The 1909 killing of a cattleman

“Wealthy Cattleman Shot” was the main headline of an article in the Dec. 12, 1909, edition of the Des Moines register. I’ll be utilizing various newspapers from around the country to retell this story, as the victim within it was something of a celebrity. David “Dode” MacKenzie was the son of millionaire “cattle king” and former president of the National Livestock Association, Murdo MacKenzie, one of the wealthiest cattlemen in the country at the time.

The shooting took place in LeBeau, S.D., on Dec. 11, 1909. The article states that MacKenzie was shot by “Bud” Stephenson, who was a former employee of the Matador ranch, which MacKenzie managed and his father owned. At the time the article was written, Stephenson had been arrested shortly after the shooting and taken to Selby, the county seat, “to prevent threatened violence to the prisoner.”

The article goes on to state, “Just what led up to the shooting is a mystery and Stephenson refuses to talk. The two men met in a saloon and almost without a work being spoken Stephenson opened fire on MacKenzie. The first bullet entered MacKenzie’s lung and being unarmed, he started for the door. Stephenson fired two more shots, one of which pierced the arm and the other the heart. The victim died within a few moments.”

The article describes that Stephenson, 58, had difficulties with MacKenzie, 32, previously. Stephenson came to the ranch to work from Texas three years previously.

MacKenzie, who came to LeBeau from Trinidad, Colo., had been in charge of the ranch of the Matador Land and Cattle Company, which consisted of 600,000 acres. He had formerly managed ranches for the company near Channing, Texas. 

In the Dec. 13, 1909, edition of The Times in Munster, Ind., an article entitled “Dead Man Known to Garyite” ran. It describes that MacKenzie had been a close, personal friend of George McGinnity, a real estate dealer from Gary, Ind. The article describes, “In explaining what might have been the causes for the shooting, McGinnity stated that because of his position he was inclined to bulldoze and that it always seemed to him as if he would run against the wrong man at some stage of the game in the western country.”

This article gives a slightly different version of what occurred at the saloon. It describes that MacKenzie has come to LeBeau with several cowboys from the Matador ranch. “The party entered a saloon where Stephenson was working, and, according to some of those who were present, there was some trouble, which resulted from Stephenson not hearing an order which a member of the party gave. The quarrel was not serious, however, and MacKenzie and his friends left the place. Half an hour later MacKenzie returned. As he entered the door Stephenson fired, the shot striking MacKenzie in the breast. The wounded man turned to leave the place, but was shot twice more before he reached the door.”

Stephenson was charged with murder, and later articles identify him as B.F. Stephens. After a preliminary hearing at Selby, Stephens was taken to Aberdeen, where he was held in jail.

The March 17, 1910, edition of the Mitchell Capital describes that Stephens pleaded not guilty when brought before the court, with a trial date set for later that month. 

The next reference I found in the newspaper archives refers to an attorney “who recently successfully defended ‘Bud’ Stephens, who was tried in the state circuit court in the northern part of the state on the charge of having killed ‘Dode’ MacKenzie, son of Murdo MacKenzie, the Colorado cattle king, during a fight at LeBeau.”

The article, “The Gunfight That Killed a Town,” by Brad Smith, describes that MacKenzie was known for his “freewheeling lifestyle,” which included drinking binges. Smith describes that MacKenzie, while retaining the title of manager, was largely a figurehead at the ranch because of his drinking, and that on the day of the shooting, he was drunk, had an argument with Stephens at the saloon, left to steal a gun from the local hardware store across the street, and returned to the saloon, threatening Stephens.

Smith writes that Stephens claimed self-defense during the trial, and following a week-long trial, the jury found him innocent.

“While the jurors returned to their homesteads satisfied that justice had ben done, the residents of LeBeau were not so content. LeBeau depended on the cattlemen for its livelihood. And the cowboys blamed LeBeau for Dode’s murder.

“Within weeks the Matador moved its headquarters to Whitehorse and its trade to Evants and the new railhead at Mobridge.”

Smith adds that in September 1910, a fire destroyed downtown LeBeau. “When the volunteer fire department rushed to fight it, they found their fire hoses shredded. They tried to send to neighboring communities for help but the telegraph lines had been cut. By the time it was over the fire had destroyed nearly every business in LeBeau.”

Smith points out the irony that the saloon in which MacKenzie was shot is one of the few businesses that survived the fire! 

“A few townspeople tried to rebuilt but it was too late,” Smith writes. “The damage was done. LeBeau, South Dakota, once the busiest cattle shipping point in the United States, was a ghost town.”

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