Saturday, May 18, 2019

The Jarbidge Stage Robbery -- The Last Stage Robbery

November 14, 1910, Eugene Ely became the first pilot to successfully takeoff from a warship, when he flew his Curtiss Model D biplane from a makeshift fight deck on the USS Birmingham.

So now, as you know, I like to try to put the times in which things took place into context. Well, six year after Ely flew off of that first makeshift aircraft carrier, the Jarbidge Stage Robbery took place. That stage robbery would be the very last stage robbery in what was still considered the Old West.

The town of Jarbidge is located about 10 miles south of the Idaho-Nevada border in Elko County, Nevada. It actually sits at the bottom of the Jarbidge River's canyon, about 2,000 feet deep, near the north end of the Jarbidge Mountains.

The name "Jarbidge" is supposed a name gotten from the Shoshone Indians. While some pronounce it "Ja-Ha-Bich," the Native Americans there called it "Tsawhawbitts." It supposedly means "Devil." The Shoshone are said to have believed that the whole Jarbidge Canyon and hills were haunted by the devil or some sort of man-eating giant. It was said to be "bad medicine."

While some have this idea that silver was the only thing found in Nevada, gold was as well and it was discovered near Jarbidge in as late as 1909. The fact of it being found in 1909 makes Jarbidge the last place in the Old West to experience a gold rush. Because of the gold discovery in 1909, the mining camp was founded as a tent city. And as with other boom-towns, the gold rush there brought in a few thousand people of all sorts. Unlike most boom-towns, Jarbidge's population petered out after the winter of that same year 1909. In fact, it's said that because "about 80 percent of the prospectors became disgusted and pulled up stakes and headed elsewhere."

Its population claimed again in 1911, but mining operations came to a halt by the early 1930s. When I looked up Jarbidge to get an update on that old town, I was happy to read that mining permits for gold were being re-issued. Just like the area that I live in here near Jackson, California, the increased price of gold per ounce has made it possible for some mines to reopen.

The Jarbidge Stage Robbery took place on December 5th, 1916. And while we think of stages being the Wells-Fargo two-team wagons, or even in some cases three-team wagons, the stage that was robbed that day was a small two-horse mail wagon. Yes, it's believed to have been more a mail-wagon than stage coach. And no, I don't believe there were any passengers aboard the small wagon.

While the picture above shows you the type of wagon that was considered very common for mail in those days, the one in that picture is not the one that was robbed. But while that's the case, we can certainly see how it was not a formidable target if one wanted to rob such a wagon. After all, all it had for security was the driver.

The mail wagon that was robbed in 1916 was ambushed heading to the town of Jarbidge. And frankly, I'm a little surprised that the driver was killed. In most such instances, the drivers were disarmed and in a lot of case set afoot after the team that had been cut loose. Bandits were known to cut teams loose to slow down efforts of a robbery being reported. In that way, Highwaymen gained some precious lead time on a posse that was sure to follow.

The driver was killed, and over $4,000 was stolen that day. While that was 1916, America was still a rural nation with many isolated communities. Jarbidge was one such community.

Today, Jarbidge is still known for it being isolated and away from everything. to my knowledge, it still doesn't have paved roads. One can easily get to the town by way of a road which comes off of Route 93 in Rogerson, Idaho. That's a 20 mile or so stretch and three quarters of that are unimproved at best. While that way is usually open all year round, I believe the other two ways of getting there are from Elko. And frankly, from what I've been told when researching this, good luck getting through that way during the winter months.

Of course with only one dirt road leading to town, in 1916, the town of Jarbridge was as isolated as any town could possible get from the rest of the world -- even if the rest of the would was only 20 miles or so away. And as for communicating with the rest of the world, besides having telephones, they had the U.S. Post Office. Yes, that mail-wagon.

It wasn't out of the ordinary to hear about thirty foot snow drifts that further cut the community off from folks for several weeks at a time. As for automobiles, in 1916, that had not become a reality yet. The folks there still depended on horses and wagons as their mainstays.

Rogerson, Idaho, was the closest railroad town for Jarbidge. It's said that wagon driver, Fred Searcy, made round trips to and from there all the time. He not only delivered the mail, but he also brought in the company mine payrolls.

Let's be frank here, while some folks did rob stages for the money being sent in the mail, it's a safe bet to say that the mail-wagon was robbed because of the gold strike and the possibility that there may have been more aboard that small mail-wagon than met the eye. If companies became too relaxed about their security for their payroll, no one knows. Fact is that it could have been simply the way they did things and didn't thing anyone would rob the mail-wagon.

We know from documentation that most mining companies would wagons with a substantial number of armed guards aboard to deter such robberies. And frankly, they did. Robbers usually hit easier targets of less resistance. I've read where in some cases that companies used larger wagons as decoys while smaller wagons with almost no visible security were used to bring in their payrolls. I don't know how often a stunt like that was used or even worked.

Just for the record, $4,000 in 1916 is equivalent in purchasing power to about $93,779.08 in 2019.
December 5, 1916, was actually payday for the mine in Jarbidge. It's said when Fred Searcy failed to arrive in town at the expected time, a group of concerned men assembled at the post office. At first, it's said they simply thought he was having troubles returning to town because of the treacherous roads and the heavy snow. Later that day, they decided to send out a man out to the highest point there as a lookout for Searcy's mail-wagon.

Jarbidge Postmaster Scott Fleming had Frank Leonard ride up to the top of Crippen Grade which was a 2,000 foot decline in the road that led down to the canyon floor and the town. Leonard returned after a few hours and reported that Searcy or the wagon was no where to be seen.

Postmaster Fleming was among those who realized that over four feet of snow had fallen that day alone and that Fred Searcy may be dead in the snow. Because of this, Fleming formed a search party. As they were getting ready to leave, Fleming telephoned Rose Dexter who lived about a half mile north of Jarbidge along the route that Searcy would have taken. She reported that Searcy had passed by her house earlier that day and that she waved to him as he went by.

Ms. Dexter also said "the driver was huddled up on his seat with his collar pulled up over his face to form some protection from the blinding snow."

It didn't take long to find the mail-wagon on the road because it was less than a mile out of town. The stage had been pulled over on the side of the road. It was also tucked behind a patch of willows. As for Fred Searcy, he was found there "slumped in his seat and covered with snow." At first, for all practical appearances, all there thought Fred Searcy froze to death.

But then, closer examination revealed that he had been shot in the head at a very close range. His hair and scalp had powder burns. And of the two mail-pouches that should have been on the wagon, one was found not opened. The other containing $5,000 was missing. Note that I state $5,000. That's important since most articles on this robbery state $4,000 was taken.

So why they difference? Well, since I have no idea where these other articles get their information, I went with $5,000 since that's what the local newspapers reported at the time.

As for the search party, because of the weather, the snow storm raging and there being no sign of the weather letting up anytime soon, the search party returned the short distance into Jarbidge with Searcy's body and the mail-wagon. They next day, the original search party and few more men returned to where they found the wagon behind the willow trees. There they attempted to re-enact the crime as they could best figure things out.

Going by whatever evidence they could find at what they assumed was the crime scene, they determined that the Searcy's killer was lying in wait in the brush along the road. The killer apparently ambushed Searcy and killed him so that he wouldn't be able to identify him later.

Fred Moore Searcy was born in September of 1883 in Jackson County, Missouri. While he was killed right there on the outskirts of Jarbidge, Nevada, right after that winter, his body was transported to be buried in the Salem Cemetery in Independence, Missouri.

In December of1908, he married Nellie Burstow in Hardman, Oregon. The 1910 census listed them as farming there. He divorced her in 1915 on the grounds of her desertion after she left him a year earlier. It was in early 1916 that he made his way to get in on the gold rush still going on there. When he was killed on December 5th, 1916, Fred Searcy was 33 years old. So no, he was not an old man by any stretch of the imagination even back then.
There are those who have claimed that Searcy was part of the holdup. Those writers say that he was killed by another who was involved with the robbery.

The search party became a posse when they followed tracks in the snow which led them down to the river. On the river bank, they found a blood stained overcoat which was hidden under a bridge leading out of town. Inside one of the pockets was $180 and some of the mail that Searcy was transporting. The search party also found the second mail-pouch. It was cut open and the $5,000 in both paper money and gold coins which were said to be inside of it was gone.

It's said a stray dog in the area of the bridge is what led the posse to a nearby cabin. In the cabin was horse thief and cattle rustler Ben Kuhl. Kuhl and two others, Ed Beck and William McGraw. They were all arrested without incident. Of the things that the posse found there was a .44 caliber ivory-handled revolver believed to have been used to kill Fred Seracy.

Kuhl's story as to what took place changed depending on who was listening. He proclaimed his innocence giving one story and then proclaimed his innocence with another story. Kuhl tried to give alibi after alibi and there were some in town who agreed on seeing him here or there. But Kuhl's problem was that folks also saw him head out of town and in the direction of the ambush just before it was believed to have taken place.

Also, remember that they had telephone communications with the outside world. By way of making a few phone calls, they found out that Ben Kuhl had a long criminal record. In fact, they found out that he served time in Marysville, California, and had spent time in the Oregon State Penitentiary. As for locally, Kuhl was thought to be a petty criminal, a bummer, and he'd been released on a $400 bond after being arrested in Jarbidge for trespassing on private property.

Their trial was held in the Elko County Courthouse, and the evidence presented was considered pretty much circumstantial. But, two forensic scientists from California linked a Kuhl's bloody palm print on an envelope to the murder of Searcy. With that William McGraw turned state's evidence and revealed what took place. Ben Kuhl and Ed Beck were sentenced to death, and William McGraw got life. The Nevada Board of Pardons later commuted the sentences of Kuhl and Beck to life in prison.

Kuhl did not step forward and confess about anything. Through questioning, and his change of stories, Kuhl said that Searcy was a part of their gang and in on the holdup. As to whether or not Ben Kuhl's story that he killed Searcy over a dispute about how to split the money was true? Or regarding Kuhl's claim that Searcy was a part of those committing the crime? I find it interesting that that story only came from Kuhl and not either of the other two. As for me, since I'm not in the habit of believing killers, I doubt his word. Besides, it wouldn't have been the first time that a killer tried to make his deed sound less then what it was by implicating a victim as being part of the gang.

Ben Kuhl is distinctive as a criminal because he become the first murderer in American history to be convicted and sent to prison by the use of palm print evidence. Yes, the same as fingerprint analysis. He spent the rest of his life in the Nevada Penitentiary. Ed Beck was paroled on November 24, 1923. Ben Kuhl spent almost twenty-eight years in prison before his release on May 16, 1945. Kuhl never returned to Jarbidge. Instead, after getting out of prison during World War II, he moved to San Francisco. He tried for a job in the local shipyards there but there is no indication that the killer ever worked in the yards. There is a yarn that says he registered for the draft in November of 1945 at age 61, but only a fool would believe that. That reason that I say that is because World War II ended in September of that year and troops who in some cases only had a few months in uniform were being sent home. Besides, the draft at the time didn't take men in the forties nevertheless in their sixties.

Kuhl died in San Francisco on November 4th, 1958, at the age of 74, from pneumonia -- although some say tuberculosis that he picked up in prison. Since he and the others died paupers, it's believed that neither returned to Jarbidge and found where they had buried the $5,000 they made off with years before.

As for the stolen money today, well it's said that the authorities offered the three commuted sentences if they would cooperate as to where it was buried. All three men refused to tell where that money was buried. Fact is, since their cabin was ribbed apart and all of the land that was uncovered by snow at the time was dug up looking for the money, the robbers may have buried it in such haste that they couldn't remember where it was buried. And while the stolen $5,000 was never recovered, it's believed to still be buried somewhere in Jarbidge Canyon. Yes, real buried treasure.

As for the town of Jarbidge today, it still remains a small isolated place. I read where it has a population of less than 100 and many of the old buildings are still intact, including the jail house where the three outlaws was held. It's said to still be the same in that it still doesn't have paved streets.

As for full disclosure, I visited Jarbidge back about 30 years or more ago when I was traveling the back roads on vacation. Fact is, I got lost and was only there long enough to get directions out. It was a friendly little town. It was a great because of it's location away from everything. As for folks not visiting there very often, well the road to Jarbidge is rough. And of course, there are those 20 to 30 foot snowdrifts that are still common to that area. Other than that, it really is a great place.

Tom Correa


  1. Just watched a Death Valley Days episode about Jarbridge, they used lot creative license with the story. They made the dog out to be the hero of the story basically like Lassy.


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