In the 1870s, the illegal settlement of Deadwood, South Dakota attained pride of place among Old West frontier towns, complete with vigilante justice, lethal gunfights, and lucrative brothels.
Yet even though it was the source of South Dakota’s first legal hanging — Wild Bill Hickok’s murderer Jack McCall, who swung in Yankton — Deadwood itself did not play host to a proper judicial execution until this date in 1882.
The unhappy subject of this occasion? James Gilmore, a surly and perhaps deranged Ohioan who had senselessly gunned down a Mexican fellow-laborer named Bicente Ortez when both men were driving wagons on the Pierre-Deadwood route. Gilmore got upset when Ortez spooked his oxen, waited until the teams made camp that night, and then walked up to Ortez during dinner and shot him in the arm.
As the startled Ortez tried to flee, Gilmore pumped three more shots into his back.
(This was near Deadman’s Creek. How trite.)
Anyway, Gilmore’s ox-driving companions might have disliked Ortez themselves because they gave Gilmore a horse and a few bucks and, while his mortally wounded ex-comrade lay painfully expiring all the night long, let the shooter flee into the wilds. He’d be captured only months later, still driving livestock for some ranch.
“Is it for killing that son of a bitch Mexican?” he asked the marshals, incredulously.
(The prosecutor would close his trial with a charge to the jury that “in this land of the free, every man, regardless of color, creed, or other station in life was equal before the law, and the law protected with its folds, the plebian as well as the millionaires, and it knows no difference between the bull-whacker and the bonanza king.”)
Gilmore was convicted of murder and sentenced to die in the autumn of 1881. However, the offender’s advocates pushed his appeals all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. According to the Cincinnati Daily Gazette (Dec. 16, 1882), whose interest in the case derived from Gilmore’s nativity in Steubenvile, Ohio,
It is the opinion of many who knew him best, that James Gilmore had not a mind sufficiently well balanced to make him responsible for the terrible deed for which he was sentenced. Many stories are told of his strange freaks when a child (he is not yet twenty-two years old), which shows that he was of a very irritable temperament. At one time, fancying himself insulted by a citizen of this place [Steubenville], he attempted to shoot two fine horses belonging to the offender, with a small pistol… At another time he set the school building on fire and then placed himself in the most dangerous position he could find. He would frequently run away from home, and was found once by a brother, who is an officer in the United States Navy, in New York City.
Evidently, Gilmore’s non-naval other brother was a lawyer, who was able to corral testimony as to his sibling’s unsound mind from a variety of worthies who knew the unbalanced James in his youth.
But those appeals ultimately failed, as did Gilmore’s father’s simultaneous push in Washington D.C. (since the Dakotas were still federal territory) for executive clemency. Advised by Gilmore’s detractors that the condemned murderer “was a second Guiteau of a most diabolical character,” (Grand Forks Herald, Oct. 28, 1882), President Chester A. Arthur declined to interfere. Arthur was a guy who couldn’t be soft on Guiteaus.
Gilmore never denied responsibility for murdering Ortez, and at his (private) hanging he attributed the whole thing to his “bad temper” ever since his mother died when he was a child.
Elsewhere in the U.S. on the same busy day, Peter Thomas was hanged in Mansfield, La. for murdering a fellow sharecropper in a rivalry over a woman; John Redd was hanged in Seale, Ala., for murdering a woman in the throes of unrequited love; and, a Mississippi gentleman named A. Farkas was to have been hanged for murdering his wife, Emma, except that the execution was respited at the last moment to permit him a judicial appeal — which Farkas eventually won.