Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Murdered Mailman and the Palm Print

The Jarbidge Stagecoach Robbery
by Robert A. Waters

December 16, 1916 rode into the Nevada mountains on a snowstorm.  It was not a pleasant time to be transporting mail in a buckboard wagon pulled by two horses.  Fred M. Searcy, the driver, shivered through the late evening on his route from Three Creek, Idaho to a remote mining town called Jarbidge, in Elko County near the state line.

Searcy’s route wound down Crippen Grade, a steep, dangerous pass.  With icy winds sweeping across the ridges, most residents stayed inside their homes.  A few hardy (or desperate) souls braved the elements to down a few at watering holes such as “The Northern” saloon.

Gold had been discovered there in 1909.  Soon the boomtown bustled with restaurants, hotels, saloons, stables and other businesses catering to miners.  While the weather was balmy in the summer, deep winter snows and nasty storms drove many miners away for the winter.  (Before closing in 1932, the mines extracted somewhere between 10 million and 50 million dollars-worth of gold.)

Postmaster Scott Fleming waited nervously.  He knew the Three Creek mail wagon carried $3,000 in cash, as well as a registered bag filled with first-class mail.  Before dawn the next morning, townspeople began searching for the missing driver.  Nell Burbarger described the scene: “Defying the storm that was now wailing through the dark streets of the mountain mining camp, a volunteer searching party, lighted by kerosene lanterns, began combing the canyon…”

A few hours later, they found a gruesome scene.  Tucked back in dense woods a quarter of a mile from town, the wagon sat motionless.  Sitting against it was the corpse of Searcy, a bullet in the back of his head.  According to Burbarger, “the sack containing the first-class mail—including $3,200 in cash consigned to Crumley & Walker’s Success Bar and Café, and other smaller amounts to a total of nearly $4,000—was nowhere to be seen.”

Suspicion immediately settled on a ne’er-do-well named Ben Kuhl.  He’d recently been fined $400 for “jumping a claim,” and was out on bond.  Before coming to Jarbidge, he’d been jailed in California for petty theft and served a year in the Oregon State Prison for horse theft.  His torn coat was found at the scene of the murder, and he had access to a .44-caliber pistol, the type used to kill Searcy.  Kuhl was arrested and placed in the Jarbidge jail to await trial.

Part of the evidence against him consisted of bloody letters found at the scene.  One had a near-perfect palm print on it.  Authorities hired two fingerprint experts from California to examine the letter, and both testified that the print belonged to Kuhl.  (This was the first time palm print evidence was allowed in an American court.)

Kuhl was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.  On appeal, the courts commuted his sentence to life in prison.  After spending 27 years in prison, he was released in 1945. Kuhl later died of tuberculosis in San Francisco.  One accomplice, Ed Beck, was convicted of providing the murder weapon and sentenced to life in prison, but was paroled six years later.  A third accomplice turned state’s evidence and walked free.

Western lore, never much concerned with truth, soon transformed the mail heist into a “stage coach” robbery.  In fact, it allegedly became “the last stagecoach robbery in the wild west.”  Guy Rocha, Nevada State Archivist, dismisses that claim.  He writes that “the embellished robbery story converted a buckboard wagon into a stagecoach the likes of the Overland Stage.”

And what’s more western than a good lost treasure story?  Legend has it that the $3,000 was not in paper money but gold coins, and that it’s still buried somewhere near Jarbidge.  Treasure hunters continue to roam the mountain with metal detectors in hopes of finding that box of dreams.

NOTE: Pictured is a saloon token from Jarbidge.  For many years I collected tokens, (also called scrip) which were used almost from the founding of America to the present day.  Caroline Augustine writes: “Saloon owners returned change for their patrons’ payments of real money for goods and services with tokens, which were ‘good for’ drinks only at that saloon.  Saloon patrons returned to use the tokens in lieu of real money.  Many times, they never returned, thereby earning the saloon owner an even nicer profit.  By the way, if you don’t find that box of gold, a second-best option might be a jar filled with saloon tokens.  Their value may not equal gold, but if you’re lucky, you might be able to pay off your house, and maybe even your car.


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