Nolan's Nerve

 Back Home Up Next

San Antonio Light Newspaper
Aug. 27, 1903 -- Sunday

Twenty years ago the road agents were busy men in Texas, and many stage hold ups and similar crimes were committed by them. But the star stage robbery of Texas is one that took place between San Antonio and Laredo in the spring of 1880. It took the prize because it furnished a double tragedy.

At that time the International railroad did not connect San Antonio and Laredo. The now thriving town of Pearsall did not then exist. Frio town was then the county seat of Frio county and was the only town of any size between the two cities. Frio town now is like Goldsmith's deserted village. The courthouse building has been converted into a country store. There are but very few people living in the houses in that old town. In fact, many of the houses which formerly stood there were bodily removed to the more modern one of Pearsall. Before the International railway caused the location of the present town, Pearsall, and superseded the old one, Frio town the latter was quite a prominent place, although its means of connection with the outside world was either through the medium of the daily stage or via the old "Texas schooner," as the capacious wagon of these days was called.

The robbery in which the robbers lost their lives took place beyond Frio town. In fact, it occurred beyond the last "stand," or place where the horses of the stage were changed, but it is likely that the robbers had information from Frio town if they did not follow from there. There is nothing to indicate that they resided there or in any particular locality, but they had been seen in that place some time prior and were evidently familiar with that locality. It is even probable that they were connected with an attempt to rob a store in the town which proved abortive.

L. W. Culver, a well known furniture dealer of San Antonio, was one of the four passengers on the stage which the robbers held up, and he gives a very graphic description of the event. He said to the writer: "It was either the last week in August or the first one in September in 1880. I was then living in Austin. I was prospecting for a location and concluded to try Laredo, where I subsequently located and engaged in the manufacture of brick. In those days it took two and sometimes three days to go from San Antonio to Laredo. When it rained it frequently took longer, so a trip from here to Laredo was a much more formidable affair than the present one by rail in a comfortable car. On this occasion there were three other passengers besides myself. They were all men, so we preceeded to make ourselves as comfortable as our cramped environment permitted, divesting ourselves of all surplus raiment. We had just endured the heat and dust of a very long, dry and hot day. The sun was setting when without intimation or expectation the thrilling event came upon us. Two of the other three passengers were entire strangers to me, whose names I do not now remember. The other was a man with whom I had some acquaintance, as we had met in Austin. He was seeking health in the dry climate down on the Rio Grande, was the star performer. His name was Phil Nolan, and he was the coolest and most deliberate man I ever saw. When we started out on the stage he had placed his pistol under the cushion of the seat. The balance of us had not made any such disposition of our weapons, although none of us had them anyway handy when the time of need for them came.

"The first intimation that any of us had that anything was wrong was the sudden stopping of the stage and the climbing in of a man with a pistol in his hand. He said in a tone of command there was up mistaking, 'Throw up your hands!' Eight hands went up suddenly and without delay. He crawled into the coach and proceeded to go through each of us in turn. He commenced with Nolan, whose pockets he relieved of all cash and valuables. I was sitting on the front seat and Nolan on the rear one opposite me. He robbed the two men on the rear seat first and then commenced with those on the front one. He had finished with me and was then engaged with the robbery of the man next to me. This necessitated the robber turning his back to Nolan. As he did so Nolan deftly reached beneath the seat and drew his pistol. Quick as a flash and quicker than I could tell how it was done Nolan shot him through the back. He must have hit the robber in the heart, for the latter fell over limp and died without a word. There were two robbers. The other had climbed up to the top of the coach and taken his seat beside the driver. There was a hole in the top of the vehicle through which Nolan had a view of his back. He fired through it and wounded him.

"The second robber then jumped down from the coach, mounted his horse and rode around the vehicle, firing twice toward it and at those inside. Nolan, seeing that he was endangering the lives of all inside, pluckily jumped out and, stopping a short distance at one side of the coach took aim deliberately at the second robber and fired, killing him dead with this shot. Nolan only fired three shots of the six in his pistol. Every. one of them told and produced mortal wounds. Two of the three shots produced instantaneous death. No one besides Nolan attempted to fire, and to him alone belongs the credit of killing the two highwaymen.

"It is evident that the robbers were mere tyros and had never engaged in such a venture before of if they had must have dealt with victims whose wits were lost by fright. If they had been men of experience in their line of business neither of them would have entered the stage unless the occupants had first been forced to leave it, nor would either of them would have mounted the seat beside the driver unless the coach had first been vacated by him as well as the passengers. I have never read or heard of a successful stage robbery wherein the robbers entered the coach or got on top of it. In doing so they both blundered, and the blunders cost them their lives.

"Of course all of us but Nolan were greatly agitated, and it took us some time to collect our scattered wits and articles that had been taken from us by the robber who entered the coach. The first thing that we did was to satisfy ourselves that both robbers were dead. Then we investigated to see if there were any live companions of their left. If there were they evidently vanished. Possibly there were, because I now remember that we only secured the horse of one of them. The horse of the other got away from us, and it is possible if not probable that the animal was led away by a companion who fled when he saw the other two had been killed.

"I saw Nolan, who killed them, afterward repeatedly, and we spoke frequently of the tragic affair. He told me that his purpose in placing his pistol under the seat was premediated, as he had anticipated that the stage might be robbed. He had thoroughtly and carefully planned how he would act in the event of a robbery. He had taken advantage of very circumstance to our favor that the robbers had given him. He had not reckoned on the robbers entering the stage, and as soon as one of them did so and the other got on the roof he said he felt sure that he was going to get them both. He told me that he had felt that he had killed the first one the minute he pulled the trigger and was pretty certain that the second was disabled when he fired at him. He said that when he got out of the stage to shoot again he had determined to waste no lead, as he only had one weapon, from which two of its six charges had been fired."

TXGenWeb, Frio County - Nolan's Nerve updated on 08/10/2005

Questions or problems regarding this web site should be directed to the TXGenWeb Coordinator for Frio County, Margaret Meyer Simpson.  This page may not be reproduced for profit or presentation by any other organization or persons.  Files may be printed or copied for personal use only.  All Rights Reserved. Limited use rights may be granted by written or electronic permission.