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The robber got away — barely

Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society

Madera County Sheriff W.B. Thurman.


No history of the West is complete without a recitation of outlaw depredations. Every region has its favorite law-breaker lore, and every historian seems to take great pains to record those stories. While many of these accounts have proved to be a combination of a little fact and a whole lot of fanciful fiction, some are so well documented that there is no doubt of their veracity. Such is the case when one considers the “Black Kid” of Madera County.

It was on the morning of June 2, 1900, that Sheriff W.B. Thurman received a report of a stagecoach robbery in Madera County. One private stage and three regular stages going from Yosemite to Raymond were held up about two miles below Grub Gulch. The holdup man, who carried a Winchester rifle, had his face covered with a blue bandana and his hands and forehead blackened. In addition, he spoke with a Swedish accent. This report hit a chord in Thurman’s memory.

Just a few weeks earlier he had read an account of a stage robbery in Tuolumne County, and he had been struck with the fact that the highwayman spoke with a Swedish accent! That set the Madera County Sheriff into action; he headed for the foothills.

Thurman’s investigation revealed that the robber held the private stage for an hour and a half, awaiting the arrival of the regular stages. In the meantime, the hold-up man joked with the passengers and appeared to be perfectly at ease. He gave the driver a slip of paper on which had been printed “The Black Kid,” and said that they would probably become better acquainted before the day was over.

In the interval between the arrival of the stages, two United States cavalrymen, traveling in advance of their troop, were halted and disarmed. While the robber was busy attempting to open the Wells Fargo strong box, he was surprised by the main body of the contingent, Troop F, United States Cavalry. The highwayman threw off his mask and took to the brush with $280 ill-gotten dollars.

The troopers went after him, but though they scoured the country and searched the brush faithfully for several hours, the Black Kid was never found. What they did recover, however, was a barley sack, evidently the property of the robber. Inside were a compass, a pair of field glasses, and twenty-four stamp photos.

In addition to this evidence, Thurman gathered a good description of the man from the victims of the holdup. He was dressed in blue overalls and a dark cotton shirt with narrow, light stripes. He was about 5 feet, 9 inches tall and weighed in the neighborhood of 160 pounds.

The most incriminating evidence, however, was the collection of photographs. Thurman traced them to a Fresno photographer and found that they had been taken on May 21, 1900. Unfortunately the photographer could not supply the name of the person.

Undaunted, Thurman continued his sleuthing. He discovered that the compass, field glasses, and rifle were purchased at a Fresno second-hand store on May 23, 1900, The clerk who made the sale, when shown the photographs, indicated they were a perfect likeness of his customer and that he thought he remembered the man’s name as Weller.

At that point, Thurman issued an all-points bulletin. In addition to the account of the robbery, the sheriff included copies of the stamp photos to which he attached the following message: “The above is a copy of stamp photos found in the sack. Believing them to be a likeness of the man who committed the robberies, I will pay a reward of $50 to the person who will give me the name of the man who sat for the original of these pictures in Fresno on May 21, 1900, provided this information is furnished prior to his arrest.”

Thurman went on to state, “The foregoing is a brief history of two of the most daring crimes in the annals of stage robbery in California, and there can be little doubt that both were committed by the same man. It is not necessary to say that it behooves every officer in this and adjoining states to use every effort to catch this man.

Thurman’s efforts were not long in producing results. Within days, officials in Stockton located the man in the photographs. He worked in a lumberyard there, but alas, he had an airtight alibi. He had been at work in the lumberyard at the time of the Raymond robbery. In addition, witnesses confirmed that the vest, which carried the photographs had been stolen the day before the robbery.

The Black Kid was never captured, much to Thurman’s chagrin. The Madera County lawman had pulled out all of the stops in his attempt to capture this brazen thief. He wanted him in the worst way.

Unfortunately, all was for naught, with one exception. If the outlaw continued his life of crime, he never repeated the audacious style in Madera County. Thurman almost got his man, and that may have kept him out of this area.



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