Thursday, January 4, 2018

James "Doc Middleton" Riley

In the same graveyard where cattle rustler and horse-thief George W. Pike lies, you'll find the remains of James Middleton Riley who was also a cattle rustler and horse-thief. Some call him the "King of Horse Thieves."

James Middleton Riley was a known cattle rustler, horse-thief, the leader of a gang of rustlers, and murderer, who was better known to everyone by the alias "Doc Middleton." Where the term "Doc" came from is a mystery that I couldn't find the answer to.

And though he was known as Doc Middleton, he also used the aliases David C. Middleton, Henry Shepard, Texas Jack, Jack Lyons, Gold-Tooth Jack, and even Gold-Tooth Charley. One source that I read said that his real name was Henry Shepard, and that James M. Riley was an alias. So yes, he used a lot of aliases. It's speculated that he used some aliases that no one knows about even today. So for the sake of this story, while some know this outlaw as Doc Middleton which was one of his many aliases, I'll be using his real name.

James Riley's said to have been born on February 9th, 1851, in Bastrop, Texas. Although some sources say he was born in Arizona while other sources say Iowa. If he was born in 1851, then he was the age of 10 when the Civil War broke out. According to sources, it is pretty much agreed that Riley stole his first horse by age 14.

At the age of 19 in 1870, supposedly he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison at the Huntsville Prison. I couldn't find who he killed or any records to prove that he killed anyone at that age, or if he really was sentenced to life in Huntsville prison. Though that's the case, his biographies regularly mentions that after almost four years behind bars that he escaped Huntsville in 1874 and was next seen in Iowa.

Not too long after arriving in Iowa, he was arrested while in the act of stealing horses there. It's said that he served 18 months in jail before being released. After that he is said to have moved to Sidney, Nebraska.

It was there that he had a run in with U.S. Army Pvt. James Keith of the 5th Cavalry Regiment. Keith was stationed in Fort Sidney. I found a number of records that said the run in took place on January 13th, 1877. But there's at least one source that said the soldier's name was "Keefe" and not "Keith". Since most say Keith, I'll go with that.

What most reported as a simple bar fight where Riley was getting his butt kicked, ended up with Riley shooting and killing Pvt James Keith. The story goes that Riley got into an argument with Keith. During the argument, the soldier knocked Riley to the floor with one punch. Supposedly Riley got up from the floor only to be knocked on his butt again. Riley was getting the snot knocked out of him every time he tried getting off the floor.

Finally, after being knocked down a few times, while on the floor Riley pulled his revolver and shot Pvt. Keith in the belly. Though beat up, Riley was soon arrested and was being held in jail while the soldier teetered on the brink of death. The whole time while folks waited to find out the fate of the soldier, a citizen's committee started to gather outside of the jail.

It's said that Riley escaped from that jail after hearing the news that Pvt. Keith died. Some say he was about to be lynched when he "somehow" escaped. One source said that the town Marshall set him free before the good citizen's of Sidney could get to him. Either way, he fled about one step ahead of a noose.

So was he a killer, a murderer? Well, we know for fact that he killed Army Pvt James Keith on January 13th, 1877. But remember, he was getting a beating when he pulled his pistol and fired. With the way things were in those days, in those days when self-defense was seen as justifiable by someone merely being scared for their life, he may have gotten off or handed a light sentence. So whether or not a real jury would have determined that it was self-defense or not, we will never know. We will never know because a citizens committee wanted to skip the trial and string him up.

After fleeing Nebraska, he made his way into Wyoming where he formed a small gang to rustle cattle and steal horses. It was apparent by the number of horses that they were stealing that their focus was more on horse than it was cattle. Though that may have been the case, they didn't rule out stealing cattle if they had the opportunity.

Soon enough, his gang was known as the "Pony Boys." They were said to have operated in Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas, and as far south as Kansas and Texas. All of the sources that I found said they were responsible for stealing thousands of horses and a large number of cattle.

In fact, his gang stole so many cattle in Wyoming, that Riley and his gang became wanted by the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and Union Pacific Railroad. Both offered $1000 rewards for his capture. I read where they wanted him dead or alive. Of course there were provisions that one needed to meet if one was to claim the reward money. Supposedly one provision was that those bring him in had to produce his body or his head as proof that he were actually killed.

The people putting up that reward money were not planning on being hoaxed. Someone just saying that he was dead was not good enough with the folks who were putting up a $1000 reward for Riley, who remember was also known as Doc Middleton and a number of other aliases. The Wyoming Stock Growers Association and Union Pacific Railroad weren't going to be cheated out of reward money.

They weren't going to take anyone's word for killing Riley. No, they weren't merely going take someone's word for it. As for example in the case of Wyatt Earp who claimed in 1882 that he shot and killed Curly Bill Brocius. No one ever witnessed his killing Brocius, and a body was never produced. It was just a matter of taking Earp's word for it that it happened. That wasn't going to happen in Wyoming in the case of Riley alias Doc Middleton. 

Now as for his capture, we have a choice how we think he was caught since there are at least two stories of how that took place:

The first tale says that after his gang stole about 40 horses and a number of cattle in Wyoming in 1878, the Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association had range detective Billy Lykins put together a posse to go after the gang. Supposedly Lykins caught up with Riles and the others near Julesburg, Colorado. Soon a shootout ensues. As a result, the stolen horses were retrieved and Riley was captured. But, like a cat with nine lives, during the night, Riley escaped.

Range detective Billy Lykins then joined forces with the Union Pacific Railroad police special agents and a Department of Justice Special Agent. Their huge posse tracked down Riley to the Niobrara Valley in Nebraska. It was there that a shootout takes place in which Riley is shot in the stomach while being captured.

He was first taken to Sidney, Nebraska, and then later was transferred to Cheyenne, Wyoming to stand trial. At his trial he pleaded guilty to stealing horses, he received a five year sentence. He was placed in a Nebraska prison on September 18, 1879 and released on "good behavior" on June, 18 1883.

That sounds pretty believable. Now here's the second version of his capture. It goes like this:

Riley was as uncaring as could be when it came to stealing from folks. He certainly didn't discriminate since he was known to steal horses and cattle from whites, blacks, Mexicans, and even from Indians. In fact, his stealing from the Indians at the Pine Ridge Reservation had gotten so bad that the U.S. Army had General George Cook dispatch a detachment of troops to take care of the problem.

General George Crook dispatched troops to Pine Ridge to ensure the Indians that the Army was doing everything it could to stop the stealing. Those troops had orders to protect the herds of cattle and horse at Pine Ridge, and to capture Riley and his gang of rustlers. To do that, it's said that the Army actually lured Riley and his gang to a meeting with a promise of a pardon from the Wyoming territorial governor.

The "meeting" is said to have turned into a shootout within moments. The outcome was two of Riley's gang members being shot dead, and a deputy and a soldier being wounded during that gun battle. As for Riley, he was arrested and taken to Cheyenne, Wyoming.

While I haven't confirmed the numbers, Riley is said to have stolen more than 2,000 horses and a great number of cattle in just over a couple of years. In fact, when he was arrested, it was determined that his gang had also made off with a number of cattle and a great number of horse from many ranchers even as far back as 1877 that had gone unreported.

After going to trial, he was convicted of grand larceny and went to prison on September 18th, 1879. Believe it or not, he was never tried for the killing of Pvt Keith but instead got sentenced to only five years behind bars for grand larceny. With "good behavior", he spent a little under four years in prison and was released on June 18th, 1883.

Yes, justice didn't work real well even back in those days. Fact is Riley's light sentence was really no different than how John Wesley Hardin only got sentenced to 25 years in prison for killing two Texas lawmen. Knowing that's how it really was in the Old West, folks should stop wondering why there were so many vigilante groups, citizen's committees, back then. Sometimes those vigilante groups worked real well for the good after weighing what took place. Other times it may have been done a little too precipitously without looking at everything involved. Either way it ended up, people took justice into their own hands because the law was seen as not very effective at times. 

As for James M. Riley, besides stealing horse, cattle, and going to jail, it's said that he had gotten married three times. His last wife was a 16 year old girl that he married in 1884. He was 33 years old at the time. After leaving prison, they moved to Gordon, Nebraska. Since most of his gang were either dead or in prison, it's said that he worked at a variety of jobs including as a bartender and gambler all in an attempt to go straight.

Some reports say he was also a deputy sheriff in Sheridan County for a short time. Frankly, that really doesn't surprise me since it was common place for outlaws, even former outlaws, to put on a badge. Some did it in one place while being known as an outlaw somewhere else. Besides, there were no such thing as background checks and such. And frankly, no one really knows what aliases he was known by while living there at the time. He could have been known as any one of the aliases that he used. Remember, one alias used by the outlaw and killer Jesse James was "Thomas Howard." Frank James used the alias "B. J. Woodson." John Wesley Hardin used the aliases "Wesley Clements" and "James W. Swain." And while there's no telling how many other names Riley went by, it's believed that he may have been going by "Doc Middleton" there in Gordon, Nebraska.

There is a story about how his feat of stealing so many horses supposedly got him hired on as a cowboy with a Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. That story is tied into the Chicago World's Fair. The Chicago World's Fair was officially known as the World's Columbian Exposition. It was held in Chicago in 1893. It was meant to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the New World, actually the Bahamas, in 1492.

The great showman Buffalo Bill Cody offered a race to help kick off the Chicago World's Fair. Supposedly, it was Cody's idea to recruit a number of cowboys, horsemen, wranglers, and even the horse-thief "Doc Middleton" also known as James Riley, among others, to participate in a 1,000 mile horse race from Chadron, Nebraska, to Chicago, Illinois. It was known as the "Great Cowboy Race of 1893,"

James "Doc Middleton" Riley is said to have completed the race. Though he finished, he didn’t win. In fact, it's said that though he did ride a horse for quite a few miles, there are stories about how he actually boarded a train at one point to take him the rest of the way. Imagine that.

During the late 1890s, he relocated to Edgemont, South Dakota. There he operated a saloon for several years. Some reports say he was even a lawman there. In his later years, Riley is said to have opened a saloon in Douglas, Wyoming.

As for his death? It's said that a knife fight took place in his saloon. Riley got in the middle of it and was stabbed in the stomach. But besides being stabbed, he was arrested for dispensing liquor illegally and held in the county jail. While in jail, it is believed that his stab wound developed an infection. A few days later on December 13th, 1913, James "Doc Middleton" Riley died. He is buried in the Douglas Park Cemetery in Douglas, Wyoming.

I read where James "Doc Middleton" Riley was described as a likable individual, but still a horse thief and cattle rustler who didn't care about stealing from others. Likable or not, I'm surprised that he was never hanged.

Tom Correa