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Road Agents

undated
Richard Barter, aka "Rattlesnake Dick"

In August 1856, when Tennessean Tom Bell, whose actual name was Tom Hodges or maybe Tom Hood, tired of robbing stores and passersby on isolated sections of road. He turned his attention to coaches and, with five accomplices, tried to rob the Comptonville-Marysville stage in California, exchanging 40 shots with the driver and his passengers. In the melee, a passenger was killed and two injured before the bandits were driven off - without any loot. After a wide and prolonged manhunt, Bell was caught in October and hanged from a tree near the spot of capture. They didn't bother with a trial. After that, things began to go more the road agents' way.

During the 1860s, Wells Fargo, which suffered by far the greatest share of Western stagecoach robberies, reported 313 stickups that netted thieves $415,000. In 1881, there were 86 stagecoach holdups in the US. Nevada, alone, reported 76 robberies in the last half of the 19th century - a number of them by a man named Milton Sharp, one of several bandits who achieved at least a local fame for their escapades. "Sharp in a modest way, did what he could to reduce the wealth of Wells Fargo," wrote Wells Drury, a Nevada newspaperman.

After the US war with Mexico in the mid-1840s, Congress established a mail service between New York and San Francisco, unhappy with the time it took to deliver mail via the lengthy ocean route around the tip of South America. The first mail contract was granted in 1856 to John Butterfield. Butterfield then merged with Henry Wells and William Fargo, who were operating California stage lines, to create the American Express Company. Using an annual federal subsidy of $600,000, the new company was able to create a cross-country stagecoach service that used 250 coaches, employed 800 people, and spread beyond simply carrying the mail. By 1863, there were 180 Wells Fargo depots throughout the West, and by the end of the century, the company could boast of 2,800 branch offices and 38,000 miles of stage and express routes. By 1864, the company was selling two million envelopes a year for its mail service. More of the company's green mailboxes were in use than were red government boxes, and the journey from St. Louis to San Francisco had been cut to 25 days.

In many of the larger gold towns, a fortress-like bank on the main street, run by Wells Fargo or its principal competitor, Adams Express Company, allowed miners to exchange the gold dust they had uncovered for bank drafts payable in the East. Or, if the miners wanted, the dust could be deposited with the express company and for a small fee transferred for safe keeping to San Francisco or other major cities. These gold shipments were sent in strongboxes made of metal-bound wood, or leather, with hinged and padlocked lids. Sometimes, if the shipment was of especially high value, the boxes were made of steel and could even be bolted to the floor between the driver's feet or in the coach itself.

In most stagecoach robberies, the holdup men were looking for these gold shipments, as well as bank transfers, mail and cash being transported on Wells Fargo's red Concord coaches, but passengers' wallets and handbags were apt to be emptied too.

A typical robbery occurred in 1874 when three men, all holding cocked six-shooters in their hands, stepped out from the brush and stopped the S.T. Scott and Co. stage bound from San Antonio to Austin. The men ordered the nine passengers, eight men and a woman, to get down and sit in a row on the ground. While they were guarded by two of the three men, the third collected $2,500 in cash, four gold watches and the US mail pouch. They then cut the horses loose from the coach, scattered them and rode off. And that was that.

At least, it usually was. In 1877 Wyoming, a stagecoach from Deadwood, South Dakota, was stopped by three men who lifted $50 from the passengers and let the coach go on its way. Twelve miles further along the same stagecoach was stopped again, this time by four road agents who, finding they had been beaten to the money, took the passengers' pistols and blankets.

Carrying the mineral wealth of California, Nevada, the Black Hills and other spots, and traveling through uninhabited, wild and empty country, the Western stagecoach attracted highwaymen who could easily come out of hiding and hit a stage in any of a hundred desolate places. And did.

Wells Fargo's largest loss during this period was $80,000, taken in 1856 by Richard Barter, who was better known as "Rattlesnake Dick". This robbery was not from a stagecoach, however, but from a train of pack mules bringing gold down from the Trinity Mountain digs in California. "Rattlesnake Dick" was later killed in a gunfight.

Milton Sharp, the highwayman who gained fame in Nevada by doing his best to reduce Wells Fargo's wealth, hailed from Missouri, fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, and began holding up Nevada coaches in 1879. In one four-month period in 1880, he robbed six stagecoaches; once robbing two in a single night. Eventually, in October 1880, he was arrested in California, returned to Nevada, imprisoned, escaped, was recaptured, and was sentenced to 20 years in the Nevada state prison. Nine years later he escaped from there.

Occasionally, a guard - men such as Wyatt Earp and "Quick- Shot" Davis - was sent along to protect a valuable shipment. But highwaymen often would pop out from behind cover and get the drop on the stage and on the guard before they knew what was happening.

Some stagecoach companies tried to protect their shipments with specially built "treasure coaches". The Western Stage Company in Nebraska, for example, went so far as to have manufactured a "bandit-proof" stagecoach for transporting gold from the Black Hills gold fields in South Dakota. The coach had bulletproof steel plates lining the interior, portholes in each door, and a steel safe bolted to the floor. Three or four guards rode inside with the safe and another two rode on the box with the driver.

But even such armored stagecoaches were not immune to robbery. Such a "treasure coach," commonly known as the Deadwood Stage and named the Monitor, was operated by the Cheyenne and Black Hills Stage Line in South Dakota's Black Hills and transported gold from the Homestate Mine.

In 1878, five gunmen led by a man named "Lame Johnny" took over the Canyon Springs relay station south of Deadwood, South Dakota, poked out the mud chinking between the logs and met the incoming stage with a withering gunfire that disabled the driver and guard. The gang then tied up the passengers and took off with the strongbox and some $27,000 in loot, some of which is still missing.

By the 1880s, stagecoach robbery had become so common that Alexander Sweet, writing in the Texas Siftings, said the public had come to expect it. "The traveling public became so accustomed to going through the usual ceremonies (of being robbed)," he wrote facetiously, "that they complained to the stage companies if they came through unmolested. Being robbed came to be regarded as a vested right."

Though most road agents seemed to favor an out and out attack or a simple ambush, some bandits were not above using trickery to capture the coveted gold. One such robber was "Red Jack" Almer who disguised himself as a woman and rode an Arizona stagecoach in 1883. Near Riverside, Arizona, Red's gang stopped the stage and demanded the gold it was carrying. The Wells Fargo guard was insisting the stage was not carrying any gold, when Red, who had seen the gold loaded, jumped out of the coach, called the guard a liar and pulled a six-shooter out from beneath his long skirts. Taking almost $3,000 in gold, the gang - including Red - fled.

And sometimes things delivered an unexpected twist. In 1879, local law officers set up an ambush after letting it be known the Balltown, Colorado, stage would be carrying a gold shipment. When a bandit leaped out to confront the stage, the lawmen unleashed a barrage a bullets, killing the robber. When the lawmen unmasked the bandit, however, the recently deceased bandit turned out to be one of the lawmen's wife. Too embarrassed to bring the body back to town, the lawmen buried her on the spot and erected a crude marker that is still visible beside a Colorado highway.

Harry Sinclair Drago, the famous western writer, has said that after a lifetime of studying these outlaws, he concluded they were generally fatalists with an audacity that was often mistaken for courage. They lived in a world where organized law was generally absent and almost everyone went armed. In such a world, Drago wrote, "Gun law became the only law, at least the only enforceable law." As the population had trickled westward, and then with the discovery of gold became a flood, thieves, ex-convicts and assorted criminals floated along. After the Civil War, they were joined by restless veterans who were not ready to settle down and were seeking adventure, men used to fighting. Once in the west, they plied the trade they had learned in the East, or unlucky in the gold fields or at cards looked for an easier way to make a living. Often they drifted into crime.

Tom Bell was from Tennessee, and "Lame Johnny" from Philadelphia. "Rattlesnake" Dick hailed from Quebec; Milton Sharp from Missouri, and Jack Harris, who hit stagecoaches in Nevada, came from either Maine or Massachusetts and had been a deep- water sailor before deserting his ship in San Francisco. It has been estimated that at its height, the American West had two to three thousand such drifters and opportunists living on the edge of the law, and sometimes outside it altogether.

Not all died gloriously in a blaze of gunfire. "Bronco Bill" Walters, who robbed stagecoaches in New Mexico and Arizona - and killed several people in the process - was finally hunted down by Wells Fargo detectives, tried and sentenced to life in prison. Eventually released in 1917, he went to work as a cowboy for the Diamond A Cattle Company where he was killed falling from a windmill he was repairing.

A few were homegrown. Mexican bandits appeared in the 1860s and '70s trying their luck with the California gold shipments, but most disappeared quickly. The exception was Tiburcio Vasquez, who worked the gold-carrying stage routes for 15 years before being caught, tried and hanged in San Jose. Beginning his career as a horse thief, Vasquez moved up to cattle rustling and armed robbery before he and his gang started robbing country stores, inns and stagecoaches.

Like Vasquez and Hart, many of these bandits were caught. Seventy-seven stagecoach robberies in Nevada during one spell yielded 57 arrests, convictions and Carson City prison terms. And sometimes something worse. Black Hills miners, upset with the loss of their hard-earned gold, took matters into their own hands. They banded together, hunted down three of the men who had taken part in "Lame Johnny's" Canyon Springs holdup and lynched them.

But stagecoach robbery was not just the playground of amateurs. Some of the big name outlaws also took a hand in the action. Jesse James and his brother Frank are known to have hit stages in Texas and Arkansas with the help of Cole Younger and a couple of his brothers. The famous Earp-Clanton feud that ended at the OK Corral began - at least in part - when Earp running mate "Doc" Holliday was accused of robbing the Tombstone stage.

Perhaps the most famous - and certainly the most prolific - of the professional western highway men, however, was Charles Boles, alias "Black Bart," who is credited with knocking over the largest number of stagecoaches, hitting 28 between 1875 and 1883. Also called the most dramatic of the many stagecoach bandits and the last of the colorful western highwaymen, Boles was in his late 50s when he hit his first stage. His first robbery, though some say he was responsible for two earlier heists, is generally believed to have been in August 1877, when Bart, dressed in a full length white duster and a white flour sack with eye holes over his head, stopped a stage from Fort Ross, California, and got away with $305.52. When a posse found the abandoned strongbox several days later, there was a note in it.

For the next six-and-a-half years, the poetic Bart continued to rob Wells Fargo strongboxes and mail sacks throughout California and, occasionally, into Oregon. Bart was finally tracked down by Pinkerton detectives through the laundry mark on a handkerchief he had left at the scene of one of his robberies. He was sent to California State Prison, but because of his age, he was soon released and disappeared from sight.

By the end of the century, the gold and silver fields were all but played out, and railroads had taken over much of Western transportation. Wells Fargo's use of private detectives had, by then, also resulted in convictions against some 240 outlaws and the prevention, the company claimed, of 34 stagecoach robberies. The more enterprising bandits, such as Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch and the James brothers, had turned their attention to robbing trains and banks.

In 1918, Wells Fargo merged into the American Railroad Express Company and then in 1923 merged again with the Union Trust Company to become known as the Wells Fargo Bank and Union Trust Company. Pearl Hart, meanwhile, served her time in prison and was released. She was last seen hanging out around the Yuma, Arizona jail, telling tales and reliving the days when she was a stagecoach bandit. Back in the good old days!

Chuck Lyons. This is a Stick-up! Stagecoach Robberies. History Magazine. October/November 2008.


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