Bloody Palm Prints and Horse Thieves: The Story of the Old West's Last Stagecoach Robbery on December 5, 1916

 Ben Kuhl was born in northern Michigan sometime in the year 1884.  A school dropout with alcoholic parents, some would say that Ben Kuhl never had a chance at an honest life from the very beginning.  As a teenager he drifted west and in 1903 he was arrested for horse theft and sentenced to a term of 1 to 10 years in an Oregon state prison.

It’s not known exactly how long Ben Kuhl spent in prison, but what is known for sure, is that by the year 1916 at the age of 32 Ben Kuhl had both literally and figuratively drifted his way into the remote and isolated mountain town of Jarbidge, Nevada.  Upon his arrival in town Ben took up residence in a tent with two other drifters named Ed Beck and Billy McGraw.

He worked for a stint as a cook at the OK Mine, a place just outside of Jarbidge, where miners from all over the American west hoped to strike it rich by finding gold.  By 1916 the small frontier town of Jarbidge located in Elko County, Nevada only about ten miles from the state border with Idaho was home to some 1500 people.

Ben Kuhl's Mugshot December 1916

The word Jarbidge itself is derived from a Native American word of the Shoshone people meaning “devil”.  Indigenous people who lived in the area considered the mountains that surrounded the town to be haunted by demonic spirits.  And as it was, even among the white settlers who first came to the town in droves in the year 1909 during a mini-Nevada gold rush, Jarbidge was notorious for its harsh and unforgiving climate--arid and hot summers followed by frigid and snow filled winters.

Jarbidge, Nevada, in the year 1916 was the kind of place where only the possible presence of gold and a chance to strike it rich would make men want to go and Ben Kuhl was no exception to that rule.

Not long after his arrival in town and employment as a camp cook Kuhl was promptly arrested and put in handcuffs for trying to jump another man’s gold mine claim.  But fights over finding gold were all too common in Jarbidge back in 1916 and Kuhl was promptly released from the local jail after doing no more than a few days behind bars.  By December 1916 Kuhl was once again spending his days drinking at the Jarbidge Saloon and spending his nights cavorting with his two vagrant buddies Ed Beck and Billy McGraw.

In 1916, due to its isolated location and recent status as a gold mining boomtown, Jarbidge, Nevada still retained the flavor of an Old West town like Deadwood, or Dodge City in the 1870’s and 1880’s, even at a time when the 20th century had long since left the lawless days of cowboys, gunfights and stagecoach robberies long behind.  By 1916 more Americans owned automobiles than horses, but apparently, no one had given Ben Kuhl or his compatriots that memo.

Jarbidge Nevada circa 1916

On December 5, 1916 Ben Kuhl and his two associates, Ed Beck and Billy McGraw attempted to pull off a crime that would have made even Billy the Kid proud.

Today, the town of Jarbidge, Nevada is definitely no longer haunted by any devils of Native American creation.  It is a town of less than 100 permanent residents that sits on the banks of the Jarbidge River, nestled in the valley of a canyon and surrounded on all sides by verdant mountains.  Jarbidge today is very popular with both campers and hunters who are drawn to the location because of the large population of elk that roam the surrounding area.

Jarbidge Nevada Today

However, even over 100 years later, Jarbidge, Nevada cannot entirely shake the ghosts of its Wild West past.  Because of what happened there on December 5, 1916 Jarbidge will forever have an ignominious reputation as the scene of one of the twentieth century’s most infamous crimes.

A plaque, which sits in front of Jarbidge’s historic jail that was built in 1911, sums up what happened there about a century ago best.  It reads:

...most noted inmate was Ben Kuhl who robbed the Rogerson-Jarbidge Stage in December 1916 killing Fred Searcy the driver…the last stagecoach robbery in the U.S. and the first conviction based on a bloody palm print.”

The Rogerson-Jarbidge Stage was the route taken on a regular basis by a two-horse United States mail wagon from the larger town of Rogerson, Idaho  across the state border and into Nevada.

Ben Kuhl, who had worked earlier in the year at the OK Mine, knew that December 5, 1916 would be payday for most everyone who worked in Jarbidge.  He knew that the stagecoach would be coming into town with loads of cash on that day because Rogerson, Idaho was home to a United States Bank from which most of the hard currency that flowed into Jarbidge was drawn.

There was only one dirt road between Jarbidge and Rogerson.  The road was impassable to automobiles in 1916 and that’s the reason why Jarbidge still relied on a horse drawn United States mail wagon to communicate with the outside world.

The driver, Fred Searcy, set out from Rogerson on his way to Jarbidge on December 5, 1916 in a driving snowstorm never to return.

At first, even though Searcy did not return when expected, some time was allowed to elapse because the postal authorities assumed that his progress must have been delayed on account of the snowstorm.  But worried about Searcy’s fate on the night December 5th United States Postmaster Scott Fleming had an experienced outdoorsman named Frank Leonard ride throughout the canyon into Jarbidge and attempt to locate Searcy and his wagon in the snow on the road into town.

Leonard reached the top of the canyon and rode along the entire route to and from Jarbidge but found no trace of Searcy or the mail wagon.

The authorities grew very alarmed.  By dawn on December 6th nearly two feet of snow had fallen in and around Jarbidge making any rescue mission extremely hazardous.

A local woman named Rose Dexter, who lived about a half mile outside Jarbidge said that she had seen the stagecoach pass by her house earlier in the day on the 5th and that she had even waved to the driver who had waved back.  But she also said that the driver had, “His collar pulled up and was leaning forward and seemed at great pains to cover his face from the driving snow.”

As United States Postmaster Scott Fleming organized and launched a rescue mission he already feared the worst--that Fred Searcy had been blown of course by the driving snow and drowned in the icy Jarbidge River.

But within hours of setting out the rescue mission’s search party located the stagecoach purposefully hidden in a copse of willow trees several hundred yards off the main road from Rogerson to Jarbidge.


Horse drawn mail wagon circa 1910

Searcy was found slumped over in his seat.  It seemed, initially, as if he had frozen to death where he sat.  The mail had been carrying two large sacks when it first set out from Rogerson.  The first mail sack contained parcels and letters for the residents of Jarbidge, the second contained $4000 in cash or the equivalent of nearly $100,000 in today’s money.

The searchers quickly found the first sack containing letters and parcels.  It had been left in the wagon and undisturbed but the second mail bag containing the $4000 cash was missing!

Although, at first the search party had thought that Searcy had frozen to death, as his body thawed, burns and gunpowder residue were observed around a small hole at the back of his head.  Searcy had been shot with a .44 caliber revolver at point blank range in the back of the skull.

Animal tracks were noticed in the snow and a stray dog walked up to the search party and  started  to follow those tracks.  The dog stopped and began to dig in the snow and scratch at the dirt.  That’s when the second mailbag with the cash was discovered buried beneath the snow.  The bottom of that mailbag had been cut open and all $4000 in cash and coins had been stolen.

Law enforcement scoured the sagebrush and the snow covered wilderness in the area around Jarbidge.  Eventually, Ben Kuhl and his two associates, Ed Beck and Billy McGraw were discovered sheltering from the snow in an abandoned cabin a few miles outside Jarbidge.  An ivory handled .44 caliber revolver was found in Ben Kuhl’s possession and all three men were arrested, taken into custody and charged with the first degree murder of Fred Searcy.

Immediately, Kuhl contended his innocence.  He claimed that he had spent the night on the 5th drinking at the Jarbidge saloon.  At trial, a series of several witnesses confirmed that they had seen Kuhl at the Jarbidge saloon at different hours throughout the night, but since none of them were certain exactly of the time when they had seen him, and because all of them had been drinking, the prosecution asserted that their testimony was meaningless and that Kuhl’s alibi was made up.

The prosecution contended that Ben Kuhl had hidden himself in the sagebrush on the side of the road during the snowstorm and waited for Searcy and the mail coach to pass by before jumping aboard the wagon to kill Searcy by shooting him in the back of the head and taking control of the stagecoach.

Nevada state historian and archivist Ben Rocha claimed that Ben Kuhl confessed to him years later that he had committed the murder but said that, “He had only killed Searcy over a dispute about how to split the money.”  This would imply that the so-called stagecoach “robbery” had been an inside job between Kuhl, his compatriots and Fred Searcy of the United States Postal Service.

Historic Jarbidge Jail Built in 1911

The trial of Ben Kuhl for first degree murder was held in the Elko County Courthouse with future Nevade governor Edward P. Carville as the prosecuting attorney.  

Most of the evidence against Kuhl was circumstantial.  The prosecution tried to dismiss his alibi despite the presence of several witnesses.  They brought up his damning criminal record, mentioning repeatedly how he had been arrested in California and sentenced to a prison term in Oregon for horse theft and they brought up how he had been arrested and jailed in Jarbidge that very same year.

Still, given the fact that the money could not be recovered and that there was no concrete physical evidence directly tying either Kuhl or his associates to the crime, the jury’s decision hung in the balance until two forensic scientists from California testified for the prosecution.  These forensic scientists asserted that a bloody palm print found on an envelope that was aboard the U.S. mail stagecoach that had been robbed identically matched the palm print of Ben Kuhl which would directly place him at the scene of the crime.

This evidence, the first ever use of forensic evidence in American history to convict a man of murder, was enough for the jury to find Ben Kuhl guilty of first degree murder and for the judge to sentence him to death by firing squad.

Kuhl’s sentence was later commuted to life in prison.  All three men, Kuhl, Beck and McGraw were transferred to the Nevada State Prison  in Carson City in October of 1917.

Ben Kuhl spent nearly twenty eight years in prison prior to his release on May 16, 1945.   He never publicly confessed to the murder of Fred Searcy and never mentioned where the $4000 was hidden despite the fact that the state of Nevada repeatedly offered him a reduction in his sentence if he would help them to find its whereabouts.  To this very day rumors persist about the existence of buried stolen loot from the last stagecoach robbery in American history in the wilderness around Jarbidge, Nevada.

As a man of over sixty years old, after his release from prison at the end of World War Two, Ben Kuhl drifted his way into California where he is believed to have died of tuberculosis in San Francisco less than a year after his release in 1946.



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