Showing posts with label outlaws. Show all posts
Showing posts with label outlaws. Show all posts

09 January 2015

Gone Again

by R.T. Lawton

He was too late for the Wild West and too early to be a Prohibition gangster, but the name of Roy Gardner was once well known to the American public as a celebrated outlaw and the most famous prison escapee. Nicknamed with monikers such as The Smiling Bandit, The Mail Train Bandit, and King of the Escape Artists by national newspapers, Roy was the Most Wanted Gangster of 1921.

Roy Gardner
Born on January 5, 1884 in Trenton, Missouri, Gardner was later raised in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He stood about five foot nine in early adulthood, had curly auburn hair and blue eyes, was considered as attractive and had a charming manner. Drifting to the Southwest, he acquired the trades of farrier and miner. To get out of the mines, plus avoid a life of crime and reform schools, he allegedly joined the U.S. Army, but soon deserted and headed to Mexico.

His first step into professional crime was as a gunrunner during the Mexican Revolution. While smuggling arms to the Carranza army, he got caught by General Huerta's soldiers. The sentence was death by firing squad. Declining to stick around for the sentence to be carried out, Gardner, along with three other American prisoners, attacked the guards at the Mexico City jail and escaped. This marked his first prison break.

Ending up broke in San Francisco, Gardner robbed a jewelry store on Market Street, soon got arrested and was sent off to San Quentin. Here, he made parole after saving the life of a prison guard during a violent riot. Wasn't long out of the pen before he robbed a mail truck, netting about $80,000 in cash and securities. The law caught up with him three days later. For this crime, he was sentenced to 25 years at McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary in Washington state. On June 5, 1920, two Deputy U.S. Marshals accompanied him on the train headed for prison. Employing a simple ruse, Roy looked out the window and shouted, "Look at that deer." When both Marshals looked, he grabbed the gun away from one of them and then disarmed the other at pistol point. Roy handcuffed the two together, stole $200 from them, jumped off the train and headed for Canada.

McNeil Island Penitentiary 1890
The following year found Roy Gardner back in the U.S. robbing banks and mail trains. By now, he had a $5,000 reward posted for his arrest. He was recognized in the Porter House Hotel in Roseville, California and was subsequently arrested while playing cards in a pool hall. Once again, he was sentenced to 25 years at McNeil. As a ploy to reduce his sentence, Roy offered to show the Southern Pacific Railroad detectives where he buried some of his loot. They found nothing, so Roy was once more placed on a train headed for McNeil Island Penitentiary. This time, he was guarded by two different U.S. Marshals. During the trip, Roy went into the train car's bathroom and came out with a pistol which had been concealed there by a friend of his. He robbed the Marshals of their guns and money and left them handcuffed together while he jumped off the train. The biggest manhunt in Pacific Coast history was quickly launched for the boldest and most slippery criminal to ever be arrested.

Trying to conceal his identity by bandaging his face and leaving only one slit for an eye hole, Gardner turned up at the Oxford Hotel in Centralia, Washington. The proprietor became suspicious when he found a gun in Roy's room. Arrested once again, Roy stayed on the train this time and made it all the way to McNeil Island Penitentiary without incident. Third time must've been the charm.

After six weeks of confinement, Roy decided it was time to make a break for freedom. At the Labor Day 1921 prison baseball game when a ball got hit to center field and the tower guards had their attention on the ball, Roy told his two prison buddies that now was the time to go. He cut a hole in a high barb wire fence, then the three crawled through and took off running. Seems Roy had told the other two that he'd bribed the guards to keep looking away, but the three weren't far outside the wire when bullets started flying. Impyn fell mortally wounded, Bogart was badly wounded and Gardner took a bullet in the left  leg. Scrambling into the woods, Gardner hid under a log. Guards searched for Roy, but found no trace. Afterwards, Roy hid in the prison dairy barn, living off cow's milk and grain for several days until he swam to a nearby island and made his escape.

Back to robbing mail trains, Roy got captured by a mail clerk during a robbery a few months after his McNeil Island escape. With a third sentence of 25 years received for this train robbery, Roy got packed off to Leavenworth. In 1925, they transferred him to the Atlanta Federal Prison, the toughest penitentiary of its day. After unsuccessfully trying to tunnel under the wall and cutting through the bars of the shoe shop, he later led a prison break, taking guards as hostages. This last escape attempt earned him twenty months in solitary.

Roy's book
1934 saw Gardner transferred to Alcatraz where he rubbed shoulders with Al Capone. Roy was contemplating another escape when he was granted clemency in 1938. While in Alcatraz, Roy channeled some of his creative talent into writing his autobiography, Alcatraz: My Story. In 1939, his book was made into a movie, I Stole a Million, starring George Raft. The movie had good reviews, but tanked at the box office.

Unable to adjust to a life outside of prison and having no desire to go back behind the walls, Roy Gardner pulled his final escape. On January 19, 1940, he left a note on the outside of his door in a San Francisco hotel, sealed his room, dropped cyanide pills into a bowl of acid and breathed in the fumes. He was gone again and this time they wouldn't get him back.

31 October 2014

They Hung Lame Johnny

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.