In the spring of 1872, Wells Fargo & Co.’s Express had been tormented by highwaymen. The company enjoyed excellent gross earnings, but the percentage lost to robbery was steadily growing. The directors of the company agreed to set up an internal force of detectives—”special agents”—to thwart bandits and stop the losses.
Wells Fargo hired James B. Hume, Sheriff of El Dorado County, California . Hume came to the California gold fields in 1849 along with hundreds of thousands of other adventurers. Like most of them, Hume did not strike it rich. But he had a strong character and a knack for enforcing the law. He began as tax collector in the county seat, then called Hangtown by most people. His career got traction—he was made City Marshal in 1864, then Chief of Police and County Sheriff. He served the county for eight years.
As Sheriff, Hume caught many of the wastrels who held up Wells Fargo stagecoaches on remote El Dorado roads. He got a reputation as a man who enjoyed the detection process, whittling leads, and pursuit of the perpetrator. Hume accepted Wells Fargo’s offer to establish the Special Agent operation, but it had to wait almost a year as he tracked and captured several prisoners who had escaped Nevada’s state prison, and reformed Nevada’s prison system.
Hume started building Wells Fargo’s investigative unit quickly by getting personally acquainted with drivers and shotgun messengers, and he changed stagecoach routes and schedules. Hume made the valuables box on board too difficult for a single person to handle. His talent for knowing how and where crooks operated allowed Hume to set up efficient dragnets. When a robber sprayed buckshot at a stagecoach, Hume’s detectives removed the shot piece by piece and detained several known outlaws. They checked the outlaws’ guns for a match, found the crook, and got a confession. It was an early and creative use of the science of ballistics.
Hume worked for Wells Fargo until his death in 1904. His record has many colorful stories about the apprehension of colorful crooks. The notorious “Black Bart” was actually Charles Boles, a mild-mannered and sophisticated city man, not the cackling villain that Hollywood portrayed. Black Bart’s offenses against customers’ funds tormented Wells Fargo for several years and 28 incidents. All the while, however, Hume meticulously followed every lead and scrap of evidence till Boles was arrested without incident in 1883.
Frederick L. Lipman began his 60-year career with Wells Fargo in 1883 and rose through the ranks to become President. Lipman watched the company transform, from Gilded Age to Atomic Age . Lipman and Hume resided across San Francisco Bay and commuted together by ferry during their years of service in common. In 1947, Lipman was asked about Hume by a biographer. The questions were of a more personal nature than the usual stories of heroism and tireless manhunts. About Hume, Lipman answered:
- He smoked cigars and chewed tobacco.
- He dressed informally, favoring tweeds.
- Lipman did not know whether or not Hume took a drink but would not be surprised if he had.
- He had a flower garden.
- Lipman knew Mrs. Hume also, who was prominent in church work in Berkeley.