The Wham Paymaster Robbery
Frederick Remington painting: "Holding up the Pay Escort"
The Wham Paymaster Robbery
Last summer, after the ANA seminar I took a side trip to Globe Arizona, on the Salt River to visit Theodore Roosevelt Dam, which I had only recently identified as the dam on the back design of the MPC series 692 $20 note. While in the visitor's center discussing this design, someone asked me if I had ever heard of the Army Paymaster robbery which occurred not too far from Globe in 1889. I had not, so I started my research on this very interesting and convoluted event. I then drove through the area where the robbery took place in the Gila Valley near Fort Thomas. The landscape in this entire area of Arizona reminded me of a John Wayne movie location. When I got home I found the Internet full of references to this story.
"The great Wham Paymaster Robbery has almost disappeared from the public mind, but it remains one of Arizona's great mysteries. Shortly after midday on May 11, 1889, a band of robbers ambushed U.S. army Paymaster Maj. Joseph Washington Wham (pronounced Wham, as in bomb) and his military escort along the Fort Grant-Fort Thomas Road about fifteen miles west of Pima in the Gila River Valley. Following a hard-fought gun battle, the bandits made off with more than $28,000 in gold and silver coins. The daring robbery and the subsequent trail of suspects in the heist created a sensation throughout the Southwest. Questions of guilt and innocence, and of what happened to the money, still linger more than a century later."
The above quotation is from an article by Larry Upton: "Who Robbed Major Wham?", The Journal of Arizona History. The remainder of this article was drawn from various web sites and from the book: Ambush at Bloody Run: The Wham Paymaster Robbery of 1889 - A Story of Politics, Religion, Race, and Banditry in Arizona Territory, by Larry Ball.
He was on his way to pay the men at Fort Thomas, Camp San Carlos, and Fort Apache. Wham, William Gibbon, his clerk, and Pvt. Caldwell, his servant and mule tender, rode in a dougherty, a canopied ambulance, driven by Pvt. Hamilton Lewis, 24th Infantry. The payroll, exactly $28,345.10, in gold and silver coins weighing about 250 pounds, was locked in an oak strongbox and stowed in the ambulance. The remainder of the escort, occupied an open wagon driven by Charles Mermairt, a civilian employee of the Quartermaster Dept. James LaRoy Saline, a civilian teamster, and a Mormon from Pima, was originally scheduled to drive the escort wagon. For reasons that have never been explained, Mermairt replaced him at the last minute. Sgt. Brown and Cpl. Mays were armed with .38 caliber revolvers, while the two cavalrymen held carbines and the seven infantrymen carried single-shot Springfield rifles. Wham, Gibbon, and the two drivers were unarmed. The 24th Infantry was the famous unit of black soldiers called the Buffalo Soldiers.
As the wagons rolled out, Frankie Campbell, a black female "gambler" mounted on a big bay horse, joined them. Wearing a bright yellow, tight-waisted blouse, a billowing wine-colored skirt, and a large floppy straw hat decorated with a red paper rose and red velvet streamers, she was headed to Ft. Thomas so she could be on hand when the soldiers got paid.
Major Joseph Wham and his escort were attacked by a dozen outlaws near Fort Thomas, Arizona Territory. After wounding more then half the soldiers and driving off the rest, the outlaws simply walked away with the entire payroll. A posse of lawmen rounded up various suspects who were later charged with the sensational robbery. Most of these suspects were Mormons with political connections and the accused men were defended by the famed lawyer Marcus Aurelius Smith. Major Wham and his men were unable to identify any of the dozen defendants in court and they were all acquitted. It was widely claimed that political pressure from the acting governor allowed the thieves to go free. It has been said that Frankie Campbell saw the faces of some of the robbers but was never called to testify at the trial.
In reporting the robbery to the Secretary of War, Major Wham described how his "party was ambushed and fired into by a number of armed brigands" The major stated that a large boulder weighing several tons had been rolled onto the road by the robbers to block the progress of his small convoy and that as his escort was making ready to remove it "a signal shot was fired from the ledge of rocks about fifty feet above to the right, which was instantly followed by a volley, believed by myself and the entire party to be fifteen or twenty shots. The officer reported that a sharp, short fight of more than 30 minutes followed, during which time 10 members of his escort, eight of whom were wounded, two being shot twice, behaved in the most courageous and heroic manner.
Two of the Buffalo Soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their part in the skirmish. Major Wham reported that Sergeant Benjamin Brown, made his entire fight from open ground. Brown's Medal of Honor citation reads in part that "although shot in the abdomen, he did not leave the field until again wounded through both arms." Corporal Isaiah Mays was also awarded the Medal of Honor. Near the end of the gun battle he, without the knowledge of Major Wham, "walked and crawled two miles to Cottonwood Ranch and gave the alarm." Marshal Meade swore, after conducting an extensive investigation, that "I am satisfied a braver or better defense could not have been made under like circumstances."
A survey of the ambush site testified to the intensity of the battle. "Three mules, still in their traces, were dead; the others stampeded, and the harness cut into pieces. Along with the shattered strongbox, Wham's valise had been cut open. The valise containing the payroll vouchers was gone. Finally, the men rounded up four mules, spliced some harness together, and made their way to Fort Thomas." Sgt. Brown was left in the field with Frankie Campbell to nurse him, and brought in later.
There are many details of the event which are wrapped in folklore and legend, which makes it difficult to sort out fact from fiction. When the members of the Mormon community were acquitted in the trial, others were accused through rumors, including off duty soldiers, other gangs around the West, and one reporter years later, claimed that Frank James admitted that he and his infamous brother Jesse committed the robbery. Of course, that was highly unlikely, since Jesse was killed nearly eight years earlier! But that did bring up an interesting aside for my research, since while running down that false report, I discovered that the James brothers were indeed involved in another Army Paymaster robbery in 1881.
Back to the Wham affair, I think that they had the right men on trial for the Wham Payroll Robbery. Some locals were even said to refer to the robbers as "Latter-Day Robin Hoods" (interesting play on words). There is even an art connection. Frederick Remington, the famous artist of wild west scenes, painted a rendition of the Wham affair called: "Holding up the Pay Escort" (see the picture at the start of this article) .
If this were a movie, the trailer might read:
Major Joseph Wham died on 21 December 1908, and is buried in Wham Hill Cemetery, Marion County, Illinois. The two Buffalo Soldiers who won Medals of Honor : Sgt. Benjamin Brown died on 5 SEP 1910 and is buried in Washington, DC; Pvt. Isaiah Mays lived until 2 MAY 1925, and is buried in Phoenix, AZ. Nobody knows what happened to Frankie Campbell.