Larry T. Upton
Presentation to the Arizona Historical Society in Tucson,
As part of the 1999 Fall Lecture Series entitled
"Murder and Mayhem in the Wild, Wild West"
October 20, 1999
I am going to tell you a story about one of the least
known, least written about, yet most unbelievable crimes in Arizona territorial
history. It is the proverbial skeleton in the closet. The accuseds were
charged only with armed robbery, yet eight men, all U. S. soldiers, suffered
gunshot wounds of varying severity. Shortly after midday on Saturday, May
11, 1889, a band of robbers ambushed U. S. Army Paymaster Major Joseph
W. Wham and his military escort along the Fort Grant - Fort Thomas Road
about 15 miles west of Pima in the Gila River Valley. Following a hard-fought
gun battle, the bandits made off with more than $28,000 in gold and silver
coins. The daring robbery and the subsequent manhunt and trial of suspects
in the heist created a sensation throughout the Southwest. Questions of
guilt and innocence, and of what happened to the money, still linger more
than a century later.(1)
Within days of the robbery, U. S. Marshal William Kidder
Meade, with the assistance of soldiers and the Graham County Sheriff, had
11 men under arrest, most of whom were residents of the nearby village
of Pima. After a hearing, seven of the prisoners were bound over for trial
at the fall session of United States District Court for the First Judicial
District Court, in Tucson. The defendants included Gilbert Webb and his
son, Wilfred, Lyman and Warren Follett (brothers), David Rogers, Thomas
Lamb, and Mark Cunningham.
If this event had happened in Tombstone it would be an
old story, told and retold in numerous books, memoirs, and movies. But
it did not happen in Tombstone! It happened in the most unlikely of places,
Pima, Arizona, a community established by the Mormons in 1879 under the
authorization of stake President Jesse N. Smith of Snowflake, who admonished
his brethren "...to comply strictly with the law in their claims, to be
honest in their dealings with the outside brethren...."(2)
To compare Tombstone and Pima in 1879 is akin to comparing Sodom and Gomorrah
and the Garden of Eden. Tombstone was a boomtown fueled by silver mining
and defined by gambling, gunplay, loose women, and whiskey. The Sabbath
was merely a day to sleep off a hangover. Pima, on the other hand, viewed
itself as the Jewel of the Gila Valley, a place where treasures are laid
up in Heaven, and Sundays are dedicated to the Lord. For such a community
to be forever branded as the home of the Wham robbers must be the definition
of irony! Is it any wonder that the town preferred to keep this skeleton
in the closet?
The Mormons, persecuted from their beginnings in 1830,
wanted to live down the negative reputation being promulgated by the national
and territorial press. They wanted to be good neighbors. After several
years in Graham County, the Valley Bulletin, published in Solomonville,
had this to say about the local Mormons: "The Mormons, who have occupied
a large portion of Graham County, are a thriving, industrious, law-abiding
race, thoroughly alive to the education of their children...and they have
brought with them from their former homes, good habits..."(3)
Accusations of armed robbery against a number of their citizens did not
fit well with the reputation that they had established nor with the image
that they had of themselves as a pious people dedicated to serving the
There is no doubt the town's reputation suffered following
the robbery. A sense of the public feeling against Pima is evidenced from
a letter from Moses Cluff to the editor of the Valley Bulletin on October
17, 1890, over a year after the robbery. Cluff was writing to complain
about a resolution adopted by the Republican Party at its convention in
August 1890 wherein Mormons were described as Un-American, disloyal and
should be excluded from elections. Cluff said, "...It is true that I live
in Pima, which has as bad a name as the city of Nazareth had in the days
of Christ, and it is now political dog days. Everything and everybody looks
alike among the Mormons, and are branded the same by the Republican Party...they
say no good thing can come out of Pima. No doubt the Citizen (Arizona Daily
Citizen) will now say the U. S. Government was robbed of thousands of dollars
not many miles from Pima, and that the robbers were tracked to this place.
I will here state what I said, as well as others living in Pima. When we
first heard of the robbery, we hoped the U. S. Officers would capture the
whole band, and if there was any among them professing to be Mormons and
citizens of the United States that they would be hung for treason....The
Mormon Brotherhood of Arizona is not responsible for the acts of cowboys
and robbers, only so far as they hold them in fellowship, when it is shown
that they are men of that class."(4)
Unlike Tombstone where people were constantly coming and
going, the people in Pima were there to stay. Perhaps speaking out to defend
their good name served only to keep people remembering. Perhaps silence
was the best antidote for a poisoned reputation. There was no conspiracy
to keep silent by the Church. Church leaders went public on several occasions
to show their support for the law. They also pointed out that only one
of the seven accused men was a Mormon. To my surprise I discovered that
that was true. Only W. T. Webb was on the Church's rolls. However, only
Mark Cunningham was truly outside the Mormon influence. The others were
part of the Mormon colony, but for whatever reason were not listed as Church
members. It was not long, however, that people were discouraged from speaking
publicly about the robbery. First, it was embarrassing to the town. Second,
people were concerned about offending family and friends as the town was
completely bound together by religion and family relationships. Nobody
could talk about the robbery without offending someone. For example, W.
T. Webb was married to Sarah Burns, a sister to Peter McBride'' wife. Peter
McBride was the uncle of Tom Lamb's wife. Hite Crockett, a witness for
the prosecution, was a brother to the wife of Robert Ferrin, a witness
for the defense, who was a brother to the wife of Tom Lamb. It goes on
and on. I think you get the picture. Eventually, discussion of the robbery
was confined to whispered gossip in town and to cowboys around campfires
on the range. Outside curiosity died quickly. While two of Wham's escort,
Sgt. Benjamin Brown and Cpl. Isaiah Mays, were awarded the Medal of Honor
for their bravery during the gunfight, they represented the unpopular federal
government and they were black men. Not good in the Arizona of 1889. In
essence, there were no heroes; there was no Wyatt Earp. So the story died.
Ironically, Otto Marshall, a son of Louella and Sheriff
Marshall, was really the person who dragged the Wham skeleton from Pima's
closet with the publication of his book in 1967. He wrote it to fulfill
a promise to his mother that he would someday exonerate his family from
the taint of the robbery. Next, the Pima Chamber of Commerce, using Marshall's
book as its basis, put on a reenactment of the Wham robbery at the place
it actually occurred. I'm sure the Chamber hoped to capitalize on the most
infamous event in the town's history but feelings still ran high among
many old-timers and the project collapsed after two years.
I did not learn about the Wham robbery until 1974 when
I was living in Clifton, Arizona. One day I was in Riley's Drug Store waiting
for a prescription so I whiled away the time at the magazine rack. I picked
up the June 1974 issue of "Great Robberies of the Old West."(5)
My interest perked up when I noticed a reference to Pima. Then I noticed
a reference to Tom Lamb, including his picture, whom I knew was my wife's
great-grandfather. I bought the magazine and could hardly wait to get home,
read it carefully, and ask my wife about it. She was as amazed as I was
as she had never heard anything about the Wham robbery. I suggested she
call her mother, who lived in Little Rock, Arkansas, and ask her about
it. Her mother knew nothing about it. So we decided that the coming weekend
we would make a trip to Pima to visit my wife's grandmother, Velva Long,
who was Tom Lamb's daughter. And that is when the story became really interesting.
Velva Long, whom I always called, "Granny," took one look
at my magazine, threw it across the room like a strong-armed quarterback,
and said, "Get that damn pack of lies out of my house!" I was stunned.
She would not talk about the story. Somehow, in my naiveté, I thought
Granny would get a kick out of a magazine story that painted her father
as an outlaw. However, one family member did, Grandpa. Earl Long was the
son-in-law and a non-Mormon. Later, out of the line of fire of Granny,
he delighted in giving me his version of the story. This incident was the
catalyst that stirred my curiosity. I knew that I had discovered a skeleton
in Granny's closet, and I was determined to smoke it out in spite of her.
The first person I went to see was the late Ryder Ridgway.
He was the "mother-lode" of Graham County history. Sure enough he provided
me with the outlines of the story and some leads for interviews. Interestingly,
Ridgway interviewed Ed Follett, one of the accused who was released for
lack of evidence, when Ryder was in his twenties and Follett was an elderly
man. Ridgway's intent was to ask him for the true story of the Wham robbery.
He found Follett, a heavy-set man in bib-overalls, in his front yard at
his home in Pima. Follett was a typical ole-time cowboy, gruff in speech
and manner. Ridgway did not immediately ask about the robbery, but stuck
to typical themes of early day Pima and Arizona history. When he finally
brought up the Wham robbery, Follett hesitated, looked him directly in
the eye and said, "Young man, do you think you are going to make some money
off me?" Follett's directness completely unnerved Ridgway and he backed
away from the topic and never returned to it. He told me that Follett totally
intimidated him. He said he regretted that he never had the nerve to try
again to get the story.(6) And there went
our best last chance for a firsthand account of the robbery.
Ridgway had gathered a lot of information over the years
about the robbery; however, he was reluctant to write about it because
he knew that many local people were still very sensitive about the story.
What I discovered during my interviews was that even though people recognized
that the event was ancient history and that all the alleged participants
had passed on long ago, there was still an underlying concern about offending
family and friends. One of the most interesting interviews was with Milton
Rogers, son of Dave Rogers. Milt lived in Globe so I tried to interview
him by phone. He was not comfortable talking about it over the phone but
promised he would tell me all he knew if I would come to his home. I went
in with my tape recorder and note pad and asked him if I could record our
conversation. "Sure," he told me. It was a great interview; the only problem
was that every time I asked a direct question relating to the robbery,
he would motion for me to turn off the recorder. After I did so he would
provide a full answer. When I returned home my tape recording had nothing
on it but a lot of meaningless conversation and not one word about the
robbery. I encountered this problem in several interviews. I could make
notes, but I think they did not want a record of their voices making statements
about the robbery. I guess they figured they could always deny my notes
if anyone criticized them for what i wrote.
It wasn't until 1983 that I finally interviewed Velva
Long. I guess she decided that since I had been working on the story since
1974 that I was probably going to stay with it, so she agreed to tell me
what she know of the Wham story. Actually, I interviewed Velva and her
older sister, Elda Johnson, on the same days. Velva and Elda were born
after the robbery so all of their information had been obtained from family,
friends, and town gossip. Their father, Tom Lamb, the best source of information,
consistently refused to discuss the case, at least with family members.
Velva and Elda described their parents as quiet people who did not engage
in idle chatter. If you wanted information from them you had to ask the
right questions because nothing was volunteered.
As a young lady Velva asked Melissa Johnson Foster, one
of the defense witnesses in the case, to tell her the story. Melissa refused,
saying that too many people had already been hurt by it. Velva then asked,
"Well, will you at least tell me if my father was involved in it?" Melissa
replied, "No, Tom Lamb was not one of the robber." Velva's belief that
her father was innocent of the crime was very strong, as you might expect.
I asked her if her father was the type of man who might have become involved
in such an event given the right set of circumstances. Her answer was an
emphatic, "No, of course not!" Then she added, "At any rate, we never enjoyed
any of the money. My family was as poor as church mice."(7)
If Velva never heard anything from her parents, at least
Elda did from their mother. She told her the story of how the robbers implicated
Tom Lamb and Wall Follett because their innocence could be proved by witnesses
and therefore would help get them all off. Also, that one of the Folletts
had badgered Lamb to sell him his old government rifle, which he supposedly
did, and it was used in the robber. He had worked as a cowboy with the
robbers (Elda's characterization) from time to time and was a friend to
all of them. Elda also said that Wilfred T. Webb got his ear lobe shot
off during the robbery although I could never substantiate this statement.(8)
Here is the story as I have pieced it together from the
historical record and fleshed out with many of the local stories that have
been told and retold in Pima over the past century. It really begins with
Gilbert Webb, the most enterprising man in the village of Pima. Gilbert's
father, Chauncey, was a pioneer Latter-Day Saint who had joined the church
in Kirtland, Ohio in the 1830's. Some of the Webbs were among the earliest
migrants to Salt Lake in 1847. At 52 years of age in 1889, Gilbert was
still a rugged, powerful man. With his thick, gray-streaked black beard,
receding hairline, and authoritative manner, he looked every bit the nineteenth-century
Mormon patriarch. He provided jobs for many of his struggling neighbors
his freight, stagecoach, mercantile, and cattle operations. He went out
of his way to help people and was generous in extending credit to his neighbors.
If a family's cow died, it would not be unusual for Webb to show up with
a replacement. If a family was down and out, he might provision them out
of his store, telling them to "pay me back when you get on your feet."
To many Mormons, Webb was a latter-day Robin Hood, and that is what many
old-timers called him. One old-timer said, "If not for Gilbert Webb the
colony of Pima would have been starved out." At the time of the robbery,
he was mayor of Pima and a leading Graham County Democrat.
Gentile neighbors took issue with this generous assessment
of Gilbert Webb and his sons. In 1879, Gilbert had fled Utah to avoid indictment
for grand larceny. Now, 10 years later, some people complained that their
property began to disappear wherever the Webbs resided. The Silver City
Enterprise recalled that this much-traveled family of Saints had earned
a reputation as "hold-ups" while working on New Mexico railroads. Major
Wham himself later charged that Gilbert Webb had served as one of Brigham
Young's Avenging Angels. In the spring of 1889, his son Wilfred was facing
an indictment for stealing cattle from the Leitch ranch. Even some of Gilbert
Webb's friends around Pima suspected that anything he did for others was
done cunningly and with the idea that every favor was to be paid back someday
Some local families say that Gilbert Webb was also a hard-driving,
ambitious man who was overextended and desperately needed cash. He was
feeling pressure from his creditors, and his finances were stretched to
the limit. Webb had recently won government contracts to deliver 300,000
pounds of straw at San Carlos and 50,000 pounds of barley at Fort Thomas.
He expected to gross $3,280 in gold, but he lacked the working capital
to carry out the jobs. According to some sources, Webb's financial crisis
was the impetus for one of the most daring crimes in Arizona history---the
robbery of a U. S. Army paymaster.(10)
Gilbert Webb's gang, according to common knowledge around
Pima, contained as many as a dozen persons. Prominent among the alleged
participants was three of Webb's sons---Wilfred T., Leslie, and Milo. Others
implicated in the heist included brothers Warren (Wall), Joseph Edward
(Ed), and Lyman (Lyme) Follett; Marcus E. Cunningham, a friend of the Webbs
and Folletts; at least two of Gilbert Webb's cowboys, Thomas Lamb and David
Rogers; and Joe Foster, Jr., who was engaged to one of the Follett sisters.
Siebert H. (Bud) Henderson, a frontier tough who had fled a shooting scrape
in Lincoln County, New Mexico, was a suspect, as was a Mormon friend of
Gilbert Webb's with the unlikely name of Sheriff Marshall. Like Gilbert
Webb, Marshall was wanted in Utah for some previous criminal activity.
Andy Carlson, only 13 at the time, later bragged to a friend that he held
the horses at the robbery. Cunningham, and possibly Henderson, were the
only real gentiles in the gang. With the exception of Gilbert Webb at 52
and Wall Follett at 41 years of age, these were young men, ranging in age
from the teens to the late 20's.(11)
Milton Rogers, who admitted that his father, Dave, had
helped plan the holdup, insisted that the elder Rogers later had second
thought. On the appointed day, the three Follett brothers came by to get
Dave, who, with Siebert Henderson, was cleaning an irrigation ditch. "You
boys go on," Dave exclaimed, "I've decided to stay out of it; but I'll
keep my mouth shut." One of the Folletts pulled his six-shooter and told
Dave to get saddled. It was too late to back out.(12)
Some of the robbers were in the Cedar Springs country
as early as Wednesday, May 8, building fortifications along the top of
a defile through which the military road passed. The defile was formed
by a perpendicular wall of rock rising 60 feet above the roadbed on the
east and a somewhat lower ledge west of the road. Just beyond the lower
ledge, the ground sloped rather steeply down to the dry creek bed of Cottonwood
Creek. Brush piled around the rock breastworks hid them from view of anyone
passing on the road. The location was just three miles north of Wiley Holladay's
house on Underwood Wash. Although the road carried little traffic, the
men were careful to stay out of sight of passersby. Nevertheless, Sgt.
Charles Roper, who was working on the military telegraph line, claimed
to have seen Gilbert Webb and two other men from a distance. They immediately
ducked out of sight.(13)
The robber's camp was hidden in a deep draw a ½
mile due east of the rocky defile. A final breastwork commanded the ridge
overlooking the hideout. This would be used as a retreat position if the
fight went against the gang. The elaborate defensive positions, however,
may have been intended only as ruses to alarm the paymaster's escort. To
make them appear more formidable, Webb and his gang fashioned yucca stalks
to look like rifle barrels and stuck them over the breastworks. Contemptuous
of the black soldier's fighting abilities, the desperadoes apparently intended
to quickly disarm them and send them walking back to Cedar Springs.
At daybreak on Saturday, May 11, the cowboys breakfasted
on sardines and deviled ham before breaking camp in the hidden draw. They
knew Wham's approximate time of arrival because one of the men, allegedly
Tom Lamb, a young rancher who lived near Pima, had spend Thursday evening
at Fort Grant, where he inquired about the paymaster's schedule. The robbers
were so confident about their preparations that none of them wore masks.
Finally, if you believe Andy Carlson's youthful braggadocio, the cowboys
helped him tie rags around the mouths of the horses to stifle any noise
as the Wham party approached. Carlson stayed with the animals. Back at
the main breastwork, which rested against a lone cedar tree, the men rolled
a large boulder onto the road, blocking the narrowest part of the defile.(14)
Then they waited.
Earlier that Saturday morning at about 7:00 a.m., Major
Wham and his entourage climbed into two conveyances for the 46 mile trip
to Fort Thomas. The day before he had paid the soldiers at Fort Grant.
Now he was on his way to pay the men at Fort Thomas, Camp San Carlos, and
Fort Apache. Wham, William Gibbon, his clerk, and Pvt. Caldwell, his servant
and mule tender, rode in a dougherty, a canopied ambulance, driven by Pvt.
Hamilton Lewis, 24th Infantry. The payroll, exactly $28,345.10,
in gold and silver coins weighing about 250 pounds, was locked in an oak
strongbox and stowed in the ambulance. The remainder of the escort, consisting
of Sgt. Benjamin Brown, Cpl. Isaiah Mays, and Pvts. George Arrington, Benjamin
Burge, Julius Harrison, Squire Williams, James Young, George H. Short,
and Oscar Fox of the 24th Infantry, and Pvts. Thornton Hams
and James Wheeler of the 10th Cavalry, occupied an open wagon
driven by Charles Mermairt, a civilian employee of the Quartermaster Dept.
Six mules drew each vehicle. James LaRoy Saline, a civilian teamster, and
a Mormon from Pima, was originally scheduled to drive the escort wagon.
For reasons that have never been explained, Mermairt replaced him at the
last minute. Sgt. Brown and Cpl. Mays were armed with .38 caliber revolvers,
while the two cavalrymen held carbines and the seven infantrymen carried
single-shot Springfield rifles. Wham, Gibbon, and the two drivers were
As the wagons rolled out, Frankie Campbell, a black female
gambler mounted on a big bay horse, joined them. Wearing a bright yellow,
tight-waisted blouse, a billowing wine-colored skirt, and a large floppy
straw hat decorated with a red paper rose and red velvet streamers, she
was headed to Ft. Thomas so she could be on hand when the soldiers got
By the time the wagons rumbled through Bonita, a saloon-filled settlement near Ft. Grant's southern boundary, Frankie Campbell's big bay horse had outdistanced the soldiers, and she disappeared from view. The wagons next passed by Eureka
Springs, headquarters of the Leitch Cattle Company, and
then began the climb through Eagle Pass to Cedar Springs, 25 miles from
Ft. Grant. Knowing the ascent would strain the mules, Major Wham had arranged
for relay teams to be sent to the springs the day before.
Cedar Springs, headquarters for Barney Norton's NN ranch,
is located high on the base of Mt. Graham at the south entrance to Eagle
Pass, which connects the Sulfur Springs Valley to the Gila Valley to the
north. The adobe ranch house, vacant that quiet morning, stood in a clearing
on the west side of the road, surrounded by mesquite bushes, scrub oaks,
and stunted cedars. The corrals, holding Major Wham's relay teams, were
opposite the house, on the other side of the road; the springs trickled
from the ground just a few rods north of the ranch building. At almost
exactly noon, Wham's party broke the silence as the wagons rolled to a
stop in the clearing. Within 20 minutes, the soldiers changed teams, ate
their lunch, and moved out. During the stop, Sgt. Benjamin Brown climbed
out of the escort wagon and took a seat alongside Wham's driver.
Three miles from the springs, at about 12:45 p.m., Wham's
party passed by Wiley Holladay's adobe house, amidst a stand of tall cottonwood
trees, on the north bank of Underwood Wash. Holladay, a young Mormon polygamist,
had resided there with his wives, Harriet and her younger sister, Eliza,
and their families since he obtained the stage and mail contract between
Fort Grant and Fort Thomas a year earlier. Wiley's brother-in-law-, 13
year old John Daniel Colvin, also lived with the Holladays while he cowboyed
for neighbor Barney Norton.(16)
At this point, Frankie Campbell rejoined the soldiers.
She had stopped at Holladays to rest until the paymaster caught up with
her; and Harriet Holladay, who was home alone with the children, invited
Frankie to join them for lunch.
Apparently Wiley Holladay was deliberately away from home
that Saturday. The previous day he had been doing assessment work on a
nearby mining claim when Wilfred T. Webb, the 25 year old son of Gilbert,
rode up. Wilfred told him in no uncertain terms, "Wiley, I want you to
go down in the valley and do some work on the farm; just don't be here
tomorrow." Wiley later surmised that Webb wanted him out of the vicinity
on May 11 so that he would have an alibi. Frankie Campbell also suspected
something was in the wind. On one of her rest stops a Mexican laborer cautioned
her not to go through to Fort Thomas or she might be killed.(17)
The toughest part of the journey was over; there were
only 18 miles to go, and Wham expected to be in Ft. Thomas by mid-afternoon.
A few minutes before 1:00 p.m., Frankie Campbell, who
had again outdistanced Wham's wagons, rode over the crest of a hill and
slowly guided her horse down the steep, winding road toward the rocky ledges
of the ambush site. Then Major Wham's ambulance came easing down the sloping
hill. The escort wagon was running about 50 yards behind the ambulance.
As it reached the crest of the hill, driver Charlie Mermairt stopped and
asked the soldiers to get out of the wagon and walk. The lighter load allowed
his to better manage the handbrake as the wagon descended the steep incline.
Cpl. Mays took a position behind the wagon to help steady it, while the
other men of the escort preceded the wagon down the hill.(18)
In the meantime, Frankie Campbell had stopped between
two rocky ledges bordering the road and was maneuvering her horse around
a large boulder in the middle of the road when Pvt. Lewis brought Major
Wham's ambulance to a sudden stop because of the boulder. Major Wham, who
could not see ahead from inside the coach, asked, "What is the matter,
driver?" From his position on the front seat, Sergeant Brown called out,
"There's a rock in the road, sir." Then, Brown climbed down from the box
to examine the situation. Wham asked the driver if he could negotiate the
mules and ambulance around the obstacle. Failing that, Sgt. Brown called
for his soldiers to remove the rock from the road. Not anticipating trouble,
the men lay their guns down along the roadside and moved forward to dislodge
the boulder. Pvt. Harrison stooped down to inspect the rock and noticed
that it was blocked in place. Suddenly, he cried out, "Boys, that rock
was rolled here by human hands!" The men looked up the rocky slope to the
east, trying to spy the path of the large stone. Their eyes quickly focused
on the lone cedar tree growing out of the top of the ledge about 60 feet
directly above them. Suddenly, two men, whom they later identified as Wilfred
T. Webb and Mark E. Cunningham, rose up from a stone breastwork built around
the cedar tree. Cunningham was holding a Winchester rifle and standing
to the left of the tree. Webb, wearing a buckskin coat with fancy trimming
on the sleeves, brandished two six-shooters in his hands, yelled, "Get
out, you black sons of bitches!" and fired both his weapons at the men
below. A tight volley of rifle fire followed from several positions to
the right and left of the tree. The lead mule drawing the ambulance and
two mules in the front of the escort wagon dropped dead, while the roar
of guns panicked the remaining animals. Trapped behind the boulder, the
frenzied mules pulled both vehicles off the west side of the road, entangling
their harness as they reared and pawed the air, trying to climb the hill.
Surprised and confused, the members of the Wham party
scrambled for cover, as the gunfire became continuous. Charlie Mermairt,
the civilian driver of the escort wagon, abandoned his vehicle at the first
shot and fled the scene. Pvt. Lewis, the ambulance driver, was not so lucky.
The initial volley knocked him from the box with a bullet in his side.
Although bleeding, he got up and ran around the rocky ledge west of the
road, down a dry ravine, and wandered off in the direction of Norton's
ranch. A mere 170 feet from the bandits' main fort, the rocky ledge provided
the soldiers their only immediate protection. As the fight continued, most
of the soldiers eventually made their way to this shelter.
Frankie Campbell was just a few yards beyond the roadblock
at the first roar of the guns. Her horse became unmanageable, bucking and
rearing until she fell off. With reins dangling, the spooked animal bolted
back past the boulder, through the melee, and headed toward Cedar Springs.
The bandits shouted Frankie's name as they took a few shots at her. She
spotted Gilbert Webb and Thomas Lamb on top of the ridge east of the road.
She knew Webb from seeing him around Fort Thomas; just the day before she
had seen Lamb, the cowboy, at Fort Grant. Then, with their attention turned
back toward the soldiers, Frankie crawled under a bush in the rocks about
50 feet from the coach and watched the fight from start to finish.
Considering the murderous situation in which the two sides
were engaged, the conduct of the robbers was brazen in that they wore no
masks; and bizarre in that they fought with such enthusiasm, yelling and
shouting as if they were on a hunting trip. They appeared unconscious of
danger and jumped and scampered from position to position in plain view
of the troopers. They impressed some of the soldiers that they were young
cowboys out on a lark.(19)
Although the soldiers distinguished themselves with their
stiff defense of the payroll, two of them stood out for special commendation.
Sgt. Benjamin Brown, although dropped with a slug in his side early in
the fight, continued to fire his revolver from an exposed position in the
middle of the road until he was out of ammunition. Borrowing a rifle he
continued to fire. Finally, Brown was disabled when a slug tore through
his left forearm. As he lay in the open, two more bullets ripped through
his clothing. At this point, according to a story told years later by a
fellow soldier, Pvt. Young came back up the hill and carried Brown about
100 yards to the creek bed. Although a bullet supposedly smashed Young's
belt buckle, tearing away three cartridges, he escaped unhurt. With Brown
out of action, Cpl. Mays took command of the escort and maintained the
defense of the gold until most of his men were out of action with wounds.
By this time, at least 30 minutes has passed since the
opening salvo of the battle for the paymaster's money. The smell of sulfur
permeated the air and a haze of gunsmoke covered the field. The gunfight
had gradually become uneven as one soldier after another was knocked out
of action. The robber's gunfire now converged from three sides as they
gradually tightened the noose around the rocky ledge. Finally, over Wham's
protests, Cpl. Mays ordered a retreat beyond the creek bed about 300 yards
away. Although Wham was ballyhooed after the robbery as a coward for losing
his money, the record shows that he did not panic, and he made a valiant
effort to defend his payroll. When all was over Wham's eight of the men
in Wham's 11 man escort were wounded. Besides Pvt. Lewis's gunshot in the
side and Sgt. Brown's shots in the abdomen and arm, Pvt. Williams took
a bullet in the leg, Arrington was shot in the shoulder, Wheeler in the
arm, Burge had leg and arm wounds, Hams was shot in the arm, and Harrison
was shot through the ear. It was a very bloody affair. Frankly, after being
on the actual scene, it seems remarkable that no one was killed. Local
folklore was that the robbers thought the black troops would panic and
run. The fight became bitter only after the soldiers put up unexpected
and determined resistance.
After the soldiers retreat to the creek bed, the robbers
moved out of hiding to retrieve the strongbox. One story has it that Wilfred
Webb yelled out in his distinctive, rapid-fire, tat-a-tat cadence to Lyme
Follett on the west side of the road, ordering him to get the loot. "Not
yet," said Follett, "they can still hit me." "Damn you, Lyme," Webb barked,
"go get that strongbox, because I can damn sure hit you from here!" From
Frankie Campbell's close-up vantage point, she reported that the robbers
"very near quit shooting and their heads was up [above the stone forts]
looking at the money..." She saw five men gathered around the strongbox.
One outlaw called "Bill" asked "Tom" for an axe to open break open the
oak box. She saw the men place the U. S. Treasury sacks of money into a
"bigger sack or apron or tick or something." She was surprised at the nonchalant
conduct of the bandits, who "didn't act excited a bit."(20)
As the robbers departed Frankie heard them "laughing about what an easy
'go' they had in holding up the Paymaster." Some of them walked eastward
to the hidden draw to get their horses while a few other kept the soldiers
pinned down with continuing rifle fire. The robbers left in two groups,
one about 15 minutes before the second headed toward Fort Thomas while
the remainder went toward Norton's ranch and Mt. Graham. The leisurely
departure enabled Sgt. Brown and Pvt. Young to count 12 outlaws. It was
about 2:30 p.m. Finally, about 3:00 p.m. Wham and the able-bodied members
of his escort wearily climbed to the road and surveyed the broken strongbox.
Meanwhile, back at the Wiley Holladay house, Harriet Holladay
had listened to the sounds of the battle. When Frankie Campbell's riderless
appeared on the road, she harnessed up a buckboard and rode toward the
trouble. She pulled up just as Wham's men reached the Major's ambulance.
Harriet and Frankie administered first aid to the bloody soldiers. Harriet
later marveled at the bravery of Sgt. Brown, who "had a bullet hole clean
through his middle but he acted as if it didn't bother him at all." She
also recalled that Major Wham seemed somewhat mystified at the course of
events. He remarked, "I thought that these cowboys were just out to have
some fun by rolling the rock in the road."(21)
Also about this time, teamster Lewis had run into a group
of cowboys led by Barney Norton about 2 ½ miles from the scene of
the ambush. They, too, rode toward the sound of the gunfire, but arrived
too late to help. Norton had heard the sounds of battle but thought it
was just cowboys celebrating the roundup.
A survey of the ambush site testified to the intensity
of the battle. Three mules, still in their traces, were dead; the others
stampeded, and the harness cut into pieces. Along with the shattered strongbox,
Wham's valise had been cut open. The valise containing the payroll vouchers
was gone. In the main fort by the cedar tree Wham found over 200 expended
cartridges, the metallic type used in breech-loading rifles. Finally, the
men rounded up four mules, spliced some harness together, and made their
way to Fort Thomas about 5:30 p.m. Sgt. Brown was left in the field with
Frankie Campbell and brought in later.
1 Larry T. Upton and Larry D. Ball, "Who Robbed Major Wham? Facts and Folklore Behind Arizona's Great Paymaster Robbery," Journal of Arizona History 38 (Summer 1997): 99.
2 LaRoy DeVar Saline, "Historical Survey of the St. Joseph Stake Academy, Pioneering Antecedent of Gila Junior College of Graham County" (Unpublished Thesis, Arizona State College at Tempe, Arizona, 1947), p. 23.
3 Otto Miller Marshall, "The Wham Paymaster Robbery: Boldest in Arizona History" (Pima: Pima Chamber of Commerce, 1967), p. 18.
4 Moses Cluff, The Valley Bulletin, 17 October 1890, Letters to the editor.
5 Donald M. Bentz, "The Wham Robbery," Great Robberies of the Old West (June 1974): 14-17, 51-53.
6 W. R. Ridgway, interview with Larry T. Upton, Thatcher, Arizona, January 7, 1984.
7 Velva Lamb Long, interview with Larry T. Upton, Pima, Arizona , July 9, 1983.
8 Elda Lamb Johnson, interivew with Larry T. Upton, Pima, Arizona, July 9, 1983.
9 Otto Miller Marshall, "The Wham Paymaster Robbery: Boldest in Arizona History" (Pima: Pima Chamber of Commerce, 1967), p. 21; W. R. Ridgway, interview with Upton, Safford, Arizona, January 7, 1984; Silver City Enterprise (New Mexico), November 29, 1889.
10 Howard Webb, interview with Upton, Safford, January 14, 1984; Valley Bulletin, July 5, 1889. As a result of Webb's arrest, the contract eventually was awarded to I. E. Solomon. In 1899, Solomon was one of the organizers of the Valley National Bank of Arizona, now Bank One Arizona.
11 Ridgway, interview; Webb, interview; Dudley Welker, interview with Upton, Safford, July 9, 1983. For Siebert Henderson, see Arizona Silver Belt, May 25, July 13, 1889. The case of Sheriff Marshall generated quite a bit of correspondence. See especially W. K. Meade to W. H. H. Miller, December 23, 1889, Letters Received, Arizona, Year File 1889-4265, Records of the Department of Justice, RG 60, NA.
12 Rogers interview.
13 Valley Bulletin, November 29, 1889.
14 Arizona Daily Star, November 20, 1889; Webb, interview; Welker, interview.
15 LaRoy LaVar Saline, interview by Melanie Farnsworth, Snowflake, June 6, 1984; Robert H. Hall to Assistant Adjutant General, Department of Arizona, May 18, 1889, Letters Received by the Adjutant General's Office, 1881-1889, Main Series, Microcopy 689, Roll 684, 2556-2702, Records of the Adjutant General's Office (RAGO), Record Group (RG) 94, National Archives (NA).
16 Holladay, "Holladay Family," pp.5-6; D. W. "Doc" Colvin, interview with Upton, Eden, January 15, 1984.
17 Holladay, "Holladay Family," p. 7. Campbell testimony, Arizona Daily Citizen, November 19, 1889.
18 The little knob of a hill just to the west of where the old military road crested, before going down the long slope tothe rocky defile above Cottonwood Creek, has been called "Wham's Hill" by locals ever since the robbery. Modern mapmakers, misunderstanding the pronunciation of Wham's name, have labeled it "Juan's Hill.:
19 Wham testimony, U. S. v Cunningham, vol. 1, pp.110-217.
20 Frankie Campbell testimony, U. S. v Cunningham, vol. 2,pp. 196-262.
21 Holladay, "Holladay Family," p. 8.