Thomas J. Hodges, who was also known as Tom Bell, and the “Outlaw Doc” was a physician, stagecoach robber, and leader of an outlaw gang in California.
Hodges was born in Alabama in 1826 and in an upstanding family in Rome, Tennessee. He received a good education, went to medical school and became a surgeon. Not long afterward, he joined the U.S. Army and fought in the Mexican-American War, where he served honorably as a non-commissioned officer and became an expert with a rifle and bayonet.
He was said to have stood over six feet tall, had blue eyes, sandy hair, and a blond mustache and goatee. He was known for his natural leadership abilities and people were drawn to him.
When the war was over, he traveled westward to seek his fortune in the California Gold Rush. However, he soon found that making money in the gold mining industry was much harder than he imagined. He then tried his hand as a professional gambler making his way from one mining camp to another. He was not very good at this either and lost all his money. He then turned to crime and stole eleven mules, which he sold for a modest profit. However, he was tracked down and arrested.
In 1855, the court sentenced Bell to a five-year prison term at Angel Island outside of San Francisco. There, he met another outlaw named Bill Gristy. Sometime later, the two, along with Ned Connor and Jim Smith escaped. They then formed an outlaw gang and by the spring and summer of 1856, were regularly robbing lonely travelers, mercantiles, saloons, cattle ranchers, pack trains, and wagons in the gold rush camps of the Sierra Nevada.
On August 12, 1856, they attempted to rob the Camptonville-Maryville stagecoach which was carrying $100,000 worth of gold bullion. In an exchange of gunfire, a woman and two male passengers were killed before the gang was driven off by the stagecoach guards.
The next day, details of the brutal crime headlined the Marysville newspaper and the entire countryside was up in arms for Bell’s capture. Both a sheriff’s posse and citizen vigilantes conducted a massive search for the gang.
One by one, Bell’s gang members were either caught or killed. By late September Bill Gristy was captured and under threat of being turned over to the irate lynch mob outside the jail, he confessed the location of Tom Bell. The Stockton Sheriff then raced to arrest him, but he arrived too late. When he found Bell near Firebaugh’s Ferry outside Nevada City, California on October 4, 1856, an impromptu posse commanded by Judge George Gordon Belt, a Merced River rancher, had already hanged him from a tree.
The 26-year-old outlaw was given a chance to write a letter to his mother before he was executed. It read:
“Dear Mother, As I am about to make my exit to another country, I take this opportunity to write you a few lines. Probably you may never hear from me again. If not, I hope we meet where parting is no more.”
By Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated December 2018.
Enss, Chris; Outlaw Tales of California, Rowman & Littlefield, 2013