Deadwood Magazine

Necktie party ended lame outlaw’s career

          A few miles north of Buffalo Gap on State Highway 79 green signs on both ends of a concrete bridge identify the small stream running beneath as Lame Johnny Creek. Off to the west, where high ridges of the Black Hills slope down to the vast buffalo grass prairie, old elm trees mark a spot beside the creek where, in October 1878, masked vigilantes stretched the neck of a horse thief and stagecoach bandit known as Lame Johnny.

           More than 100 years later, some details of Lame Johnny’s short life are obscure and there are conflicting accounts of his ignominious death at the end of the rope, but there is little question about his activities as a Black Hills outlaw.

 “If he moves you’re robbed, by God.”

             Cornelius Donahue, born in Philadelphia about 1850, walked with a limp, possibly from a childhood injury, although one author speculates he might have been stricken with polio. Donahue attended Girard College in Philadelphia before heading south to work on a Texas ranch where he learned the finer tricks of horse thievery. Texas cowboys taught him how to steal back the ranch horse herds frequently raided by Apache Indians.

            Attracted by the discovery of gold, Donahue showed up in the Black Hills in the spring of 1876. A businessman named John Francis Murphy was freighting goods from Cheyenne to the new gold camp of Deadwood when he met the well-dressed, mild-mannered man who walked with a limp. The young man introduced himself as John A. Hurley from Philadelphia and asked Murphy if he could work his way to Deadwood with the freighting outfit. Taking him at face value, Murphy loaned Hurley a horse and put him to work.

            In the Black Hills, Hurley tried his hand at prospecting along Castle Creek. When a band of Sioux stole his horses that summer, he knew how to play that game. He borrowed a horse from a friend in Custer City, rode over to the Red Cloud Agency, killed the corral guard and stampeded 300 Indian horses northward to the Black Hills. Hurley and the Indians spent the rest of the summer raiding one another’s herds.

            Hurley gave up prospecting that fall and sold his remaining horses. He allegedly worked for a short time as a Custer County deputy sheriff before taking a job as a bookkeeper at Homestake Mine in Lead. The Homestake job ended when a man from Texas recognized Hurley as the horse thief known as Lame Johnny who had left Texas a few jumps ahead of the law.

            Thwarted in his efforts to lead a law-abiding life, Lame Johnny returned to his old occupation as a cattle rustler and horse thief, then branched out into a new venture.

            Two main trails led to Northern Hills gold fields from the south. The Sidney trail from Nebraska skirted the east side of the Hills into Deadwood and the Cheyenne trail from Wyoming went to Custer, then turned north to Deadwood. Once a month a bullion coach would travel south with gold shipments from the mines. Johnny, easily identified by his handicap, was soon accused of holding up stages.

            Lame Johnny’s criminal career came to an abrupt end when he made a trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation to acquire Indian horses in his usual manner. He was arrested by a lawman who took him to Chadron, Nebraska, to catch the Sydney-Deadwood stage and return him to Deadwood to face charges of stagecoach robbery and stealing a mail pouch. 

Johnny was shackled and handcuffed and a blacksmith was engaged to fashion leg irons riveted to a metal plate that was fastened to the floor of the stagecoach. Two men, Boone May and Frank Smith, rode the stage to guard the prisoner that was in custody of Sheriff ‘Whispering’ Smith.  Jesse Brown, a horseback escort, rode some distance behind.

            About eight miles north of Buffalo Gap, either one man, two men or a band of masked men (depending upon the source) stopped the coach. The vigilantes pried up the metal plate, shot Lame Johnny, then hung him, chains still attached, from a nearby elm tree. The question of why the escorts were unable to protect their prisoner has never been answered.

            Many years later Jesse Brown wrote a confusing account of Johnny’s last ride. Brown said he tried to ride up closer to the stage but was warned off by a voice in the bushes near the creek bed. Brown said when he finally made his way to the coach the driver told him masked men had shot and dragged the prisoner away.

            Drovers with Pete Osland’s bull train were taking freight up the trail the next morning when they found the corpse still swinging from the elm tree. They cut the body down and buried it beneath the hanging tree.

            For several years rumors persisted that a cowboy who shipped cattle east had cut off Lame Johnny’s head and sold it to a museum. Ephrien Dean, who lived near the hanging tree, W. H. Sewright and other witnesses dug up the grave. They found Lame Johnny’s body still shackled, but the head was missing. They removed shackles and boots before re-interring the body. Sewright took the boots (one had a high heel for Johnny’s deformed foot) and they were displayed in Wood’s Buffalo Gap store until a fire destroyed store and boots. Dean took the shackles. One ended up in the state historical museum at Pierre and the other went to the Frontier Museum in Custer.

            The mystery of how Lame Johnny and his gang could vanish without a trace after robbing stages may have solved in the late 1960s. The gang always seemed to ride toward Buffalo Gap, then disappeared in the vicinity of King’s Ridge without leaving hoof prints that could be tracked.

An oral history recorded by Orval Halstead, published by the Eastern Custer County Historical Society in the book Our Yesterdays, may answer that question.

            As Mrs. Halstead told the story, she and her husband filed a homestead claim on King’s Ridge near Lame Johnny Creek in 1919. A high rimrock and a large, seemingly inaccessible box canyon was located on the west end of the homestead.

                One morning after a snowfall, the homesteaders discovered a steer was missing. Halstead saddled up and followed steer tracks up to the rim of the box canyon. He could see the missing animal moving around on the canyon floor, alive and uninjured, and knew the steer could not have fallen down the steep canyon walls. At a spot where the tracks disappeared, Halstead found three rocks forming a gateway, rode around the rocks and followed an old trail leading into the canyon. On the canyon floor he discovered two caves that could not be seen from above.

            The largest cave apparently had been a hidden corral with room for 25 to 30 horses. Rotted logs were used to close the entrance and confine the livestock. The smaller cave, obviously providing living quarters for several men, was littered with rotted ropes, rusty cans, old straps and leather boots, whiskey bottles and piles of rotted bedding. Black smoke stained the cave walls and an old rock fireplace had an iron strap across the top. After 40 some years, the cave’s undisturbed contents appeared as if the occupants had expected to return but were delayed by other events.

            Shortly afterward, Mrs. Halstead and her family moved away, never mentioning the concealed canyon caves to anyone until she related the story for the historical society in the late 1960s. She believed the caves were a hideout for Lame Johnny’s outlaw gang.

            The former Halstead homestead is now part of the Black Hills Reserve, government forest land open to the public. With a topographical map of the area and a comfortable pair of boots, an adventurous hiker might still be able to find remnants of Black Hills outlaw history. 

            Local historians claim an epitaph once posted on a wooden headboard over Lame Johnny’s grave said:

   Pilgrim Pause! 

  You’re standing on 

The molding clay of Limping John.

            Tread lightly, stranger, on this sod.

For if he moves, you’re robbed, by God.                                                 


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