Wham Paymaster Robbery

One of the most notorious crimes of the Southwest, possibly the only instance of an attack by white men upon American soldiery, since has been known as the Wham robbery.

On May 11, 1889, Major J. W. Wham, paymaster U. S. A., started from Port Grant for Fort Thomas, taking with him in an army "Dougherty" wagon a box containing $26,000 in gold and some silver, for the pay of the troops at the latter post. As escort he had eleven colored soldiers, from the Twenty-fifth Infantry, led by a sergeant. The party had passed Cedar Springs, a point of sanguinary history in Indian wars, and had entered a small defile when the way was blocked by a large rock that seemed to have rolled down the hillside. A number of the soldiers were busying themselves in removal of the rock, their rifles laid aside, when a fusillade of shots came from the brow of a nearby ridge. The soldiers acted well, deploying behind such cover as they could find, but the road was fully commanded by a foe that had constructed seven little rock shelters and who offered only the target made by the smoke of their rifles. Five of the soldiers had been wounded, happily none of them seriously, when the major was found in full flight. Their only officer gone, the negroes followed and the field was left to the enemy and to the wounded. Three men were seen to come down to the road, pick up the chest and carry it over the ridge. Help soon came from Grant. The rock rifle pits were found deserted. Nearby the contents of the box had been emptied into gunnysacks and the robbers had departed on horses and in all haste. At the time it was believed that thirteen men had shared in the robbery, but at the time only seven sets of tracks were found.

Within a few days the military authorities had secured evidence on which were arrested eight Gila Valley farmers and stockmen, including Lyman and Warren Follett, Gilbert and Wilfred T. Webb, Dave Cunningham, Tom Lamb, and Dave Rogers. A number of witnesses were gathered up, one of them swearing that he had seen several of the accused hide their booty in his haystack and use his fireplace in which to burn the gunnysacks in which had been carried the loot.

The Follett and Tom Lamb were dismissed and no evidence was found against a Gila farmer who was popularly charged with having laid the plot and with having received his share of the golden booty. The others were bound over under very heavy bonds, which were supplied only in the case of one of the accused.

The case was brought up in November. Serious as was the crime, the main issues early were beclouded. Though President Harrison had assumed office the previous March, at Tucson were democratic "hold-overs," United States Marshal W. K. Meade and District Judge W. H. Barnes, incidentally bitter enemies. Barnes, an active .partisan in politics, had at least one personal friend and political associate among the defendants and had arranged to have the case tried by Judge Hawkins, from Prescott. But the grand jury that found indictments against the prisoners had been told nothing of the proposed coming of Hawkins. So the next step was a telegram sent by the grand jury to the department of justice, recommending Barnes' removal, with the inference carried in the dispatch that the judge was in league with the attorneys for the defense.

Judge Barnes got a copy of the telegram. When court opened, the following morning, the grand jury was summoned before him and was discharged, after it had been called "a band of character assassins, unworthy to sit in any court of justice." Then followed a few days in which "the wires were kept hot." Barnes lost, though probably with little reference to the pending robbery case, and to the place was appointed a young Florence attorney, Richard E. Sloan, whose name was destined to even higher position in Arizona's hall of fame.

The trial began in November and lasted thirty-three days. The Government was represented by District Attorney Harry Jeffords, who was assisted by William Herring and S. M. Franklin. The attorneys for the defense were led by Marcus A. Smith and Ben. Goodrich. There were 165 witnesses, more than half of them at the cost of the defense. The five negroes who had been left on the field identified three of the accused, but were handicapped in the fact that, without exception, they had made the same identification at the preliminary examination according to their best "acknowledge and belief." Wham was as bad a witness as he was a soldier and by Mark Smith was led into a trap in trying to identify $1,000 in gold that, had been seized by the Government after deposit by Gilbert Webb in a hotel safe. When the coins were spread out in the court room, the wily lawyer scrambled with them a handful of other twenty dollar pieces and defied the paymaster to pick out his own. The defense brought testimony in quantity to show that they were far from the scene of the crime at the time of its perpetration. The man with the haystack declared he had lied in his first statements.

At the time lawyers rather generally observed that the case had been "over prosecuted." There was prejudice in Arizona communities over prosecutions by the Government, for the Government then had little standing except as a source of income in many communities. There was a disinclination to accept the testimony of the negroes and Wham had made a mess of his own evidence. So the verdict was for the defendants. There was a general disposition at the time to criticize the jury, but there was no aftermath, except a conviction for perjury of a witness who had done the defendants no particular good. Whatever became of the money, the defendants emerged from the trial destitute of what they had had. Wham was debited with the money he had lost and not till several years thereafter was he released of responsibility by the passage of a special act in Congress. He died in Washington in 1908, after another "bad luck" episode in his official career that happened in the Northwest and in which the Southwest would have little interest.