On May 12, 1877 the California-Arizona Stage left Prescott ultimately headed to San Bernardino. Stage robberies were far too prevalent in the mid 1870s and the party was relieved to arrive at Wickenburg unmolested.
As the driver, Jesus Lujan, pulled out of the station, he couldn’t know that just a few miles down the road his stage would fall victim to a carefully crafted ambush.
Just couple of miles out of town, the stage was accosted by three masked gunmen. One gunman kept his weapon pointed at the driver; another kept the passengers at bay; while a third kept his eyes peeled for any interruptions. They “demanded the treasurer box, mail bags, and the loose change on…the passengers,” the Arizona Weekly Miner reported.
One of the passengers aboard happened to be Yavapai County Sheriff Ed Bowers who was escorting a woman deemed insane to Stockton, California. The sheriff was relieved of “a fine gold watch and $450 in gold coin,” the paper said, along with his six-shooter. Bowers complied with the orders, but recognized the masked man taking his possessions as John Mantle. He had also seen the other two as having been around Prescott since wintertime.
Sheriff Bowers later explained that his six-shooter was out of the holster where it could easily be grabbed, but the highwaymen swarmed them so quickly that a gun was pointing at him before he could reach for his pistol.
Another passenger, Frank Luke, had $65 in currency and $340 in gold coin, but after taking the currency, the bandits did not search Luke further and he was able to spare his $340 in gold. Luke was ultimately headed to West Point where he would soon attend.
Immediately the manhunt was on, spearheaded by the stage company’s special agent, JW Evans. He was searching in Ehrenberg, Arizona when he received a tip about two suspicious men. Accompanied by a driver named O. Mercer and a freighter named JM Bryan, Evans confronted the pair, only to be met by an immediate hail of gunfire.
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Bullets filled the air as Mercer suffered a severe wound to his shoulder that he would survive. Evans missed a mortal wound by a mere inch when a bullet grazed his temple. Bryan used his double barrel shotgun to effect, striking one of the bandits twice in the head with birdshot causing him to fall to the ground. “Nevertheless [the injured man] fought like a tiger,” the paper reported, “keeping up a continual fire on their captors.”
When the two bandits ran out of ammo, the other made a dash for a nearby house where, after throwing out the occupants, he secured a Henry rifle from inside. He continued to fight from the dwelling “as best he could,” but was soon captured. He gave his name as John Sutton.
He man who was shot in the head suffered eleven additional wounds and it was thought he would die. He falsely gave his name as Tom Johnson. It was, in fact, Brophy, and he survived. Sutton was taken back to Prescott in chains.
The pair held a bevy of incriminating evidence. “Quite an amount of bullion, in bars, was found on the prisoner’s persons which bear the stamps of Mr. Blake, the assayer,” the paper explained, “and is the same shipped to San Francisco by CP Head & Co., on the stage robbed. Fifty dollars in currency and a $20 gold note was also taken” from the pair. It was the third time CP Head & Co. lost money to stage robbers, but remarkably in each case the booty was recovered and returned.
When Sutton was transferred from Prescott to Yuma, “he made quite a circus on board the steamboat,” the paper reported. “He threw overboard all the dishes within his reach and tried to throw a Chinaman after them,” the Arizona Sentinel reported.
A few days later, it would be US Marshall Standefer who would arrest the third highwayman, Mantle, without incident in Ehrenburg. He was taken to the prison in Yuma and held for trial.
Shortly thereafter, however, Mantle was released by the Arizona Attorney General when it was found that Mantle was working as a detective for the Postal Service. Due to the constant stage (and subsequent mail) robberies that were occurring, the USPS came up with a new plan. It involved “employing a man who would ferret out the highwaymen, in fact, go in with them, and then give information which would insure their arrest,” the paper explained.
John Mantle was hired from California where he held a stellar record for just this purpose. However, the postal service was quickly criticized that they told no one else in law enforcement, particularly Sheriff Bowers, of the plot. Gunfire could have erupted at any time with innocent passengers wounded or killed. A grand jury later described the Postal Service's plan as “an almost criminal lack of common sense.”
At their trial, Sutton and Brophy fingered Mantle as their ring-leader. As the jury was deliberating the case, the defense became apprehensive and the two “pleaded guilty to the lowest crime known to the law under the indictment, and were sentenced to five years in the Territorial Prison…” the paper revealed.
“The most mystery surrounds John Mantle,” the paper asserted. He had Sheriff Bowers' pistol in his possession. Additionally, “Bowers claims to have been robbed of $450 in coin, [but] Mantle says it was only $15.” Besides Sheriff Bowers’ shortage, the postal service discovered a considerable amount of cash was stolen from the mail and was still missing. None of the missing booty was ever recovered.
It was thought that Mantle had gambled away the money in Ehrenburg. A grand jury highly condemned his actions. Still, because of his employment with the Postal Service, he did no time; (much to the chagrin of Sheriff Bowers!)
John Mantle left Arizona leaving no sign that he ever returned.
A description of the many stagecoach robberies that occurred on the Old Black Canyon road in Yavapai County, AZ.
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Weekly Arizona Miner, 5/18/1877; Pg. 4, Col. 1.
Weekly Arizona Miner, 5/25/1877; Pg. 4, Col. 4.
Weekly Arizona Miner, 5/25/1877; Pg. 3, Col. 2.
Arizona Sentinel, 6/9/1877; Pg. 3, Col. 3.
Weekly Arizona Miner, 6/1/1877; Pg. 2, Col. 4.
Weekly Arizona Miner, 7/20/1877; Pg. 4, Col. 3.
Weekly Arizona Miner, 12/7/1877; Pg. 2, Col. 3.
Weekly Arizona Miner, 11/23/1877; Pg. 1, Col. 6.
Weekly Arizona Miner, 11/30/1877; Pg. 1, Col. 5.
Weekly Arizona Miner, 12/7/1877; Pg. 2, Col. 3.
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