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Stagelines, Stagecoaches and Stage Robberies of the Old West
by R. Michael Wilson
The Last Stagecoach Robbery in the West!
There have been some historians who persist in referring to the wagon driven by Fred Searcy as a “mail wagon” and insist that it was not a “stagecoach.” However, the post office did not own nor operate mail wagons or stagecoaches, nor did they own their own teams. Like the express companies, the U. S. Post Office realized that was not their business and the post office department, through Congress, contracted with local stage lines to carry the mails. The awarding of mail contracts was a lucrative and political affair each year.
On the night of December 5, 1916 Fred Searcy was driving a wagon through a snow storm bringing the mail from Rogerson, Idaho to Jarbidge, Nevada. The record refers several times to the post master being concerned over the mail being brought in, and added to the confusion by referring to the vehicle as the “mail wagon.” There was no express aboard because there were no payrolls sent by way of Wells, Fargo, since the mines were closed for the winter. There were no passengers aboard either, not surprising in blizzard conditions. However, remember that a four wheeled vehicle pulled by horses was a stagecoach if it was a public conveyance operated on a regular route and schedule and, even if there was nothing aboard, it was still a stagecoach.
The murder trial of Ben Kuhl took on a special significance because it was the first time the issue of “prints” was submitted in Nevada, though there had been a few cases addressing fingerprints as evidence in other jurisdictions. But in Kuhl’s case the “print” was a bloody palm print, a first for the nation. The defense admitted the reliability of fingerprints, but would not concede that a palm print was reliable for the purposes of identification. The judge, after arguments, noted that three cases had been decided and appealed since fingerprints were first admitted as evidence on February 11, 1911 in the Thomas Jennings murder case in Illinois, which was affirmed by the Illinois Supreme Court on December 21, 1911. The judge, after careful deliberation, allowed the palm print to be admitted to evidence, as well as enlargements of the print for display purposes. The prosecution argued that the print positively identified Kuhl as one of the murderers. On Saturday, October 6th, the case went to the jury at 8:45 P.M. and after two hours of deliberation Kuhl was found guilty of murder in the first degree “without recommendation,” which meant he would have to suffer the death penalty, and he had only to choose between hanging and shooting as the means.
A stay in the execution was granted when the case was appealed to the state’s Supreme Court, but on September 6th the decision was upheld. Kuhl, in order to obtain a commutation, fabricated a story implicating Searcy in the robbery, but in doing so had to admit that the palm print was his, validating the evidence. His sentence was commuted to life in prison and Kuhl remained behind bars until May 1945, when he was released at the age of 61. The money he stole, except for the bag containing $178 in silver coins, was never found. buried in an unmarked grave nearby.
R. Michael Wilson -
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