This is a true story. The information for it was gathered from newsprint reports and other public sources.
– Donald Harbour
It was a cold, overcast morning as the El Paso Company stagecoach at Rockport, Arkansas was loading passengers. The date was Thursday, January 15, 1874.
The group consisted of a mixture of individuals, all wrapped against the winter chill. Most could walk, but a few had to be carried to the waiting coaches. There was a typical stagecoach of the day and a hack ambulance for the infirm. Everyone was en-route to Hot Springs in Garland County on business or to take the curative baths of the area mineral waters. The trip would cover over 20 miles of road filled with potholes and dust. The hack traveled behind the stage-coach a short distance to prevent the passengers from becoming covered with the grit kicked up by the horses.
Most of the passengers had arrived at Rockport on the Iron Mountain Railroad. The narrow-gauge service from Malvern to Hot Springs, which would be built in the 1880’s by Diamond “Joe” Reynolds, was not yet even a dream. When completed it would mark the end of stagecoach service to Hot Springs.
No one this day would ever have thought that an infamous gang of bandits was lying in wait for the passage of the stagecoach.
There are several accounts of what happened on that fateful Thursday. Some are accurate, some pure conjecture. One thing is certain: those bandits knew what they were doing. They were professional highwaymen.
The stagecoach made several stops for food and water. It was late afternoon when the coaches pulled into their final stop. Passengers were encouraged to get out and stretch their legs. Some did, others remained inside, preferring their shelter and cramped discomfort to the icy blasts of the winter day.
With horses watered and passenger loaded aboard, the two coaches again took to the Malvern Road.
Riding together in the stagecoach were some fairly influential men. From the Dakota Territory was the former Governor T. A. Burbank. Because banking connections were not the best in Hot Springs, he was carrying $840 in cash. There was William Taylor from Lowell, Massachusetts; G. R. Crump, a representative for the Memphis Cigar and Tobacco House; E. A. Peebles of Hot Springs; and John Dietrich from Little Rock, who was in the shoe business. Most of the men began to doze from the bumpy tiring trip. About five miles from Hot Springs, where the current day Bean Lumber Mill is located, the road comes down a slight grade into a dip before a rise on the Hot Springs bound side. The horses are a little hard pressed to pull the grade. Running to the North off Malvern Road at the base of the slope is the old Sulfur Springs Road now only the impression of where the road once existed.
As the stagecoach came parallel with Sulfur Springs Road, those passengers half asleep were jarred awake by a sudden stop and the sound of a man’s voice ordering everyone out of the coach and to get their hands up in the air.
Within a short time the hack ambulance pulled up and was stopped by the armed men surrounding the stagecoach. The bandits were dressed in long, blue coats and had their faces partially covered with bandannas. There were four of them, all brandishing army revolvers.
Standing alongside the road, the passengers were ordered to hand over all their valuables – cash, jewelry and watches.
As Governor Burbank was giving the robbers his diamond stick pin, gold watch and $840, one of the bandits began making a speech about the glories of the South. At the end of his oratory he said, “If there is anyone here who has served the Confederacy, he’ll get his possessions returned.”
“I’m a Confederate,” announced Crump. The bandits stopped their gathering of loot and walked over to Crump.
“We don’t believe you,” said the leader. “We want more proof. Who was your commanding officer, what was your rank and regiment?”
In a definite Southern drawl, Crump rattled off the desired information. Satisfied that he was a Confederate veteran, the bandits handed him back all his valuables.
Governor Burbank, hoping for like treatment, pleaded for the return of papers which he said were important to no one but him.
The leader squatted in front of the governor and began to go through the pile of papers on the ground. “Boys,” he said to the other two bandits beside him, “I believe this man is a detective. Shoot him.” Three army .45 caliber revolvers leveled at Burbank. Just when it looked as if the governor was a dead man, the leader changed his mind and handed him the papers. Next to Yankees, the gang of desperadoes hated Pinkerton detectives even more.
Peebles was relieved of $20, John Dietrich of $5 and a gold watch. Charles Moore lost $70 and a silver watch, but the Time piece was returned to him. The bandits didn’t want anything that wasn’t gold. One man in the hack was so crippled he found it hard to move. The bandits left him in the vehicle and did not rob him. From the other passengers the bandits took amounts ranging from $5 to $160.
The robbers came to Taylor. complaining, he handed over his valuables and $650 in cash. But his Northern accent infuriated the robbers. The bandits surrounded Taylor and began asking him questions.
“Where you from,” demanded the leader.
Taylor, growing pale and beginning to tremble, lied as he stammered, “Why, I’m from St. Louis.”
“The leader jumped back and in a loud voice exclaimed, “I do believe we got ourselves a newspaperman from the St. Louis Democrat.” The Democrat was despised by Southerners because it had Republican leanings and supported the carpetbaggers who were overrunning the South.
The gang began to make wagers on how close they could shoot through Taylor’s clothes without hitting his body. Taylor knew his life was in jeopardy and it clearly showed in the distress on his face.
“Only funnin’,” said the leader, allowing the shaken Taylor to relax.
The bandits hauled down the mail sacks and ripped them open scattering letters over the ground. They were looking for registered letters which might contain money. Only one was found. But, a much bigger prize came out of the pouch. It was a package belonging to the Southern Express Company, containing $435.
Satisfied that they had everything, the gang mounted horses and disappeared into the wooded hills.
Upon arriving in Hot Springs, the excited passengers set the town buzzing with their tale of the holdup. A posse was formed and rode off after the bandits. The robbers were never found nor identified since none called the other by name. But most of the passengers agreed they had been robbed by the notorious James-Younger gang.
That year more stagecoach holdups occurred in Garland County. They also were attributed to Jesse James and Cole Younger. No one was ever killed; the bandits were gentlemen to the ladies and considerate of the victims pleas.
Years later, a newspaper man, J. W. Buel, wrote of Jesse James and named the robbers at the holdup. They were Frank James, Clel Miller, Cole and Jim Younger. Jesse James was said to be in Louisiana at the time. A fifth man with Frank and the Youngers supposedly died of unknown causes a few days before the holdup. Buel got his information from a close friend of the James gang. If it is correct, it marked the first time the James-Younger gang robbed a stagecoach, and it happened in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The gang members were traditionally bank and train robbers. Maybe they figured that the rich Northerners coming to Hot Springs for the baths would be easy pickings.
Jesse was killed by one of his own men as he hung a picture in his home at St. Joseph, Missouri. The Youngers were later captured and convicted of their crimes and sent to prison. After serving 25 years, Cole was released from prison and appeared at the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs, where he spoke on the virtues of law and order. Frank James came back to Hot Springs and settled in a home. His house is said to have stood where the Arlington Parking Garage is today. He worked in a western amusement park called Happy Hollow and Whittington Park selling souvenirs.
Today, if you have time and want to step back into the past, take a drive out Highway 270 from Hot Springs toward Malvern. Just before you get to the Bean Lumber Mill, pull off the road and cross 270 to the other side. Down the slope and to your left is the old Sulfur Springs Road. Just about where the road meets the highway stand still, close your eyes and imagine you’re stepping from a stagecoach on a cold January 15, 1874. If you have a good imagination and try real hard you can hear Frank James pull back the hammer on his .45 revolver, point it in your direction and demand your money.
© 2011, Donald Harbour