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.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.