copies have been lost.
John Sontag is interred at Calvary Cemetery in Fresno, where he died shortly after his 32nd birthday. Oddly, his tombstone has the wrong year of his death, 1892, instead of 1893. The headstone erroneously indicates that Sontag was 33 years, 6 months, and 4 days old at the time of his death. Contant's last whereabouts are unknown. He was listed in 1929 in the obituary of his mother as a surviving son residing in San Francisco.
The Sontag-Evans case is featured in one of the last episodes of the syndicated television series, Stories of the Century, starring and narrated by Jim Davis, with Kristine Miller. Davis and Miller portray fictitious railroad detectives, Matt Clark and Margaret Jones, who are investigating California train robberies. John Smith’’, later of the NBC western series, Laramie, played John Sontag; Morris Ankrum, a former lawyer, was cast as Chris Evans. The characters' ages are historically wrong. Though Sontag was fourteen years younger than Evans, John Smith was thirty-four years younger than Ankrum. The real Sontag was engaged to Evans’s daughter, Eva, but the television episode reflects on a courtship between Sontag and Sue Evans, a niece of Chris Evans. Sue, played by Claudia Barrett, was eight years older than John Smith.
On Stories of the Century, authorities send Margaret Jones to pose as the nonexistent "Mrs. Sontag" with the expectation that an outraged Sue Evans will indeed show them the path to the hideout. Howard Negley plays Sheriff Nate Owens, who connects Sontag and Evans to the train robbery at Collis through the discovery of one of the Peruvian coins on Evans' property.
- "The Sontag Brothers: Southern Minnesota's Own Train Robbers". mnriv.com. Retrieved August 6, 2013.
- "Sontag and Evans". eshomvalley.com. Retrieved August 6, 2013.
- "A Brief History of Evans & Sontag". wendtroot.com. Retrieved August 6, 2012.
- Thomas Samuel Duke, Celebrated Criminal Cases of America. San Francisco, California: James H. Barry Company, 1910), pp.277-286. Retrieved November 29, 2012.
- "John Sontag, with photograph of headstone". findagrave.com. Retrieved August 6, 2013.
- "Sontag and Evans on Stories of the Century, February 8, 1955". Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved August 6, 2013.