Born Thomas J. Hodges in Rome, Tennessee he saw action in the Mexican-American War as a surgeon. Following the war he traveled to California during the California Gold Rush but was unsuccessful as a prospector, later drifting around California as a gambler and as a doctor at times for several years. In 1855 he was serving time in Angel Island Prison for robbery when he met Bill Gristy and successfully escaped several weeks later. With Gristy, Bell formed an outlaw gang of five men and began robbing stages for several months.
On August 12, 1856 the gang attempted to rob a Camptonville-Maryville stage carrying $100,000 worth of gold bullion, but a woman passenger was killed and two male passengers were wounded before the gang were driven off by the stagecoach guards. The robbery, particularly the death of a women passenger, caused a large scale manhunt for the gang including posses of lawmen and vigilantes in a massive search for the gang. By late September Gristy had been captured and, under threat of turning him over to the irate lynch mob outside the jail, confessed the location of Bell. The Sheriff of Stockton raced to arrest him but found Bell hanged near Firebaugh's Ferry on October 4, 1856 by an impromptu posse commanded by Judge George Belt, a Merced River rancher.