Stagecoach trial in 1889 revisited

Kate Johnson / Eastern Arizona Courier / April 11, 2000

The more things change, the more they stay the same - in some ways, at least. Describing the Wham Paymaster Robbery of 1889, tour organizer Hal Herbert joked that, "The attorneys are the ones who got most of the money in this robbery - kind of like today."

"Racism, religion, and dislike of the feds were all factors in this trial," added Dick Wham, descendant of Paymaster Major Joseph Washington Wham, among those held up in the stagecoach robbery known as the at the Wham Paymaster Robbery.

A well-planned robbery in which over $28,000 was stolen from army payroll funds, the Paymaster Robbery was never entirely solved. Eight of the 11 soldiers, most of whom were unarmed black men, were shot. Some who were severely wounded fired back, and eventually all managed to flee. Sergeant Benjamin Brown was the non-commissioned officer in charge of the soldiers, members of the 24th Cavalry and the 10th Infantry. Brown and Corporal Isaiah Mays received Medals of Honor, and all but one received Certificates of Merit.

But while racism, religion, and dislike of the feds are still hot topics today, not everything has stayed the same in terms of the Paymaster Robbery. The group of descendants, historians, and tourists on a recent expedition to the site of the robbery were in high spirits. "This looks like a whole load of outlaws to me," joked Eastern Arizona Historical Society and Museum President Bob Colvin, as the group piled into Jay Rasco's eight-seater dune-buggy. The tour led them to Wham Hill, located in the Cottonwood Creek wash, where a road formerly connected Fort Grant to Fort Thomas.

Just how well-planned the robbery was hit home upon seeing its location on a trail in the Gila River Valley, 15 miles west of Pima. The area provided an elevated ridge for the robbers to hide out on, and left the soldiers literally nowhere to run. "Those Whams are too damn skinny to shoot," joked Richard Webb Mattice about Dick Wham's lanky frame.

In addition to the presence of robbery descendants, a donation of official papers on the robbery by historian Larry Upton to the Museum marked the occasion last Friday. "I think it's a great story, I wish I was one of the robbers," Upton said.

"Webb was found innocent largely because of politics," said Al Herbert. "Arizona was fighting for statehood, the feds were fighting the LDS church, and so convicting Mormons was not good for statehood, especially on the testimony of blacks."

Once the soldiers had retreated, the robbers took their time ransacking the wagons. "They were in no big hurry. They had no worries about the local police driving up," remarked Upton.

Dick Wham recently started tracing the Wham genealogy, and came all the way from Henderson, Kentucky to Safford to learn more about what happened to his great-grandfather's cousin three times removed, Major Joseph W. Wham.

"W.T. was my grandmother's favorite uncle," said Webb Mattice, who's great-grandfather was Gilbert Webb. " People would ask my grandmother about whether W.T. did it, she would just quote W.T. and say, Twelve honest men said he didn't.'"

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