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The Clipper Gap Holdup
The Black Bart affair was by all odds James B. Hume's most famous case but Wells Fargo's detective was involved in many other memorable investigations. The Clipper Gap holdup of the Southern Pacific's Overland Express on a snowy Christmas Eve of 1888, for example, seemed at first to fit the requirements of "the perfect crime."
As the train crawled up the canyons between Auburn and Colfax in a torrential rainstorm, Wells Fargo messengers Robert Johnston and Emery Carpenter received the surprise of their lives. Out of nowhere, two bandits suddenly appeared outside the doors of the express car! They broke the windows with hatchets and pointed pistols at the messengers to gain admittance. While one rifled the safe of 54 money parcels ($5,037), missing one package of $500 and another of $10,000 in gold over which Johnston surreptitiously managed to kick a piece of canvas, the other stood guard. It took them only five minutes. Then, ordering their captives to kneel facing the wall, the bandits vanished. So shook-up were the messengers that it was a hobo who finally gave the alarm when the engine stopped at New England Mills to take on water.
The rains sluiced away the robbers' tracks from the point where they had jumped off the slow-moving train but Hume found that the ingenious pair had used a rope ladder to descend from the express car roof to the doors. The case began to crack by January 22, 1889 when he wrote this confidential letter to his wife. He not only had good identifications from the messengers and the tramp, he had located the cabin in which the men had holed up before and after the robbery and had quizzed the man who had bought rope for them at New England Mills to attach to the metal rungs and grappling hooks made up for them at Grass Valley. But Hume was distracted by other cases and had to turn the investigation over to his top aide, Jonathan Thacker. It was not till July 25, 1889, that H. L. (Jack) Gorton stood trial for his part in the holdup. Sentenced to ten years in San Quentin, he confessed and implicated his brother, George, who was never apprehended.
The case was not as big as the Sontag and Evans series of encounters with the S.P. but it was a beautiful operation and Jim Hume agreed with veteran trainmen of the times who pronounced the Clipper Gap holdup to be "the neatest and best job on record."
RICHARD H. DILLON
This is Number Eleven of twelve Keepsakes issued during 1969 to its members by The Book Club of California in commemoration of the centennial of the transcontinental railroad. The series has been edited by David F. Myrick and designed and printed by Lawton and Alfred Kennedy. The letter is reproduced through the courtesy of Wells Fargo Bank. Richard H. Dillon is the author of James B. Hume, Wells Fargo Detective, and other books.
Courtesy The Book Club of California.