Annals of American Violence: How to Rob a Stagecoach

A handy how-to guide for road agents, courtesy of the Chicago Tribune. Carry a sawed-off shotgun; always get the jump on the driver; don’t bother searching pockets; and always, always be sure to make facetious remarks.

stage coach john wayne

 

I was researching the National Firearms Act of 1934, and stumbled across a remarkable little article from the Chicago Tribune, August 8, 1891, reprinted from the San Francisco Examiner: “Robbing a Stage-Coach: Principles of the art deduced from the practice of experts.” While I was well aware that 19th-century America was a weird and violent place, I did not expect to find a how-to guide for armed robbery in the pages of the Tribune. In the event that you do encounter a stagecoach, it does offer practical advice for taking all the money therein.

The basics: “The Main Thing Is to Get the Drop on the Messenger—Easy Enough Then to Get the Express Box.” But that’s highway robbery 101; we would not want it to breed excessive confidence. As the author said, it is an art.


A man who understands the art of highway robbery can hold up any stage without firing a shot, unless a fighting shotgun messenger happens to be on the box, in which case he may get into trouble and miss the trick. The expert professional never fools with a stage on open ground or a steep down grade. He selects his ground with ease and judgement, choosing a place where the stage must be driven slowly, and taking such a position that he cannot be seen until he has the driver covered with his shotgun. He uses a shotgun rather than the rifle or the revolver, because the shotgun is the formidable weapon at short range, its capacity for scattering fire being well known and duly respected by the drivers.

The bigger the bore of the gun the more terrifying it is to passengers, although it is a singular fact that under such circumstances a 22-caliber rifle barrel is likely to be mistaken for the mouth of the Sutro Tunnel. On the line of every stage road in California is pointed out some spot that is a favorite stand for robbers. It is usually in a sharp re-entering angle, where the horses must be brought down to a walk and the rocky bank or a tree affords a hiding-place for the robbers. It does not matter if the driver knows that he is liable to be held up at that spot and is on the alert. He cannot make the turn at high speed, and he must give his attention to his team to avoid an upset. Just as the coach swings into the gully, and the driver is about to rein the leaders out from the bank, he hears the sharp command to halt, and without turning to see he knows that a shotgun is pointed at his head from behind the tree. The stage driver, being commonly a man of sense and good judgement, puts on the brake and stops instantly.

“Throw down the box,” is the next order, and the driver tosses out the express box. Sometimes the man behind the tree wants the mail sacks too, and if he is very greedy and bold he orders the passengers tumble over each other in their haste to obey the orders of the man with the gun, and he makes a good haul of watches and loose change.

Will Not Search the Pockets.

If the robber is alone nobody need lose much wealth in a hold-up, however. The robber will not throw himself off-guard to search the pockets of a lot of passengers. It is his business to keep them covered with his gun, and he depends upon their terror to induce them to give up what he would not search for. It requires an artistic operator and one with supreme audacity to go through a whole stage load of people and clean them out to the ultimate nickel, but California can proudly boast of having produced such artists. One way of doing the trick is to pretend that another robber is concealed in the brush close by.

“Jim, you keep these galoots covered while I go through ’em,” remarks the road agent in a cool, matter-of-fact way, after he has ranged the frightened passengers in a row with their hands above their heads. And then he goes through them without undue haste, making facetious remarks as he brings up the plunder.

[snip]

The express box is the main attraction for the road agent, and sometimes it is an affliction to his soul. In the natural order of things it ought to contain wealth, but the heartless express companies sometimes load it with bricks and cause great loss of time and anguish of spirit to an industrious and painstaking robber. When robberies were the rule and safe trips the exception in California the express companies invented the dummy box and worked it off frequently on the enterprising agent, but the joke didn’t last long. The agent acquired the habit of bursting the box in the presence of the driver and then profanely requesting him to hand out the other box and no blanked foolishness. As the drivers weren’t hired to shoot they discouraged the use of the dummy box, and it was abandoned by all well-regulated lines, although it was worked in occasionally on some amateur robber.

[snip]

A Scheme That Did Not Pay.

The scheme of building an iron box into the body of the coach worked for a time, but the road agents beat that game by sending the driver and passengers along the road afoot and breaking into the box at their leisure with cold chisels. As they ususally concluded the evening’s entertainment by setting fire to the coach and burning up $1,000 worth of the company’s property, besides running away with the horses, the stagemen concluded that the iron-box scheme didn’t pay.

Going through the mail sacks used to be a tedious job for a road agent, and it didn’t often pay for the time wasted. Besides it doubled the number of pursuers by setting all the United States Marshals on the hunt for the robber, and when caught it landed him in the United States Court and insured a heavy sentence. Nevertheless, a great deal of money is sent by mail, and for the convenience of road agents and other thieves who may desire to take the chance of being caught Uncle Sam invented the registered letter and its especial couch. No other reason for the invention of the registered letter system can be imagined. A registered letter is not issued, and Uncle Sam will not pay for it if it is lost or stolen. The registered mail is put into a little pouch, which is put inside the ordinary mail sack. When the road agent gets hold of a mail sack he rips it open, either by running his knife around the sack near the bottom or by making two slashes criss-cross in one side of the sack. Thanks to Uncle Sam’s kind consideration and foresight, he isn’t obliged to ransack a thousand letters, but finds all the valuable mail sorted out and neatly done up in an easily-portable pouch, which he takes along to open at his leisure in the brush.

Of all the devices and inventions for the protection and treaure and the circumvention of the road agent, the only one that has stood the test of time and experience is a big, ugly-tempered man with a sawed-off shotgun on the box. Of course, when the other fellow has the drop a shotgun is of no more use than a piece of lead pipe; but the lone road agent can’t watch a lot of passengers and a driver, and at the same time keep the drop on a man who has been hired to shoot him full of holes, and only wants half a chance to do it. If the robber gets the drop on the messenger and keeps it, and contents himself with ordering the driver to throw out the box, he may win; but it is the business of the man with the sawed-off shotgun not to let him get the drop, but to blaze away as soon as he shows up. The gun is sawed off for the greater convenience of the man in potting road agents. It is loaded with buckshot and scatters like a charge of bribery fired into a California Legislature. The length of the gun is such that when the muzzle rests upon the footboard the locks are level with the messenger’s knee, and he can swing it up into position very readily. If he gets it pointed anywhere near the robber some of the buckshot is sure to hit.

An old Nevada driver’s modification of the messenger’s gun was a single-barreled shotgun worn in his right boot, the muzzle protruding through the bottom near the heel. When held up he stuck out his leg toward the robber, as if he were feeling for the brake, and pulled the trigger. But one hand was required to work the gun and the effect was something in the line of a painful surprise.

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