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Willits Stagecoach Robber Miscalculates

It was early on a Sunday morning, a little after dawn, in 1891, and the Eureka-to-Ukiah stagecoach was slowly working its way up a steep grade, when a man stepped out from behind a tree.

He was a young man, tall and blondish. He was wearing a duster, heavy boots, and a mask made of blue calico. He was gripping a fancy Ballard rifle — and his hands were shaking.

Nobody was interested in calling his bluff, though, if that’s what it was. It was all over in a few minutes. The driver, upon being ordered to do so, threw down the express box and mail bag, and was sent on his way.

Behind, in the road, the young man was bashing his way into the express box. Inside, he found a pair of baby shoes and some waybills.

“Not a cent did I get for my trouble,” the young man said, some months later, when confessing to this crime.

The young bandit had chosen a particularly bad time to get in on the stagecoach-robbery business. By the 1890s, the big money — company payrolls, gold shipments, that kind of thing — was no longer being sent on the easy-to-rob stagecoaches. As soon as railroad trains came to the West Coast, treasure shipments started going on them. One guy, armed with a flintlock musket or even a bow and arrow, could step out in front of the horses and rob a stagecoach; but train robbery was much more complicated and dangerous, and any treasure was usually locked away in a vault not much less secure than that found in a bank. By 1891, the days of rich hauls from stagecoach express boxes were a memory.

The youngster had also, it seems, chosen a bad county in which to pull this, his first heist. Driver Charles Lambert, after leaving the scene, whipped his team into a lather and raced to Ukiah, 19 miles away, where he found Sheriff J.M. Standley and told him all he’d observed: the fancy Ballard repeating rifle, the calico mask, the boots, the duster. The sheriff thought for a moment. Someone had, a day or two before, burgled a house near Willits and stolen a fancy Ballard rifle and a blue calico dress.

Leaving the scene of the robbery uninspected, the sheriff headed straight for Willits. There he learned that a tall, young, athletic stranger with blondish hair had been hanging around the area looking for work.

Standley followed the stranger’s trail from one lumber camp to another. He soon learned his name: Joe McKay. Armed with that, he went to the post office to see if Mr. McKay was getting any mail.

He was. The letter he found was from George B. Miller — the son of famous/notorious Oregon poet Joaquin Miller (the “Poet of the Sierras”), who was then living in Oakland Heights, Calif.

At the Miller home, Standley found Joaquin gone, but George was there. In the ensuing conversation, George accidentally let the cat out of the bag: Joe McKay’s real name was Harry Miller — George’s younger brother. He had adopted the alias Joe McKay and moved to California because the police in Oregon were looking for him.

Harry had been the last child born of Joaquin Miller’s marriage to fellow poet Minnie Myrtle (real name: Theresa Dyer), the “Sweet Singer of the Coquille,” just a year before they separated. He’d grown up with his mother, in Portland, and later his aunt on a ranch in Coos Bay. His mother died of consumption in 1882.

Joaquin Miller, the 'Poet of the Sierras,' as he appeared in the mid-1880s. (Image: Library of Congress)
Joaquin Miller, the 'Poet of the Sierras,' as he appeared in the
mid-1880s. (Image: Library of Congress)

In his late teens, hoping to make of himself a man of letters like the father he’d never really met, Harry reached out to Joaquin and was invited to come stay with him in California. But Harry had quarreled with his old man after learning Joaquin didn’t intend to pay him for work he was doing around the property. So Harry had taken Joaquin’s best horse and ridden forth to find his own way in the world. That had been four years before the robbery.

This adventure hadn’t ended well for Harry. He’d wound up in Portland, in the company of an opium addict named Webster. The two of them, busted flat and getting hungry, had broken into a house and stuffed themselves with the food they found there.

While they were at it, they’d stolen a pocket watch from the bedroom. When they’d later tried to pawn the watch, the pawnbroker had recognized it and called the cops, and Harry had been sent up for a two-year stretch in the Oregon State Penitentiary.

Six months into his sentence, Harry had somehow got his hands on the clothing of a carpenter, an outside contractor brought in with a team of builders to work on the facility. So attired, he’d simply walked out of the pen. A desultory manhunt had ensued, but Miller wasn’t exactly a killer, so the Oregon authorities hadn’t worked too hard at recapturing him. Harry had been able to easily elude their halfhearted dragnet by changing his name to McKay and moving to California. And he might have been OK there, had he not — on the spur of the moment, he later claimed — decided to try his hand at stagecoach robbery, thereby bringing himself to the attention of Sheriff Standley.

Now pretty sure he had the right man, Standley tracked his quarry down to Santa Rosa, where he found him sitting in the lobby of the Burns Hotel reading a newspaper, and arrested him.

“Of course, I shall plead guilty and suffer the penalty,” Harry Miller said in his confession. “I bear my father no ill-will for the way he treated me, and all I ask is that he keep away from me. I don’t care to see Joaquin Miller again. If it had not been for the letter of my brother to me that Sheriff Standley found, my identity would never have been known. I would have gone to prison as Joe McKay… The last thought in my mind was that of bringing disgrace on my brother, sister and aunt.”

He pointedly didn’t mention his father on that list. Time may heal all wounds, but it seemed clear that it was going to take an awful lot of it to take the edge off the bitterness Harry felt for his illustrious father — and the feeling appears to have been mutual. Joaquin several times claimed Harry was not biologically his son, and several of the biographies published after his death list him as having two children rather than three.

Harry Miller was booked into San Quentin State Prison less than a month later, in January 1892, for a two-year stretch. He was released four months early. After his release, he seems to disappear from history.

(Sources: Wilson, R. Michael. Stagecoach robberies in California. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2014; Wagner, Harr. Joaquin Miller and His Other Self. San Francisco: Wagner, 1929; Oregon Statesman, 11 Aug 1891; Portland Morning Oregonian, 14 Dec 1891. Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. For details, see To contact him or suggest a topic: or 541-357-2222.)

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