Death knell for Tom Bell


In the early 1850s, a former medical doctor and his gang of rough and ready road agents terrorized travelers in the Gold Rush camps of the Sierra Nevada. Dr. Thomas J. Hodges had served in the Mexican-American War of 1846, where his nose was badly broken. After the war, he settled in the California Gold Country and stopped practicing medicine. But, when mining and gambling failed to make him rich, he turned to highway robbery.

Dr. Hodges had traded in his medical career for a six gun and life of crime. Hodges was arrested for a minor offense in 1855, but when the county peace officers asked for his name, he told them Tom Bell. The clever Hodges had heard of a small-time cattle thief by that name, and he decided to confuse the police. It worked. The judge had no idea that Hodges had been a violent road agent, so he gave Tom Bell a short prison sentence at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay.

Shortly after his arrival at Angel Island, Hodges put his medical training to good use. He feigned a severe illness that convinced the prison doctor that he was too sick to remain incarcerated on the remote island. He was sent to San Francisco from where he quickly escaped. Tom Bell returned to the Sierra mining camps where he organized a gang of tough criminals. Bell and his band of thieves robbed anyone they caught on the road. No one was safe, not even local miners or merchants.

In early 1856, freight driver Dutch John was stopped by five armed men who demanded “a contribution.” Dutch John was hauling a cargo of lager beer to the small community of Drytown, but the bandits weren’t thirsty. The highwaymen took Dutch’s $30 and told him to hit the road. Despite the bold and frequent holdups, lawmen seemed helpless in their efforts to catch Bell and his boys. Ordinary citizens were getting fed up with the crime wave. Mr. Woods was toll collector for a bridge on the south fork of the Yuba River. One day, three horsemen rode past him without paying, saying that members of Tom Bell’s gang didn’t pay toll to anyone. Mr. Woods was not the kind of man to take that without a fight, so he got his rifle and fired shots at the men and pursued them for several miles. A small posse joined the chase, but the bandits disappeared into the forest and escaped.

Tom Bell was having some success as a road agent, but he had grown weary of his small-time hits on teamsters and beer merchants. No one had yet robbed a stagecoach carrying a Wells Fargo treasure chest full of coin or bullion, so Bell decided to be the first. While planning the big heist, Bell reined in his henchmen and the gang laid low. With Bell’s men off the road, the summer of 1856 was unusually quiet in the mining country. Local citizens and lawmen assumed that Tom Bell had fled to another part of the country.

The temporary peace was shattered on Aug. 11, 1856. Early that morning, the Marysville stage pulled out of Camptonville loaded with passengers and a strongbox filled with $100,000 in gold. Next to the driver sat Dobson, the Express Company’s armed guard. The gold was owned by a Camptonville gold dust dealer named Mr. Rideout. There had never been a California stagecoach robbery, but Rideout wasn’t taking any chances and he rode his horse out in front of the stage, ahead of the choking dust. On the way to Marysville, Rideout decided to take a little-used fork in the road, which spooked three masked men hidden in the brush. Foolishly, Rideout had failed to arm himself and was ordered to dismount. The bandits searched his pockets, took his horse and rode off.

Mr. Rideout quickly ran back to the main road, which he reached just as gunfire erupted in the hot afternoon air. Tom Bell and two of his accomplices had ambushed the stage, but their carefully planned heist was disrupted. Bell had assigned six armed men on horseback for this job, three converging on each side of the stage. Rideout’s unexpected appearance had thrown off their timing and with the attack coming from only one side, the armed guard Dobson was able to blast one bandit with his first shot. At that, Bell and his men opened fire, riddling the stage with bullets. Several passengers inside the coach produced their own weapons and a fire-fight ensued.

Some 40 shots were fired within those first 2 minutes. The withering barrage forced Bell and his wounded men to retreat into the brush while Dobson commanded the driver to race on toward Marysville. Just then, the three delayed gang members galloped up the road, with Rideout’s horse in tow. Despite a bullet wound in his right arm, Dobson was ready for them, too, and his first shot sent the lead rider tumbling into the dust. The other two bandits took off and Rideout was able to grab his horse and ride off after the speeding stagecoach.

Tom Bell’s gang failed to get the gold, but there was no cause for celebration among the citizenry. Not had Dobson been hit, but a male passenger had suffered a head wound and another had been shot in both legs. Mrs. Tilghman, wife of a Marysville barber, had been killed instantly. The next day, details of the brutal crime headlined the Marysville newspaper and the entire countryside was up in arms for Bell’s capture. But, the gangster showed no remorse and wrote a letter to the paper which said “Catch me if you can.” The chase was on and one by one Bell’s gang members were either caught or killed. Finally, in early October, a posse led by Judge Belt ambushed Tom Bell at his secluded camp near the San Joaquin River.

Once Bell was caught and disarmed, a rider was sent for the sheriff. But, when it came to justice for the murderous Tom Bell, Judge Belt took the law into his own hands. The 26-year-old criminal was given a few minutes to write a letter to his mother: “Dear Mother, As I am about to make my exit to another country, I take this opportunity to write you a few lines. Probably you may never hear from me again. If not, I hope we meet where parting is no more.” Ten minutes later, Tom Bell was swinging from a hemp rope, his life just another footnote in Sierra history.

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Mark McLaughlin
Mark is an award-winning, nationally published author, historian and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.