The eastbound Central Pacific passenger train pulled into Colfax, California, Sunday afternoon, July 27, 1873. Passengers disembarked, walking to the Wells Fargo Depot, where the stage ran twice a day except on Sundays.
Driver Bob Scott soon pulled up, and 13 passengers boarded. Wells Fargo Agent William B. Storey loaded more than $7,000 in gold coins into the strongbox.
Aboard the stagecoach, rode prominent passengers W.R. Tully, E. Black Ryan, Thomas Bard McFarland, newly elected U.S. Senator Aaron A. Sargent. Not so important was mail-ordered bride, 22-year-old Miss Eleanor Berry.
As the stage approached Sheets Ranch, five miles from Grass Valley, Scott jerked his team to a halt. Four armed men had stepped into the roadway, blocking their path.
With a floursack over each head, holes cut out for their eyes, gunnysack-cover boots, three of the bandits carried shotguns, the fourth a six-shooter.
“What do you want?” Scott called out, Ryan adding, “Yes, boys, what does this mean?”
“We want that treasure box,” came the reply.
“It’s on the other stage,” Scott lied.
“Well, we’ll keep you until the other stage comes up,” declared the leader.
His bluff called, 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.”
As the passengers stood against a roadside fence and with the strongbox about to be blown open, Berry protested.
“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 head robber said.
Berry then saw the scar on the back of his hand.
The blast ripped through the stage, exposing the cache of gold coins. Soon, the four highwaymen disappeared.
The explosion blew the strongbox lid through the stagecoaches roof, shattering the walls and floor, but the running gear survived. Soon Scott had his team hitched up, the passengers back aboard, and was en route to Grass Valley.
After alerting police to the robbery, Scott drove Berry to Nevada City and her destination, a small rented cottage. Earlier in the week, Lewis J. Dreibelbis had rented a room for her.
The landlady explained to Berry that Dreibelbis, the man she was to marry, had been called out of town but would soon return. Though still rattled, Berry remained determined to go forward with the wedding.
Soon Dreibelbis, her senior by 37 years, arrived at the cottage, where the pair were married. Berry believed his voice to be familiar as he recited his wedding vows.
Upon seeing his scar as he signed paperwork legalizing their marriage, she ran from the room. A few minutes later, Dreibelbis left the cottage.
Berry spent the night locked in her room. She only told the landlady, preacher, and a few neighbors that Dreibelbis was “not so well fixed” as she had expected.
The following day, she boarded the first stage, leaving Grass Valley without further explanation.
Meanwhile, local lawmen were busy hunting the robbers. A posse led by Nevada County Sheriff Joe Perrin pored over the robbery scene and began tracking them.
A half-mile-long trail led to a mask, giant powder and percussion caps, and two miners in a cabin, whom they arrested. Later that day, officers picked up two more suspects, including Ormstead Thurman (alias Charley Thompson, alias Bill Early.)
Sentenced to prison in 1865 for robbing a stage in Maricopa County, Thurman murdered another convict for foiling an escape plan. He had been released from San Quentin six weeks before the latest stage robbery and seen in the company of local one-armed saloon keeper Jim Myers.
The four men appeared before a Justice of the Peace on July 31. After giving their alibis, the judge released three of the suspects.
While Myers claimed Thurman had been drinking in his saloon when the holdup happened, Scott and one of the passengers identified Thurman. He was held over for trial.
Deputies searched for the other bandits for more than a week. Then, on Aug. 9, Wells Fargo Chief Detective James B. Hume got word that a man named Rob Walker in Colma was drinking heavily and spending freely.
Hume learned Walker had deposited $1,000 in gold coin and a bar of bullion with the hotelkeeper, claiming 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 ever worked there.
Traveling to Coloma, Hume 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,” Hume later recalled, “That the condition of his coin clearly indicated the effects of the giant powder explosion of the Grass Valley treasure box.”
Walker finally broke, 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.
Saying he was tasked with ‘guarding the passengers,’ only. Hume soon matched the description of Dreibelbis to that of the leader.
He also learned that Dreibelbis had severely cut the back of his hand during the Dowmieville robbery. It was this scar that Berry had noticed after their abbreviated ceremony.
Dreibelbis eventually identified Ormstead Thurman, George Lester (aka George Lane), Nat Stover, and saloonkeeper Myers as the other gang members.
Hume and Perrin soon rounded up the rest of the bandits. They picked up Myers at his saloon and found Stover at a mining camp near Grass Valley.
Both confessed, and Myers led them to the spot where he had buried his share of the gold. Stover also led the officers to his cache, but a ‘soiled dove,’ named Nellie Gassaway made off with his loot.
All three were convicted, with Dreibelbis providing testimony against each of them. They each received long terms in San Quentin.
George Lane was indicted but managed to escape. Hume found him in Virginia City, Nev., the following year, returning him to California to stand trial and where he received a 15-year prison sentence.
For testifying against the others, the state dropped all charges against Dreibelbis. Hume bought him a one-way train ticket home to Iowa, where he lived quietly on his farm in Scotch Grove until his death on Dec. 12, 1888, aged 75.
Berry moved into the home of Gilroy pioneers John and Sophia Eigleberry, where she dared not reveal that she had married a highway robber. Instead, she explained that the mail-ordered groom had been a failure, yet rumors of her strange affair spread like wildfire.
With the truth out, and a month after the robbery, Berry survived an attempted suicide using chloroform. What became of her afterward is unknown.