Thompson had heard that hundreds of thousands of dollars in stocks and bonds had been secretly withdrawn and “lent” to an unknown official. To his surprise, the titles were indeed missing from the safe. The recipient turned out to be the president of the Pony Express, who had used the bonds to raise operating funds for the private mail service.
The search did not reach the level of former President Donald Trump’s announcement this week that his home and safe at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Springs, Florida, had been raided by FBI agents. But that was big news in his time. “The city of Washington yesterday was thrown into a state of heightened excitement” by the news that the Department of the Interior “had been stripped of a very large amount of stocks and bonds held in trust for the benefit of different Indian tribes,” reported the New York Herald. .
FBI searches Trump’s safe at Mar-a-Lago for possible classified documents
The Justice Department and FBI did not reveal what the agents were looking for at Mar-a-Lago, but the search required the approval of a federal judge. The break-in of 1860 was anything but authorized – an inglorious chapter of the legendary Pony Express’ horse-drawn mail haul across the northern plains of the American Wild West in the months before the Civil War.
In early 1860, Pony Express president William H. Russell and two business partners formed the Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Co., following protests against the Postmaster General’s cuts in postal service to California. At this time, mail trains and telegraph service westbound terminated at St. Joseph, Mo. Stagecoaches then carried telegrams to a northern California station and mail to San Francisco. The trip lasted up to three weeks.
The new company promised delivery of mail by its Pony Express service in 10 days using relays of riders and fast horses. The company buys 400 horses and hires 80 riders. Mark Twain wrote that “the pony rider was generally a bit of a man, brimming with wit and stamina”.
Presidential Records Act scandals, from Nixon tapes to Trump’s “burning bags”
Riders traveled light, carrying only a specially designed mail pouch called a mochila, a Bible, and a revolver. They were paid around $100 a month, which equates to nearly $3,200 now. The most famous rider was a young William “Buffalo Bill” Cody.
The first horseman set out from St. Joseph on April 3, 1860. A large crowd gathered “to witness the inauguration of this great and new enterprise,” reports The New York Times. At 7:15 p.m., the “rider’s feisty bay mare…rushed at a rapid pace, carrying her burden toward the Gold State.” The rider was carrying 49 letters, five telegrams, newspapers and other items. Ten days later, crowds filled the streets of Sacramento to witness the arrival of the Pony Express pilot just after 5 p.m., as church and fire bells rang.
To promote the service, the Pony Express made an “extra” run in November to deliver the results of the 1860 West Coast presidential election in a record seven days from the new end of the telegraph line at Fort Kearney, Neb. Pony” announced that Republican Abraham Lincoln had won New York State and was guaranteed election.
The federal government partially subsidized the Pony Express route, but the company was unable to secure the main courier contract. Behind the scenes, the Pony Express was losing money to excess. Russell desperately began looking for ways to repay his creditors.
He turned first to the War Department, which owed money to the parent company of the Pony Express for transporting military supplies. Congress had not yet appropriated the funds, but Secretary of War John Floyd illegally gave Russell and his partners written assurance of future payment. Russell used the document as collateral to obtain short-term bank loans. Now the loans were coming due.
Next, Russell heard of an Interior Department employee named Godard Bailey, who was the custodian of a fund that made payments to Native American tribes for land sold to the U.S. government. Bailey was related to Floyd by marriage and feared that Floyd’s illegal insurance would be exposed if he did not help Russell. So he gave Russell bonds and stocks worth about $870,000, or $29 million today. Russell claimed the titles were his and used them to raise funds.
In December, a guilt-ridden Bailey wrote a letter to a friend confessing to his theft. Hearing the letter, Thompson rushed to his agency and found the bonds were missing. A search for agency books continued “with members of the Cabinet and other prominent public figures until three in the morning,” the New York Herald reported.
That same morning, federal authorities issued an arrest warrant for Bailey. “He attempted to slit his throat, but was stopped by his wife,” the Chicago Tribune reported. On Christmas Eve, Russell was arrested at his office in New York.
The Great Bond Robbery story quickly became a newspaper sensation. In April, Russell resigned under pressure as president of Pony Express. Floyd also resigned from his cabinet post under President James Buchanan over the scandal and revelations that he was siphoning off federal supplies to rebels in the South. After the Civil War broke out on April 12, 1861, Floyd, a former governor of Virginia, became a Confederate general. (Thompson, who had been a congressman from Mississippi, also left his post in the Buchanan administration in 1861 to become Inspector General of the Confederate Army.)
Meanwhile, growing tensions between North and South spurred Pony Express activities, as West Coast residents were eager for timely information about the crisis. But the pony’s days were numbered. On October 26, the opening of a telegraph station in Salt Lake City established near-national service.
Two days later, the Pony Express company announced its closure. Shortly after, the last rider in California traveled into the sunset. In the Pony Express’ 18-month existence, four riders have been killed by Indians, one was hanged for murder, two froze to death and one was killed in an unrelated accident, according to the National Park Service.
With the ongoing civil war, the missing bonds were never recovered. Russell and Bailey were never prosecuted. Eventually, American taxpayers footed the bill to replenish the Indian Trust Fund.