Pioneering News: 1888

“Giant Bluff” Taken in Elk Canyon on Black Hills and Ft. Pierre Railroad.

By John C.H. Grabill, 1890. Library of Congress.

~ October 19, 1888 • Weekly Pioneer-Times ~

Attempted Train Robbery.

The Homestake Pay Train Held up by Road Agents.

The Plucky Guard Stands Them off With Shot Guns.

One Fatally Wounded and Another Crippled.

Yesterday a dastardly attempt was made to ditch the morning train out of Lead City at Reno Gulch, at the point where the Black Hills and Fort Pierre road crosses. The train was carrying the cash to be used in paying off the men at Brownsville and other points along the line, and the wreckers expected by making short work of the train and crew, to be able to get away with the money without much trouble. At a spot close to the bridge they had taken off a fish plate, pulled up the spikes and spread the rails a few inches — just enough to ditch the train, as they thought. But, as the old saw puts it, “the best laid plans o’ mice and man gang aft aglee.” The wreckers, at first were unknown, but it was very soon ascertained that they were three in number and their names Wilson, Johnson and Clark, a trio of general all around toughs.

The particulars, as gleaned on the spot by a PIONEER representative, who was one of the first on the scene, are as follows:

Owing to unavoidable delay the train left Lead nearly half and hour late, or about eight o’clock, taking with it a gang of section men to be dropped off along the route, for the purpose of repairing the track. One of the places to be repaired was at the identical spot of which the wreckers had located themselves. The train left lead and ran very fast, nearly to the point where the ambushed villains were lying in wait. About one hundred yards from the spot the train stopped to drop off their party of section men, who were to begin work there. After they alighted the train started and in a few seconds struck the section of track where the rails had been spread, and luckily for the train crew, owing to the very low rate of speed attained, the engine merely ran off the track about one length and stopped right side up. Had the train been running at the usual speed it would have left the track and have been completely demolished, while the train crew would undoubtedly have been killed.

Immediately on the locomotive’s leaving the rails, the robbers ensconced behind some brush they had piled up about them about fifty feet from the track, stood up and began firing at the train crew. One bullet entered the cab window on the engineer’s side striking the boiler head glanced and broke into a hundred pieces filling the opposite side of the cam with lead. Almost as soon as the engine left the track, and simultaneous with the robbers shots, W. A. Remer, who was riding on the engine, pulled up his double-barreled shot gun and coolly “let go” at the three robbers he saw standing off a small distance. His shot had good effect as two of the men dropped and the third took to his heels and circling around to his horse, got away. During the excitement following the shooting, the two wounded men fled up the hill into the brush, where, a short time after, they were followed by some of the train crew, and one of them found, a well known horse thief and tough named John Wilson, while the other, bearing the name of Clark, got away.

Wilson was found about a hundred and twenty-five feet from the ambush lying with his head upon a rock, stretched at full length, his rifle a few feet away, a revolver in his pocket, and bearing two wounds, one below and to the left side just below the heart. He was taken to the train and shortly after to Lead from whence he was brought to this city and placed in jail under a surgeons charge. It is doubtful as to recovery.

Johnson, the would-be robber, who escaped upon his horse, could be found nowhere, and up to this writing is still at large. Clark, the second wounded robber, has also succeeded in eluding the sheriff’s posse and cannot be discovered. The two horses left, that were ridden by these men, were found tied to trees at the place of their camp, about fifty yards from the scene of the attack and were turned over to Sheriff Knight, who shortly after the affray arrived with a posse of men and began a careful search of the canyon and mountain sides. A well armed squad of men numbering about twenty, searched every draw, gulch, canyon and mountain top for a radius of five miles, but were unable to find a vestige of the badly wanted wretches, except, in one or two instances a little clotted blood and evidence of someone’s lying down. If it could have been possible to have placed a posse on the hunt one hour sooner than they did, without doubt one of the men, Clark, would have been captured. The men searched diligently and carefully from 10 o’clock until after 4 in the afternoon without avail. After the deploying lines came in on the final round up, they broke up into squads and traversed the several roads and trails leading in various directions, but met with no success. One party got a clue as to the direction of the man on horseback, Johnson, who got away uninjured. He was last seen by a wood-hauler, flying along the road, his horse on the run, going in the direction of Cold Springs, or perhaps Spearfish canyon. Either of these routes he could have taken from the road he was then traveling. It is claimed by many, and with a great deal of evidence to back it, that this gang of wretched belong to the same crowd of horse thieves that have been terrorizing the people of the southern Hills, northwestern Nebraska and western Wyoming, for the past six months or year. If caught, the people of the northern Hills will see to it that no further depredations are committed by them.


This same scheme of robbing the “pay train” as it is called, was to have been tried about a month ago, but as it ran on the day of the mechanics and mill men’s picnic, the concoctors of the plan dared not carry out the crime.

Johnny Wilson, the captured wrecker, is the badly wanted “missing witness” in the Tilford care. The chances are that he will be missing in several other cases, as only with the greatest possible care will he recover.

~ October 18, 1888 • Weekly Pioneer-Times ~


Spud Murphy, Jack Dougherty, John Tilford and George Young Arrested.

An Organized Gang of Desperadoes in the Hills.

There perhaps has nothing happened in the history of the Hills for the last ten years that has provoked greater excitement than Friday morning’s dastardly attempt to wreck the pay train on the Black Hills and Fort Pierre railroad and get away with the money known to be on board, even though to carry out the intention it proved necessary to take human life. All day long yesterday the streets of Deadwood were dotted with groups of men discussing the event, all condemning and none hesitating to denounce it in unmeasured terms. The attempted crime was a terrible one. Those concerned in it are regarded as little, if any better than murderers, and are perhaps held in even greater abhorrence than were the road agents of early days. The latter were bent on robbery and did not kill except in self-defense. The present gang contemplated murder first, and robbery afterwards. It was no fault of theirs the train was not ditched and all its occupants hurried into eternity. That was the intention, and what is evident of their plans shows that preparations to accomplish it had been made, but were only frustrated by the fortunate circumstance that the train was moving very slowly when Reno gulch was reached. Regret was everywhere expressed that any of the desperadoes had escaped. That they had was due to no neglect or carelessness on the part of the law’s officers, who yesterday proved themselves fully equal to the emergency that had presented and took three more of the outlaws into custody.

As was strongly suspected from the first, the names Jones or Johnson and Clark, stated by Wilson, the wounded villain now in jail, to have been those of his comrades on the memorable morning, were fictitious. Sheriff Knight discovered this Friday night, and also discovered that Jones or Johnson was identical with A. G. Nickerson, alias “Spud” Murphy. Nickerson had the audacity, after getting clear of the scene where the robbery had been attempted, to return to Deadwood by a circuitous route. Arriving here at 5:30 p.m., he put his horse up at the Elk Horn corral, left it there an hour, called for it again and disappeared, going at once to Sturgis, where he arrived at 10:30.

Another account has it, that he remained in Deadwood until 4 yesterday morning, and then left, proceeding direct to Rapid. This, however, is erroneous. He was seen and spoken to in Sturgis at 10:30 Friday night. Word had been telephoned the deputy sheriff to watch for him, but not with standing a vigilant espionage, Nickerson managed to slip away, and continued to Rapid. When he arrived there is no known. Certain it is, however, that at 1 o’clock yesterday afternoon, Sheriff Knight, who left here at 10 Friday night to follow him, effected his arrest and now has him in custody. Later in the day, two deputy sheriffs left Deadwood for a ranch below Sturgis, where Jack Dougherty, the “Chas. Clark” of the party had been located. His arrest was made last night.

Deadwood was not without its important event. About half past four Deputy Smith approached John Tilford, whose claim of the captured horses only strengthened suspicion before entertained, and arrested him as an accessory. Tilford took the matter quietly, denying his guilt, but remarking that he had expected arrest. He was at once taken before Judge Hall, who placed bonds at $1,000, and fixed Saturday, the 20th, as date for preliminary hearing. Bail was not given and the prisoner passed the night in jail. The arrested men are all well-known characters. A. G. Nickerson, or “Spud” Murphy as he is generally called, is an ex-member of the Deadwood hose teams and is the man who was shot at the hub and hub race in Spearfish a year ago. His career in Deadwood was not one to be proud of, for, whilst no crimes were laid to his door he belonged body and soul to what is aptly described as the rounder element. Leaving Deadwood four or five months since, he has passed most of his time in Sturgis and Rapid. Not two weeks have passed since he made an unsuccessful effort to murder a Rapid saloonkeeper who refused to trust him for the drinks. Murphy was in Rapid Thursday morning and made a quick trip passing through Deadwood at ten the same night.

Jack Dougherty has likewise an unenviable name and is strongly suspected to be a member of a band of horse thieves that has lately been operating in the southern Hills. John Tilford arrested as accessory lately figured as defendant to a charge for grand larceny of which he was acquitted. More are implicated and as surprising as it was to some that Spud Murphy was one of the trio it is possible that arrests likely to be made today will prove even more startling. Yesterday’s events, and the knowledge they served to give, tend to confirm that part of Wilson’s story in which he stated the band is organized and is twenty-five strong.

That there is an organized gang of desperadoes having existence in the Hills there does not seem room to doubt and it looks as though there are fully twenty-five. However, the sheriff is acquainted with the names of most of them, has them under surveillance and will have them behind bars before many days are over. At any rate the reception in Reno gulch was not encouraging and it is not improbable gave a deathblow to the organization.


It was yesterday stated that Nickerson and Jones or Johnson had also a band in Friday’s villainy, and that hastening to Deadwood he stood at the jail door as Wilson, wounded and bleeding, was carried in from the back. Johnson or Jones is described as about 88 years old, tall and thickly set, weighing 185 pounds; is dark-complected, dark hair, eyes and beard, and has three front teeth missing.

Wilson rested easily yesterday, suffered very little pain, and will likely recover.

At ten o’clock last night George Young was arrested as accessory after the fact by under Sheriff Smith. Young’s part consisted in aiding and abetting Dougherty in his effort to escape, by driving him to a ranch below Sturgis Friday night in a buggy, whence Young returned early yesterday morning. When arrested he was engaged in playing cards.

The telephone lines between Deadwood and Sturgis and Deadwood and Whitewood were out last night. Why could not be surmised, unless it has been intended to rescue Murphy or Dougherty. However, as the prisoners will not be brought up until today, and under strong guard, any attempt at rescue will be failed.


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