Stage coach robbery still unresolved

Stuart Alan Becker / Eastern Arizona Courier / April 11, 2000

When shots rang out Major Joseph Washington Wham knew the stagecoach was under attack. The black Buffalo Soldiers riding guard with the U.S. Army payroll took several hits but fought back with great bravery in the sun-drenched desert landscape of May 11, 1889.

During the carefully-planned attack on a hillside near what is today the dirt road to Klondyke - gunfire drove Wham and his men over the hill and down behind some rocks.

Civil War veteran Major Wham had to live with the loss of that $28,345.10 in military payroll for the rest of his life, as the commanding officer in charge, although he was later absolved of any guilt.

The dramatic frontier scene took place on a rutted wagon road that connected Fort Grant with Fort Thomas as the payroll for the soldiers made the rounds to the forts in the area of Apache country.

The white settlers from Pima who robbed the stagecoach were never convicted - despite a sensational trial in Tucson - and the money was never recovered.

That's why it was so interesting last week at the Eastern Arizona Museum and Historical Society of Graham County when descendants of the alleged robbers and the robbed converged on Pima and revisited the site.

Hal Herbert and Jay Roscoe of The J Train provided the transpiration from the Pima Museum where everybody met last Friday to the robbery site. Herbert and Roscoe are running a tourist business in which the Roscoe-built dune buggy is used to transport visitors to the site as Herbert waxes lyrical about the history of events.

Dr. Richard Wham, a radiologist of Henderson, Kentucky, flew out to visit the site with his wife. Wham's great-grandfather was Major J.W. Wham's cousin. He now maintains a website,, devoted to the history of his family.

Rick Webb Mattice was on hand - today an Eastern Arizona College board member, and direct kin of Gilbert Webb, the man thought to be the mastermind behind the robbery.

"He was my great grandfather," said Mattice.

The man present who seemed the most well informed on the occasion was Larry Upton, today of Gilbert, but who grew up in Pima and married Linda Matthews, great-granddaughter of Tom Lamb, one of the men accused of taking part in the robbery.

In 1974, Upton was thumbing through one of those "Wild West" magazines in a store when he came across a photo of Tom Lamb.

"I recognized that photo of my wife's great-grandfather, so I bought the magazine and took it home. I was really excited and asked my wife about the robbery and she said she had never heard of it. So, I called her mother, and asked her about it."

Upton's ex-wife Linda Matthews' mother Eleanor Herlacher said on the phone she didn't know anything about it.

Upton, who had grown up in Pima, made the trip from where he was living in Clifton, to seek out an audience with elderly Velva Long - the daughter of accused robber Tom Lamb.

"She took one look at the magazine, threw it across the room, and said Get that pack of lies out of my damn house," Upton recalled with some amusement.

"That was funny."

A few weeks later,Velva's husband Earl Long took Upton aside for a few quiet words of truth. The story was true. Her father had been a suspect, but as the daughter, she had grown up embarrassed about it, and felt deeply for her father's innocence.

"She had grown up with rumors, and she wanted the story suppressed because she strongly believed her father was an innocent man," Upton said.

Finally, nine years later in 1983, Velva Long agreed to an interview with Upton.

"I'll never forget her comment. She put her finger in my face and said Young man, don't you ever write anything that will embarrass or humiliate me or my family," she told me. "And I hope I have not done that."

By way of her father's defense, she told Upton she knew he had never gotten any of the loot. She believed in her father's innocence until she died.

"I know we never got any money, because we were as poor as church mice," she told Upton.

On Friday, Upton presented several thousand pages of research material to the Pima Museum, which was received by the museum's director Edress Barney.

"I think it's the appropriate place for all the information on the Wham Robbery, and I think they will take good care of it and improve on my filing system," said Upton, who works as a financial analyst at Primerica Financial Services in Gilbert.

During the course of his research, Upton met Arkansas State University History Professor Dr. Larry Ball. The two men shared information, and Dr. Ball is publishing a new book on the subject called "Ambush at Bloody Run," which is expected to appear later this year under the imprint of the Arizona Historical Society.

"Dr. Ball donated the transcript of the trial to the museum, and I thought that was a very generous thing," said Upton.

"As far as I know there are only three copies of the transcript," he said.

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