The back-to-back robbery of two stages headed for California’s Yosemite Valley led to more than a few trials and tribulations.
First described by members of an 1851 military expedition, central California’s awe-inspiring Yosemite Valley soon became one of the most popular natural attractions in the world, drawing visitors from far and wide. There to greet them were men with darker motives. Travelers always carried money, and by the early 1880s, with the coming of the Sierra snowmelt and spring tourists, robbers gathered along stage roads into the canyon.
On the evening of May 22, 1885, Phil Toby was driving his stage from the railroad town of Madera headed for Raymond and on to Yosemite. Temperatures were already on the rise, and the foothill grasses were turning from green to golden. Oak trees gave way to towering pines as the road climbed to Raymond. A second stage, driven by Jake Foster, kept just far enough behind Toby’s coach to avoid the dust. Around 5 p.m., about nine miles below the Wawona stage stop, two masked men appeared. They had blackened their hands and any exposed skin on their faces and wore their clothes inside out.
“Phil, stop and throw down the express box!” shouted one gunman, pointing a shotgun at the driver of the first coach.
“The box is not in my stage,” Toby replied. “If you don’t believe me, get in and see.” The other robber jumped up on the stage and confirmed there was no express box. The holdup men then ordered the passengers from the stage and robbed them of money, jewelry and other valuables. “The ladies were not interfered with,” noted a local account, “not even to admire the beautiful and costly diamond earrings that one of the lady passengers wore.” The outlaws then ordered the passengers back into the coach and told Toby to drive on. The stage lurched forward, the horses urged on by several pistol shots into the air.
The highwaymen then calmed the excited horses of the second coach and called for driver Foster to throw down the box. Foster did not argue the point—the express box contained little of value. After robbing the two male passengers, the duo then ordered Foster to also resume his drive to Yosemite. A rider soon brought news of the robberies to Wawona. Informed by telegraph, the sheriffs of Fresno, Mariposa and Merced counties promptly rounded up posses and hit the trail in search of the two robbers. An initial reward of $1,200 for the capture of the pair provided some inspiration. John Washburn joined the Mariposa posse. He and his brothers were big property owners with holdings that included mines, hotels and the Yosemite Stage & Turnpike Co. Tom Beasore, a half-blood Indian tracker, accompanied Washburn.
The robbing of Yosemite stages was serious business, affecting the local economy in various ways. A drop in stage traffic due to fear of crime also meant a drop in sales for local merchants. The Wisconsin State Journal, half a continent away in Madison, reported at the time: “Highwaymen are infesting the Yosemite Valley route. A few days since a stagecoach filled with California tourists was waylaid and the members of the party plundered to their last cent. Several robberies have occurred on the route during the past month.”
Dour as the stage holdups might be, it did prompt some humorous responses, as reported by the Madera stage office clerk at the time. Learning of the robbery while purchasing a ticket, a portly traveler denounced the cowardly passenger victims. Demonstrating what his own response would have been, he frantically searched his pockets for the key to his valise, then unlocked it and produced a small bundle. He spent additional minutes undoing knots to expose a small pistol that, according to an observer, “would make a highwayman as mad as blazes if he were shot with it.” The owner then carefully rewrapped the gun and restored it to his valise.
“Do you think they will rob us?” giggled a beaming woman passenger in the office. “Oh, no, madam,” said a male passenger, “there is no danger at all. You needn’t be in the least alarmed.”
“Oh,” she said, “I do wish they would!” and her face fairly beamed with enthusiasm at the idea of a romantic encounter with real, live robbers in the dark mountain forests.
A Mariposa report stated that passengers in the stages driven by Toby and Foster had lost $1,300, along with rings and watches. The two men in Foster’s stage were not named, but the Mariposa Gazette listed Toby’s passengers as “W.H. Waite and wife, of Providence, R.I.; Mr. Chance and wife [English], of Raymond’s Excursion Party; Mr. Harris, of Los Angeles; and Mr. Duncan, with a party of four.”
Mariposa Sheriff John Mullery and Undersheriff William J. Howard, a former California Ranger who in 1853 helped track down outlaw Joaquín Murietta, left at 2 the following morning, May 23. At Wawona they joined forces with Washburn and Beasore, and the four proceeded to the robbery site. The holdup had taken place in Fresno County, and Sheriff Oliver J. Meade took the first train north for Merced. There he joined Deputy Sheriff Hiram Rapelje, whom he knew to be a former Yosemite stage driver. The two met up with the other officers at the crime scene. The lawmen soon found the outlaws’ campsite. From the food the robbers had eaten and the fact they had known the stage drivers by name, the officers were certain they were looking for two local men.
Mullery, Howard and Beasore checked out a mountain pass before Howard followed another lead, agreeing to meet the others later at Wawona. Meade and Rapelje rode to Gertrude to search for any sign of the outlaws. Returning from their trek, Mullery and Beasore went over the holdup site once more.
In the lawmen’s absence Scott Burford, who operated a stage stop near the robbery site, had discovered overlooked footprints beneath some foliage. He pointed them out to Mullery, who noted the tracks led south toward Fresno Flats. Certain the highwaymen had left the marks, the sheriff was elated. Mullery needed a fresh mount and alert Howard, so he and Beasore headed for Wawona. En route they ran into Howard and arranged to meet him later at Fresno Flats.
Once Mullery found a horse, he and Beasore resumed following the tracks. Howard eventually joined them, along with Constable George Moore and four other men. The trail did lead toward Fresno Flats, ending at a small cabin outside of town owned by Charley Myers, who did farming and handyman work in the area. His parents lived nearby.
The posse was contemplating its next move when Meade and Rapelje rode up. The lawmen obtained a search warrant and decided that Howard, Meade, Rapelje and Moore should make the arrest. Entering the cabin, the four men found Myers’ brother-in-law, William Prescott, asleep in the bedroom and woke him up. The startled Prescott, who fit the description of one of the robbers, said Myers had gone south to Coarsegold. Meade and Rapelje went after Myers while Howard continued to question Prescott. Before long the lawmen had both suspects before the local justice of the peace. Neither Myers nor Prescott could make bail. The justice of the peace set a hearing date, and Meade took the prisoners to Fresno. On June 17 The Fresno Weekly Expositor announced the arraignment of the two suspects and remarked that “travel to Yo Semite [sic] has fallen off greatly since the robbery of the coaches a few weeks ago.”
In late August 1885, three months after the robbery and just before the trial was to begin, the San Francisco Morning Call published a letter that had first appeared in The Times of London. The author was “W. Chance,” one of the passengers on Phil Toby’s stage that fateful day. Chance wrote it “as a warning to those of my fellow-countrymen who intend visiting the ‘Far West.’” It read in part:
We had arrived at San Francisco from Japan and were on our way to visit the celebrated Yosemite Valley. Leaving the railway at Madera on the morning of the 22nd of May last, we were conveyed the remaining 100 miles by stage (a charabanc drawn by six horses), the road journey occupying two days. Our party consisted of 12 persons—six men, four ladies and two children—all Americans except ourselves. Late in the afternoon of the first day, at a spot called Fresno Flats, some 20 miles from Clark’s Hotel, our resting place for the night, the stage was stopped by two masked men armed with guns and revolvers. One with his gun covered the driver while the other leveled his at the passengers.
We were all completely taken by surprise. They threatened to shoot upon the slightest move on the part of any of us. “If any man moves, I’ll shoot him, or woman either” were the exact words used. We were none of us armed, nor, indeed, with the ladies present, would resistance in either case have been justifiable. We were then ordered to alight, ranged in line and made to hold up our hands under a threat to shoot if we disobeyed. One of the robbers, revolver in hand, went down the line and relieved us of our watches and chains and money, while the other, standing a short distance behind, kept his gun leveled at us, as he had been doing all along, ready to shoot if we made any show of resistance.
The robber actually had the cowardice to hold his revolver to the face of each lady as he searched her. Our stage carried the box of the Wells, Fargo Express Co., containing money and valuables. The highwaymen asked for and were given this, and for its sake, doubtless, the stage was attacked, the unfortunate travelers suffering themselves in consequence. As long as the Wells, Fargo Co. are allowed to send the treasure entrusted to them in an ordinary stage, the attacks will continue. But travelers can be warned what to expect. My advice to them is to leave behind valuable watches, not to take with them more money than they actually require for the visit to the valley. The tourist must not expect to hear anything of these robberies at any of the ticket offices or hotels in San Francisco or elsewhere. In fact, the possibility of their occurrence is certain to be denied. I may add that we found American tourists from the East quite as ignorant as ourselves of their occurrence and equally indignant at their possibility.
The Mariposa Gazette account of the robbery had named Chance among the passengers in Toby’s stage, but the Englishman had filed no complaint at the time and apparently wasn’t around to testify at the trial, which didn’t begin until early September. James Daly, the newly elected Fresno County district attorney, enlisted Mariposa County district attorney George Goucher, who was also a state assemblyman, to assist in prosecuting the case. Goucher enjoyed his liquor in barrooms, but he knew his way around a courtroom.
Attorney Walter D. Grady, owner of a Fresno opera house, was a co-counsel for the defense. He was also a known drinker, whose booze-induced brawls were fodder for the local press, particularly the time he bit off part of a San Francisco waiter’s ear. Joining Grady on the defense was Patrick J. Reddy, one of the most feared attorneys in the West. Reddy had lost an arm in a shootout in Virginia City, but the disability never slowed him down. He was also a state senator and a wealthy mine owner. He too enjoyed a few drinks at the end of the day, with Grady or otherwise. In 1880 Wells, Fargo & Co. had retained Reddy to prosecute stage robber Milton Sharp. After securing Sharp’s conviction, Reddy presented Wells, Fargo with a bill for $5,000. The company balked, offering the attorney half the amount. Reddy rejected the offer and said he would take nothing. From then on, though, the attorney worked pro bono for stage robbers being prosecuted by Wells, Fargo. His vindictiveness haunted the company until Reddy’s death in 1900. Hi Rapelje, summoned as a witness in the September trial of Myers and Prescott, was waiting in Fresno on September 1 when local Deputy Sheriff Johnny White asked for his assistance in arresting a fugitive working at a nearby sheep-shearing camp. Rapelje and White were pals from their stage-driving days, and Hi readily agreed to go along. The fugitive, Gervasio Romero, had vowed never to be taken alive. When White informed Romero he had a warrant, the fugitive pulled a pistol from his vest. He fired a shot at White and then at Rapelje, missing both times. The two officers returned fire, and each was on target. The coroner later stated the dead man had marks from wounds all over his body, including a large buckshot scar.
Jury selection in the Myers-Prescott case came the next day, and the trial opened in the Fresno County Superior Court on September 3. Judge James B. Campbell presided.
On the first day stage driver Phil Toby testified the robbers had used his name, and others corroborated his statement. William Howard took the stand next. He told of his interview with Prescott at the Myers home and produced a written statement he had taken from the suspect. Reddy questioned every detail of that interview. Prescott and Myers had each told the officers they had been hunting hogs in the mountains at the time of the robbery. But when the officers took Myers into the mountains to show where he and Prescott had been hogging, he had gotten “lost.” Witnesses confirmed the suspects had borrowed a rifle and a shotgun from friends.
A great deal of testimony related to the footprints that led from the robbery scene to Myers’ cabin. Tracker Tom Beasore attested to a worn spot on one track that was consistent from the robbery site to the cabin. The attorneys then addressed other evidence. For instance, the bandits’ faces and hands had been blackened, and the officers found a can of blacking in Myers’ barn. Reddy countered with a long diatribe about how such an item could be found in any paint shop in the country. Goucher finally asked if he was through with his speech. “You don’t call that a speech, do you?” replied Reddy. “If you call that a speech, you will be astounded when you hear one!”
After brief testimony by Wells, Fargo detective Jonathan Thacker, Hi Rapelje took the stand. The lawman and former stage driver was well known and respected in the area. In 1879 he had been given the privilege of driving ex-President Ulysses S. Grant into Yosemite. Rapelje was hot-tempered, however, and the exchange was sharp when Reddy went into his badgering routine. The officer described how under a bale of hay in Myers’ barn he had found a sack containing two undershirts, two overshirts and a pair of trousers. The undershirts were black around the cuffs and collars—damning evidence. But nothing fazed Reddy. “Couldn’t that black,” he asked the deputy, “be from the perspiration of a hardworking man?” Rapelje shot back, “I never worked hard enough to know.”
Testimony finally closed on September 22. Reddy spent an entire day delivering a defense summation described as “able, eloquent and ingenious.” Goucher, though, gave a convincing argument, and on the following day the jury brought in a unanimous verdict of guilty. Sadly, Charley Myers’ infant son died the very hour the verdict was delivered. Judge Campbell scheduled sentencing for the following month.
On October 22, after reading the charge, Campbell asked if there was any reason sentence should not be passed. The well-prepared Reddy stepped forward with affidavits showing that during the trial the jury had not obeyed the admonitions of the court, having separated at various times and communicated with outside parties. Regardless, in early November, Campbell denied the motion for a new trial and sentenced each of the defendants to 20 years at San Quentin State Prison.
On November 7 the San Francisco Chronicle responded to what the complaining passenger Chance had written about stagecoach robbery in the Wild West:
The two young men who robbed the stage-load of Yosemite tourists last spring were sentenced yesterday at Fresno to 20 years each in San Quentin. This will probably be balm to the lacerated feelings of Mr. Chance, the English tourist, who metaphorically frothed at the mouth in the London Times over his treatment in the Wild West. The sentence for a similar crime in the suburbs of London would not be more severe than this.
But the Chronicle had spoken too soon. Reddy was not done fighting for his clients. He took his case before the State Supreme Court, claiming the conviction was based solely on circumstantial evidence and charging the sheriff with misconduct for having taken the jurors to saloons and bought them drinks. “He paid out some considerable money in and about the trial,” noted Reddy, “and had no expectation of being repaid therefore except in case of conviction.” At least twice the sheriff had taken the jury to saloons and bought them drinks. On two other occasions the jury had been treated at saloons—once by a fellow juror, and once by one of the defendants’ counsel. The State Supreme Court reversed Campbell’s ruling and ordered a new trial.
Reddy had been impressed by Goucher’s performance at the first trial. Prior to the new trial Reddy offered him a partnership. Goucher would man a Fresno office, while Reddy would live in San Francisco “and visit Fresno from time to time as business requires.” Goucher would not be assisting the prosecution this time.
For the second trial a new district attorney, Aurelius “Reel” Terry, headed the prosecution, assisted by local lawyer S.J. Hinds. Nephew of the notorious David S. Terry, who had killed U.S. Senator David C. Broderick in an 1859 California duel, Reel was just as cantankerous as his uncle. He had been wounded by Walter Grady in the latter’s opera house during a shootout over politics. Of course, Pat Reddy would again be in charge of the defense.
On January 3, 1887, the second trial began with several fresh faces, but a mostly familiar scenario played out. “The trial of the case of Prescott upon the charge of robbing the Yosemite stage drags along,” reported the The Fresno Weekly Expositor, “with nothing new and but little interest. The trial is simply threshing over the old straw of the previous trial.” The second trial took just over two weeks. The jury was sequestered at 11 p.m. on January 18, 1887, and at 4 p.m. the next day reported to be seven for conviction and five for acquittal. It was a hung jury. Reddy took the local train for San Francisco, while the judge lowered bail for the defendants, and they scrambled to gain their release from jail.
The third trial began on the last day of November 1887. There were no surprises or new evidence, although several new corroborative witnesses testified. Surprisingly, on December 4, according to The Fresno Morning Republican, “Hon. Pat Reddy scored a point because Sheriff Mead and deputy, in the kindness of their hearts, gave the jurors a drink. Yesterday, looking at the wistful ones, he [Reddy] said, ‘As two or three of the jurors like a toddy, I move the sheriff allow them to have one, whenever convenient.’”
On Christmas Eve the third and final trial ended with a gift for the defendants. When the jury foreman announced they were deadlocked once again, Judge Campbell discharged them. Reel Terry then moved the prisoners be discharged, and this was done. More than $25,000 had been spent on the trials, and the county could stand no more. “The prosecution,” reported the Republican, “made a gallant fight, and if ever any men had cause for gratitude, Prescott and Myers certainly owe Senator Reddy more than they can ever repay.”
Stagecoach robberies on the road to Yosemite persisted into the 20th century. In summer 1905 highwaymen allowed one passenger to take a remarkable photograph of the robbery in progress. In 1911 robbers hit the last stagecoaches just before auto stages took over the route. And, yes, you guessed it—a new era was initiated on July 24, 1920, when highwaymen stopped and robbed five auto stages.
Californian William B. Secrest writes often for Wild West and is the author of more than a dozen books. For further reading see California Desperadoes, Lawmen and Desperadoes and Perilous Trails, Dangerous Men, all by Secrest, and John Boessenecker’s Badge and Buckshot and Gold Dust and Gunsmoke.
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.