If you’ve read much about travel in the Old West—or banking—you’ll know the name Wells Fargo & Co. Private citizens, small businesses, and major industries all trusted Wells Fargo with their valuables. For example, between 1858 and 1861, Wells Fargo shipped 15 tons of gold from the Sonora, California office alone. But where there are valuables, there are evil people bent on stealing them, and there were times that those evil men were successful. So how did Wells Fargo protect against thefts—or recover stolen property they’d been entrusted with?
They employed their own detectives, of course. These were men hired as private detectives, not official law enforcement or peace officers. However, the very first and most famous of the Wells Fargo detectives, one Mr. James B. Hume, was afforded many of the perks for law enforcement of that time. A former peace officer, Hume had more than a decade of experience in the field when he was hired by Wells Fargo as their first detective in 1871. It’s safe to assume many of the others who filled out the detective force were, as well.
When a shipment was robbed, the detective nearest the scene of the crime would be contacted. He would go to the scene, take stock of what was missing based on the waybills detailing what was in the shipment, then report to W. F., & Co. about the theft. From this point, he would enlist local law enforcement’s help, interview any witnesses, and begin pursuit.
Unlike a local police officer or sheriff who was confined to a specific town or county, the Wells Fargo detectives’ jurisdiction allowed them to cross borders and pursue wherever the trail led. They were more like today’s FBI than a localized law enforcement officer. And they were graciously afforded arrest powers, so long as they kept those arrests limited to only those men and women related to robberies of Wells Fargo shipments. However, just because they could arrest someone didn’t mean they always did. Often, Wells Fargo detectives were deputized by the local agency, and when possible, they let the local authorities handle the official apprehensions.
The Wells Fargo detectives had a great example of some early “cutting edge” techniques set by their leader, Jim Hume. For instance, rather than having to keep stacks of wanted posters, Hume kept a “mugbook”—a leather-bound journal that included hand-drawn or photographic pictures of suspected robbers, where he detailed copious notes on aliases and other information for each outlaw. And, Hume also employed some rudimentary ballistics when he removed the bullet from a dead horse, which he compared with the markings on a bullet from a different case. Through these early versions of our modern-day ballistics, he linked the two bullets back to the same perpetrator and captured his man.
However, no ahead-of-its-time technique beat good, old-fashioned legwork. In his most well-known case, Hume pursued Black Bart, a gentlemanly thief who robbed at least twenty-five Wells Fargo stagecoaches across eight years, to the tune of about $18,000 (or $1-2 million in today’s dollars). The robber was finally captured when he dropped a bloody handkerchief with a launderer’s identification mark, which Hume tracked down by going door-to-door to one hundred laundries in San Francisco. At the one-hundredth place, they linked the particular mark to the account of one C. E. Boles, arrested the man, interrogated him, elicited a confession, and garnered a conviction. Black Bart served four years in San Quentin for his crimes. So through dogged determination, some tried and true procedures, as well as new and innovative techniques, the Wells Fargo detectives recovered many of the stolen shipments entrusted to Wells Fargo & Co. for shipping.
It’s your turn: Were you aware that Wells, Fargo, & Co. employed their own detectives? If so, did you realize they had the types of authority detailed above? Leave your answers to be entered in a drawing for a signed paperback copy of Courting Calamity, which includes my Wells Fargo detective hero, Jake Hicken!
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Heroes Needed for Four Damsels in Distress
Despite determination to be strong and independent, four women of bygone days are in need of a hero. On the journey to California, the deed to Mattie’s hopes and dreams is stolen. Elizabeth has been saddled with too many responsibilities at the family mercantile. Unexpectedly married, Sofia is ill-prepared for a husband and the society she is thrust into. When her sister is accosted, Aileen will do almost anything to support her. Accepting help isn’t easy when these women don’t want to show weakness, but it is more appealing when it comes with a handsome face.
Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has finaled and won in numerous writing competitions, and been on the ECPA best-seller list several times. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers, Women Writing the West, and is a lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, college-aged son, and four fur children.