by R.T. Lawton
Not all the outlaws in the Old West became as famous as Butch Cassidy with his Hole in the Wall Gang or Jesse James with his bank robberies. Some were just lesser criminals who never rose to national fame. Here's one of those outlaws in the making.
Cornelius Donohue was born in Philadelphia some time about 1850. An injury from falling off a horse in his youth gave him the nickname of Lame Johnny. As an adult, Johnny wandered down to Texas to become a cowboy on a ranch. He showed up just as the cowboys were making plans to raid the Apaches who had stolen the ranch's horse herd. Johnny went along to help steal the horses back. In the subsequent exchange of raids between the cowboys and the Apaches, young Johnny soon acquired the skills needed to become an experienced horse thief.
A few years later, a man named John Francis Murphy was in Cheyenne, Wyoming, getting his bull teams and wagons ready to freight goods north to Deadwood, South Dakota, when he met a well-dressed fellow walking with a limp. The fellow said he was John Hurley from Philadelphia and he wanted to work his way up to Deadwood with Murphy's freight wagons. Murphy gave "Hurley" a job herding the cavyard at the rear of the wagons and loaned him a horse.
Upon arriving in the Black Hills, Johnny started prospecting for gold along Castle Creek. That summer, a band of Sioux stole his horses, so Johnny borrowed a horse from a friend and rode over to the Red Cloud Agency. There, he killed the man guarding the corral and then stole about 300 Indian horses. He spent the rest of the summer playing his old Texas game of being raided by Indians and then conducting his own raids against their herds. At the end of summer, he sold the horses he had left and gave up prospecting.
Next, he tried his hand as a bookkeeper for Homestake Gold Mine in Lead. This legal employment continued until he was recognized by a man from Texas who claimed "Hurley" was actually a horse thief named Lame Johnny. Seems that Johnny may have stolen horses from more than just Indians while he was in Texas.
Johnny promptly quit the mine and returned to his old ways of acquiring horse flesh., but it wasn't long before he embarked on a new occupation. On the west side of the Black Hills was a trail that ran from Deadwood south to Custer and then over to Cheyenne. Every month, the Homestake Mine sent a bullion coach down that trail with a shipment of gold. Johnny soon got accused of several stage holdups. Unfortunately for him, one of his victims recognized him and spread the word after Johnny stopped a Buffalo Gap to Rapid City stage on the east side of the Hills.
Thinking it might be best to revert to his horse stealing business for a while, Johnny headed down to Pine Ridge to acquire some Indian horses. His luck went against him when a lawman got word of his whereabouts and arrested him for horse stealing. Soon finding out that Johnny was also wanted for robbing and stealing a mail pouch from a stage coach, the lawman took him down to Chadron, Nebraska, and put him on the Sydney to Deadwood coach to go to court. To ensure his safe arrival, Johnny was shackled and handcuffed. Then a blacksmith attached an anklet made out of iron. A chain ran from the anklet on one end and on the other end it was riveted to a metal plate fixed to the floor of the coach.
As further measure, Boone May and Frank Smith rode on the coach as prisoner escorts, while Jesse Brown trailed at a distance on horseback. About eight miles north of Buffalo Gap where Highway 79 now crosses Lame Johnny Creek, a bunch of masked vigilantes, as the story was later told, rode up from the south, stopped the coach and pried the metal plate off the coach floor. They then shot Johnny and hung him from a nearby elm tree. Ironically, this spot was not far from where he'd robbed another stagecoach earlier in his career.
Allegedly, neither Boone nor Smith were able to protect their prisoner. And when Brown tried to ride up to the coach, he was supposedly warned off by a voice in the bushes along the creek.
When Pete Osland's bull train came up the trail the next morning, Johnny was still swinging from the elm tree. They cut his body down, buried it and placed a marker.
Rumors soon spread that a cowboy had cut off Lame Johnny's head and sold it to a museum back east. To find out for sure, Ephrien Dean, W.H. Sewright and others went to the site and dug up the grave. Johnny's body was still in the shackles and chains, but his head was missing. They removed the shackles and boots, then reburied the body. The boots, one of which had a raised heel to accommodate Johnny's injured foot, were later displayed in Wood's store in Buffalo Gap. A subsequent fire destroyed both Johnny's boots and the building. One of the shackles is at the State Historical Museum in Pierre (the state capitol) and the other is on display at the Frontier Museum in Custer where I saw it.
Johnny was gone, but no one knew how he and his gang could disappear so easily into the Hills after a robbery. Their trail always seemed to disappear in the area of King's Ridge.
Then in 1919, according to Mrs. Halstead, she and her husband filed a homestead claim on King's Ridge. Their land lay between Custer and Buffalo Gap near Lame Johnny Creek. On the western portion of the land set a high rim rock and a box canyon with no visible way down. While searching for a missing steer one fall, her husband followed tracks in the snow to the rim rock. From there, he could see the steer moving around on the canyon floor. Where the steer's tracks disappeared up top, her husband found three large rocks forming a gateway to a hidden trail going down.
On the canyon floor were two large caves that couldn't be seen from the top. The larger cave looked to have been a corral large enough for about 25-30 horses. The smaller cave contained rotted ropes, rusty cans, whiskey bottles and rotted bedding. Black soot from an old fireplace covered the walls of this cave. All was undisturbed as if the owners had left, but somehow hadn't made it back.
Not long after, Orval Halstead and her family moved away. They never told anyone about the caves until she told her story to the Eastern Custer County Historical Society in the late 1960's
Historical facts taken from Our Yesterdays, published by the Eastern Custer County Historical Society which collected written copies of oral stories from many of the early pioneers in that area and compiled them into a book. Other information was acquired from displays at the Frontier Museum in Custer.