Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Dodge City Gang -- Badmen With Badges

Hoodoo Brown
In a recent post, The Santa Fe Trail, I talked about how trade came faster and easier after establishing that route. Well, along with the trade and commerce, towns flourished. Then came the gamblers, prostitutes, ruffians, thieves, and many more of what can only be termed as the leeches of society, the seedy unsavory characters that took folks for everything they had through cheating and stealing. 

And no, contrary to the myth, gamblers were not seen as respectable people. Most gamblers were seen as tinhorns -- just contemptible lowlifes pretending to be something they were not. 

Among the bad and unsavory were a number of badmen who formed a group called the "Dodge City Gang." They called themselves that to intimidate the people in Las Vegas, New Mexico, because even there people had heard of what went on in Dodge City -- real or not.

In my last post, I talked about how the Archer Gang worked out of Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky for about 10 years. While that was a long time for an Outlaw Gang to exist, in reality most didn't last but a couple years at best, the Dodge City Gang was one gang that had a very short run.

Before I start talking about the outlaw Dodge City Gang in Las Vegas, New Mexico, let's make sure we separate them from a group of policemen and gamblers in Dodge City, Kansas. The Dodge City Gang of outlaws that arrived in Las Vegas, New Mexico, in the Summer of 1879 is not the same as the group of policemen and gamblers who are said to have ruled Dodge City, Kansas, with an iron fist.

The Dodge City Gang that arrived in New Mexico were criminals that worked both sides of the law to their own advantage. And while I know real well that someone will write me saying that that's the exact same thing that the police and gambling enterprises did in Dodge City, Kansas, in the 1870s, there are a couple of big differences.

It's said that the law in Dodge City was horribly corrupt. They were on the take, got a percentage of the gambling and prostitution, and looked the other way when a cowboy was rolled for his trail money. It seems they were content with getting their percentages, the bonuses for buffaloing innocent cowboys, and being on the take. In contrast, the Dodge City Gang that landed in Las Vegas was a group of criminals who showed up on the scene presenting themselves as former lawmen with the desire to take over whatever criminal activity was taking place there. That's a huge difference.

The other difference has to do with the severity of the crimes. Those who were in Dodge City were mostly crooked gamblers and lawmen on the take. Some were just heavy-handed lawmen who saw their badge as a permit to bully the innocent and beat up cowboys. In contrast, the outlaw gang in Las Vegas, New Mexico, were lawmen turned badmen, bandits, highwaymen, train robbers, hired guns, and killers. 

Those in the gang had reputations as violent men. Deserved or not, those reputations enabled them to take control of the town on the pretense of establishing law and order. As I said before, they initially presented themselves as lawmen. In fact, the Dodge City Gang consisted of former Justice of the Peace Hyman G. “Hoodoo Brown” Neill, and former Dodge City Marshal Joe Carson, Deputies Tom Pickett, John Joshua (J.J.) Webb, and "Mysterious Dave" Mather.
The gang was organized by Hoodoo Brown. Supposedly, he came up with the idea of "lawmen" controlling the gambling and prostitution in Las Vegas after seeing what was going on in Dodge City, Kansas. His idea was to turn things up a notch of two and take complete control of the town. Since he was a "judge" and his cohorts wore badges, Brown figured he and the others could easily take over Las Vegas and get rid of unwanted rival gangs. He knew that their rival gangs couldn't go up against a gang of outlaws wearing badges.

Along with them were several known outlaws such as "Dirty Dave" Rudabaugh, Dutch Henry Borne, John "Bull Shit Jack" Pierce, William P. "Slap Jack Bill" Nicholson, Selim K. "Frank" Cady, and other desperadoes known for their robbing and stealing. All just hired guns, thugs, and thieves. Dentist turned gambler Doc Holliday was in Las Vegas, New Mexico, at the time. Many list Holliday as being a member of the Dodge City Gang, but there's no proof of that. Frankly, I don't believe he was.

The people of Las Vegas, New Mexico, welcomed them with open arms. That was all the bandits needed to become the law there. Those badmen with badges saw the area ripe for the picking.

This gang had an interesting way of operating. It was all about catch and release.

Their operation was simple in that while the known outlaws of the gang committed the crimes, the lawmen of the gang acted in their official capacities to cover for them or helped them evade justice. So in effect, the gang was the law and the outlaws -- a win-win situation for those attempting to take over a town and rob it blind. In fact, the Dodge City Gang robbed several stagecoaches and is believed to have committed a couple of train robberies.

But they didn't stop there. They rustled cattle, murdered and lynched both their competition and those suspecting what was going on. Their problems started when more and more of the citizenry suspected what was going on. Many suspected that the perpetrators of the crime wave were members of the Dodge City Gang.

First there was two stage robberies in August of 1879. Then there was a train robbery in October of that same year. Both took place in the area around Las Vegas, New Mexico.

Remember the operation, one part of the gang commits the crime while the other part of the gang covers and protects their cohorts from arrest or prosecution. A prefect example of the law working hand in hand with outlaws took place on August 18th, 1879. That was when a stagecoach was robbed by John Clancy, Jim Dunagan, and Antonio Lopez near Tecolote, New Mexico. All three were part of the Dodge City Gang. All three were arrested. And yes, all three were released. Not convicted.

On August 30, 1879, just a couple of weeks later, another stage was held up. This time it was held up by Dodge City Gang members Frank Cady, Slap Jack Bill, Bull Shit Jack, and Jordan L. Webb. All were arrested and charged. All escaped conviction.

Less than two months later on October 14, 1879, masked train robbers made off with $2,085. The robbers decided to rearm by also taking arms and railroad equipment such as lanterns all to be used in future robberies. At the time, Sheriff Charlie Bassett, Harry E. Gryden, Chalk Beeson, and J.J. Webb, were all hired by the Adams Express Company to catch the robbers. What Bassett, Gryden, and Besson didn't know at the time was that J.J. Webb was part of the Dodge City Gang and he actually worked to take the others off the trail of his outlaw cohorts.

Violence and thievery are said to have plagued the town of Las Vegas, New Mexico, at the time. While some have asked me about violence in the Old West, and in fact have heard me say that Tombstone was not that violent a place, the same cannot be said for Las Vegas, New Mexico. It was truly a violent place.

The Dodge City Times reported, "Shooting scrapes are of frequent occurrence in that remote region."

As for killings, judge Hoodoo Brown declared himself "Coroner" and installed members of his gang on the local Coroner’s Jury. This made it very convenient for the gang to cover up crimes. Especially since the Coroner’s Jury made the determination as to whether a killing was a homicide or self-defense, one would be tried while the other would have charges dropped.

In March of 1880, an article in The Chicago Times described Hoodoo Brown as "one of the worst class of low gamblers."

It's said that for one reason of another, it became very apparent to the good people there that every low-life in New Mexico, and those coming from Kansas, Texas, and Colorado, had decided to gather in Las Vegas to stir up trouble. Though that was the case, one of the last incidents involving members of the Dodge City Gang took place on March 2, 1880. That was the day when Hoodoo Brown and J.J. Webb found out that Mike Kelliher, a freighter who had just delivered a shipment to merchants there, was in possession of $1,900 on his person. 

On March 9, 1880, The Ford County Globe, reprinted the report of what took place as it appeared in the Las Vegas Daily Optic:

About four o’clock this morning, Michael Kelliher, in company with William Brickley and another man [a member of the Dodge City Gang], entered Goodlet & Roberts’ Saloon and called for drinks. Michael Kelliher appeared to be the leader of the party and he, in violation of the law, had a pistol on his person. This was noticed by the officers, who came through a rear door, and they requested that Kelliher lay aside his revolver. But he refused to do so, remarking, “I won’t be disarmed – everything goes,” immediately placing his hand on his pistol, no doubt intending to shoot. But officer Webb was too quick for him. The man was shot before he had time to use his weapon. He was shot three times–once in each breast and once in the head. . . Kelliher had $1,090 [$1,900] on his person when killed.

J.J. Webb was arrested, but escaped with the help of his cohorts. As for Hoodoo Brown, he is said to have grabbed the loot from Kelliher and left town soon after that on a fast horse.

Fact is, by then their viciousness was obvious to all. Their criminal acts were done with complete disregard to any sort of stealth behavior. It was the failure of the Dodge City Gang to disguise their criminal dealing that ultimately led to the citizens of Las Vegas saying they'd had enough. The residents of Las Vegas, New Mexico, formed a vigilante group to right the situation. Yes, one way or another, things were going to get cleaned up. 

On April 8, 1880, this notice appeared in the Las Vegas Optic newspaper:

To Murderers, Confidence Men, Thieves:

The citizens of Las Vegas have tired of robbery, murder, and other crimes that have made this town a byword in every civilized community. They have resolved to put a stop to crime, if in attaining that end they have to forget the law and resort to a speedier justice than it will afford. All such characters are therefore, hereby notified, that they must either leave this town or conform themselves to the requirements of law, or they will be summarily dealt with. The flow of blood must and shall be stopped in this community, and the good citizens of both the old and new towns have determined to stop it, if they have to HANG by the strong arm of FORCE every violator of the law in this country. “


The writing was on the wall and those left of Dodge City Gang knew they weren't big enough to go up against the whole town. Realizing it was beneficial to their longevity to get the heck out of Las Vegas, they disbanded and fled town for places more conducive to their criminal behavior.

Since the Dodge City Gang arrived in Las Vegas, New Mexico, in the Summer of 1879 and fled the scene to save their necks less than a year later by the Spring of 1880, their run as an outlaw gang may have been the shortest of most outlaw gangs in the Old West.

Tom Correa

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