Death knell for Tom Bell

Holdup of the Wells Fargo stage. | Courtesy Harper’s Illustrated

In the early 1850s, a former medical doctor and his gang of violent 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. After the war, he settled in the California gold country, but Hodges gave up practicing medicine. When mining and gambling failed to make him rich, he turned to highway robbery.

Dr. Hodges had traded in his medical degree for a life of crime. He was arrested for a minor offense in 1855, but when county peace officers asked for his name he told them Tom Bell. 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 was a violent criminal so he sentenced him to a short stint in prison on Angel Island near San Francisco.

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

In the spring of 1856, freight driver Dutch John was stopped by five armed men who demanded “a contribution.” Dutch John was hauling a cargo of beer to the small community of Dry Town, 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 were unable to catch “Bell and his boys.” Hodge continued to call himself Tom Bell.

When mining and gambling failed to make him rich, Dr. Thomas J. Hodges turned to highway robbery.

Ordinary citizens were fed up with the rampant crime wave. Mr. Woods was the 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 rushed into his house, got his rifle, fired several shots at the men and pursued them for 2 miles. Other men joined in the chase, but the suspected bandits disappeared into the forest and escaped.

Bell was having some success as a holdup artist, but he grew weary of his small-time hits on teamsters and merchants. No one had yet robbed a stagecoach carrying a Wells Fargo treasure chest full of coin or bullion, so Bell decided he might as well 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 Sierra foothills. Everyone assumed that Tom Bell had fled to another part of the country.

The 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 local gold dust dealer named Mr. Rideout. There had never been a California stagecoach robbery before, but Rideout wasn’t taking any chances. He rode his horse 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 that spooked three masked men hiding in the brush. Foolishly, Rideout had failed to arm himself and was ordered to dismount. The bandits searched his pockets and rode off with his horse.

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 wanted six armed men on horseback for this job, three on each side of the stage, but Rideout’s unexpected appearance had thrown off their timing. With the attack coming from only one direction, 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 an intense firefight ensued.

Some 40 shots were fired in just two minutes, forcing Bell and his wounded men to retreat 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 and his first shot sent the lead rider tumbling into the dust. The other two bandits took off and Mr. Rideout was able 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. Dobson’s injury was not the only casualty. One male passenger had suffered a head wound and another had been shot in both legs. A woman, 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 that 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 ambushed Bell at his secluded camp near the San Joaquin River.

Once Bell was caught and disarmed, a rider went for the sheriff. But the judge leading the posse decided to take the law into his own hands. The 26-year-old was given just enough time to write a letter to his mom. He wrote, “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 (Dr. Hodges) was swinging from a hemp rope, his life just another footnote in Sierra history.

Mark McLaughlin

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author 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.