August 28, 2022

Embezzling Postmaster is Redeemed (1875)

  James S Giles was a highly-respected and true pioneer of Prescott, Arizona. He was one of the party that accompanied Governor Goodwin and Secretary McCormick to the territory in 1863. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee during the first Territorial Legislature, he introduced most of the first basic laws known as the “Chapters of the Code.” He was elected Speaker of the House in the second Legislature. Lately he had been the postmaster for Prescott, so when he absconded with nearly $10,000 August 14, 1875, it was a bombshell.

Still, there would be a happy, yet poignant ending.

There were some signs of trouble previous to Giles abrupt departure. Five months earlier, the Weekly Arizona Miner, (the primary paper of record for this tale,) was receiving a large amount of requests for information about Prescott and decided to to ask Postmaster Giles why these were being delivered to the paper. They “found him bending over a huge heap of letters almost exactly identical with our own,” the paper said. Giles told them: “I am all broken down and worn out under accumulating demands upon me for information about Arizona.”

Soon Giles started drinking enough that his “reckless conduct during the past three or four months has been the subject of general remark,” the paper revealed. 

During this time many noticed that Giles had become close acquaintances with a man who bore one of the best nicknames in the West: Mike “McCool” Meehan.

By early July, Giles was completely fed-up and burnt-out with his job and told the Miner he was resigning. “Slaving from four o’clock in the morning till nine at night is breaking me down,” he complained. “There is more work in the office than one can do, but the compensation is not sufficient for two.”

He “wound up his official career Saturday night by decamping with whatever funds it has been possible for him to collect from the sales of money orders and otherwise,” the paper stated. It was soon found that he hadn’t sent away any money orders for a month. “No registry of any foreign money orders, except three, during his entire term extending from November [1874] until the present” were found, the paper reported. 

Potentially lucrative registered mail did not appear to have been disturbed, but the angry newspaper suggested that if Giles neglected to purloined them, “it has been because he was too stupid with liquor to think of it.” Further examination at the post office revealed that several registered letters were delayed but later sent on their way. This caused investigators to believe that Giles had thought of stealing from the registered mail, but decided “to confine [his] operations to the money order business.”

The Miner offered this description of the wanted man: Giles was about 45 years old, “nearly six feet tall, slight build, sandy beard and hair, face inclined to freckle, slow in speech, husky voice…lacks in education…and in fact is the champion growler.” 

Mike “McCool” Meehan, who, it was thought, was in on the scheme, had just “bought a span of horses, light wagon and complete traveling outfit of provisions, etc…and started out Saturday morning,” the paper explained, while Giles bought a horse and “left Saturday night.”

At 2:00am Giles awoke William Simmons at his stage stop to get a bottle of whiskey. He told Simmons that “he was in a hurry to overtake McCool and Fatty Smith, “with whom he had business.” Giles finally caught up with them on the Mojave road. They had achieved a good head start from the law, as it wasn't until the early hours of Monday morning that Deputy US Marshall Parker and John Behen started in pursuit.

After leaving Williamson Valley, McCool came by a cattle camp where he introduced himself as Mr. Pichard of San Francisco, “and said he was hurrying home in answer to a telegram that had announced business of importance for him there,” the paper detailed. “At another station he told them his name was Williams. Giles kept his name until he crossed the Colorado River at Stone’s Ferry, where he became Judge James, and McCool was Mr. Wilson.” They continued on to St. Thomas, Nevada.

When pursuing officers Parker and Behan got to Stone’s Ferry, they inquired about Giles and McCool. The ferryman responded nervously and suspiciously—as if he knew much more than he was willing to tell. When the officers spread their blankets for the night, the ferryman began to quietly saddle his horse for a night ride. The officers were certain that he was going to warn Giles and immediately had him arrested for a time while they closed in on the perpetrators. They knew they must be getting close.

Meanwhile “Judge James” (Giles) and “Mr. Wilson” (McCool) arrived in St. Thomas and began to play the part of big-rollers. “Mr  Wilson had been talking largely of his mining interests and referring to Judge James for proof,” the paper described. 

They were telling their tall-tale to Mr. & Mrs. Jennings of St. Thomas when officers Parker and Benton barged in. When the real identities and standings of Giles and McCool were revealed, Giles said nothing at first and was downcast, nervous, “a perfect wreck…drinking a good deal,” the paper said. McCool, on the other hand, “who had drank less and had more life in him…insisted he was entirely innocent;” even denying that he knew Giles for any longer than a day. However, he self-incriminated when he kept answering to “McCool” and not “Wilson.”

It was then that “Giles [made] a clean breast of everything connected to the affair,” the paper reported, and “considerable money” was secured from him. McCool was first arrested, but instead, the officers took the buggy and the team he had purchased. McCool also had $1500 on his person part of which included a single $1000 bill. Giles recognized it as one he had “lost” while passed-out the previous evening. This the officers also took leaving McCool with $500 that he absolutely insisted was his. 

Since the officers were outside the Arizona Territory and had an arrest warrant for Giles only, they let McCool go. They headed back to Prescott and at 4:30pm August 27, Giles was lodged in the Prescott jail. 

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By September 7th, 1875 popular Prescott businessman Theodore W Otis was appointed to replace Giles as postmaster. He would hold the position until 1884.

Giles was indicted on two counts of embezzlement. One for $530.18 of postage money the other for $9,260.68 of money order funds. However, over $6000 was recovered making the actual loss $3,708.86. 

The bond company attempted to dodge all culpability because Giles failed to reapply when his position became permanent, but the court disagreed.

Giles pleaded guilty to both counts and was allowed to make a statement to the court. He lamented how his actions disgraced his family’s good name. He then explained how it all started: “At the time of my last remittance I discovered that I was short of funds, but thought there might be some error in my footings, and when my weekly statements were audited all would be right.” He maintained that he “had not played off the money. I was even then, from an inordinate use of liquor, unfit to attend to the clerical work of the office… In an insane fit of intoxication, madness, and despair, I abandoned my post.”

Judge Tweed sentenced him to two years in prison and fined him $9790.86.

Due to his conviction of federal crimes, Giles was supposed to be transferred to the California State Prison. However, after realizing that such a transfer would cost at least $750, Judge Tweed wrote the Department of Justice requesting that he remain in the Prescott jail at an expense of $11 or $12 a week. The DOJ’s reply was “for the sake of economy and convenience,” it would be best for “Giles [to] be left to serve in the jail at Prescott.”

As Giles sentence was nearing completion, he sought a pardon from President Rutherford B Hayes “with the sole view of restoration of citizenship,” the Arizona Weekly Citizen wrote. Attached were supporting recommendations from Judge Tweed, “and other officers and good citizens,” including Governor Safford.

President Hayes signed Giles pardon on May 9, 1877—news the Miner described as “pleasing to the public generally, especially the old settlers to whom he is well and, with the single exception of his late misstep, quite favorably known. “We understand it is [Giles’] intention to remain in Arizona, believing that where a thing is lost (even a good name) is the place to find it.”

The pardon papers where mailed from Washington on May 11th, but by mid-July, they hadn’t arrived yet. Marshal Standefer telegraphed the US Attorney General for instructions “and received an answer to release Giles, which he did” July 21st, the Miner recorded. The reason for the pardon letter nor showing up was due to the mail carrier, Sam Ward, being shot by Natives on May 31st. The sack of mail, which included many important pieces, was finally found the following October.

Shortly after Giles release, he was appointed undersheriff as well as the Deputy Tax Collector for Yavapai County, handling several thousands of dollars. He fought hard to restore his  good name, but soon things would turn poignant and somber.

By January, 1878 he was suffering “with acute pains, all over his system, from rheumatism,” the Miner revealed. Then a little more than nine months after his release from jail, on April 25th, he was found dead in his room at the boarding house owned by James M Dobson. “He was suffering severely with bronchitis and had spells of suffocation of great severity, and it is presumed one of these attacked him,” the Miner suggested.

His funeral was April 26 and the “cortege was one of the largest ever witnessed in Arizona,” the Tucson Citizen observed. His redemption complete, John Giles went to a better place a better man.


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Weekly Arizona Miner, 4/26/1878, Pg. 2, Col. 1.

Weekly Arizona Miner, 5/25/1877, Pg. 2, Col. 4.

Weekly Arizona Miner, 8/20/1875, Pg. 2, Col. 2

Weekly Arizona Miner, 7/9/1875, Pg. 2, Col. 1

Weekly Arizona Miner, 9/3/1875, Pg. 3, Cols. 1 & 3.

Weekly Arizona Miner, 8/27/1875, Pg. 3, Col. 2.

Weekly Arizona Miner, 9/17/1875, Pg. 3, Cols. 2 & 3.

Weekly Arizona Miner, 10/22/1875, Pg. 3, Col. 2.

Weekly Arizona Miner, 9/10/1875, Pg. 3, Col. 1.

Arizona Weekly Citizen, 1/15/1876, Pg. 1, Col. 3.

Arizona Weekly Citizen, 3/31/1877, Pg. 1, Col. 2.

Weekly Arizona Miner, 7/27/1877, Pg. 3, Col. 3.

Arizona Weekly Citizen, 10/6/1877, Pg. 3, Col. 5.

Weekly Arizona Miner, 1/4/1878, Pg. 4, Col. 2

Weekly Arizona Miner, 4/5/1878, Pg. 3, Col. 3

Weekly Arizona Miner, 1/18/1878, Pg. 3, Col. 3

Weekly Arizona Miner, 6/21/1878, Pg. 2, Col. 3

Arizona Weekly Citizen, 5/3/1878, Pg. 3, Col. 3

Further information:

Weekly Arizona Miner, 7/23/1875, Pg. 3

Weekly Arizona Miner, 9/17/1875, Pg. 3, Col. 2.

Arizona Weekly Citizen, 10/20/1877, Pg. 4, Col. 2

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