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Stagelines, Stagecoaches and Stage Robberies of the Old West
by R. Michael Wilson
The First Stagecoach Robbery in the West!
As soon as gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill men from around the world flooded into California. The treasure from remote regions was taken out on pack trains. This seemed the perfect scenario for road agents to operate, but there were no robberies until 1851 when Charley Smith stepped out of the brush and waylaid a pack train carrying gold dust. More robberies soon followed by such bad men as Reelfoot Williams and Dick Barter, alias Rattlesnake Dick, but these were robberies from pack trains, not stagecoaches. In early 1850 Thomas J. Hodges, alias Tom Bell, appeared on the scene. He had been a bar room brawler in his earlier days, and in one affray had his nose crushed so badly that it was nearly flat on his face, except for a small protrusion that had a deep dent in the tip. This made his appearance decidedly repulsive, very distinctive, and gave him the appearance of being much older than his twenty years. After escaping prison, Bell formed and led a gang of desperadoes made up of other escaped convicts and bad men.
On the morning of August 12, 1856 Sam Langston’s Express Company stagecoach left
Camptonville for Marysville with John Greer driving and Bill Dobson riding guard.
On board was a treasure box containing $100,000 in gold dust. The stagecoach made
its routine stop at the California House twenty-
The robbers had not thought to wear masks and from their description it was clear that it was the Bell gang, led by Bell himself. Throughout northern California citizens demanded that the Bell gang be rounded up and hanged, or imprisoned. In September a member of the Bell gang was captured and this led to the killing or arrest of several fugitives. When Bill Gristy received word to join Bell, he started out for Firebaugh’s Ferry, but when he got to Knight’s Ferry he decided to stop for a meal. He was captured and Major T. W. Lane who learned that Bell was hiding on a farm six miles above Firebaugh’s Ferry. Lane’s posse missed their quarry, watched for some time without results, and then disbanded. Robert Price, a member of Lane’s posse, started for Sonora and, upon crossing the river to take the road northeast, saw Bell hiding in the brush. He summoned the posse and at 11:00 A.M. they got the drop on Bell.
They took their prisoner to Firebaugh’s Ferry, where he confessed to many crimes, so the men decided to hang their prisoner. It was nearly 5:00 P.M. before Bell finished his preparations. He blamed drink and gambling for his end as he walked the fifty feet to the sturdy sycamore tree. He took one last swig of whiskey when it was offered and then began to pray in a low tone. The men simply marched away holding the loose end of the rope and tied it to the tree trunk, and Bell slowly strangled to death. Bell’s body was cut down and buried in an unmarked grave nearby.
R. Michael Wilson -
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