While the poetic exploits of outlaw Charles Lane Boles (aka “Black Bart”) are fairly well documented, other California badmen have received short shrift from Old West historians. One such Golden State hard case is Jim Webster. Though more than 20 years separated their crime sprees, Boles and Webster operated in roughly the same locale. But the similarity ends there. Black Bart, the self-described “Po-8” (read “poet”), is known for never having triggered the shotgun he brandished during robberies; Webster, on the other hand, murdered at least three people and was rumored to have killed as many as 40.
The details of Webster’s background are sketchy and conflicting, perhaps because he wanted it that way, to throw off lawmen and otherwise cover his tracks. If the 1850 U.S. Census of Yuba County is to be believed, his real name may have been James P. Webster, and he was born in Massachusetts around 1826. According to prison records, he was 5 feet 9 inches tall with dark hair and light blue eyes. Another source claimed he’d been “graced with an open countenance and an agreeable voice.” If so, his voice was the only thing agreeable about him.
By 1850, Webster had turned up in California’s Northern Mines region—perhaps as just another argonaut seeking fortune in the Sierra Nevada goldfields, but more likely as one of the many desperados preying on those seekers. Regardless, he’d soon committed depredations enough for a Nevada City newspaper to label him a “notorious character.” In 1854, Webster was at least making a show of working a claim he’d staked at Sand Hill, a mining camp across the ravine from Timbuctoo in eastern Yuba County. Apparently, though, he developed more of a taste for robbing miners than for rocking a “California cradle” for ore. On Feb. 9, 1855, Webster reportedly got into an argument with a trio of miners over a disputed claim, drew his revolver and shot all three, thus filling the first graves in Timbuctoo’s new cemetery.
The fugitive fled east into Nevada County and soon linked up with Thomas Hodges, alias Tom Bell. On returning from a tour as an Army surgeon during the Mexican War, Bell had pursued a more lucrative, if less healthy, occupation as head of a gang of highwaymen. In the summer of 1856 Webster learned that the Downieville to Marysville stagecoach would be carrying $100,000 in gold bullion on its August 12 run and tipped off Bell, who promptly planned to rob it. At the appointed time and place Bell and a half-dozen of his men tried to stop the stage as it rounded a bend near Dry Creek. “Halt!” shouted Bell. “Throw up your arms!” In response messenger Bill Dobson triggered a blast from his shotgun. When Bell and another outlaw shot back, the stage passengers opened fire as driver John Gear whipped his team ahead toward Marysville. Though Gear had kept the treasure box secure, he and two passengers had been wounded and another passenger, the wife of a popular Marysville barber, had been killed. On October 4, acting on a jailhouse tip from a gang member, vigilantes caught up to Bell in the San Joaquin Valley and lynched him.
Four days later, Nevada City Marshal Henry Plummer—himself a shady character known to run with bad company—arrested Webster and fellow gang member Richard “Rattlesnake Dick” Woods on suspicion of robbery. The two were held in a makeshift pad-locked cell in Nevada City, because the county courthouse and its jail had recently burned down. Webster and Woods broke out the minute the lone jailer went to dinner.
Marshal Plummer and Deputy Bruce Garvey tracked Webster and another fugitive to a house in Smartsville, a mile east of Timbuctoo, where on October 10, the lawmen caught the pair asleep, their guns tucked beneath their pillows. “Webster is now confined in jail,” The Nevada Journal reported, “with but little chance of escape.” The outlaw may have been amused to read that, since on November 2, he escaped again, under suspicious circumstances, with two brothers named Farnsworth also suspected of belonging to the gang. “Mr. Plummer is confident that he could retake them,” The Nevada Democrat reported, “and would have started after them yesterday morning had he received any encouragement that his expenses would be paid.”
On November 3, the marshal learned that saddled horses, possibly those of Webster and the Farnsworths, had been spotted tethered in a ravine near Gold Flat, a mile south of Nevada City. Plummer made plans to ride out with his deputy for a look. At the same time Nevada County Sheriff W.W. “Boss” Wright was swearing in special deputies, and local men had formed a vigilante posse. Without informing the lawmen, a handful of the vigilantes secreted themselves near the horses, hoping to catch the outlaws.
It was dark by the time Marshal Plummer, Deputy Garvey and Sheriff Wright arrived on the scene. Only then did the marshal discover the sheriff had brought three special deputies, who were following at a distance. Plummer took the lead. Approaching within sight of the tethered mounts, he whistled for the other lawmen to come up. Hearing the whistle, one of the concealed vigilantes hollered out, “Who are you?”
“Move, and I’ll shoot you!” Plummer barked in reply.
Suddenly, gunfire broke out. In the darkness and confusion the lawmen blasted away, and the vigilantes returned fire, each group assuming the others were the fugitives. In the midst of the gun battle, a cool-headed Plummer recognized one of the vigilantes in the light of a muzzle flash. “Stop, for God’s sake!” he hollered. “You are shooting your friends!” Recognizing the marshal’s voice, the vigilantes ceased fire, but by then Sheriff Wright lay dying from buckshot and bullet wounds, and Special Deputy David Johnson had suffered a mortal chest wound.
Webster and the Farnsworths got away. In the aftermath, some in town voiced their suspicion that Marshal Plummer had been responsible for the jailbreak, perhaps to collect a reward or expense money for tracking down and capturing the fugitives. (On Jan. 10, 1864, Plummer, who had hired on as sheriff of the Montana Territory boomtown Bannack, was lynched for having headed up a gang of road agents.)
Recaptured in January 1857, Webster was tried for and convicted of grand larceny and highway robbery. In February, the judge sentenced him to 25 years at San Quentin State Prison, on the northwestern shore of San Francisco Bay. When one of his fellow inmates remarked on the length of Webster’s sentence, he reportedly replied, “That’s nothing—I won’t be here six months.” That August 24, Webster made good on his promise when he and nearly a dozen other inmates commandeered a boat and rowed for the east shore as guards stood on the prison dock, guns blazing. A month later, The Nevada Journal reported, “This notorious outlaw was seen not long since in the neighborhood of Parks Bar on the Yuba.” In November, the Sacramento Daily Union placed him in Grass Valley, a few miles south of Nevada City.
Likely fearing discovery in his old stamping grounds in eastern Yuba and western Nevada counties, the fugitive sought refuge farther west in the Coast Range, where it was rumored a faster-drawing cohort gunned him down. In true outlaw fashion, Jim Webster had lived and died by the gun. Though he’d repeatedly managed to evade the law, he ultimately couldn’t escape poetic justice. WW