When Lawmen Go Bad
“When not engaged in murder and robbery, Mr. Brown served as a peace officer…He was about twenty-six years old and had probably killed or robbed a man for each year of his age.” — Sterling Gazette, Kansas, May 8, 1884
Cowboy Detective Charlie Siringo, reflecting on his illustrious career as a Pinkerton Detective, recalled the look on Henry Brown’s face when the citizens of Caldwell, Kansas goaded their marshal into having a phrenologist read his head. The lawman was mortified, frightened by what the seer might reveal.
Although the “science” of phrenology has been relegated to the dustbins of history, it was a popular topic in the late-1800s. Practitioners claimed that they could read a person’s personality and divine their secrets by feeling the bumps and indentations of the skull.
Expert phrenologists toured the American frontier, offering demonstrations of their art. One evening in 1884, just after Charlie Siringo and his bride had moved to Caldwell to open a cigar shop, a phrenologist arrived in town to perform a reading. Nearly everyone turned out, including Marshal Henry Brown.
Henry Brown was still relatively new in his position of chief lawman. He began his Caldwell career as a deputy marshal under Bat Carr.
The Caldwell Commercial described him as “a young man who bears an excellent reputation, and although he has acted in similar capacities for many years, he has never acquired any of those habits which some seem to think are necessary to make an officer popular with the ‘boys.’” Marshall Carr and Brown quickly impressed a respect for the law on the unruly cowboys who tore up the streets of Caldwell. Within a month the Commercial noted that Carr and Brown “always seemed to be in the way when any fun is going on.”
On October 19, 1882, Bat Carr left town on business. While the marshal was away, Brown served as acting marshal. Ben Wheeler, an old associate, filled the post of deputy marshal.
When Carr failed to return to Caldwell, the City Council made Brown’s promotion permanent, and also confirmed Ben Wheeler as deputy marshal. Wheeler, according to the Caldwell Advance, was a man who “has the sand, the boys say, to stay with the wild and woolly class as long as they are on the warpath.”
A few days after his promotion, grateful townspeople escorted Brown into the York-Parker-Draper store and presented him with a new Winchester rifle. A silver plate on the stock read “Presented to H. N. Brown by his many friends as a reward for the efficient services rendered to the citizens of Caldwell.”
Brown had achieved a respectable position and won the admiration of his town. The last thing he needed was either Charlie Siringo or a phrenologist casting doubt about his character or antecedents.
Brown’s fans in Caldwell did not know that law and order had not always been their marshal’s dance partner. Charlie Siringo was better informed. He recognized the marshal the first time he met him on the street.
Brown had been a member of Billy-the-Kid’s gang the last time their paths had crossed. In fact, Billy had introduced the two men in 1878. Shortly thereafter, Brown left Billy’s gang and vanished into the Indian Territory.
“I lost track of him,” wrote Siringo, “until I met him wearing an officer’s star in Caldwell, Kansas.”
The unexpected reunion did not please Brown. “He begged me to not give him away as he intended to reform and lead an honorable life.” ‘
Siringo acquiesced. After all the man had remade himself as a respectable lawman. His fine trousers polished a pew of the Methodist Church every Sunday, and he had introduced calm to that hot little town. The marshal’s secrets were safe with the cowboy detective.
But would they be concealed from the phrenologist?
Brown was extremely reluctant when summoned to the front of the room for a reading. Like most of the onlookers, he was not entirely convinced of the man’s skills, but he could not shake the nagging conviction that there might be something to it. He certainly didn’t want his past misdeeds to be exposed.
As Siringo chortled, the reluctant Brown slunk forward. He “hesitated for quite a while about having his head ‘felt,’ He knew better than anyone else in the audience as to what was in his head and he didn’t want to risk having his faults told.”
Brown sat in the chair and submitted to the reading. “It was soon made plain by the color of his face,” wrote Siringo, “that he regretted going. He stuck it out though, and heard some very uncomplimentary remarks said against himself.”
Siringo did not reveal the content of the phenologist’s assessment, but it is reasonable to assume that the practitioner failed to plumb the marshal’s depths. He escaped the reading, red-faced, but with his secrets still hidden.
Caldwell was a lively town, a popular watering hole for cowboys coming off the Chisholm Trail.
Occasionally the boys exorcised their demons with violent outbreaks. Marshal Brown did a fine job of policing the border between cowboy and resident, although his actions earned occasional criticism. In late December, 1883, the marshal engaged in a late night gunfight with a gambler named Newt Boyce.
Boyce, apparently drunk, threatened the lawman. Brown shot him. An inquest exonerated the marshal, claiming that the deceased “came to his death at the hands of an officer while in the discharge of his duty.”
Nevertheless, noted the Kansas Prohibitionist, Brown had been drinking in a saloon before the deadly encounter. “If the marshal had done his duty,” concluded the paper, “there would have been no necessity for killing Boyce.”
As the cold winter of 1884 lost its strength, Brown cemented his respectability by marrying Alice Levagood, one of Caldwell’s most eligible debutantes. On April 9, 1884, the City Council reappointed Brown and Wheeler as the town’s law officers. The man who had once hared around with Billy-the-Kid had become a pinnacle of the community, a respected figure.
Which is why it is so difficult to understand his next choice.
The Lawman Goes Bad
Sunday afternoon, April 27, 1884, Marshal Brown and Ben Wheeler met with Caldwell’s mayor.
The lawmen claimed that they had heard a rumor that a famous bandit was holed up in the Indian Territory. A $1,200 reward had been posted. Brown and Wheeler requested a short leave of absence to capture the man.
The mayor acquiesced. Shortly thereafter, armed with .44 caliber revolvers and Winchester rifles, the two men rode out of town. They did not resurface until the penultimate day of April, when they and two accomplices — local cowboys John Wesley and William Smith — took rooms in the nearby town of Medicine Lodge.
The next morning, April 30, a heavy rain soaked the dust streets of Medicine Lodge. The downpour drove most of the town’s residents indoors. At 9:00 AM, after clearing out of their rooms, the four men tied their horses to the coal shed behind the Medicine Lodge Bank.
Inside, the bank’s president, E. W. Payne, sat writing at his desk, and the cashier, Mr. Geppert had taken his place behind the counter. The doors burst open and three men, led by Brown, stormed inside to execute, in the words of the Medicine Lodge Cresset, “a murder and an attempted robbery which, for cold-bloodedness and boldness of design was never exceeded by the most famous exploits of the James gang.” As the three approached the counter, Payne reached for his revolver.
Marshal Brown shot him.
The cashier Geppert raised his hand over his head in surrender.
Assistant Marshal Wheeler put a bullet in his chest.
Geppert, staggered to the safe and engaged the lock.
Wesley shot him in the back. Geppert slid to the floor, blood pumping from his wounds.
As gunfire erupted from within the building, the town came to life. Medicine Lodge’s Marshal Denn exchanged gun shots with William Smith, who guarded the horses behind the bank.
Knowing that the town had been alerted, and lacking time to blow the safe, the three robbers ran from the building, threw legs over their horses, and galloped south. They weren’t alone for long. Angry townsmen formed a posse and thundered in pursuit.
Brown and his companions crossed the Medicine Lodge River. Their pursuers gained rapidly and the two parties exchanged gunshots. As the outlaws fired over their shoulders, attempting to discourage the pursuers, a group of townsmen out-rode them, and took a position ahead of the fugitives. When Brown’s company approached, they opened fire and turned Brown’s company west, toward a line of gypsum hills.
Unfamiliar with the terrain, the renegades rode into a box canyon and were trapped by their pursuers. George Friedley and Charlie Taliaferro (who had been instrumental in blocking Brown’s flight) returned to town to gather reinforcements. Soon, wrote the Cresset, “every gun and horse which could be brought into service was on the road to the canyon.”
The rain continued to sluice downward. The four desperadoes exchanged sporadic rifle shots with the blockading force until 2:00 PM when, with their ammunition exhausted, they surrendered. The men of the posse were baffled by the identity of the felons.
Brown and Wheeler were lawmen, after all, and their companions were local cowboys. It was known that Brown had once ridden with Billy-the-Kid, but the consensus was that “he seemed to have sobered down.” Why would these respectable lawmen of a nearby town do something so heinous?
The four men returned to town, surrounded by the posse. A hostile crowd waited; the people had seen the carnage in the bank. George Geppert lay dead in a pool of blood in front of the vault.
Bank President Payne was shot in the back, below the shoulder blade. He was alive when found, but his wound was serious. As Brown and his companions rode through town, people rushed the horses, shouting “Hang them, hang them.”
The sheriff and his men repelled the lynch mob, and escorted the bank robbers into the county courthouse. The mood was tense.
As the Cresset reported: “All afternoon little knots of quiet, determined men could be seen and all over town was that peculiar hush which bodes the coming storm. Little was said but the impression was prevalent that before many hours the bodies of four murderers would swing in the soft night air.”
Inside the jail, Henry Brown knew that his situation was bleak. He composed a letter to his wife, the young girl he had married six weeks earlier:
I am in jail here. Four us tried to rob the bank here, and one man shot one of the men in the bank, and he is now in his home. I want you to come and see me as soon as you can. I will send you all of my things, and you can sell them, but keep the Winchester.
This is hard for me to write this letter but, it was all for you, my sweet wife, and for the love I have for you. Do not go back on me; if you do, it will kill me. Be true to me as long as you live, and come to see me if you think enough of me. My love is just the same as it always was. Oh, how I did hate to leave you on last Sunday eve, but I did not think this would happen. I thought we could take in the money and not have any trouble with it; but a man’s fondest hopes are sometimes broken with trouble.
If a mob does not kill us we will come out all right after a while. Maude, I did not shoot any one, and did not want the others to kill any one; but they did, and that is all there is about it. Now, good-bye, my darling wife.
Evening fell. The silent shroud that darkness had pulled over the town was suddenly disturbed by three quick gunshots.
At the signal, the men who had spent the afternoon brooding appeared outside the jail and demanded custody of the four murderers. When the sheriff and the men standing guard refused to comply, they were swiftly overpowered. The lynch mob ripped open the jail doors.
Brown and his companions, knowing that their only hope was a dramatic counterattack, rushed their adversaries. The citizens of Medicine Lodge opened fire. Bullets ricocheted around the cell. The battlefield became, according to the laconic reporter for the Cresset, “a highly unsatisfactory place for a promenade.”
Brown made a dash for freedom, but he could not outrun the bullets. A blast of buckshot and a several rounds from the Winchester rifles ended his career.
His companions checked mid-flight. The mob tied their hands behind their backs and led them to a nearby elm tree. Wheeler, Smith, and Wesley were offered a chance to make their final statements.
Wesley told his captors that he had been born in Vernon, Texas; he asked them to send word to the town and let them know how he had died. Smith, also from Vernon, told the men to sell his horse, saddle, and the few items he kept in his saddlebag, and then send the proceeds to his mother.
Assistant Marshal Ben Wheeler spent his final moments begging for mercy. Although he had been cold-blooded enough to kill George Geppert, he lost his nerve when the time came to face his own demise.
Statements completed, the avengers secured nooses around the necks of the three outlaws, tossed the free ends of the ropes over a low-hanging branch, and hoisted the trio by their necks.
Although mob justice was generally deplorable, wrote the Cresset, “In this case the general sentiment of the community will uphold the summary execution of justice by the taking of these murderers’ lives.” The bandits “had been found guilty and executed by Judge Lynch,” wrote a reporter for the Atchinson Daily Patriot, “and the verdict of the entire southern section of Kansas is that they only received their just dues.”
Caldwell’s citizens were baffled. A week after the robbery, the Caldwell Advance tried to make sense of what had happened:
It is surmised that it [the plan to rob the bank] was originated in this city this spring; that it was a deep-laid scheme to perpetrate several robberies, the Lodge first, the banks at this place next, and a train on the Santa Fe next. This is, however, only a rumor; but from remarks made by the band before they were captured, it can be accurately conjectured that they had an extensive campaign planned.
Cowboy Detective Charlie Siringo, looking back over his long and colorful career, listed this episode as one of his most significant mistakes.
“I regretted afterwards that I didn’t tell the citizens of Caldwell of his past record,” concluded Siringo. Had he spilled what he knew about Brown’s dubious antecedents, they might have dismissed him and he would not have tried to rob the Medicine Lodge Bank. Innocent men would still live.
Brown might have “seemed to have sobered down,” but it is clear in retrospect that he never lost his taste for the lawlessness that had brought him into Billy the Kid’s gang.
Even the bonds of an important job, a new wife, and the respect of his peers failed to restrain his darker angels. Although the Kansas newspapers speculated about his motives for days after the tragedy, no one will ever truly know what led this lawman astray.
Sources: Atchinson Daily Champion, Dec. 23, 1883; Atchinson Daily Patriot, May 2, 1884; Caldwell Daily Standard, April 10, 1884; Kansas Prohibitionist, Jan. 2, 1884; Leavenworth Standard, May 2, 1884; Medicine Lodge Cresset, May 1, 1884;