Tom Bell must have known he would pay for his crimes. He managed to elude capture for months. But on October 4, 1856, a posse led by Judge George Belt finally caught up with him along the Merced River.
Mrs. Tilghman, the wife of a popular barber, had been shot during a holdup and was not expected to live. It was the first stagecoach robbery in United States history. The townspeople of Marysville were outraged and demanded justice. Already in custody were two of his associates, John Fernandez and Bill Gristy. The captured men credited Bell as the mastermind.
After Judge Belt informed Tom Bell that he was to be hung from the nearest tree, he was granted permission to write two letters of farewell—one to his mother, the other to his mistress.
Many a thought must have run through the outlaw’s mind as he put pen to paper. He must have regretted not being more careful in choosing his gang and lamented the many flaws in his plan to rob the stage. One can only wonder if he regretted shooting Mrs. Tilghman, leaving her to die, and betraying his Hippocratic Oath.
Thomas J. Hodges studied medicine before coming to California. Although, like so many of his contemporaries, he had contracted gold fever. Hodges arrived in the goldfields in 1849, not to practice medicine, but to stake a claim. He struck it rich, for a time anyway, until his claim ran out, and he gambled all his money away.
Another gambler told him he could steal mules from local ranchers and sell them in the Utah Territory o pay off his debts. The scheme worked so well that Tom Hodges came to believe he was pretty good at thievery. That is until the authorities caught him and put him behind bars.
After doing hard time in prison, Tom Hodges was released and picked up where he had left off. Now he was an outlaw among outlaws, operating under the alias Tom Bell. He and his gang plundered mule drivers, peddlers, and anyone foolish enough to travel the mountain roads of El Dorado County.
Dr. Tom Hodges’ empathy would re-emerge from time-to-time. He was said to have bandaged up some of the men he shot—earning him the nickname The Outlaw Doc.
Transports of boomtown gold would soon become the gang’s target. An innkeeper tipped off Bell that Sam Langston’s Express Company was scheduled to carry a sizable shipment from Downieville. It was the stage line upon which Mrs. Tilghman would be traveling.
August 12, 1856, at 4:30 p.m., Tom Bell stopped the stagecoach and threatened to shoot the driver if he resisted. To Bell’s surprise, the passengers inside the coach drew their pistols and began firing. His gang fled the scene in confusion, and the stage sped away with its treasure intact. Like so many other times in Tom Bell’s life, the opportunity for riches vanished like fool’s gold.
If you are wondering what Tom Bell wrote in those letters before he was fitted for the noose, you might be disappointed. His letters were desperate pleas for leniency, stating that he was wrongly accused and roughly treated. The stage robber disputed any responsibility for what had happened to Mrs. Tilghman.
The George Belt was not the least bit swayed—he functioned as judge, jury, and executioner. The Outlaw Doc would suffer the same fate as his last victim, Mrs. Tilghman, who died days before her wounds.
Bell’s crime was the first of hundreds of stagecoach robberies carried out in the United States through the year 1916. Judge Belt’s brand of western justice did not dissuade others from following suit.
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