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Cochise Train Robbery

Arizona the Youngest State

McClintock, 1913, page 477


 

For a while train robbery had popularity in Ariozna, despite a 

statute passed, though never enforced, making the crime one 

punishable by death.  One of the most daring train robberies 

occurred about midnight, September 9, 1899.  Express Messenger 

Charles Adair, who had killed an overadventurous train robber 

on the same run the year before, stepped to the door as a 

westbound Southern Pacific express reached the small station 

of Cochise.  As he looked out it was into the muzzle of a 

revolver and he and the train force soon were lined on the 

platform with their hands in the air.  The express car was 

detached and run a couple of miles westward.  The messenger 

was known to be ignorant of the safe combination so the safe 

was opened with dynamite.  The loot ws rich, comprising a bag 

full of gold and currency with value of at least $10,000.  

The four men involved struck into the Chiricahuas, 

unsuccessfully followed by posses headed by Sheriff Scott 

White and George Scarborough.

 

The truth concerning the Cochise robbery came out a few months 

later, February 21, 1900, following a supplemental train 

robbery, that of the express car of a Benson-Nogales train, 

which was held up at Fairbank.  The hero of the affair was 

Express Messenger Jeff D. Milton, who fought till 

incapacitated by a bullet wound that terribly shattered 

an arm.  The wounded messenger who was given the highest 

praise for his defense of his trust, in previous days had 

been a cattle association detective, a customs inspector 

and chief of police of El Paso.  The bandits numbered five.  

One of them was captured the next morning six miles from 

Tombstone, where he had fallen from his horse and abandoned 

by his companions.  He was Jess Dunlap, alias Three-Fingered 

Jack, a well known cowboy horse thief.  He died a few days 

later in the Tombstone hospital, having received in the body 

a buckshot load from Milton's shotgun.  In a pass of the 

Dragoon Mountains Sheriff White captured three of the others, 

who proved to be the leader, Bob Burns and John and Lewis 

Owens.  With them was the booty, which consisted of only 

seventeen Mexican pesos.  The robbers had expected that the 

Fort Huachuca payroll would be in the express car safe.  

Soon afterward the score was made complete by the arrest at 

Cananea of Tom Yoes, alias "Bravo John" who had been shot 

in the leg.

 

Before Dunlap died, he gave the officers the first information 

concerning the Cochise robbery, implicating Burt Alvord, 

Constable at Wilcox and William Downing, a well-to-do cattleman.  

There was some humor in the situation owing to the fact that 

Alvord had been one of the noisiest and most active pursuers 

of the train robbers.  Later, W.N. Stiles, Deputy Constable at 

Pearce, confessed the details of the whole affair.  He and 

another cowboy, Matt Burts, did the work alone, but the job 

was planned and supplies for it were furnished by Alvord and 

Downing.  Alvord had provided the dynamite, secured by 

breaking into a Wilcox powder house.  Immeditaetly after 

the job was done, the spoil was taken to Alvord and Downing 

at Wilcox for division.  Stiles received only $480 for his 

share and consequent dissatisfaction is said to have been 

the reason for his confession.  It is evident, however, that 

Stiles suffered from remorse, though not for his crimes.  

Considered merely a witness for the Government he was allowed 

some liberty.  He repaid confidence in Apirl 1900 by entering 

the Tombstone jail and after shooting the jailer through the 

leg, releasing Alvord and "Bravo John."  Downing refused to 

leave and Burts, who had been arrested in Wyoming, happened 

to be outside at the time with a deputy sheriff.  So the 

trio hung upon them all the weapons they could find in the 

sheriff's office and took to the hills on stolen horses.  

They were next heard of at Alvord's ranch near Wilcox, where 

they made announcement that they proposed to rob a few more 

Southern Pacific trains.  When the Tombstone Prospector 

criticised the sheriff's office in connection with the 

escape, the sheriff's brother replied by hammering Editor 

Hattich over the head with a revolver.  In addition to 

various rewards offered by the sheriff and territorial 

authorities, W.C. Greene offered $10,000 for the capture 

of the two outlaws, who were understood to have especial 

animus against himself.

 

Alvord surrendered in 1902, tired of the free life of a roving 

bandit and expressed himself well pleased at being back where 

he would be sure of three square meals a day.  He had been in 

the bandit business three years since he laid the plans for 

the train robbery at Cochise.  He had spent most of the 

intervening time in Sonora, where Captain Mossman of the 

Rangers followed and secured expression of a wish to return 

to the United States if assured of reasonable clemency.  But 

it was to his old friend Sheriff Del Lewis that the surrender 

was made on the border near Naco.  Alvord's way was made 

easier by the fact that he had assisted in the capture of 

Chacon, a notorious Mexican murderer.  At Tombstone he was 

discharged from custody, owing to the events of the 

territorial statute that provided death as the only penalty 

on conviction of train robbery, but he was rearrested and 

taken to Tucson on the charge of interferring with United 

States mails.  Alvord and Billy Stiles came into the 

limelight again in December 1903 when they dug out of the 

Tombstone jail and for the second time escaped.  A week 

before Alvord had been convicted on the charge of robbery 

of the mails.  He had been held at Tombstone merely as a 

witness in the case against Stiles.  Alvord later was taken 

at Naco but had only two years' imprisonment, managing to 

evade arrest on other charges at the time of liberation at 

Yuma.  He is said to have made his way to Panama, where he 

bossed Spanish speaking laborers for a while, thence 

departing for Argentina.

 

When Downing was tried on a charge of train robbery he was 

acquitted for the reason that conviction would have meant 

hanging, but on antoher charge he served a seven year term.  

Downing was happily removed from necessity and used bad 

judgment in defying Territorial Ranger Speed, after terrorizing 

Wilcox for months.  After his death it was learned that he had 

been a member of the notorious Sam Bass gang of Texas and had 

been driven out of that state by Texas Rangers.  In Arizona he 

had served two penitentiary sentences, one for train robbery 

and one for shooting Robert Warren.  Burts went to Yuma for 

a term and was followed by Stiles, who surrendered in the 

summer of 1900.  The latter was reported killed in December 

1908 while working in Nevada, where he was known under the 

name of Larkin.  The killing was said to have been 

assassination, the man shot in the back while leading a 

horse.