George Brittain Lyttle AKA Dick Fellows: One of California’s Greatest Stagecoach Bandits...Who Couldn’t Ride a Horse
When we think of Stagecoach bandits, we often picture rough and tough cowboys with mean sneers and pistols, who take off on horseback with their loot. But that was not the case with George Brittain Lyttle, AKA Dick Fellows, who became one of the most famous outlaws in southern California. Despite being best known for his embarrassing streak of failures in horse riding, Fellows was also a very charismatic escapee who charmed himself out of years of prison, time and time again. This is the story of one of California’s greatest stagecoach bandits who surprisingly couldn’t seem to ride a horse.
George Brittain Lyttle was born in Clay County Kentucky during the mid-1840s, likely in 1845 or 1846 (Redmon and The History Guy) (See Figure 1). He was born to a wealthy family and began studying law. His studies were interrupted by the Civil War, and he enlisted in the Confederate Army in July of 1863 (The History Guy). Four months later in November, Lyttle was captured by the Union and was paroled later in December with the promise to not go against the Union again. Lyttle would go back to law school for a short time, but soon struggled with alcoholism, which would affect the trajectory of his entire life. He would abandon law, leave Kentucky, and head to the San Fernando Valley area of California in 1867 to begin a new life (Redmon and The History Guy). He gave himself a new name, Dick Fellows, and went into hog farming. Despite an initial success, Fellow’s struggles with alcoholism would soon lead him to lose his business, turning him to stagecoach robbery (Redmon).
Figure 1: Dick Fellows, circa 1882, Photo from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Fellows executed several successful robberies with a simple tactic of waiting for stagecoaches to pull up into town and then brandishing a pistol to the driver who would give him their Express Box, which typically held a few hundred dollars (The History Guy). Eventually Fellows was tracked down in January of 1870 after three years of crime and was sent to San Quentin prison, where many of California’s greatest outlaws were held (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Harvey, Redmon) (See Figure 2).
Figure 2: Sketch of San Quentin as it was in the 1870s, Photo from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
While in San Quentin, Fellows was a model prisoner. Intelligent and keen, Fellows worked in the prison library and taught education and Sunday school to the fellow inmates and was seemingly remorseful for his actions. The governor at the time, Newton Booth, would pardon Fellows in 1874 after serving half of his eight-year sentence (Redmon and The History Guy).
Once released, Fellows went back to trying to run a business, but his struggles with alcoholism continued and it failed. Fellows again returned to robbery. In November of 1875, Fellows lived in Caliente in Kern County where he hatched a plan for what would have been one of the largest stagecoach robberies in California history. He planned to rob a huge Wells Fargo shipment of $240,000 in gold bars (Redmon). Fellows rented a horse to take to where he planned to rob the stagecoach, but the horse threw him off before he could get very far and he was knocked unconscious for several hours, thus missing his chance for the greatest steal (The History Guy). The legend of Dick Fellows, the outlaw who couldn’t ride a horse, was born.
Fellows was still determined to get some of that money and planned to rob the same stagecoach on its way back into town about a week later (The History Guy). He would confront the driver and successfully make off with the strong box. However, Fellows soon realized he had no way to open the box, which was tightly secured shut. Fellows then tried to run off with the box by loading it onto his horse, but the horse got startled and ran off, leaving him stranded in the desert with a huge load (See Figure 3). Once again, a horse had cursed him. Fellows attempted to carry the strongbox into town, but unfortunately got his leg stuck in a hole which caused him to fall and break his leg (Harvey, Redmon, The History Guy). Amazingly, broken leg and all, Fellows would eventually struggle on and enter a Chinese laborers’ camp where he was able to steal some tools, splint his leg, and open the strongbox, taking $1,800, equivalent to about $50,000 today (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Redmon).
Figure 3: Illustration by Tom Phillips for “The Outlaw That Couldn’t Ride” from Western Horseman.
Fellows once again would steal a horse to escape. This horse had been newly shod, or given new shoes, prior. One of these shoes was a mule shoe, since the owner had run out of horseshoes. This unique print made the horse easy to track and Fellows would be captured near Bakersfield (Harvey, Redmon, The History Guy). Fellows would briefly escape but be recaptured shortly after. He was sent back to San Quentin with another 8-year sentence (Redmon).
Repeating history, Fellows again became a model prisoner, perhaps because he was deprived of alcohol. Again, he taught his fellow inmates' basic education as well as Spanish (The History Guy). After serving five years, Governor George Perkins would pardon him in 1881, and in July, Fellows was freed. Once again, Fellows would attempt to run a legitimate business as a Spanish teacher but would go back to robbing stagecoaches after failing at his new endeavor.
Fellows would go on to rob a few stagecoaches in San Luis Obispo County and committed several other robberies up until January of 1882 (Los Angeles Herald). While on the run this time, Fellows attempted to hitch a ride with two men in a wagon. They recognized Fellows and overpowered him, delivering him to Constable Van Buren who gave him to Constable Bark of Santa Clara (Los Angeles Herald). When he arrived in Santa Clara, Fellows managed to charm the constable into stopping at a saloon for a drink. Fellows apparently asked for brandy and poured himself “an extra-large horn, in spite of his handcuff” (Los Angeles Herald). After drinking, both Constable Bark and Fellows left the saloon and as soon as he reached the sidewalk, Fellows darted away down the street. The constable would shoot at Fellows and miss, and the barkeeper would take off after him. Others were alerted and soon a group of fifty people were looking for Fellows in the city, but remarkably they didn’t manage to find him (Los Angeles Herald).
Dick Fellows would later be captured again in Santa Barbara. Again, he would try to escape by running off on a stolen horse, which of course, would knock him to the ground and allow him to be captured for a final time in April of 1882 (The History Guy). This time, Dick Fellows was sent to Folsom Prison with a life sentence (Redmon and The History Guy) (see Figures 4 and 5). Remarkably, Fellows was given another pardon by Governor James Gillett in 1908 after having spent nearly forty years of his life in prison (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and The History Guy). This brought an end to Dick Fellows’ crime streak. What happened next is uncertain.
Figure 4: Dick Fellows’ admission to Folsom State Prison, Photo from The Santa Barbara Independent.
Figure 5: Folsom Prison, circa early 1900s, Photo from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
Some suggest that Fellow’s affluent family in Kentucky offered to take him back there where we would not cause any more trouble (The History Guy). Some say he changed his name again and lived teaching Sunday school and writing for magazines in another state (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation). Dick Fellows vanishes from history, leaving no further records of where he went or when he died- a fitting ending for a wild west legend. Although he failed spectacularly in dealing with horses, he was tremendously successful in the number of robberies and escapes he pulled off.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “Stagecoach Bandits Crossed Paths with California Prisons”, 2019, Stagecoach bandits crossed paths with California prisons -.
Harvey, Fred. Western Horseman, “Man Off a Horse The Outlaw that Couldn’t Ride”, Illustrated by Tom Philips, 1959, Man Off A Horse - Western Horseman.
Los Angeles Herald. University of California Riverside California Digital Newspaper Collection, Volume 16, Number 140, February 2, 1882, Los Angeles Herald 2 February 1882 — California Digital Newspaper Collection (ucr.edu)
Redmon, Michael. The Santa Barbara Independent, “The Bandit Dick Fellows Daring and Ineptitude Marked His Career”, 2015, The Bandit Dick Fellows - The Santa Barbara Independent.
The History Guy. YouTube, “The Outlaw Who Couldn’t Ride a Horse: Dick Fellows”, 2017, The Outlaw Who Couldn't Ride a Horse: Dick Fellows - YouTube.