September 28, 2009
Nevada's Online State News Journal
[From Wells Drury, An Editor of the Comstock Lode (1935), pp. 252-263]
Milton Sharp, Bandit
Probably the most industrious highwayman in all of Nevada was Milton Anthony Sharp.
Sharp, in a modest way, did what he could to reduce the wealth of Wells, Fargo & Co. on the eastern slope of the Sierras about 1880. He robbed stages whenever he wanted to, and with great thoroughness, never making a mistake and never finding an empty treasure-box.
Gold bars from the Bodie mines were very numerous in those days, and nearly all of them were sold to the United States Mint at Carson City. Quite a lot of these yellow ingots failed to reach their destination, because Sharp stopped them on the way.
He was not averse to coin or greenbacks, either, but just took whatever came along. One haul of $13,000 in gold notes of Darius O. Mills' Sacramento bank didn't do him much good, however. He hid them under a pile of rocks and when he went to get them again they were gone. Wells-Fargo sued a rancher living near the place for the amount, saying they believed he had dug up Sharp's cache, and offered to prove that the rancher had lifted a big mortgage from his place soon after the robbery, and that $13,000 of the redemption money was in gold notes issued by Mills' Sacramento bank. The
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"home" jury gave a verdict for the rancher, however, and the matter was dropped.
Early in June, 1880, Sharp and a companion stopped the up-bound stage from Carson on a little grade near Dalzell's, eighteen miles south of Wellington's. Sharp stood all up in a row, with their backs to him and to the stage, just like a spelling-class at a country school driver, messenger and all. Then he got up in the stage, where the treasure-box was chained on, so the driver couldn't throw it out if he wanted to, and broke the chain with a big stone. After getting the treasure in the box he had the passengers empty the contents of their pockets on the ground, their backs being toward him all the time. Then he made them take three steps to the front, and going along the line picked up such things as he thought would be of use to him, including the massive gold watch of Chamberlain, the driver.
"This stage-robbing is a very nice business when artistically conducted," commented one old-timer, recalling that exploit, "and I never knew anybody who could do it better than Milton Sharp, not even barring the much-advertised Black Bart."
"He was one of the politest gentlemen I ever met," admitted another victim. "There was nothing vulgar or coarse about him. Everything he did was done in a business-like way, and there was no unnecessary rudeness. He was particularly gallant to lady passengers and always acted like a high-toned gentleman. I have yet to hear the first person complain of the treatment received at his hands further than that they did not like to lose their belongings."
The shotgun messengers were the only ones he seemed to have any grudge against, but he never killed any of them, which shows that he had a forgiving heart. The most he
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would do would be to take their cut-off shotguns and break them over the rocks. If he'd kept them all he'd have had enough to supply an ordinary militia company.
After the robbery near Dalzell's, police officers and shotgun messengers, detectives and Piutes were supposed to be on the track of the Dick Turpins, whose trail was reported to have been followed to Walker Lake, and half across the State of Nevada. The surprise of Chamberlain, the stage-driver, may be imagined when, six nights later, upon arriving at the same spot where he was stopped before, he was again ordered to "Halt!" by the same two road-agents. The passenger on the seat with Chamberlain was ordered to throw up his hands and keep them up, and the driver was requested in polite, but unmistakably firm terms, to throw off the express box, which was not chained down. Both of these demands were acceded to with great alacrity. This time the highwaymen did not trouble any of the passengers except the one on the driver's seat, and apologized to Chamberlain for taking his watch, stating that if they had had it with them they would have given it back with pleasure; and at any rate they promised to return it next time they met him. Also they stated their intention to return all the watches and jewelry taken from the passengers the week before, at the first convenient opportunity. As they secured $3,000 in coin from one package on the previous raid they felt very flush and correspondingly generous.
Several other daring holdups by the same pair disturbed the tranquillity of the countryside mountainside, rather, for that country stands up on end. One of the robberies, in August, was at Big Bend, but the box only held $200.
On September 4th, the up-stage from Carson was halted by two bandits at the same spot where it had been stopped twice in June. James Cross of Candelaria and Colonel T. W. W.
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Davies of Carson were outside with the driver, and as they threw up their hands Cross called to Sharp, who was one of the robbers, "There are no messengers on board." Guns were lowered then, and the eight passengers (one of them was my friend Harry Fontecilla of the Bodie Free Press) were ushered out and allowed to sit on the ground. They were not deprived of their valuables, though when the robbers opened the two boxes which they dragged from the boot they were much disappointed with the small haul.
The down-stage (going north) met the robbed stage near the bridge on the East Walker River. Two redoubtable shot- gun messengers, Mike Tovey and Tom Woodruff, were aboard, along with the route agent, Billings. When they reached the point where the robbery had taken place, Tovey got down to examine the tracks and walking beside the stage he easily followed the footsteps of the robber pair. It was then about three o'clock in the morning, and bright moonlight. The robbers in the meantime had gone north toward Wellington's, and near Desert Creek stopped to throw up breastworks of stones.
Tovey, who had left his gun on the driver's seat, was slightly in the lead of the stage when the two men rose up from behind their stone barricade and fired. Their bullets missed him but one killed the near leader of the horses, the other entering the apron between Billings and the driver. Tovey ran back and Billings handed him down his gun, and then jumped down with Woodruff, the three getting behind the coach. The smaller of the robbers advanced, and as he came into the light Tovey fired, killing him instantly. The horses were plunging about so frantically that Billings, who was unarmed, went around on the other side to quiet them, and as he did so saw the larger highwayman that was Sharp
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coming down that side. Woodruff saw him, too, and took aim and fired. At nearly the same time Tovey was bringing down his gun to fire and did fire it, but Sharp was a little too quick for him and shot him in the arm, knocking the gun out of his hands. Mike Tovey called to the other messenger, "Tom, I'm shot and bleeding to death. You'll have to look out for that fellow on the other side of the road." Woodruff fired several shots, and he and all the others were certain that the bandit was killed and had fallen just out of the range of vision in the darkness; but it proved otherwise. Sharp seemed to have a charmed life.
The small robber, lying in the road with the top of his head blown off, was a stranger to all who saw his body. He had on a little red-leather mask.
As Tovey was bleeding profusely and his strength failing, Billings started with him for a nearby farmhouse on Desert Creek, while Woodruff went scouting out into the brush to try to find the other highwayman. The driver then took the harness from the dead horse, tied its mate behind the coach to lead, and hitched up the others into a four instead of a six-horse team. Just as he was about to climb up to his lofty seat, he was startled by a voice saying from the side of the road: "Now I'll trouble you for that box!"
The demand was complied with, for Sharp had the drop, and a disgusted driver urged his four horses on toward Wellington's. Sharp had reconnoitered, and when he had seen the party start for the farmhouse he had waited a few minutes and then had sallied forth boldly again from the brush and had
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completed the robbery. Who ever heard of better nerve than that?
J. B. Hume, detective in Wells-Fargo's service, who was a veritable sleuth-hound, was called by telegraph, and he concluded that the two men concerned in the stage-robbing were California road-agents who were old hands at it. When men rob a stage for the first time, he reasoned, they are generally so frightened over their adventure that they hasten to leave the scene of their crime as soon as possible. These men kept right up to their job and did it in a manner; so thorough that there could be no doubt regarding their experience. Such gentry seldom employ an outside man for the reason that a third person must not only have an equal share of the spoils, but every extra man increases the possibility of detection, and the accessory might turn State's evidence in a pinch.
From what he learned from the body of the bandit who was slain (his name was Jones, under many an alias) Hume knew Sharp was the man wanted; and he went to San Francisco and waited for him, for he figured that after the big haul and the loss of his partner Sharp would head for his home base. Finally Hume spotted a valise at the Market street depot marked with Sharp's name. He shadowed this, and Sharp was apprehended at his lodgings on Minna street. Under direction of those noted police officers of San Francisco, Chief Crowley and Captain Lees, two detectives lay in wait for Sharp and when he came in for his valise he was overpowered. He was wearing a hunter's outfit and a slouch hat, and carrying a roll of blankets. In these were a six-shooter and a formidable bowie-knife, and on his person was a Colt six-shooter. He protested his innocence, even though he had almost $3,000 of the stolen money, and in the valise were found a gold watch taken from Charles Shaw, a commercial drum-
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mer, in a holdup in June, and a revolver taken from the stage on September 4th. The revolver was being sent C. O. D. to a man in Candelaria.
Sharp was brought back to the scene of his depredations and incarcerated in the Aurora jail. He was tried and found guilty on one of seven indictments brought against him by the Grand Jury; but he made his escape while awaiting sentence.
I'll never forget the November morning it was announced that Sharp had broken out of the Aurora jail. No such excitement had been seen in the camp. A number of bricks were removed from the wall of the jail, and tools found outside showed that he was "sprung" by friends.
Wells-Fargo offered a big reward for his recapture and the stages went out without carrying the usual treasure-boxes. The Sheriff, the Governor and the County Commissioners offered additional rewards. The country fairly swarmed with men hunting the outlaw. About five miles from town they found the "Oregon boot," the fifteen-pound steel shackle, which he had on when he escaped.
After that all trace of him was lost. It was in the dead of winter and intensely cold, but the ravines and sagebrush plains were scoured far and wide in vain for a sight of the daring stage-robber.
One night about a week after Sharp's escape a lot of us were in Dobe Willoughby's faro bank room back of McKissick's saloon in Candelaria, when we heard somebody throwing pebbles against the window-panes. It was the signal of distress from somebody, but no one seemed to know whom it was intended for. A man in the crowd said tensely: "Maybe that's Sharp giving notice that he needs help."
Everybody knew that Willoughby had been in the Aurora jail for a time while Sharp was there and they supposed the
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signal was meant for him. But he pretended not to hear it, and kept on dealing.
Deputy Sheriff Alex McLean heard of the suspicious circumstances of the pebble-signal on the window, and said he believed that Sharp had made it. He made no move to arrest him, however, and some of the boys joshed him for being afraid to tackle the lone highwayman. Those who laughed, however, did not show any particular desire to face the dark and the probability of half-a-dozen bullets to get the rewards which had been offered.
A miner finally came into Donahue's saloon, where a big crowd had gathered, and said there was a man back of Coalter's restaurant who stated he wanted to see an officer. McLean plucked up courage and went around to meet the mysterious visitor, who was crouching behind McKissick's saloon.
It was Milton Sharp. He gave himself up without resistance. He said that he had expected assistance from friends in Candelaria, but they had gone back on him, and it was useless to struggle against fate. He was hungry and freezing, and with no one to help him, escape was impossible. With one friend and money, he said, he could have gotten away, but having neither he had to weaken.
When searched, no arms were found on Sharp's person. This helps to explain his giving up so easily, for he was a man of undoubted nerve and if heeled he certainly would have made as good a fight as possible. It is a question if he could have been taken alive.
The first thing Sharp did after adjusting the handcuffs so that they wouldn't hurt his wrists was to ask for something to eat; and when he was taken to Billy Coalter's chop-stand he proceeded to stow away a mighty meal. After his supper he was taken to Wells, Fargo & Company's office in the Bank
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building for safe-keeping until arrangements could be made for his transportation to Aurora. I had a good chance to talk to this terror of seven counties that night, and I found him a mild-mannered, pleasant-spoken fellow, but with a flash now and then beneath the surface which showed him alert and keen as a steel trap. A Missourian, he had a handsome countenance, swarthy, with jet black hair, mustache and goatee. His features were sharp and his gaze was sharp. About thirty-five years of age, I should say.
This inglorious Milton was not inclined to be communicative at first, and when asked how he got the shackle off his leg he replied, "Well, I got it off, and I was glad of it." Afterwards, becoming more talkative, he admitted he was compelled to wear the iron for three days and that all the time he was surrounded by men who were armed with shotguns and hunting him. "It seemed to me," said he, "that I could not get out of their sight. The shackle hurt my ankle and made me very lame."
After getting rid of the shackle he was able to make better progress, but didn't know which way to go, as it seemed to him that the whole country was alive with men carrying shot- guns. "I am not well acquainted with this part of the country," he told me, "and don't know exactly where I went in my travels. I had to change my course every few miles to avoid men who were tracking me. I only spoke to one man and that was at the little town about seven or eight miles from here -- Columbus. After getting in this neighborhood I concluded to come here and try to find a friend that I thought would help me, but I didn't find him and I didn't like to ask for him." Sharp declined to give the name of the man whom he expected to see.
"If I had had any friends I would have been supplied with
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money and with means to defend myself, and they would not have taken me so easily, for I would just about as soon die as to go to the State Prison." As Sharp uttered these words there was a glitter in his eyes that expressed intense earnestness.
"It was rumored that you had friends who helped you to escape from the Aurora jail," I said. "How did you get out?"
"I just dug out through the brick wall. Anybody can go through that jail. That is, if they are not locked up in the tanks -- nobody can get out of the tanks. All the other prisoners, Mexicans mostly, were in there."
Candelaria was filled with a heterogeneous population at that time, and I remember there was much division of sentiment as to whether it was giving Sharp a fair chance to take advantage of his necessitous condition and lock him up like that. Some thought the least that ought to have been done for him was to furnish him arms and provisions, and then let the officers take him if they could. Out there they used to believe in a fair field and no favors, and might the best man win.
I remember that Tommy Watson was particularly indignant, and he questioned the legality of Sharp's arrest, because Deputy Sheriff McLean, who received his surrender, had that very day been found to be un-naturalized.
"I think it is an outrage," complained Watson, "that a free-born American citizen should be arrested by an un-naturalized Canadian Scotchman, and if there was a court of competent jurisdiction here, I would sue out a writ of habeas corpus and set Sharp free in less than an hour."
But they held Sharp, notwithstanding such-like objections. The very night of his capture he was taken to Aurora and locked up in one of the tanks which he pronounced so secure.
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He was sentenced to the State Prison for twenty years under his conviction of robbing the Carson and Bodie stage on September 4th, and was at once escorted to the penitentiary under heavy guard, as befitted such an illustrious prisoner. The remaining six indictments against Sharp were dismissed.
His companion, identified as W. C. Jones, alias Keith, alias Dow, had already paid with his life for his transgressions.
Why didn't Sharp stop some of the stages after he got out of jail and thus relieve himself from his distress? Most of the stages stopped running two days after he got out, and anyway it was no use to halt them as there wouldn't have been even so much as a smooth quarter to be won.
Why didn't he take in some ranch or miner's cabin ? Tommy Watson answered that question: "No, sir; not much. Not in a hundred years. Milton Sharp was a stage-robber; but, sir, he would never stoop to burglary."
 Mike Tovey was killed in California during an attempted hold-up of the Ione-Jackson stage-coach, on which he was shotgun-messenger, June 15th, 1893. A tablet in his honor marks the spot.
 Milton Sharp escaped from the State Prison at Carson City on August 15th, 1889.