Mail robbery was all too common in early Idaho

by Arthur Hart Idaho Statesman Feb 17, 2013

With the number of holdups of Idaho stagecoaches in the 19th and early 20th centuries, aimed at stealing the U.S. mail and the contents of Wells Fargo & Co.'s treasure boxes, it's a wonder people continued to send valuable property by stage lines, or that Wells Fargo, with its enormous losses, was able to stay in business. Because there was no better way at the time to send mail or money, people just had to take their chances.

Robbing the mail was a federal offense. In November 1868, the Idaho Statesman described the trial in Portland of two men accused of holding up a stagecoach, stealing the mail, and of "putting the life of the driver in jeopardy." They were found guilty of the robbery, but not of putting anyone's life in danger.

Statesman Editor James S. Reynolds observed that their acquittal on the last charge "saved their necks, but they will probably get a term for life in the penitentiary. Webfoot juries evidently have had little experience with road agents; consequently their sympathies leaned toward the poor innocent boys who were on trial. A road agent wouldn't hurt anybody, oh no! They are harmless fellows; only collecting a little toll."

In August 1870, the Idaho World reported the robbery of a westbound Idaho stage near Umatilla, Ore. "They succeeded in taking Wells Fargo & Co.'s treasure box, containing about $10,000 in gold dust — we hope parties who are on the lookout for them will accommodate them with a little lead instead of gold."

In September 1872, "Today's coach from Boise was stopped near Raft River Station by four men with masks. No one was on the stage but Geo. Carlton, driver, and Wm. H. Louthan. After going through W.F. & Co.'s treasure box and finding nothing, they made Louthan come down with his favorite gold watch and shotgun. Louthan hated to give up, but says (every one) of the four gun barrels looked big enough to crawl into."

The Statesman reported in July 1873 on yet another such crime: "The Overland stage for Kelton, which left here on Thursday morning, was stopped three miles the other side of Snake River, 150 miles from here, by masked men, armed with double-barrel shot guns. Wells Fargo & Co.'s treasure box and the mail, three sacks, were demanded and taken. Rev. R.M. Gwinn, of this city, was aboard, but the passengers were not molested, or asked to hand over. Probably this latter little civility was due to Elder Gwinn; he was on his way to conference, and the agents didn't want to have the name of robbing a preacher."

That robbing stagecoaches was generally a very profitable business for highwaymen is revealed by this account from November 1875: "Yesterday morning, after the Silver City stage got on top of the hill, about a mile and a half from the river, it was stopped by highwaymen and Wells Fargo & Co.'s treasure box and the mail sacks were demanded. John Lemp's brother was the only passenger. About $8,000 in bullion and dust was taken."

On April 25, 1876, the Statesman reported what was getting to be tiresome, and certainly most annoying, news: "Still Another Mail Robbery." This one happened at Rattlesnake Station on the Overland Road, and, as usual, Wells Fargo's treasure box was broken into and three mail sacks were cut open. What the thieves were looking for was registered mail, for that's the way people were most likely to send money. The penalty for robbing the mail was severe. Two men who were convicted of that offense, and of putting the life of the stagecoach driver in jeopardy, were sent under armed guard from the Idaho Territorial Penitentiary in Boise in June 1881 to Kelton, Utah, on the Union Pacific mainline. There, a U.S. Marshal took over the prisoners and conveyed them the rest of the way to the Auburn Federal Penitentiary in New York state. And in 1894, three men convicted of robbing the mail, a short distance south of Walters Ferry in Owyhee County, were each sentenced to 10 years in the federal penitentiary at Detroit, Mich.

A brave and lucky stagecoach driver who refused to stop when accosted by bandits in August 1881 whipped up his horses and sped on. Why do I call him lucky? Because shots fired after him as he fled put a bullet hole through his hat. We can't help wondering if he would be that impulsive if he had the same choice to make again.

Mail bandits moved from stage to train

February 24, 2013 Arthur Hart - Idaho Statesman

When the Silver City stage was robbed by two masked men about eight miles south of Nampa in October 1895, the Idaho Statesman reported the news that should have made anyone planning a trip by stage concerned: "This makes about half a dozen holdups on the Silver City route within the past year."

Not all of those robbers succeeded, however, as was the case reported in August 1895, when a lone masked man stepped out of the brush beside the road between Silver City and Delamar. With a revolver in each hand, he shouted "Halt," and told the driver to, "Throw down the box!" The driver explained that there was no box aboard, but the man repeated the order "seven or eight times, all the time nervously handling his guns, cocking and un-cocking them in a manner that indicated he was a novice at the trade of road agent." He finally backed off and let the stage proceed. A traveling salesman from San Francisco, who said he had been in 11 previous stage holdups, told the driver he would get his pistols and join him on the box, which he did.

"Ballard a Lucky Man" read an August 1895 headline. E.L. Ballard, sheriff of Owyhee County, had captured three stage robbers in 1894 and was thereby entitled to a statutory reward of $1,500 from the U.S. Post Office Department for the capture of anyone stealing the mail. Young Boise Attorney William E. Borah had pursued the reward for Ballard and had been told that the money would be paid in a few days. The statesman thought, "This good news will encourage men to seek out and capture others guilty of robbing the United States mails."

On Nov. 14, 1897, even The New York Times found robbery of the mail way out in the mountains of Idaho newsworthy: "Warren, Idaho - The mail carrier was halted near here yesterday by a lone highwayman, who compelled him to dismount from his horse. The carrier was then told to cut the mail sack open, which he did, and the robber took all of the registered mail and letters. There was about $4,000 in cash in the sack."

Later, 1903 was a memorable year for mail robbery, not only because the Idaho City stage was robbed yet again in May, but for the first time the subject was made into a motion picture. In September 1903, a British film entitled "Robbery of the Mail Coach" was released. It was a period piece that showed 17th century highwaymen robbing a stagecoach carrying the Royal Mail.

On Dec. 1, the American classic "The Great Train Robbery" was shown for the first time. It depicts the robbery of the mail coach on a passenger train by a gang of armed bandits. Although considered one of the first Westerns, it was filmed in Milltown, N.J. It was written, produced and directed by Edwin S. Porter, a former cameraman for Thomas Edison, the great inventor sometimes considered the father of motion pictures. You can watch this 12-minute classic on your computer. Simply search YouTube for "The Great Train Robbery." I think you'll enjoy it.

There was a daring robbery of the mail car on the Great Northern Railway's Oriental Limited on March 16, 1908. The Spokane News and Courier reported, "Mail robbery in Idaho. Bandit Subdues Clerks, Helps Himself, and Escapes. A bandit boarded the mail car on the west-bound train at Bonners Ferry before daylight today, bound the two mail clerks, robbed the mail car, and delivered way station mail for one hundred miles. Then he dropped off the train and escaped. The train carried the through mail, and much of it was registered. The amount stolen will not be known until the registered mail has been checked up."

This brief report leaves a number of questions unanswered. First, how did this daring bandit overpower the two mail clerks in order that he could tie them up and continue with his robbery? Railway postal clerks at the time were armed with .38-caliber revolvers to protect the mail from thieves. We can therefore assume that they were taken totally by surprise and that the bandit himself was armed. He certainly knew that there would be much registered mail aboard the train, and that it would contain a lot of money. Perhaps the best evidence that this robbery was well-planned is that he made sure to carefully drop off the local mail at stations along the way. If he hadn't, the stationmasters at those places would have been alerted and would have wired ahead that something was wrong. And so, you see, Idaho did have its own "great train robbery," with no shootout and no fatalities.

For more articles by Arthur Hart, see History Articles at the Idaho Statesman

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