Monday, March 12, 2012

The Wham Paymaster Robbery

The Wham Paymaster Robbery of 1889 is the popular name for the theft of $28,000 dollars from the United States Army in Arizona Territory. On May 11, a gang of bandits attacked a small troop of Buffalo Soldiers under the command of Major Joseph W. Wham. During the ensuing shootout, the outlaws forced the soldiers to retreat and then robbed their wagon of a strong box containing specie. Major Wham was wounded in the engagement along with seven of his men in what became one of the most daring heists of the Old West period.

The robbery occurred on May 11, 1889, when a band of robbers ambushed an army payroll in the possession of Paymaster Major Wham and his escort. The robbery occurred on the road between Fort Grant and Fort Thomas, about fifteen miles west of Pima, Arizona. The escorting soldiers engaged the robbers in a lengthy gunbattle, which resulted in eight of the soldiers being wounded. The robbery suspects made off with $28,000.00 of gold and silver coins.

Within days of the robbery, Deputy Marshal William Kidder Meade, with the assistance of the Graham County Sheriff, had eleven men in custody, most of whom were citizens of Pima, Arizona. Seven of the men were set to stand trial. They were; Gilbert Webb and his son Wilfred, brothers Lyman and Warren Follett, David Rogers, Thomas Lamb, and Mark Cunningham.

Gilbert Webb, who at the time was the mayor of Pima, was considered the leader of the robbery plot. In 1879 he had fled to Pima from Utah, to escape prosecution for grand larceny. Both he and his son, Wilfred, had been suspected of numerous thefts in and around the area of Pima. Webb had recently received government contracts to supply 300,000 lbs of straw and 50,000 pounds of barley to the United States Army. However, he lacked the capital to complete the jobs. This was believed to be the driving force behind the commission of the crime.

Webb employed numerous local cowboys who became members of his gang, to include the six listed above. Another, thirteen year old Andy Carlson, later bragged that he had held the horses during the robbery. As early as May 8, 1886, the gang began constructing fortifications at the site where they intended to ambush the escort. The men made all possible attempts to stay out of sight while working, although later, during the trial, Sergeant Charles Roper testified that he had seen Gilbert Webb at the location where the ambush took place a good while before the robbery, and that Webb had ducked out of sight when he realized he'd been seen.

Wham and his escort had completed their paying of the soldiers at Fort Grant, and were on their way to Fort Thomas, then Fort Apache. Major Wham's escort was made up of eleven Buffalo Soldiers, and the small troop was accompanied by gambler Frankie Campbell, who intended on being present at Fort Apache when the soldiers were paid. The ambush sight was only eighteen miles out of Fort Thomas. The soldiers noticed a rock falling from the slope above, and as they attempted to see what had caused the rock to fall, they observed Webb and Cunningham in hiding. Gilbert Webb yelled down to them to leave the wagon and go. The soldiers, somewhat confused, scrambled for cover.

The robbers began shooting immediately, hitting Private Hamilton Lewis in the side, knocking him to the ground. Frankie Campbell, approximately fifty yards ahead of the escort, reined her horse to return, but the horse reared and threw her. Several of the robbers called out to her by name, as they shot at her. She recognized Webb, having seen him and met him previously at Fort Thomas. She was able to crawl into a rocky area, where she observed the entire fight from start to finish.

The soldiers distinguished themselves in their defense of the payroll, with two being commended for their actions afterward. One was Sergeant Benjamin Brown, who after being shot, still continued to fight by using his revolver. Brown was shot five times over the course of the shootout, finally being disabled by a bullet wound to his forearm. Private James Young ran through heavy gunfire, then carried Brown more than 100 yards to safety. With Brown out of the fight, Corporal Isaiah Mays took command, and continued to resist until almost all of his men had been taken down with severe wounds. Both Brown and Mays would later receive the Medal of Honor for their conduct during the shootout. Wilfred Webb was slightly wounded.

By this time, almost thirty minutes had passed since the engagement began. The fight had by this time become one sided, as almost all of the soldiers were out of action due to wounds, and the robbery suspects were firing on them from three heavily fortified sides. Corporal Mays, despite protests by Major Wham, ordered a withdrawal to a location some 300 yards from the site. Eight of Wham's eleven man escort were severely wounded, but all survived. Frankie Campbell, still hidden and unseen by the robbers, stated later that she watched as five men removed the strongbox containing the payroll. All of the robbery suspects were captured, and seven were tried for robbery in Federal Court. Despite the overwhelming evidence all of the suspects were found not guilty. Major Wham was held accountable by the army for the loss of the payroll, until a court found him innocent. No one else was tried for the crime. It was the subject of the book Ambush at Bloody Run, by author Larry D. Ball.

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