Tag Archives: cheyenne

1868: Charles Martin and Charles Morgan lynched in Cheyenne, Dakota Territory

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1868, Charles Martin and Charles Morgan were both lynched for unrelated crimes in the nine-month-old city of Cheyenne. Cheyenne was still part of the Dakota Territory at the time; later that year, it became part of the new Wyoming Territory, which was created from bits of the Dakota, Idaho and Utah territories.

Martin was originally from Missouri and, like many of the local residents, a new arrival, who had come to Cheyenne with the railroad in 1867. Historian R. Michael Wilson, in his book Crime & Punishment in Early Wyoming, detailed the start of his fall from grace:

He partnered with William A. James, who was known by everyone as Andy Harris, another member of the rowdy element. The two men bought and jointly managed a dance house and it was rumored their purchase was financed with stolen money, but there was never enough evidence to prosecute them. Eventually they had a falling-out and dissolved their partnership.

On the evening of February 13, 1868, Martin and James were at Thomas and Beauvais’s Hall on 16th Street, both up at the bar, and James came at him saying, “You are a dirty little bastard. I ought to kill you. You are no friend of mine; if I did you justice I’d shoot you now.”

He pointed a Derringer at Martin, who stuck his hand in his pocket and taunted, “Shoot, what do I care?”

James told Martin to get out or he would shoot him, and Martin started backing towards the door, with his erstwhile friend following him every step of the way. Five feet separated the men and when James reached the end of the bar, he started to lower his gun. At this point Martin pulled a five-shooter from his pocket.

James fired one shot from his Derringer and missed. Martin emptied his gun and hit every time, “the five wounds forming a neat line from James’s chin to his navel.” Mortally wounded, James collapsed and died late the following morning.

Martin was arrested. Justice was swift: the trial began on the 17th of February and concluded two days later. Four eyewitnesses to the shooting testified, as did the doctor who tended to James in his last hours. Martin argued self-defense. The jury acquitted him.

Even prior to James’s killing, Martin’s reputation, as noted in T. A. Larson’s book History of Wyoming: Second Edition Revised, was “appalling.” Wilson describes him as “a desperate character who womanized and drank liquor to excess.” His abandoned wife back in Missouri wrote to him, pleading in vain that he should give up his wild ways and return to her and their children. Consequently, Wilson says,

[t]he acquittal of Martin created a great deal of dissatisfaction within the community. Martin, had he used common sense, would have left until the indignation cooled but instead he became more insolent and defiant than ever and began making rounds of his usual haunts celebrating his liberty, and made threats of “furnishing another man for breakfast.”

It probably didn’t help that he had threatened to kill the distinguished attorney W. W. Corlett, who’d assisted with the prosecution.

On the evening of March 21, a masked mob of about fifteen vigilantes abducted Martin from the Keystone dance house where he’d been partying with “females of the lowest type.” Pistol-whipped into semi-consciousness, he was dragged to a crude tripod gallows on the east end of Cheyenne and strung up. His body was found the next morning, his feet brushing the ground, sporting horrific head injuries.

A coroner’s inquest convened that same afternoon and rendered the following verdict:

We, the undersigned, summoned as jurors to investigate the cause of Chas. Martin’s death, find that he came to his death by strangulation, he having been found hanging by his neck on a rude gallows, at the extreme end of 10th Street, in the suburbs of Cheyenne. Perpetrators unknown.

A few hours later, stock thief Charles J. Morgan was also hanged on the east side of Cheyenne.

Earlier that month, a large number of mules had gone missing from the prairie surrounding Cheyenne, including a four-mule team owned by W.G. Smith. Smith and others, determined to recover the stolen animals, seized a man named “Wild Horse” Smith and threatened to lynch him if he didn’t reveal what he knew of their whereabouts. They put a rope around his neck and three times yanked him into the air, but he maintained his silence. When he was told that the fourth time would be his last, Smith cracked and told them where the hidden stock was.

As R. Michael Wilson explains, the searchers found fifteen stolen mules at the location “Wild Horse” specified, but W.G. Smith’s team was not among them.

Smith made further inquiries and learned that Charles J. Morgan had purchased the four-mule team and some other stock for about half their value. He and a man named Kelly were driving the stock south on the road to Denver and were then only a short distance out of town in the mountains. Smith formed a posse of vigilantes and overtook Kelly at Guy Hill. Kelly was arrested and the party started for Cheyenne. On the way back to they met Morgan, a known member of the gang of thieves, who claimed that he and Kelly had bought the mules and were going to Sweetwater. Morgan was also arrested and the two prisoners were taken into Cheyenne at an early hour on March 21st.

The jail in Cheyenne was little more than a tent over a wooden frame with a wooden door and a guard at the flap. So, with escape a certainty and the vigilantes ready for action they decided to settle the matter themselves.

At daybreak, Morgan’s body was found hanging at Elephant Corral on a tripod-shaped gallows very similar to the one where Martin met his end. His remains “had blue and swollen features, tongue and eyes protruding, fists clenched, with feet now brushing the ground.” There was a sign pinned to his back: This man was hung by the Vigilance committee for being one of a gang of horse-thieves.

The coroner’s jury returned the following verdict:

We the undersigned, summoned by the Coroner to inquire into the cause of death of Chas. or J. Morgan, find the evidence that his death was occasioned by strangulation, he having been found hanging by the neck on three poles in the rear of the Elephant Corral, in Cheyenne, D.T. Perpetrators unknown.

At first there was speculation that Kelly, too, had been lynched: shortly after his partner in crime was hanged, he was taken some distance away and shots were heard in the darkness. Searches were made for his body, but it turned out that Kelly had merely been banished from Cheyenne and the shots were fired to speed him on his way.

T. A. Larson notes that this disreputable pair were the first and nearly the last known to have been lynched in Cheyenne; the Cheyenne Vigilance Committee killed only one more man there, for failure to pay a debt he owed a saloon keeper. (They are also known to have lynched three men at Dale City thirty miles away.) “It seems fair to say,” he notes, “that the record of popular justice in Cheyenne was neither very extensive nor very creditable. But it may well be that vigilantes in Cheyenne and elsewhere had a positive deterrent value which is hard to measure.”

Martin and Morgan were buried out on the prairie. No one was ever charged in their deaths.