After two woodcutters decided to rob a train.
Tulare County had a couple of good but relatively inexperienced deputy sheriffs in Earl Daggett and Victor Reed. On the night of March 19, 1896, the two lawmen, based in Visalia, California, got the surprise of their lives. They acquitted themselves well under fire and lived to tell the tale.
In early 1896, a farmer hired drifters Dan McCall and Obie Britt to cut down oak trees so that he could cultivate land he owned north of Visalia. McCall was about 30 and Britt was only 18; otherwise little was known about the two men. The work was hard and the pay not much—insufficient as far as the two woodcutters were concerned. One day McCall paused in his labors to ask his young partner if he had “the blood to make money without working for it.” Britt asked how it could be done. “Rob a train,” said McCall.
Britt took it as a joke or idle conversation and went back to work. McCall, though, thought it was a good idea, and he didn’t let the idea die. Eventually, he convinced Britt that they could pull off the crime with some help. First, McCall enlisted another woodcutter, John Haynes, to assist them. Next, McCall prevailed upon Visalia saloonkeeper Josiah Lovern to come aboard with his partner, Charles Ardell. Lovern in turn shared the opportunity with his friends Billy Ross and “Frenchy” Reguard. That made for a gang of seven.
The plan called for Lovern to supply horses and a carriage for transportation to and from the robbery site; he would also furnish weapons from the gun rack in his saloon. Haynes would supply the blasting powder to blow open the safe in the express car. At the robbery scene, Lovern and Ardell would stop the train at night by waving a red lantern, and then McCall and Britt, masked and armed, would board the locomotive and take charge of the engineer and fireman. McCall would blow up the safe in the express car while the others would fire their guns at random to intimidate the train crew and passengers.
As the gang members refined their plan, Lovern and McCall began talking about killing the train crewmen. Britt became unnerved; robbing a train was one thing, but killing people wasn’t something he could stomach. Secretly, the young woodcutter contacted Tulare County Sheriff A.P. Merritt and gave him the holdup plan in detail. Merritt told Britt to “play along” with the gang and to keep him informed.
About March 16, Britt again went to Merritt. He informed the sheriff that the gang planned to hold up the northbound Southern Pacific train No. 20 at Tagus switch after it left Tulare late on the night of March 19. Merritt decided that he and a posse would board No. 20 in Tulare before the bandits struck.
During the day of the 19th, Merritt and his possemen quietly left Visalia individually, with plans to reconvene in Tulare, 10 miles to the south. Deputies Daggett and Reed, however, left together late that afternoon, taking a train six miles from Visalia to Goshen, a major depot on the Southern Pacific line 12 miles north of Tulare. After dark, the deputies boarded the tender car of southbound train No. 19 to ride to Tulare, where they would join Merritt’s posse.
Back in Visalia, a friend of Lovern’s noticed the absence of the lawmen and made a casual remark about it to the saloonkeeper. Lovern took it seriously, figuring that someone had betrayed the gang. He quickly got word of his suspicions to the other gang members and called off the holdup.
McCall, however, was not ready to give up entirely on the holdup idea. He came up with a new plan for himself and Britt: They would rob southbound train No. 19 south of Goshen and make their getaway before the sheriff knew what had happened. Britt ostensibly went along with the new plan but hoped to somehow warn Sheriff Merritt.
As No. 19 left the Goshen station, McCall swung aboard the baggage car, believing that Britt would follow. But instead of boarding, Britt ran to the depot office and had the telegrapher send a wire: “Sheriff Merritt. Tulare. I am informed by Obie Britt that McCall is on train No. 19. Look out for him. McCall supposed Britt would assist him in holdup. Agent.”
The sheriff knew that Deputies Daggett and Reed were on train No. 19 and that they were unaware of McCall’s presence and intentions. As there was no way to warn them of impending danger, Merritt was no doubt anxious.
About 11 p.m. McCall stood atop the coal in the tender car. He could see the engineer and fireman from the light of the engine’s firebox. “Throw up your hands, you sons of bitches!” he yelled. Seeing the masked man pointing a rifle at them with one hand and a revolver with the other, the two trainmen complied.
In the darkness, McCall did not see the two lawmen sitting on the coal below and to one side of him. But the deputies heard McCall’s command over the engine noise, and when they turned to face him, the bandit saw movement and opened fire. A bullet caught Reed in the shoulder, and as he fell backward, he triggered his shotgun at McCall. He missed. Daggett also raised his shotgun, but McCall shot first, and the bullet struck the second deputy in the chest. The badly wounded Daggett managed to fire back, a blast to McCall’s midsection that knocked the bandit off the moving train.
While the shooting was going on, the frightened engineer and fireman escaped from the locomotive cab by climbing through the front windows and crawling out on the catwalks that were on each side of the boiler. The unattended train sped down the tracks at about 40 miles per hour. Reed reassured them that the holdup man had made an early exit, and they reentered the cab to resume control of the runaway train.
The engineer asked Deputy Reed if they should back up to the shooting scene and recover the would-be bandit’s body. But Reed was more concerned about Daggett, who needed immediate medical attention. “Forget the body,” Reed replied. “Get to Tulare as fast as you can!”
Within minutes they arrived at the Tulare depot. Sheriff Merritt had Daggett placed in a hotel room, where two physicians attended to him. Reed’s shoulder wound was painful but not life-threatening, and while he was being treated, he reported to Merritt what happened. The sheriff and several of his possemen rode train No. 20 north to Tagus switch and soon recovered McCall’s body; a bandana still covered most of his face. The outlaw’s remains were released to his brothers, who resided in Santa Cruz.
Lovern, Ardell, Ross, Haynes and Reguard were soon all arrested for their involvement in the original robbery plan. Haynes was immediately released, because he was able to prove that he had backed out of participating in any holdup; on the night of March 19, he and his wife had attended a Salvation Army meeting in Tulare. Ross and Reguard were later released because of lack of evidence against them. Ardell stood trial but was acquitted. Lovern, whose guns were used by McCall in the holdup attempt, was convicted and sentenced to life in San Quentin Prison. Britt, the young woodcutter who went along with the holdup idea at first and then turned informer, was held in jail as a material witness. After Lovern’s trial, Britt was released, and he left the area pronto.
Deputies Daggett and Reed recovered from their wounds and returned to duty. However, neither of them stayed much longer in law enforcement. They had both responded well to a nasty surprise on March 19 and had thwarted a train robbery, but one deadly shooting incident seemed to be enough for both of them.
Daggett attended medical college and became a physician in Alameda County, Calif. Reed became the tax collector in Tulare County and later was vice president and manager of the First National Bank in Lindsay, Calif. In October 1926, Reed killed himself for reasons unknown; the bank’s books were in perfect order.
Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.