The bride and the brigand: She was en route to Grass Valley to marry a man sight unseen, when robbers struck the stage
Special to The Union
On the sweltering Sunday afternoon of July 27, 1873, an eastbound Central Pacific passenger train pulled into the mountain town of Colfax, California, brakes screeching and steam hissing from the locomotive as it groaned to a halt at the station. Passengers bound for the Nevada County mining camps disembarked and walked a few steps to the large, barn-like Wells, Fargo & Co. depot. Narrow-gauge rail service had yet to reach the camps, so six-horse stagecoaches carried all passengers, mail and express packages bound for Grass Valley and Nevada City. Two stages ran daily, except on Sundays, when only one coach made the trip.
A Concord stage with driver Bob Scott at the ribbons soon pulled up outside the depot, and 13 passengers lined up to board it. The coach had three bench seats inside, each accommodating up to three passengers. The rear seat comprised a wrought iron safe bolted to the floor and secured by two heavy padlocks, its top cushioned for comfort. On the top deck of the stage was room enough for seven more passengers, one beside the driver and three each on a pair of bench seats behind him — the “dickey” and “China” seats, from front to back. While Wells, Fargo Agent William B. Storey loaded more than $7,000 in gold coin into the strongbox, Scott supervised the stowage of trunks and other articles atop the coach and into the rear leather boot.
Finally, the passengers climbed aboard. Prominent attorneys W.R. Tully, E. Black Ryan and Thomas Bard McFarland (later a California Supreme Court justice) took the top bench seat behind the driver, while newly elected U.S. Senator Aaron A. Sargent claimed the seat of honor beside Scott. The men were en route to Nevada City to represent the Central Pacific in litigation over railroad taxes. The other passengers arranged themselves inside the coach. Among them was Miss Eleanor Berry, a 22- year-old schoolmistress from Gilroy.
Scott cracked his whip over the leaders, and the coach lunged forward, rattling north out of Colfax, then descending the gentle grade to the Bear River, the team moving at a lively trot. As the coach crossed the river and climbed the pine- and chaparral-covered Sierra slopes, the passengers whiled away the time in talk. “In this intellectual exercise,” noted one florid account, “our young lady on the back seat took no unimportant part, but by her intelligence, wit and vivacity gained the undisguised but respectful admiration of the entire party.” Berry certainly had time to think of the circumstances that had prompted her to make the long journey to Grass Valley. Orphaned as a child, she was raised by a neighbor family before setting out on her own. Alone and anxious to find a husband, she had spotted a brief advertisement three months earlier in a San Francisco literary journal: “Lonesome miner wants wife to share stake and prospects.” As mail-order romances were quite the rage, the young teacher began an earnest correspondence with Lewis J. Dreibelbis of Grass Valley, a self-described wealthy but lonely miner who wanted for nothing except a wife. Their letters became increasingly affectionate. Finally, he proposed marriage, and she accepted. Eleanor resigned her position at the Gilroy school, packed her trunk and embarked for Grass Valley.
As the stage approached Sheets Ranch, 5 miles shy of Grass Valley, Ryan leaned back in his seat and bellowed out a lusty rendition of the old Irish melody, “The Low-Backed Car”:
While we drove in the low backed car
To be married by Father Maher;
Oh, my heart would beat high
At her glance and her sigh,
Though it beat in a low backed car.
Suddenly Ryan stopped singing. He stared gape-mouthed as Scott jerked his team to an abrupt halt. Four armed men had stepped into the roadway, blocking the coach’s path. Each wore a sack over his head with holes cut for the eyes. Three carried shotguns, the fourth a six-shooter. Their boots were shrouded in gunnysacks.
“What do you want?” Scott called out, Ryan adding, “Yes, boys, what does this mean?”
“We want that treasure box,” came the curt reply.
“It’s on the other stage,” Scott lied.
“Well, we’ll keep you until the other stage comes up,” declared the bandit leader.
Realizing his ruse wouldn’t work, Scott told the highwayman, “It’s no use fooling any longer — this is the only stage tonight.”
“That’s what we thought,” the robber replied. “Climb down from there and unhitch your team.”
Ordering the passengers from the coach, two shotgun-wielding ruffians marched them, driver Scott and his horses 30 feet up the road, then had Miss Berry and the men stand in line along a roadside fence. Meanwhile, the brigand chief and the fourth man attacked the Wells, Fargo strongbox with a pick. When the second padlock refused to budge, the highwaymen produced a can of giant powder and prepared to blow it open.
A protest from the prospective bride halted their work.
“Gentlemen!” she cried out. “My trunk, which is on the deck of the stage, will in all probability be blown to pieces. It contains all that I possess in this world, and while its destruction will not benefit you in the least, it will be an irreparable loss to me. I beg of you to take it down.”
“Certainly, miss, with the greatest pleasure,” the robber chieftain responded gallantly. His partner climbed atop the stage and handed down the trunk. As the leader reached up to grab it, his shirtsleeve fell back, and Eleanor spotted a distinctive jagged scar on the back of one hand.
After they set down the trunk beside its owner, one of the outlaws touched a lit match to the fuse. Moments later a terrific explosion ripped through the stage. When the smoke cleared, the brigand chief crawled into the shattered vehicle and emerged with the cache of gold coins.
“All right, boys!” he yelled to his comrades. “Come on!”
The four highwaymen turned their backs, strode off into the chaparral and soon were lost to sight. Scott ruefully examined his once majestic coach, which at first glance appeared to be demolished. The blast had hurled the strongbox lid through the roof, while the walls and floor were splintered. The running gear, however, was undamaged, and Scott soon had his team hitched up and the passengers back aboard. He quickly completed the run into to Grass Valley.
HERE COMES THE BRIDE(GROOM)
After alerting police to the robbery, Scott set out for Nevada City. At the outskirts of Grass Valley he paused in front of a small cottage, helped Berry from the coach and lowered her trunk to the ground. Dreibelbis rented a room in the cottage, and his landlady rushed out to greet the bride-to-be. She hastily explained the groom had been called out of town but would soon return, then led Eleanor to a room in the cottage. Though rattled by the holdup, Berry was determined to go forward with the wedding. She bathed, changed into her most elegant dress and waited nervously for the return of her betrothed.
Soon a commotion at the front door announced someone’s arrival. The landlady, breathless with excitement, rushed into the bedroom to announce that Lewis had returned and all was ready for the wedding. Though apprehensive, Eleanor made no objection, took one last look in a mirror and followed the landlady into the adjoining parlor. Seated in the middle of the room were the minister and a witness. To one side stood the newly arrived bridegroom.
Berry must have been shocked at the first sight of her betrothed. Dreibelbis was 59, her senior by 37 years, while his rough clothes and simple dwelling seemed to belie his claim of financial comfort as a wealthy miner. But again Eleanor made no objection.
The groom motioned to the clergyman, who opened his Bible to begin the ceremony.
As Lewis recited his wedding vows, Eleanor thought his voice sounded oddly familiar. But within moments the ceremony was completed, and the newlyweds embraced for the first time. Then they stepped to a table to sign the document that made it all legal. As Lewis put pen to paper, the light from the table lamp shone directly on his outstretched hand, revealing a long, jagged scar — the same mark Eleanor had seen on the bandit leader’s hand.
The color drained from the young bride’s face. Letting out a bloodcurdling scream that reverberated against the walls of the cottage, she fled from the room. For a moment Dreibelbis stood stunned, then, without a word to his hostess, the preacher or his bride, he strode quickly outside and vanished into the waning light.
Eleanor spent the night locked in her room, alternately weeping and laughing maniacally. In the morning, according to an account published a few days later in the Nevada City Transcript, she claimed temporary insanity, that she had no memory whatsoever of the wedding but “had dreamed in the night that she was carried off by the robbers.”
Humiliated and shaken beyond measure, Eleanor only told the baffled landlady, preacher and assembled neighbors that Dreibelbis was “not so well fixed” as she had expected. Packing her Saratoga trunk, she boarded the next stage and left Grass Valley without further explanation. “All thought she must be crazy,” noted the Transcript’s dumbfounded editor.
LONG ARM OF THE LAW
Meanwhile, local lawmen were busy hunting the stage robbers. Of course, no one suspected the young woman’s spurned bridegroom of any connection to the holdup. A posse led by Nevada County Sheriff Joe Perrin had pored over the robbery scene and at first light began to hunt for the bandits’ sign. The gunnysacks the robbers had worn over their boots made tracking difficult, but Perrin and his men managed to follow their trail a half-mile toward Ophir Hill. Discarded in the brush near an isolated cabin the lawmen discovered a mask, giant powder and percussion caps. Perrin found two miners at the cabin and placed them under arrest.
Later that day, acting on descriptions of the highwaymen supplied by the passengers, the officers picked up two more suspects, including Ormstead Thurman (alias Charley Thompson, alias Bill Early), a notorious ruffian who had already served several terms in San Quentin State Prison. In 1865 Thurman had been convicted of robbing a stagecoach in Mariposa County, and while serving out that sentence, he’d murdered a fellow convict for foiling an escape plan. He’d been released from San Quentin just six weeks before the latest stage robbery, and Grass Valley officers had spotted him in the company of local one-armed saloonkeeper Jim Myers. The editor of the Grass Valley Union had accused Myers of fencing stolen property and called his saloon “a rendezvous for petty thieves and highway robbers.”
On July 31 the four suspects appeared before a justice of the peace for their preliminary hearings. All but Thurman were released after proving alibis. For his alibi the ex-con called on Myers, who swore Thurman had been drinking in his saloon at the time of the holdup. But stage driver Bob Scott and one of his passengers positively identified Thurman, by both his clothing and his notably sunken eyes, which were visible through the eyeholes in his mask. The judge ordered Thurman held over and returned him to the county jail to await trial.
For more than a week Sheriff Perrin and his deputies searched in vain for clues to the identities of the other bandits. Then came a lucky break. On August 9 Wells, Fargo Chief Detective James B. Hume got word that a week earlier a stranger named Rob Walker had shown up in Coloma, 40 miles south of Grass Valley, drinking heavily and spending freely. Making inquiries, Hume learned Walker had deposited $1,000 in gold coin and a bar of bullion with a local hotelkeeper. The stranger claimed to be a former mining superintendent at Ophir in Placer County. But when Hume telegraphed Ophir, he found that no such man named Walker had worked there. Traveling to the Coloma hotel, the detective personally examined the coins and gold bar, which matched those stolen in the robbery. Hume arrested Walker and took him to jail in Placerville.
“I told him I thought I had a strong case against him,” the detective later recalled, “that the condition of his coin clearly indicated the effects of the giant powder explosion of the Grass Valley treasure box.” Pressed to identify his accomplices, Walker demanded immunity. Hume refused but explained the courts would almost certainly show leniency to someone who turned state’s evidence. The prisoner finally broke down, confessing to both the Grass Valley robbery and the June holdup of a stage near Downieville. He also admitted to being an ex-con and that his real name was Lewis J. Dreibelbis.
SHORT ENGAGEMENT, AND MARRIAGE
It turned out Dreibelbis had once been an honest farmer. He was born in Schuykill County, Pa., on Sept. 15, 1813. In the mid 1830s he moved to Galena, Ill., where, he told Hume, he’d served as a sheriff. Around 1839 he married and moved to Jones County, Iowa, where he acquired a farm and raised six children. A decade or so later, bored with domestic farm life, Dreibelbis joined the California Gold Rush. He worked as a miner near Nevada City and apparently enjoyed a rowdy, hard-drinking life. In 1861 he made his way back to his family in Iowa, only to return to California three years later. In September 1865 he was arrested for a stage robbery under the alias Louis Dribblesbee. Convicted and sentenced to 12 years in San Quentin, he served half his sentence and was pardoned for good conduct in 1871.
Dreibelbis said nothing to Hume about his ill-fated marriage to Eleanor, no doubt because wife Mary was alive and well in Iowa. He identified his cohorts in the Grass Valley job as Ormstead Thurman, whom he’d known in San Quentin; George Lester (aka Lane), a local hard case; and Nat Stover, a miner gone bad. Jim Myers, the one-armed saloonkeeper, had helped plan the job and was to provide an alibi were any of the gang arrested. Myers received $1,400 of the spoils. Dreibelbis claimed to have played only a minor role in guarding the passengers, but Hume determined he matched the description of the bandit leader. The detective had also learned that in the prior holdup near Downieville the robber chief had gouged the back of one hand when smashing the lock off the strongbox with a large rock. It was the scar from this wound Eleanor Berry had noticed after their abbreviated ceremony.
Detective Hume and Sheriff Perrin soon rounded up the gang. They picked up Myers at his saloon and found Stover at a mine near Grass Valley. Both confessed, and Myers led them to a spot near town where he’d buried his share of the loot. Stover also led the officers to his cache, but in the interim his paramour, Nellie Gassaway — member of a family of notorious robbers—had made off with his loot. Thurman, Myers and Stover were all convicted, with Dreibelbis providing testimony against each of them. All three were handed long terms in San Quentin. George Lane was indicted but managed to escape. Hume found him in Virginia City, Nev., the next year. Returned to California to stand trial, Lane was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
For turning’s state’s evidence, Lewis Dreibelbis was released without charge. Hume bought him a one-way train ticket home to Iowa. His family never learned he’d been a notorious stage robber and a bigamist, and he lived quietly on his farm in Scotch Grove until his death there on Dec. 12, 1888, at the age of 75.
And what became of Eleanor Berry? After returning home in shame and embarrassment, she moved into the house of Gilroy pioneers John Eigleberry and wife Sophia. Eleanor dared not reveal to friends and neighbors that she had married a highway robber. Instead, she clung to her explanation the mail-order groom had been a dud. Yet rumors of her strange affair spread like wildfire. The chivalrous editor of the Gilroy Advocate came to her rescue, lashing out at local gossips and publishing a fictitious account of the wedding that omitted the names of the couple and asserted that the groom, though “honest enough,” was “without cultivation or educations and totally unfit for the companion of a delicate and refined girl.” Regardless, the truth soon leaked out, and a month after the holdup the Advocate published a distressing postscript to the story:
Mrs. Eigleberry, at whose house the unfortunate girl has been stopping since her return, and by whom she has been adopted, not seeing her at the usual time, went to her room, knocked at the door, but receiving no answer, opened it. The fumes of chloroform almost suffocated her, when glancing at the bed she beheld the prostrate form of her ward, her head covered with a handkerchief and motionless. The truth flashed upon her in a moment, and, horrified, she called to her husband to go for medical assistance. Dr. Munson was soon procured, and afterward Dr. Morey, who immediately set to work to restore the nearly lifeless girl to consciousness. The faintest spark of vitality was perceptible, but by perseverance and the application of proper restoratives, their efforts were rewarded by the signs of returning life, and ere long [she was] pronounced out of danger.
The remainder of Eleanor’s life is lost to history. One can only hope the young bride recovered from her short-lived marriage to a brigand. The story of Eleanor Berry and Lewis Dreibelbis remains one of the most bizarre in the annals of the Wild West.
This story was originally published in the December issue of Wild West Magazine, available at newsstands and at http://www.historynet.com/wild-west. John Boessenecker is the author of such award-winning books as Bandido: The Life and Times of Tiburcio Vásquez. His forthcoming book, Shotgun and Stagecoaches: The Brave Men Who Rode for Wells Fargo, is due out from St. Martin’s Press in 2018.
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