Thursday, June 25, 2020

James B. Hume and the Wells Fargo Detectives

If you read much Christian historical fiction, you may have come across stories with characters who work for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The Pinkertons are a hugely popular element in fiction set in 1800s America—and why wouldn’t they be? The agency formed by Scotsman Allan Pinkerton employed men, women, and minorities as detectives while protecting people, (among them U.S. presidents and other dignitaries) and solving crimes. This agency is an interesting and exciting part of our country’s history, for sure.

That said, the Pinkertons were not the only detectives out there. Far less well-known in fictional stories today is the Wells Fargo detective. If you’ve read much about travel in the Old West—or banking—you’ll know that name. In fact, I’ve written about Wells Fargo in the past. Private citizens, small businesses, and major industries all trusted Wells Fargo with their valuables. For example, between 1858 and 1861, Wells Fargo shipped 15 tons of gold from the Sonora, Califonia office alone. But where there are valuables, there are evil people bent on stealing them, and there were times that those evil men were successful. So how did Wells Fargo protect against thefts—or recover stolen property they’d been entrusted with?

They employed their own detectives, of course. These were men hired as private detectives, not
James B. Hume, Wells Fargo Special Agent
official law enforcement or peace officers. However, the very first and most famous of the Wells Fargo detectives, one Mr. James B. Hume, was afforded many of the perks for law enforcement of that time. Hume was a peace officer with more than a decade of experience in the field when he was hired by Wells Fargo in 1871, and it’s safe to assume many of the others who followed him were, as well.

So what could a Wells Fargo detective do while in pursuit of a robber? First, they could move far more freely than a local police officer or sheriff, who was confined to a specific town or county. Hume and others moved easily across borders into neighboring communities, even crossing into other territories or states while in pursuit of their quarry. With that ability to move around, they were more like today’s FBI than a localized law enforcement officer.

In addition to this extra mobility, the Wells Fargo agents were graciously afforded arrest powers, as long as they kept those arrests limited to only those men and women related to robberies of Wells Fargo shipments. However, just because they could arrest those they pursued didn’t mean they always did. In fact, Wells Fargo detectives worked very closely with the local police and sheriffs, inviting them along when they would go to investigate crime scenes or interrogate witnesses. They were often deputized by the local agency, and when possible, they let the local authorities handle the official arrests, just to keep things on the up-and-up.

When a customer entrusted their valuables to Wells Fargo for shipment, a waybill was written, detailing the contents. Those waybills were sent along with the shipment. If, in the course of transit, that shipment was robbed—and the bandit left the waybills behind (which they often did, since they didn’t realize they were there or understand what they were), the reporting detectives could then copy the waybills to know exactly what they were seeking to recover. The detective nearest the scene of the crime would report to W. F., & Co. about the theft, then enlist local law enforcement’s help, interview any witnesses, and begin pursuit.

James Hume's mugbook
But Hume and his compatriots in the agency were not out only to get convictions at all costs. They were just as dogged in proving falsely accused men innocent when they felt the wrong man had been apprehended. To aid in that goal, they used cutting-edge techniques. For instance, Jim Hume kept a “mugbook”—a leather-bound journal that included hand-drawn or photographic pictures of suspected robbers, where he detailed copious notes on aliases and other information for each of the people included. And, Hume was said to have removed the bullet from a dead horse, which he compared with a bullet from a different case, employing crude ballistics techniques to compare the markings and link the two back to the same perpetrator.

In his thirty-one year term as a Wells Fargo Special Agent, Hume investigated hundreds of cases, and in the process, used some of the techniques we use in police forensics work today—then in their infancy. Unlike a local sheriff who had to give equal attention to all the daily business brought before him, Hume or other Wells Fargo detectives could devote all of their focus to one case at a time, pursuing it until it was solved. In one such case, his most well-known, Hume pursued Black Bart for eight years before his capture. Bart was a gentlemanly robber who absconded with the strongbox contents of at least twenty-five Wells Fargo stagecoaches between 1875 and 1883, totaling about $18,000 (or $1-2 million in today’s dollars). This thief remained one step ahead of Hume until, in his last stage robbery, he was shot in the hand and, in his subsequent flight from the scene, dropped a bloody handkerchief that contained a launderer’s identification mark. Enlisting the help of a fellow detective, Hume and his friend went door-to-door to nearly one hundred laundries in San Francisco until they found the one who claimed that mark. The particular series of letters and numbers, F.X.O.7, was linked to the account of one C. E. Boles. Armed with that information, Hume and his fellow detective rounded up Boles, interrogated him, elicited a confession, and were able to garner a conviction. Black Bart served four years of his six-year sentence in San Quentin, and was released early for good behavior.

James B. Hume never retired from Wells Fargo. He continued to work cases, often going out on the trail in pursuit of robbers until an illness in 1897 caused him to slow down some. After that point, he continued to oversee cases closer to home in California until his death in 1904.

It’s your turn: Were you aware that Wells, Fargo, & Co. employed their own detectives? If so, did you realize they had the types of authority detailed above?

If you’ve never read a story with a Wells Fargo detective, I invite you to read my July 1 release, Courting Calamity, which includes my story, Lady and the Tramps, and features Wells Fargo Special Agent as the hero.

Heroes Needed for Four Damsels in Distress

Despite determination to be strong and independent, four women of bygone days are in need of a hero. On the journey to California, the deed to Mattie’s hopes and dreams is stolen. Elizabeth has been saddled with too many responsibilities at the family mercantile. Unexpectedly married, Sofia is ill-prepared for a husband and the society she is thrust into. When her sister is accosted, Aileen will do almost anything to support her. Accepting help isn’t easy when these women don’t want to show weakness, but it is more appealing when it comes with a handsome face.

Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has finaled and won in numerous writing competitions, and been on the ECPA best-seller list several times. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers, Women Writing the West, and is a lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, college-aged son, and four fur children.


  1. Interesting post. I didn't realize Wells Fargo had their own staff of detectives. I worked for a company who provided their 401K plan through Wells Fargo, and company representatives are proud of their history of safeguarding people's valuables.

  2. Very interesting post!! I had never thought about Wells Fargo having their own detectives, but it doesn't surprise me. They had a lot at stake for their company. Mr. Hume sounds like a fine man. I think that Wells Fargo detectives would make a great TV show!!! Thanks for posting.