“The Gage Train Robbery”
by Ross Calvin
In 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President, US citizens were suffering from the bad times known as the Great Depression. Under the new president, Congress passed laws aimed at speeding up economic recovery and helping people in need. One of these acts created the Works Progress Administration, or WPA. The WPA gave people jobs building highways, streets, bridges, and parks. It also hired writers, actors, and musicians to create and perform new works. Nationwide, about 8.5 million people found jobs through the WPA.
Between 1936 and 1942, writers working with the New Mexico Federal Writers’ Project, a department of the WPA, fanned out across New Mexico. They gathered information and wrote several thousand pages describing the state’s landscape and people, reporting on social and economic conditions, and recording folklore and oral histories. Many of these WPA files, including the one below, ended up at the New Mexico State Records Center and Archives in Santa Fe, where anyone can go in and read them.
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In December of the year 1883, there was a train robbery on the Southern Pacific at a wayside station named Sage. The engineer was killed and the express car looted by masked robbers. The Wells Fargo people vowed revenge. At that time there was a famous Sheriff Whitehill at Silver City. Nine years he had held office and then retired. Though no longer in office, he was engaged by the company to get the criminals. The train crew could furnish just one clue. Back of the mask, one of the faces, they noted, was that of a Negro. And Negroes were few in the Southwest. A search of the ground revealed a newspaper caught from the wind by the thorns of a mesquite bush. It bore the name of a Silver City merchant. On being questioned, the merchant was able to recall wrapping it round a parcel for a cowboy cook from the L-C Ranch. Then among the hands on the great Lyons-Campbell domain, it was remembered that there had been such a one, George Washington, a Negro. Step number one! But Washington had left the country.
At Socorro he was found. Coming to the well to draw water, he was taken in swift surprise as the sheriff’s persuader was pressed against his ribs. “You are the man who killed the engineer.”
The ruse worked. “No! No! No! Mr. Whitehill, it wasn’t me. Mitch Lee killed the engineer.”
Duped into believing that his partners were all in jail, the Negro made full confession. The robbery was planned by Mitch Lee, and carried out by him with the aid of Frank Taggart, Kit Joy and the cook. All belonged to the L-C outfit. Taggart was trailed over into Arizona and captured. Lee and Joy had also gone across the line and were found hiding out at a lonely ranch house along the Frisco River. When the man hunt ended, Mr. Whitehill’s four desperadoes were locked safely inside the old adobe jail in Silver City.
While awaiting trial, they were allowed to exercise in the jail yard. Dick Ware was guard. For some unholy reason, his prisoners were obsessed with a desire to play under the gallows. There, where Dick Remine and “Parson” Young had recently come to the end of the rope, they would climb upon the scaffold and hold broad-jump contests. One morning Lee and Taggart got into an argument over the tracks and appealed to Ware to settle the matter. As the guard bent over, Lee leaped upon his neck and overpowered him, while Taggart took his gun and keys. Marching Ware ahead of them, they captured the night watchman who was then asleep, and locked both men in a cell. Taking all guns from the jail office, they unlocked the other prisoners. One Mexican boy and one white boy went with them, the others staying behind.
At the Elephant Corral, a livery stable, they took horses—all the horses—and paraded down Main Street, shooting up the town as they rode with wild yells for the Pinos Altos Mountains. Only a short ride distant lay Cherry Canyon and the roughest kind of country, where pursuit would be difficult and capture more than improbable.
One man watched them. He was driving a wagon, and quickly unhitching his horse, he followed them at a safe distance until sure of their intention. Then riding back to town, he informed the citizen’s posse, which was already forming. But the robbers did not reach the mountains. It was on the rolling slopes near the location of the present cemetery that they made their stand.
The first to fall was George Washington, cleanly drilled between the eyes. Next a bullet took off the top of the Mexican’s head. Lee and Taggart, seeing that flight was impossible, abandoned their horses and hid among the scrubby junipers. Joy was already lying in a shallow wash behind some bushes. Through a winter’s day the shooting continued. Lee, shot through the abdomen, lay mortally wounded, and Taggart with all his ammunition gone, at length surrendered. Joy, after killing a citizen named Joe Le Fur, escaped. The white boy surrendered. When the dead and wounded were loaded on a wagon to be brought to town, someone suggested a hanging. The suggestion was taken up with much alacrity. Instantly ropes appeared, and soon necks were inside nooses. The wagon was driven under a bough, and paused while the rope was thrown over. The wagon went on. Booted legs struggled a while in mid-air, and then hung still. What Bret Harte called the “weak and foolish deed” was done. The outlaws had died with their boots on, and not ingloriously. It was a fine day’s work. And it helped to establish a tradition.
The white boy, when captured, made no resistance. Innocently tendering his gun to the officers, he showed them that he had not fired a shot with it. Thus he beat the noose. It was not until later that they discovered that the mechanism had jammed on the first attempt!