Wednesday, August 19, 2020

A Brutal Price was Paid

Isaac Werner had kept a diary much of his life, and the journal incorporated into Lynda Beck Fenwick's history (published for release in coming months by the University Press of Kansas, "Prairie Bachelor, The Story of a Homesteader and the Populist Movement,") was labeled Vol. 5th.  That journal contained entries from 1870 and 1871, but was abandoned until 1884, when Isaac resumed writing daily entries.

It was in 1884 that the Medicine Lodge Bank was robbed by a surprising group of robbers at 9 a.m. during a heavy rainstorm.  Because of the early hour and the heavy rain, there were no patrons in the bank.  Only E. W. Payne, working at his desk, and the cashier, George Geppert, who was working on the monthly accounts, were present.  A description of the events was provided by Rev. Frieldly, who happened to be watching from across the street and who alerted the Medicine Lodge Marshall.

When the four robbers entered the bank and shouted to the two occupants 'put up your hands,' the bank president complied, but the cashier reached for a revolver.  Perhaps the four robbers had intended to steal the money without doing any physical harm, but outside the Marshall began firing, as well as the cashier's having reached for a gun, which resulted in gunfire that killed the cashier and wounded the bank president.

A posse quickly formed and rode in pursuit, soon joined by reinforcements.  Surrounded  by the well armed posse, the bank robbers surrendered, and the identities of the robbers was as shocking as the morning bank robbery itself.  The gang members were not only men they knew but men respected in their community.  The leader was Henry Newton Brown, the Marshal of the town of  Caldwell, and the other three robbers were Ben Wheeler, Assistant Marshall of Caldwell; William Smith, a well known cowboy who worked for the T5 Ranch, and John Wesley, another well known cowboy working for Redwell and Clark.  Marshall Brown had an early outlaw past; however, he had changed his ways to serve as a Marshal in Texas before becoming the Caldwell lawman, where he had an excellent reputation.

Ben Wheeler, the Assistant Caldwell Marshall, had a particularly good reputation, but he was believed to be the one who had killed George Geppert, and his past popular reputation made him only the more hated for what he had done.  Many among the posse wanted to hang the four men immediately, but the Sheriff refused.

They escaped the hangman's noose for only a few hours, for at the signal of 3 shots fired into the air that night, a crowd of armed men demanded the bank robbers overpowered the sheriff, and took the men.  Marshal Brown momentarily broke free and ran, but shots from many guns struck his body.  Assistant Marshal Wheeler was badly wounded before being caught, but he and the other two men were taken to a tree and hanged.  

Cashier George Geppert had died at the scene.  The bank president, E. W. Payne died the following day, at the age of 38, leaving his wife Susan and nine children.  In addition to being the bank president, he was also the owner of the local newspaper.

There were robberies and attempted robberies in Isaac Werner's community as well, which he recorded in his journal, but no one was killed in the course of those robberies.  Most of us have the impression of those early years being filled with gunfire, and the assumption that every settler had a gun.  Some men did, but the evidence from Isaac Werner's journal and his estate sale records seems to establish that he did not own a gun.

The peculiar role that guns played in that era is well shown in the Medicine Lodge Bank Robbery.  First, men who gained a reputation as killers were often hired as lawmen, believing they were well prepared to fight the lawless and to discourage those who might have otherwise attempted breaking the law.  But, what made the irony of the circumstances in the Medicine Lodge failed bank robbery is Marshal Brown's letter to his new wife during the hours the bank robbers were in jail.  "April 30, 1884.  Darling Wife:  I am in jail here.  Four of us tried to rob the bank here...I want you to come and see me as soon as you can. ...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. ...If a mob does not kill us we will come out all right after while.  Maude, I did not shoot anyone, and did not want the others to kill anyone, but they did, and that is all there is about it.  Now, good-bye, my darling wife.  H.N. Brown." 

His letter asked her to visit him and to have her picture taken for him, and he authorized her to sell everything except his Winchester rifle, asking her to be sure to get it when she came to visit him.  He was very proud of that rifle, as it had been given to him with the following engraving:  "Presented to City Marshall (sic) H.N. Brown for valuable services rendered on behalf of the Citizens of Caldwell, Kas."  He had been right to assume someone might steal it, for someone did.  It was later found in a collection in Texas, but today it is owned by the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka, Kansas.

Although Brown knew that the cashier had been killed and that the banker had been wounded, he had believed that although he might serve some time he would eventually be released and reunited with his wife.  Instead, he never reached his 28th birthday.  Men in Isaac's community who went to prison for their crimes were also well known, respected men.  These misguided escapades by seemingly law abiding men make sad and perplexing stories for present readers.   

Thank you to the 2006 Peace Treaty Special Edition newspaper for the published information collected from old newspapers and Peace Treaty editions, and brochures from First Bank of Medicine Lodge for the information included in this blog.

1 comment:

The Blog Fodder said...

Thank you. I did not know this story but it certainly illustrates something that always crossed my mind when you wrote about Isaac. It was like he lived in a different universe. The "west" of history, myth, and lore existed side by side with the homesteaders, libraries, politics, and potato sales. In 1892 the Dalton Gang was eliminated in a wild shoot out in Coffeeville.Indian Territory was just to the south. Thinking about it and trying to put it together in my head was no easy task.