Carl Hayden and the Beardless Boy Bandits

Written by Jack August Category: History Issue: December 2014
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Before he became Arizona’s first congressman, Carl Hayden was a fierce and understated lawman.

On February 14, 1912 – the day President William Howard Taft signed the bill making Arizona the nation’s 48th state – Maricopa County Sheriff Carl Hayden handed over his jail keys to Deputy Jeff Adams. It would prove Hayden’s last official act as the Valley’s top lawman.

Later that day, the 35-year-old public servant and his wife, Nan, boarded a train for Washington, D.C., with future Secretary of State and perennial presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who had been visiting his son at the University of Arizona. The Haydens and Bryan arrived in Washington on February 18, and the following day Hayden was sworn in as Arizona’s first congressman – the embarkation point of a remarkable 57-year political career in the House (1912-1927) and the Senate (1927-1969) that stretched from Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

photos courtesy California Digital Newspaper Collection and; Newspaper articles published in 1910 document the larcenous exploits of the Woodson brothers and their eventual capture by Carl Hayden

“Hayden was alright as a frontier sheriff,” one reporter remarked, less than presciently, “but he’ll never amount to a damn in Congress.”

If that reporter had been more familiar with Hayden’s track record as a Tempe councilman, county treasurer and businessman, his assessment might have been different. Hayden’s masterful work as a small-town statesman presaged his historic political career – as did his handling of one high-profile case in particular, a train robbery known as “The Case of the Beardless Boy Bandits.”

Hayden’s political moxie was already in full bloom by 1906, when the 29-year-old ran for Maricopa County Sheriff. Because the shrievalty was one of the more lucrative county offices – the sheriff received travel money, a percentage of fees collected and other perks – the election was hotly waged and attracted much attention from local journalists. John G. Harden, Hayden’s Republican opponent, described the Democratic candidate as a “tender, lily-fingered youth who was nurtured in seclusion and unused to the ways of this rude world.” Hayden rebutted that he “wanted to make life easier” for the 56-year-old Hardin, stating “For his own good, what [Hardin] really needs to do is to avoid the turmoil of public office and spend his declining years under the shade of his own vine and fig tree, with the blue mountains in the distance, and at his feet the soothing running waters of the Arizona Canal.”

Voters responded to his artful riposte by giving Hayden the largest Election Day victory margin of any candidate in a county race – 2,350 votes to Hardin’s 1,155. On January 1, 1907, Hayden assumed the office he would hold for the next five years.

Reflecting on his time as Maricopa County Sheriff, Hayden recalled in the Arizona Republic that being sheriff “required common sense rather than gunplay.” Although the 6-foot-tall, 200-pound lawman cut an imposing figure with his cowboy hat, a .45 strapped to his hip and a polished six-point silver badge with the word “Sherif” (spelled with one “f”), he never shot at anyone nor did anyone shoot at him, even as he tracked wanted men, served warrants, or transferred prisoners to the dreaded Yuma Territorial Prison.

But certainly the most spectacular and potentially most dangerous law enforcement case during Hayden’s tenure as sheriff was the Woodson brothers train robbery of 1910, often referred to as “The Case of the Beardless Boy Bandits.” At 6:30 p.m. the evening of May 11, the Maricopa and Phoenix Shuttle, fully loaded with passengers, pulled out of the railhead town of Maricopa, bound for Phoenix. Among the passengers were several prominent territorial officials, including Gila County Deputy Sheriff Ralph Sturgis and Territorial Attorney General John B. Wright. Also onboard were two youngsters, Oscar and Ernest Woodson, ages 16 and 18, respectively.

photos courtesy California Digital Newspaper Collection and; Newspaper articles published in 1910 document the larcenous exploits of the Woodson brothers and their eventual capture by Carl Hayden.

Fifteen minutes out of the station, the brothers pulled pistols on the conductor and ordered the train be stopped. After robbing passengers and crew of money and valuables, the young bandits jumped onto waiting horses stolen earlier in the day and headed south in the direction of the Vekol mine and the Mexican border. They had just committed the first train robbery in Arizona in 16 years.

By 8 p.m., Sheriff Hayden had organized a posse consisting of three deputies, Pima County Sheriff Jed Nelson and several volunteers. Boarding a special train and cattle car provided by the Arizona Eastern Railroad, the lawmen and their horses arrived at the robbery scene late at night. Slashed purses lay scattered along the sides of the track, and hoof prints led off across the desert. Trackers from the nearby Pima reservation joined the lawmen early the next morning, when the party started south in pursuit of the train robbers.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Hayden persuaded Valley hotel owner J.F. McCarthy to join in the pursuit with his $3,000 Stoddard-Dayton automobile, described as “the pride of central Arizona.” After stopping at Sacaton to pick up U.S. Customs Inspector C.P. Cronin, who knew the location of every water hole between Sacaton and the Mexican border, the trio of motorists overtook the horse posse at 2 p.m. on May 12. While the train robbers rested and watered their horses in the Tohono O’odham town of Cocklebur, the motorcar posse continued south. Late in the afternoon, the lawmen turned down a dry wash and happened upon the thirsty Woodson brothers, who mistook the occupants of the automobile for wealthy mine owners. Only 20 hours after the train robbery, Hayden arrested the surprised and badly shaken bandits, who suffered the dubious distinction of being the first train robbers in Arizona history to be captured with the aid of an automobile.

While Hayden returned the robbers to Phoenix, the Arizona Republic (then the Arizona Republican) enthusiastically proclaimed the “impotency of the horse in a contest with the wheeled monster.” The pronouncement was premature, however, as the Stoddard-Dayton broke down on the return trip. Eventually, the group struggled into Casa Grande and caught a train back to Phoenix.

Citizens in automobiles, carriages, on horseback and on foot gathered at the Arizona Eastern Depot in Phoenix to await the arrival of the sheriff and his prisoners. Another throng of spectators assembled at the courthouse plaza, expecting to catch a glimpse of the suspects. Hayden, however, disappointed the onlookers by stopping the train several blocks from the depot and marching his prisoners to the courthouse by a back way.

By avoiding the spotlight, Hayden suggested something about his future political style.

Eventually, a federal judge found the Woodsons guilty of horse theft and robbery and the brothers each served roughly a third of 10-year sentences in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. The incident, and Hayden’s efficient and understated handling of the spectacular case, further enhanced his  reputation among territorial citizens and doubtlessly played a role in his advancing to become Arizona’s first congressman.

When he stepped into the well of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1912, Arizona was one of the most sparsely settled states in the country. When he retired from the Senate in 1969 – he advanced to the upper house in the 1926 election – Hayden returned to one of the fastest-growing states in the country.  As former Arizona governor and secretary of the interior Bruce Babbitt mentioned recently, “Hayden, arguably, was one of the most powerful senators in the history of the United States. Perhaps my friend, the late Senator Barry Goldwater, stated it best: ‘Let me put it this simple way – I hope that my service to my country and state equals a small fraction of what Carl Hayden has provided in both areas.’”