Friday, December 17, 2010

Con Stapleton: Deadwood's First Marshal

Submitted by Jerry Bryant
LCHS president

Born in 1848, Con Stapleton first set foot on American soil on 17 May 1872 in New York City. He had departed Ireland from Queenstown and made the journey berthed in the steerage section of the sailing steamer Manhattan.[1]

The Manhattan was a large two masted steamer that carried cargo and immigrants from Europe to the United States. On the voyage that brought Con Stapleton to the United States she was carrying more than 600 passengers, most of whom were traveling 3rd class.

No records have been found indicating what Stapleton was doing between his arrival in the States and his appearance in Deadwood in 1876. He first appears in the Black Hill Pioneer when he was elected town marshal as part of the initial quasi-legal city government, on 16 September 1876.[2] On 25 September 1876, he was in the news again when John Manning and others of the community advertised the formation of the Democrats of Lawrence County. Con Stapleton was noted to be one of the newly elected delegates to a proposed convention that would occur on September the 29th.[3]

Marshal Stapleton had his first real taste of duty when he received information and a photograph of a man who was wanted in Marion County, Iowa. The man, Horry Williams, had been convicted of murder. The judge asked him, after he was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment, if he had anything to say. His reply was short and to the point, “You may pass sentence on me, but I will never serve the term.” Later, as the sheriff was transporting him to the State Penitentiary, he overcame the sheriff and beat him to a “state of insensibility.” He then made good his escape. 

On the 24th of March, Stapleton solicited the assistance of Captain Hardwick and hit the trail in search of the desperado. They first traveled to Elk Creek, where they found that they were on the right trail, but a day and a half late. They slept overnight at Elk Creek and by 6:00 a.m. were back in hard pursuit. They rode to Battle River, and followed its course to Iron Creek. Here they encountered a cabin whose residents confirmed that the man they were looking for had been staying there and that he was presently out hunting. Stapleton and Hardwick decided to wait at the cabin for William’s return. At just about 5:00 p.m. the cabin door opened and they stood staring into the face of Horry Williams. Williams put his gun up at the request of his host, Dr. Woods and sat down to dinner. While eating and engaged in conversation, the Marshall and the Captain arrested him.  Williams was transported back to Deadwood without incident, where the authorities in Iowa were notified. Captain Hardwick then returned Williams back to Iowa and prison. [4]

The Shooting of David Lunt

A bunch of the boys were sitting around having drinks and talking at Al Chapman’s Saloon on the cold winter evening of the 14th of January 1877. Included in the group were Con Stapleton and David Lunt.  David was a very well liked man around town with a reputation of being a fair and genial man. The conversation was good, the saloon was warm, and drinks were cheap, when all of a sudden the saloon door burst open. A man named Tom Smith came in and drew his revolver. Smith then stated that if anyone moved he would shoot him. He approached the group that Lunt was with, leveled his revolver and continued shouting threats. At this point Con Stapleton grabbed Smith and attempted to disarm him, when the revolver went off. The ball narrowly missed Stapleton’s head, continued on and struck David Lunt in the forehead. Smith was arrested and brought to trial over the incident, but it appears that the only charge they could get him on at the time was discharging a firearm at a town marshal. At court, the fact that David Lunt was also shot during the fracas did not seem to enter into the verdict.  Tom Smith was taken off to Yankton for a real trial, which would also not consider the fact that Lunt was shot, and by March of the same year could be found walking the street of San Francisco

But what about Lunt? Well, of course, everyone thought that he was going to die, and real soon, but instead he got up and started to do the same things he had been doing before he was shot. He actually seemed like his old self, even though a bullet had pass completely through his skull, until the 22nd of March, when he began complaining of an extremely bad headache. Friends of his who owned the Centennial Hotel, Mr. and Mrs. Morgan, took him in and tried to nurse him back to health, but he kept sinking lower and that night about a quarter till 11, he died. Drs. Bevan and Babcock conducted a post-mortem the following morning. Their findings were that the bullet had passed through Lunt’s head, and in the process the bullet had carried an inch and half long bone fragment deep into his brain. The bone fragment caused a large abscess to form and the right hemisphere of the brain began to fill with fluid. Now the determination was made that Smith had committed murder and so Sheriff Seth Bullock sent a telegram to ascertain Smith’s where abouts and to issue a warrant for his arrest. He was arrested in San Francisco and sent back to Yankton for trial. The question that begs to be answered in this story is; how did David Lunt live for 67 days with a bullet hole through his skull and brain?[5] 

The Drawbacks of Not Having a Jail

As usual, most mining camp calamities happen at night and in a saloon, and such is the case of the shooting of Harry Varnes. Thirteen days after the tragedy of David Lunt’s shooting, Harry Varnes was shot and killed at Hanley’s Gayville saloon. The event started over what had been a friendly Saturday evening card game on the 27th of January, 1877. At the end of the game, one of the players, a Blacksmith named Hartgrove, was angered over the outcome. Hartgrove made several statements that enraged one of the other players, Harry Varnes. Varnes then stood up, raised his chair over his head as to hit Hartgrove with it. The chair never fell, as the saloon’s proprietor restrained Varnes. Simultaneously Hartgrove drew his revolver, but was prevented from firing it by several of Varnes’ friends. 

A short time elapsed and the crisis appeared to have ended, and then Hartgrove walked out of the saloon, but remained outside the door on the walk. Varnes called out to Hartgrove, asking him to come back in and have a drink, but Hartgrove declined. Between 10:00 and 11:00 Hartgrove kicked open the door to the saloon and stood outside. The previous argument was revived, and Hartgrove again drew his revolver and shot at Varnes through the door. With Varnes dying on the saloon floor, Hartgrove vanished into the night.

The next morning at approximately 6:00 a.m., Hartgrove woke up Marshal Stapleton at his room in Deadwood and explained what had happened the previous night, stating that he wished to give himself up. Stapleton replied, “all right; you know we have no jail here, so you must stop for the present where you are.” Hartgrove set down and began waiting. Soon he started complaining of the cold, so Stapleton told him to fire up the stove down stairs, and that he would be along when he was ready. Hartgrove warmed himself by the fire until about 9:00 a.m., when Stapleton came downstairs and joined him. At that time Hartgrove asked Stapleton if he could go consult with his lawyers, who had offices on the second floor of the same building. At this point, somewhere between the stove and the lawyer’s office, Hartgrove decided that he had inconvenienced Deadwood and it’s marshal long enough, and to quote the Pioneer; “That was the last seen of the perpetrator of this dread deed, and no doubt long ere this he is out of the reach of law or justice”[6]

On November the 7th 1877 Con Stapleton’s job as marshal was finished. The Office of City Marshal ceased to exist and it’s duties taken over by the Sheriff of Lawrence County.  Stapleton stayed in the Deadwood area only a short time during the year 1878. He was featured several times at the Gem Theater, once in a sparring match, another time in a wrestling match, and the last time as the referee for a wrestling match. After February of 1877 Stapleton drifted south to Denver, where it was reported that he had died in September of 1879. He would have been approximately 31 years old.
[1] . Records of immigrant entries to the City of New York,
[2] . Black Hills Daily Pioneer, 16 Sept. 1876, pg4 col2
[3] . Black Hills Daily Pioneer, 25 Sept. 1876, pg1 col2
[4] . Black Hills Daily Pioneer, 31 march 1877, pg4 col2
[5] . Black Hills Daily Pioneer, 20 Jan 1877, pg4 col2
      Black Hills Daily Pioneer, 24 march 1877, pg4 col1
[6] . Black Hills Daily Pioneer, 3 Feb 1877, pg4 col3