“Horses threw him, ran away with him and from him, led him into trouble and never out of it. Yet this bandit-on-horseback never seemed to learn. No matter what horses did to him, he came back for more. . .[Dick Fellows] emerges from the small fry of his time almost solely because of his persistent error in believing he could ride.”
-Joseph Henry Jackson, Bad Company (1939)
On March 27, 1882 “California’s most spectacularly unsuccessful highwayman” was sentenced in Santa Barbara County court to life in Folsom prison.
Dick Fellows had been convicted of one count of robbery and one count of robbery with a prior conviction of robbery for twice holding up the stagecoach that ran between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. His prior conviction was in 1870 for holdups in the Los Angeles area.
Wells, Fargo & Co. suspected Fellows of committing up to twelve robberies between 1869 and 1882. During that time he hit several stages in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties. Yet it was not his criminal prowess that immortalized his name, but a career of comical mishaps.
One night it took Fellows three attempts to successfully rob a stagecoach including two separate tries at different locations on the same stage. The first two times, the drivers had cracked the reins forcing the six-horse teams right past him when he had stepped masked and armed before the oncoming stages demanding that they stop. On one occasion his horse took off into the night following the stage before finally returning so he could make his escape.
While on the lam afterward as a recognized outlaw, Fellows was confronted by the owner of a roadside eatery pointing a pistol at him while he was chowing down. Fellows feigned surrender before trying to smack the pistol away from the owner, who fired a shot that hit the bumbling robber in the foot. Fellows managed to hobble off and ride away on his horse, but was later apprehended while seeking medical help. He served four years in state prison.
In another ill-fated sequence of events, only sheer bad luck prevented Fellows from trying to rob a stagecoach in which heavily armed Wells, Fargo Chief Special Officer, J. B. Hume, was aboard for security. He was overseeing the transfer of $240,000. Having spotted Fellows casing the stage earlier in the day, Hume was actually waiting in anticipation for the bandit to make his move. The bank officer had beside him two sawed-off double-barrel shot guns and two Winchester rifles. Three other officers armed with pistols accompanied him.
Only because the hapless highwayman was bucked off his horse before he could attempt the robbery, and landed on his head and knocked unconscious, was the deadly showdown averted. Although perhaps Dick Fellows looked at it as though the unruly horse foiled his plans, rather than saved him from being blasted to shreds by double-aught buckshot.
Not to be deterred a tenacious Fellows stole a different horse and successfully robbed another stage of $1800 later that same night. His success was short lived. While heaving the bank strongbox onto his horse the spooked animal bolted.
Scrambling to get away in the dark on foot, Fellows heaved the gold laden chest off the road and into the bush and along with himself right off a 12 to 18 drop into a trench. He fell into Tunnel Five, which Southern Pacific Railway had recently excavated, and broke his leg above the ankle. His foot on the same leg was also partially crushed by the strongbox either when it initially fell off the horse or when Fellows plunged over the edge with it in tow.
He was arrested several days later. The boot had to be cut off his swollen, ballooned leg for treatment, but it was not his severe injury that lead to his capture. The Wells, Fargo detective tracked Fellows down by following the unique sign left by a horse he had managed to steal. This particular horse happened to have a mule shoe tacked on to one foot while the other three hooves had normal horseshoes. It was quite easy to track.
Months later following his conviction on highway robbery charges, a relentless Fellows escaped from jail while awaiting transport to prison. He made his way to a farm and stole a horse without a saddle. After leading it to another farm and picketing it outside the barn, Fellows went inside to fetch a saddle. When he came out hauling the stolen tack he spooked the horse, which reared, snapped the rope and bolted for home. Without anything but his two feet to get away he was arrested shortly afterward and served five more years.
After his release Fellows drifted back to highway robbery. In one last escape attempt after his final life sentence conviction in Santa Barbara, he broke free and hastily stole yet another horse. He made it only a short distance clinging to the animal bareback before being tossed onto the sun-baked dirt road where he was quickly nabbed.
He was finally transported to Folsom Prison where he spent 26 years and was pardoned on March 08, 1908. While serving his time Dick Fellows, long known for his smooth spoken articulate manner, had worked as a teacher in the Department of Moral Instruction.
Joseph Henry Jackson, Bad Company: The Story of California’s Legendary and Actual Stage-Robbers, Bandits, Highwaymen and Outlaws From the Fifties to the Eighties (Harcourt, Brace and Company 1939), 217-44.
The Misadventures of Tricky Dick Fellows (PDF), Harold L. Edwards, Quarterly Bulletin: Historic Kern, Kern County Historical Society, Vol. 60 No. 3, September 2010