On a fall afternoon in 1856, members of a sheriff’s posse and a group of citizen vigilantes lynched a man considered the first outlaw to rob a stagecoach in the United States.


Tom Bell—born Thomas J. Hodges around 1832 in Rome, Tennessee—gave up without a fight while sitting on horseback along the quiet banks of the meandering Merced River near Firebaugh’s Ferry in Central California.

Author William B. Secrest, in his book California Desperadoes Stories of Early Outlaws in Their Own Words, says Hodges “acquired some medical training before serving in the Mexican-American War, then went to California in 1849.”

Calling himself Tom Bell, he became a prospector.

When the venture failed, Bell hit the trail and traveled the state as a gambler. Along the way, he supposedly put his medical training to use.  

Bell kickstarted his outlaw career in 1855 by stealing eleven mules. He sold the animals for a modest profit, but the law tracked him down. 

The court sentenced Bell to a five-year prison term at Angel Island outside of San Francisco. A few weeks after arriving, Bell and fellow prisoner Bill Gristy staged a successful escape.  

Gristy and Bell, who picked up the nickname Outlaw Doc, recruited five other outlaws and formed a gang that spent several months terrorizing the California counties of Yuba, Nevada, and Placer. 

On August 12, 1856, Bell and his road agents attacked the Camptonville-Maryville stage transporting $100,000 worth of gold bullion.

The robbery ended in a fierce exchange of gunfire that killed a woman passenger and wounded two men. Stagecoach guards managed to drive off the gang. 

Outraged by the woman’s death, citizens and lawman organized a posse led by Stockton Judge George Gordon Belt, a Merced River rancher. 

Authorities first took Gristy into custody in September. He refused to reveal Bell’s location but changed his mind when threatened with a lynching.

Judge Belt’s posse caught up with Bell near Firebaugh’s Ferry on October 4, 1856, took matters into their own hands, and strung up the bandit.

Bell died in a matter of minutes, swinging from a limb near the Merced River.

Some historians label Bell’s attack of the Camptonville-Maryville stage the first-ever stagecoach robbery.

But another account suggests a similar robbery took may have taken place several years earlier near Illinoistown in April 1852. But no specific documentation is available.

A Wells Fargo official confirmed the company kept no reports of stagecoach holdups in California before 1856.


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