May 16

This Day in History

Old West

May 16, 1881:

Outlaw Dick Fellows is released

Dick Fellows, an inept horseman but persistent outlaw, becomes a free man after spending five years in the San Quentin prison.

Like many western bandits, Fellows drifted into life of crime when his efforts to make an honest living failed or provided only a poor income. Born George Lyttle in Kentucky in 1846, he came from an upstanding family and planned to become a lawyer. The outbreak of the Civil War put his ambitions on hold, though. While still in his teens, he fought with the Confederate Army until he was captured in 1863 and spent the rest of the war in a northern prison camp. After his release, he returned home and attempted to obtain a license to practice law, but his fondness for hard drinking apparently interfered.

With few opportunities available to him in Kentucky, Fellows headed West. He traveled to California in 1867, but failed to prosper there either. Low on funds, he began robbing stagecoaches near Los Angeles and adopted the alias Dick Fellows. Fellows found that robbing stages provided a reasonably good income, but he fled when lawmen began to close in on him. In an effort to go straight, he and a partner bought 600 hogs, but a fire burned the operation to the ground.

Fellows again turned to robbing stages, concocting a plan to hold up a coach carrying Wells Fargo's chief detective, James B. Hume. A man of such importance, Fellows reasoned, must be escorting a major shipment of gold or money. In fact, Fellows was right--the coach was carrying $240,000. However, he missed his chance to rob the stage when the horse he had stolen threw him, knocking him cold for several hours. Refusing to walk away with nothing, Fellows stole a second horse and held up a different stage. He succeeded in taking the heavy treasure box, but only then realized he had forgotten to bring the tools he needed to break it open. When he tried to lift the box up on his horse's saddle, he startled his mount and it, too, raced off, leaving him alone in the wilds with night falling.

Fellows had little choice but to lug the heavy box by hand. In the darkness, he fell over a high bluff, knocking himself unconscious for the second time that day. When he came to, he discovered that his left leg was broken and the treasure box had crushed his left foot. He managed to limp to a nearby construction camp, where he fashioned a crude pair of crutches and used a stolen axe to break open the box. The $1800 he found inside was trivial compared to the $240,000 he had missed, but it was better than nothing.

Unfortunately, the luckless Fellows never had a chance to spend his ill-gotten gains. The Wells Fargo detectives soon tracked him down, and he was sentenced to eight years in the San Quentin prison. Pardoned and released on this day in 1881, Fellows made yet another stab at earning an honest living, working briefly for a newspaper and even teaching Spanish for a time. Again, the money was inadequate to Fellow's tastes, and he returned to robbing stages. By the time he was recaptured in February 1882, Fellows had become a celebrity. While in jail in San Jose, he received more than 700 visitors.

Sentenced to life in Folsom Prison, Fellows devoted part of his time there to teaching a course in moral philosophy to his fellow inmates. Pardoned in 1908 at the age of 62, he returned to his home in Kentucky and faded from the historical record. It is tempting to lampoon Fellows for his inept horsemanship and astonishingly bad luck, but as one biographer noted, "For daring, he is the equal of any outlaws with whom I ever had dealings."

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