Unlocking History

Unlocking History: Charles Aull hunts down stage robbers, part 1

grainy photos on a paper background show a man with a long beard and striped-suited convicts lining up beside a brick building and a long white staircase.
Charles Aull, inset, was a Stanislaus County undersheriff then took on a role as Turnkey at San Quentin. He would have served at roughly the same time as the photo at left was taken in the 1870s. California State Archives.


By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications

One state prison official’s life reads like an old west novel. Charles Aull was an undersheriff, a Wells Fargo Detective and for years served in various posts at San Quentin and Folsom prisons. He tracked down stage robbers, returned fugitives to the state to face justice and brought a sense of order to prison staff and inmates. As part of the ongoing effort to shed light on the state’s pioneering penologists, Inside CDCR takes a closer look at the life of Charles Aull. This is the first of a two-part series.

From business to law enforcement

For someone destined to be a lawman, his beginnings were quite different. His father, a doctor and well established in Missouri, in 1852 decided to join the wagon trains headed to the Golden State. The young Aull was only 3 years old when they crossed the plains in ox-drawn carts and wagons. Dr. Thomas Aull took on a new profession, surveying for Martinez and Contra Costa County. After a few years, the family relocated to Liberty, near Galt. From 1856-57, Dr. Thomas Aull also served in the State Legislature representing San Joaquin County.

When he was a young man, Charles Aull went into the mercantile business at Liberty. In 1870, he moved to Modesto, according to the 1895 book “Sacramento County and Its Resources.” The publication featured short biographies on many prominent citizens of the time.

James Aull, brother of Charles, was also in business in Modesto. In an 1875 deposition, the 31-year-old brother testified that at various times he ran a saloon, hotel and butcher shop.

Peace-keeping appointment launches career

In 1872, Stanislaus County Sheriff John Rodgers was faced with a political dilemma and one way to help ease tensions was to enlist the help of a former state politician’s son. With his business background, Charles Aull was an unlikely candidate for undersheriff. He was 23 but quickly found he had a knack for law enforcement and thus began his long justice-involved career.

His work in Stanislaus County gained attention. It wasn’t long before Lt. Gov. James Johnson, acting as San Quentin’s warden, sent word he wanted the young law professional to join the ranks at the state prison. In 1875, Charles Aull was appointed to the post of Turnkey.

Men in uniform stand atop a wall while men in striped outfits back away from smoke.
The 1876 San Quentin prison fire, courtesy Marin County History Museum.

San Quentin fire halted by quick actions

The time he spent at San Quentin was not dull. In 1876 there was a large fire, during which Captain of the Yard A.C. McAllister and Capt. Aull rallied inmates to help fight the blaze. The two recommended many of those inmates for reduced sentences for their bravery during the fire. (Learn more about the fire and A.C. McAllister).

“Captains McAllister and Aull (were) superintending matters within the walls. It is to their skillful directions, seconded by the energetic efforts of the convicts, that the fortunate termination of the disaster is to be attributed. … Captains Aull and McAllister took the lead inside and by their sympathetic encouragement stimulated the prisoners to renewed exertions and had a large share in bringing the business to a successful issue.”

The offices of the two captains were located below the old San Quentin Women’s Ward. In 1875-76, there were only two female inmates housed in the ward.

“The offices of Captain of the Yard and Turnkey are in a two-story brick building, forty by twenty feet in size. These positions are the most responsible in the yard, and we find that the duties of these offices are being discharged in an eminently satisfactory manner, and with marked ability,” according to a prison directors report in 1876.

In 1880, Aull and most of the rest of the prison staff, found themselves unemployed after an election. It was common practice at the time and one with which Aull did not agree.

Tracking down stage robbers

Seizing the opportunity, Wells Fargo Detective James Hume asked Aull to join his team of detectives.

Old photo of man in suit.
James Hume hired Aull to assist him in tracking down stage robbers. Photo courtesy Wells Fargo Corporate Archives.

One of his early cases involved stage bandit Dick Fellows, who served some time at San Quentin while Aull was employed there.

After serving as a model prisoner, Fellows was released May 16, 1881.

By July, he had returned to his old tricks, holding up a stagecoach near San Luis Obispo. For a time, he managed to cover his tracks.

In January 1882, a lone bandit robbed a stage near Soledad and all signs pointed to Fellows as the culprit.

With Hume out of the state investigating other crimes, Aull took the lead on the latest rash of holdups.

“(Aull) flooded the area with circulars describing the suspect. Fellows was soon recognized and arrested but while in the custody of a Santa Clara constable, he managed to escape,” according the book “Man-Hunters of the Old West” by Robert K. DeAment.

Aull offered a $600 reward for his capture. After another arrest, and another escape, Fellows was tracked down by a posse. He was tried and sentenced to life in prison. As a multi-term inmate, he was sent to Folsom Prison.

He served 22 years of his life sentence at Folsom, but was pardoned by Gov. George Pardee in 1908.

Banker killed in Nevada City stage robbery

Charles Dorsey, recently released from San Quentin, took up his old criminal career and held up a stage in Nevada City on Sept. 1, 1879. Fellow former inmate John C. Collins assisted in the holdup.

Man wearing short tie stares ahead.
Stagecoach robber Charles Dorsey.

After the dust settled, prominent banker William Cummings was dead from a gruesome gunshot wound to the neck. For three years, their trail ran cold. The partners landed a large haul off Cummings and used the money to start up their own businesses in other states, using aliases.

Wells Fargo Detective Charles Aull, with the assistance of San Francisco Chief of Detectives I.W. Lees, in 1882 tracked down Collins in St. Louis, Missouri. Soon, they also caught up with Dorsey in Union City, Indiana.

Collins was sentenced to death for his role in killing the elderly banker and hanged at San Quentin on Feb. 1, 1884.

Dorsey was given life in prison and was returned to San Quentin in March 1883.

On a side note, Dorsey enlisted the help of another inmate in 1887 and the two made their escape to Chicago, returning to California for the occasional crime.

Detective Hume made it his mission to recapture Dorsey and, with the help of the Pinkerton Agency, the pair were recaptured in 1890. Dorsey was paroled in December 1911.

Back to prison job

“(Aull) made a name for himself all over the Pacific coast in ferreting out train and stage robbers,” according to the 1895 biography.

He is credited with tracking down other infamous stage robbers as well such as Bill Miner, who years later was dubbed The Grey Fox. After a stint at San Quentin, Miner moved on to Canada where he continued his trade.

Aull would soon hang up his six-guns and tether his horse to return to work behind the walls of a state prison, first at San Quentin then at Folsom Prison.

Read more of Aull’s story in the next installment.