Above, the painting, “Holding Up the Pay Escort” by Frederic Remington depicts the robbery of Major Joseph Washington Wham. – Wikimedia.org
by William “Doc” Halliday
Legal manipulations and mysteries have always intrigued me, and today we have both. One hundred and twenty-seven years ago today, on May 11, 1889, Major Joseph Washington Wham, a United states Army paymaster was robbed of $28,245.10 in gold and silver coins near Pima, Arizona. These coins were estimated to weigh 250 pounds. While $28,000 is a substantial amount of money to most of us, you must remember that this occurred in 1889. You can speculate as to what this would be worth today, but just based upon the price of gold, it would be worth $2 million.
One of the things that fascinates me about this robbery is that the money was never recovered.
In 1889 Major Joseph Washington Wham was robbed of $28,245.10 in gold and silver coins near Pima, Arizona. These coins were estimated to weigh 250 pounds, and worth around $2 million today.
Major Wham had paid troops at Fort Bowie on May 9 and at Fort Grant on May 10. Early in the morning of May 11, he left Fort Grant with the destination of Fort Thomas. The intention was to proceed subsequently to Camp San Carlos and Fort Apache in order to pay the troops at each of those locations. Accompanying Major Wham were eleven Buffalo Soldiers assigned as escorts, a civilian driver, and Frankie Campbell, a black female gambler who was also known as Frankie Stratton. Mrs. Campbell wanted to be in Fort Thomas when the soldiers were paid as she was owed money by some of them.
The robbery occurred just after noon in the Gila River Valley near Cedar Springs, about 15 miles west of Pima, a predominantly Mormon town.
There was a fierce gunfight in which eight of the soldiers were severely wounded. The firefight was so intense that two soldiers, Sergeant Benjamin Brown and Corporal Isaiah Mays were each awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions. The soldiers counted 12 robbers, several of whom had not bothered to cover their faces during the robbery. These men were recognized and within days, U.S. Deputy Marshal William Kidder Meade, along with the Graham County Sheriff, had arrested ten men, most of whom were citizens of Pima, AZ.
Three of the men provided alibis which were verified, but indictments were brought against the seven remaining men by a Federal Grand Jury in Tucson in September. The only suspect who was able to post bail was Gilbert Webb, the suspected ringleader, and as it turns out, also the mayor of Pima.
While out on bail, Webb spent most of his time searching for witnesses willing to testify on behalf of him and his fellow defendants.
Suspected ringleader Gilbert Webb was the only one able to post bail. Incidentally Webb was also the mayor of Pima, and the last one to see the stolen coins, as he placed them in a hotel safe for Major Wham.
In addition to Webb, his son Wilfred was charged with robbery. Both had been suspected of numerous other thefts in the area. Also indicted for the robbery were brothers Lyman and Warren Follett, David Rogers, Thomas Lamb, and Mark E. Cunningham, all of whom worked as cowboys for Gilbert Webb. While most of the accused were not active members of the LDS Church, they were all related to active church members and were all considered to be outstanding members of the community.
Judge William Barnes reduced the bail of one of the defendants from $15,000 to $10,000. When it was learned that the judge was a personal friend of that defendant, the United States Attorney called for his removal. One of the men, who were originally arrested but released when his alibi was confirmed, was again arrested on a charge of intimidating the prosecution witnesses.
The actual trial began in November and lasted 33 days. At least 165 witnesses were called to testify. Major Wham identified three of the defendants and some of the men who had committed the robbery. Wham also identified gold coins that had been placed into a hotel safe by Mayor Webb as some of the same coins which had been stolen.
The jury deliberated for two hours before delivering a verdict of not guilty. There apparently was reluctance by many area residents to convict a man based upon the word of a former slave, which is but one witness who testified. It is interesting, that while the men were charged with the robbery, no one was ever charged for the shooting of the soldiers. It was widely claimed that political pressure from the acting governor allowed the thieves to go free. There were also allegations that jurors had been bribed.
William “Doc” Halliday is an historian and writer. He can be contacted at email@example.com