The Golden Bungle: Kern’s Not-so-Great Train Robbery

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By Gordon F. Lull

The boy dug more furiously here at the end than he had at the beginning, when he buried the things. Back then, he wielded the shovel in panic and greed. Now he worked quickly under a moonless winter sky, lit by the hope that the great mistake he had made might be reversed.

Six Days Earlier…

Like any good station agent, Will Hogan knew the rhythms and habits at Taft Station. The Sunset train arrived as expected from Bakersfield on the evening of December 9, 1912. He walked to the Wells Fargo car and expected, as always, the security door to slide open with a clank, the expressman to appear, and the unloading to begin.

But the door didn’t move. There was not a sound from the interior. He pounded on the door. No response. Alarmed, he called for Deputy Sheriff Jim Quinn and the two, finding the security car door unlocked, cautiously entered.

They found 21-year-old Marvin Hamby, hands and feet bound and bleeding from a head wound, unconscious. That was the first discovery. After overseeing his transport to Taft Hospital (where he was treated for a concussion), they made a second discovery: $20,000 in gold was missing from the car.* [Note: that would translate to approximately a half-million dollars today.]

Telegrams and phone calls went out to Wells Fargo, Santa Fe Railroad officials, and law enforcement statewide, but no clues were available without Marvin Hamby’s account of what happened. That account was related Tuesday morning.

Hamby’s story was that two masked gunman attacked him as the train was stopped at nearby Maricopa. One man “swung” into the car before Hamby closed the side door, stuck a Colt .45 revolver in his face, then let a second gunman through the barred entrance. He said he attempted to reach for a bell rope alarm but one of the men “whacked” him on the head with his gun, “and that’s the last thing I remember until I woke up in Taft.” [Bakersfield Californian, December 10, 1912, quoted at] He provided age, clothing, and physical descriptions for both assailants, and related his suspicion that there may have been accomplices, possibly in the Pentland Junction area.

The Previous Day

The word regarding the men who had attacked Hamby, and therefore suspects in the gold heist, had sounded from San Francisco to San Diego. Law enforcement agencies statewide had detained a number of suspects, but no one had been arrested. Kern County Sheriff Thomas A. Baker had become directly involved in the investigation, had even inspected the scene at Pentland Junction where some evidence surfaced of men getting on or off a moving train.

But every lead led nowhere and the press, including the Los Angeles Times, reported less than glowing accounts of the investigation. Meanwhile, two realities began to elbow into prominence.

First, Melvin Hamby had been hospitalized for six days and had been interviewed numerous times by officers. As those in law enforcement compared the results of those interviews, Hamby never told the same story twice. Some officers came away convinced he was involved.

At noon on the Sabbath, December 15, Hamby was released from Taft Hospital. Baker had agents tail him from the hospital. After purchasing a bandage for the cut above his eye, he walked into his Wells Fargo office where several agents also entered and engaged him in conversation. They convinced him that, in order to further the investigation, it would be necessary for him to meet again with Sheriff Baker.

So the little group boarded the evening train for Bakersfield. They met up with Baker in a second-floor room of the Maronet Hotel, where six officers awaited. One by one, they questioned Hamby with increasing directness and pressure. The grilling went on until 3:00 a.m. Visibly upset at his sudden transformation from valued witness to main suspect, the young man disclosed that he had a younger brother, 16-year-old Melvin Hamby, whom he had once allowed to ride with him in the security car. At that revelation, all of Baker’s experience and instincts crystallized to a conviction that he was listening to a perpetrator, not a victim.

The assembled officers threw a queen, a king, and an ace at him. They had, they said, known all along he was involved in the robbery, and keeping him at Taft Hospital was a ruse. His injuries, they said, were superficial at best, not enough to harm anyone. And then one of the officers, preferring actions over words, ripped the bandage from above his eye. It was now Baker’s turn to play the darkest card of all.

Train robbery, he explained, was now a capital offense in California. He said he believed Hamby was covering for someone who worked with him to rob his employer. One of them, Hamby or his fellow thief, would hang.

A Wells Fargo agent intervened, explaining that his employer cared more about the money than about a robber swinging from a rope. Come clean, he pleaded, and you will be shown “generosity.”

And Hamby came clean. “My brother and I stole the money. Come with me and I’ll get it for you.” [Taft Midway Driller, December 16, 1912, again, via]

One Hour Earlier

South of town, in a tent at a chicken ranch, Melvin Hamby lay fast asleep in the pre-dawn darkness. His older brother, Marvin, led Sheriff Baker and several other officers by lamplight to the nest of his brother and accomplice. He shook the sleep from his brother with the order, “We’re going to get the money.”

Melvin pulled on pants and shoes, retrieved a shovel, and led the group. Along the way, Marvin likely related the promise of leniency implied during the questioning.

One-half mile from the ranch, Melvin paced out several steps from a sagebrush tree and sank his shovel into the sand. The boy dug furiously, more furiously here at the end than he had at the beginning. Three feet down he hit into several canvas bags he had hidden six days earlier. They were stuffed with the gold pieces Marvin had stolen from Wells Fargo and tossed from the train to his brother. Except, that is, for the 20 or so coins he had hidden in his mattress back at the tent.

The Aftermath

If Marvin’s confession came out in a torrent after hours of questioning, Melvin’s account needed no hot lights, only a three-column space in the Californian, with his own byline, titled, “16-year old Melvin tells how he buried treasure.”

“Well, I guess it is all over,” began the account in the December 16 issue of the newspaper. He explained that he stood several evenings next to the tracks in old Kern Junction, awaiting a lantern signal from his brother. When the signal came that Monday evening, Marvin threw off the gold and Melvin carried bags off to the spot where, six days later, he dug them up.

Marvin’s part had to be more carefully choreographed. After tossing the bags of gold out of the car, he cut himself above the eye and managed to tie himself up. Before the train rolled into Taft, a shudder of the train hurtled him against an oil drum and he sustained the head injury. He then eased himself under a tarp where he was found.

In early February, after a change in his plea and skillful lawyering, the judge handed down Marvin’s sentence (three years’ probation) with the stern charge, “You must keep busy at some legitimate line of work and refrain from carousing and gambling.” As for Melvin, the universal recommendation, according to Gia’s research, was that he be sent to reform school, an outcome not supported by available records.

Many Years Later

If anyone worried about how the future would unfold for Marvin and Melvin Hamby, they need not have feared the worst.

Eighteen months after the heist, and six thousand miles away, two bullets from the gun of a crazed Slavic nationalist killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. The arc of history shifted for Europe and the West, and for the Hamby boys of Kern County.

The world was plunged into the “war to end all wars.”

Marvin Hamby, although we do not know the exact circumstances of his departure from Kern County or his service in World War I, fought in the European Theater and, after his return, was a lifelong member of the Calaveras Barracks of the Veterans of World War I. His obituary indicates that he spent most of his life in the Angel’s Camp, CA community. He died at the Veterans Hospital in Martinez, CA, at the age of 75, on September 16, 1966.**

Melvin joined the U.S. Army Artillery in 1918 and, after the war, returned to his home in Calaveras County, CA, where he took up mining, worked for the U.S. Forest Service, and labored for 15 years on the Carquinez Bridge (the first bridge spanning the San Francisco Bay) and finally became a successful hotelier, operating the Hotel Treat for 13 years. He died near Angel’s Camp, CA, on August 14, 1981.

Ironically, that hotel property today is the Black Bart Inn, named for the debonair bandit Charles E. “Black Bart” Boles, the “gentleman bandit” who never harmed a single person during his heists. But there was one rail company he harmed.

The Hamby brothers, never well fashioned for crime, bungled their one attempt. Black Bart successfully pulled off 28 robberies of Wells Fargo trains.

Article appeared in our 31-4 Issue – October 2014

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