While on one of his usual horse thieving trips to the Pine Ridge Reservation, Lame Johnny, with his easily recognizable limp, was apprehended. The authorities took him to Chadron, Nebraska and he was prepared to be taken back to Deadwood via the Sidney-Deadwood Stage. No chances were taken with the outlaw’s transport and he was shackled, handcuffed, and his leg iron shackles were riveted to a metal plate attached to the bottom of the stagecoach. Notorious sharpshooters Daniel Boone May and Frank Smith guarded the stagecoach and horseback escort Jesse Brown rode behind the party.
Eight miles north of Buffalo Gap, a masked vigilante mob (some reports say there was only a couple men) located the stagecoach. The mob demanded to know where Johnny stashed the Homestake treasure. His answers must have been unsatisfactory, as the metal plate was pried out of the floor, he was drug out, and he was hanged from a nearby elm tree still in his shackles. Another party passed by and buried him in the shade of the elm. The area he was lynched is now called Lame Johnny Creek.
Years later several local ranchers dug up the grave to move it to another location. They found Johnny’s body still shackled, but the head was missing, as had been the rumor shortly after the time of the hanging. The men removed the shackles and boots before re-interring the body. Johnny’s boots (one had a high heel for his deformed foot) were displayed in a Buffalo Gap store until a fire in the late 1880s destroyed both the store and the boots. One shackle ended up in the State Historical Society Museum at Pierre and the other went to the 1881 Historical Museum in Custer.
It has never been established why his three highly experienced escorts were unable to protect him. Years later, Brown claimed that he tried to ride closer when the trouble began, but a voice in the bushes warned him not to. This unusual account only raises more questions.
In researching Lame Johnny’s life, there isn’t much that historians agree is certain. From his early thefts to the accounts of his death, speculation and rumors abound. Some don’t even believe that Johnny was involved in the robbery. After all, it would have been, by far, his most rewarding and well-planned heist by the small-time horse thief. Since mob justice took his life before his trial, we’ll likely never know the extent of Johnny’s criminal activities.
It is speculated that Charles Carey, a former scout for General George Custer, was the mastermind of the Homestake robbery. He also fell victim to vigilante justice and he was hanged at the Jenny Stockade in Wyoming. Others in the bandit group were lynched, and some of the gold was recovered. But at least two gold bars, the smallest of which is worth well over $100,000, disappeared.
A fortune had passed through Johnny’s hands, despite never being able to hold a job. And as time caught up with him, the violent outlaw died like he lived.
By Kelsey Sinclair
Lawton, R.T. “Necktie Party Ended Lame Outlaw’s Career.” Deadwood Magazine, 2002.
Hasselstrom, Linda M. Roadside History of South Dakota. Mountain Press Pub., 1994.