Tuesday, February 27, 2024

The Last Recorded Stage Holdup

Ben Kuhl's 1917 Mugshot

Story by Terry McGahey

Since one of my last articles had to do with one of the last stagecoach robberies in the U.S., I thought I would follow it up with the actual last stage holdup in the United States. That robbery took place outside of a little-known place by the name of Jarbridge which is a small town Northwest of Wells, Nevada, very near the Idaho state line. Jarbridge is in a very mountainous region and at that time there was only one very treacherous road, especially during the winter months, leading in or out of the town.

The only means of outside communication in Jarbridge was the Mail Stage which also carried payroll for the local miners in the area. The stage driver’s name was Fred Searcy who was well known by almost everyone. On December 5th, 1916, it was payday for the miners and they were awaiting Searcy’s arrival but he failed to arrive on time causing folks to believe he got caught up in the snowstorm.

As time passed, the postmaster Scott Flemming, asked another man by the name of Frank Leonard to ride up Crippen Grade and search for Searcy. A few hours had passed when Leonard arrived back at Jarbridge and told the postmaster he did not find Searcy or the stage.

Even though over four feet of snow had fallen, the next morning a search party was formed. They found the stage pulled over the side of the road and hidden behind a stand of willow trees. As they approached the coach they could see Searcy, the driver, slumped over on the seat and covered with snow.

At first, they believed he had probably died due to the elements but upon a closer look Searcy had been shot in the head. The mail sack was still on board the stage but the payroll pouch was missing. In the pouch were four thousand dollars in money and gold coins worth somewhere near one hundred thousand in today’s money. Because of the inclement weather and evening growing closer the search party headed back to town intending to go back in the morning, which they did.

Once they reached the coach the party decided to re-enact the crime with any evidence found at the scene. It was thought that the assailant had hidden in the sagebrush and then somehow gained control of the stage and killed Searcy. The party then found two sets of prints in the snow, one human and one of a dog. They followed the tracks down to the river where they found a blood-stained shirt along the bank.

Next, they noticed a dog had followed them and had begun digging in the dirt and in just a short time had dug up the missing pouch that had held the missing money. The bottom of the pouch was cut out (most likely the pouch had a lock) but the money and gold coins were gone. Realizing this dog was attached to a fellow by the name of Ben Kuhl and knew right where the pouch was buried, Ben was now the number one suspect.

Afterwards Ben Kuhl, along with two cohorts, Ed Beck and William McGraw were arrested at their cabin. Kuhl stated he was in the Jarbridge saloon and that he was innocent. Several witnesses stated Kuhl was in the saloon but nobody could give a time frame in which they saw him there so Kuhl very well could have left the saloon for an hour or so and then returned after the deed was done.

Later on the Nevada State Archivist, Guy Rocha, Claimed that Kuhl admitted to killing Searcy because he and Searcy got into an argument over how the money was to be split stating that the driver Searcy was also involved in setting up the robbery.

A background check revealed that Kuhl had a long criminal history. In 1903 he served four months for petty larceny in Marysville California, then sent to the Oregon State Penitentiary for horse theft and he had recently been released from jail on a four hundred dollar bond for trespassing on private property.

The trial was held for the three at the Elko County Court by Judge Taber. The evidence was mostly circumstantial but two forensic scientists from California linked a bloody palm print on an envelope directly to Kuhl.

Judge Taber sentenced Kuhl to death and gave him his chance to determine how he would die. Kuhl chose the firing squad, but later the Nevada State Board of Pardons voted to commute his sentence to life in prison. Beck and McGraw also received life and all three were taken to the Nevada State Prison in October of 1917. For some unknown reason, Beck was paroled a few years later on November 24, 1923. 

As for Ben Kuhl, he spent 28 years in prison before being paroled on May 7, 1945. Kuhl is believed to have died of either pneumonia or tuberculosis somewhere in Northern California the same year that he was released from prison. He was 60 years old when he died. As for making history, besides being part of the last recorded stage holdup in the United States, Ben Kuhl was the first American ever convicted of murder based on a palm print. 

As for the money, it was never found.

Terry McGahey
Associate Writer/ Old West Historian

Terry has been a working cowboy, writer, and historian. He is best known for the fight that he waged against the City of Tombstone and their historic City Ordinance Number 9. He was instrumental in getting the famous Tombstone City Ordinance Number 9 repealed while at the same time forcing the City of Tombstone to fall in line and comply with the laws of the State of Arizona.

If you care to read how he fought Tombstone's City Hall and won, check out: