Hendry N. Brown (sometimes “Henry”) was a man who moved fluidly from one side to the other of the law, and was a character who begs to have a Western made about him. Today, Medicine Lodge, Kansas, is smack dab in the middle of the United States, but in April, 1884 it was on a steadily civilizing frontier. A rough 17 years prior, Medicine Lodge Creek had been a rude outpost where the Kiowa and Comanche signed a peace treaty with the United States, a treaty that is apparently still held in the National Archives; but in 1873 a settlement was established there, and by 1880 it had been formally incorporated. There was a downtown, with a brick courthouse, and other public buildings; and, germane to this story, a bank and a Town Marshal.
It was still a pretty rough place. The first newspaper in town, the Barber County Mail, one Cochran, had, for reasons unclear, offended the locals, and absent tar and feathers, he was coated with sorghum molasses and sandburs, and ridden out of town on a rail. Rescued by another group of townsmen, he opted to leave the town anyway and had one of them make him an offer for his business, and journalism in Medicine Lodge tragically continued. (This puts Jill Abramson’s whining about her loss of her half-million-dollar job into a certain perspective, doesn’t it?).
Brown was well known around town. After a youth spent in the company of criminals, including Billy the Kid, which gained him a certain notoriety, he had gone straight as the town Marshal of Tuscosa, Texas, and later, Caldwell, Kansas. As a lawman, he brought order to Caldwell:
While assistant marshall, Brown had numerous items appear in the newspaper attesting to his fearlessness. For a short time during October of 1882, Brown left the police force and went to the “Strip” to hunt for rustlers. After rejoining the police force in the middle of October 1882, Brown was appointed as Marshall.
How he brought order was right out of a Hollywood Western: he shot the disorderly. As the Kansas Historical Society writes,
Caldwell’s tough cowtown reputation had worsened in the months before Brown’s arrival as the city recorded four murders (all of them lawmen) and eight lynchings.
In the face of such lawlessness, Brown was a welcome addition to the town’s police force. The Caldwell Post, advocating “a little bit of fine shooting” to keep order in the town, bragged he was “one of the quickest men on the trigger in the Southwest.”
Brown shot two men dead in Caldwell’s main street in 1883, as the historical marker on the site of one of the shootings records.
Brown settled in well; he fell in love with and married a local girl. He hired an old friend, big Ben Wheeler, as Assistant Marshal. In January, 1883, the grateful townspeople presented him with an engraved (and some sources say, gold-plated) Winchester repeater. The rifle, Brown’s most prized possession, had an elliptical plate with an inscription that read:
Presented to City Marshall H.N. Brown for valuable services rendered in behalf of the Citizens of Caldwell Kas., A.N. Colson, Mayor, Dec. 1882.
Several sources suggest he actually took the Winchester along on his ill-starred expedition to Medicine Lodge.
How Brown squared his life as a lawman with his return to bank robbery is unknown, or why he did it. But in a little over a year from receiving the presentation rifle, he led a robbery of the town bank in Medicine Lodge. Wheeler joined him, as did two local cowboys, William Smith and a man known variously as John Wesley and Harry Hill. Unlike Brown, none of the other three had a criminal history.
They were about to get one, but they wouldn’t have long to enjoy it.
Shortly after 9:00 a.m., during a heavy rain storm, four men rode into town from the west. There were few people on the streets and the men were able to hitch their horses to the bank coal shed. The bank had been open a short time. Mr. Geppert, the cashier, had just begun work settling the monthly accounts, while Bank President, E.W. Payne, sat at his desk writing. Three of the four members entered the bank, one going to the cashiers window and one going to the lattice door in the rear of the office. When ordered to throw up their hands, Mr. Geppert complied while Mr. Payne seized a revolver. Four shots were fired by the robbers, two were received by Mr. Geppert and one by Mr. Payne. Rev. Friedly, who was standing across the street, heard the shots and alarmed Marshall Dean, who was standing in front of Herrington’s & Smith’s grocery store. The Marshall opened fire on the robbers and they also returned shots. The robbers broke for their horses and rode out of town. In a few minutes a group of well mounted, well armed, determined men were in hot pursuit. The posse was headed by Barney O’Conner, Vernon Lytle and Wayne McKinney.
Those that remained in town rushed into the bank only to find Mr. Geppert laying dead in the vault, weltering in his blood with two holes in his chest. Mr. Payne was lying near the vault groaning with pain. The pistol ball had entered behind his right shoulder blade, probably grazing his spine. Hope for his survival was doubtful.
The robbers escaped at first, but the posse quickly tracked them and surrounded them in a ravine. The entire town turned out to join the armed encirclement, and the thwarted thieves gave themselves up. The posse members were surprised to find that the robbers were men that they knew and didn’t regard as criminals, prior to that day. But the deaths of Geppert and Payne (who succumbed the next morning) changed the calculus. Both men were well-respected; Geppert left a wife and son, and Payne a wife and nine children.
The Kansas State Historical Society suggests that Brown committed the robbery because he was “living beyond his means.” According to a letter to his wife Maude, written on what he never knew would be the last day of his life, Brown’s objective was, quite baldly, to get money:
…it was all for you, my sweet wife, and for the love I have for you. … 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.
Well, of course; no one ever robbed a bank for any other reason but for money, and they always think they can get away with it. Historically, most have wound up with neither money nor liberty, yet even 130 years later they still do it. And some of them have wound up dead.
Brown denied firing any shot, and said only one man fired, in his letter to his wife (transcribed completely at the link). And Wheeler is the man who fired the two shots that killed Geppert (who had his hands up!), so perhaps he also shot Payne. But the Kansas State Historical Society thinks that Brown did it. Regardless, all the robbers seem to have fired at Marshal Dean and their pursuers.
One more act in this frontier drama remained to play out. Medicine Lodge was a civilized town, a part of the United States. It had a courthouse and a judge as well as a bank and a newspaper. But its people were still rough frontiersmen, and their idea of justice was not the idea current in what was then the refined city of Philadelphia, but a rough frontier justice. Geppert was dead and Payne dying, and someone had to pay. The Caldwell Journal — the newspaper owned by the dying Payne — wrote that, “The impression prevailed that before many hours the bodies of four murderers would swing in the soft night air.”
A mob gathered, as Brown had feared. In the ancient pages of Tacitus, in today’s streets, and certainly in 1884 Kansas, in a mob is a thing with a life of its own.
When the part returned to Medicine Lodge, they were placed in jail and were surrounded by a crowd of angry citizens who cried “Hang Them!”. Later that night, three shots fired rapidly broke the silence. By this signal a crowd of armed men marched to the jail and demanded the prisoners. The sheriff refused but the sheriff and the posse were overpowered and the jail doors opened. The prisoners in the cell made a sudden dash for freedom and shots rang out from everywhere. Brown ran a few steps from the jail and fell shredded with gunshots. Wheeler was then captured and was badly wounded. Smith and Wesley were captured at the jail door. Wheeler, Smith and Wesley were taken by the crowd to an Elm tree in the bottom east of town and told that it there was anything they would like to say, to say it now for their time of life was short.
At the last Wheeler showed weakness and begged for mercy. Wesley was also upset, but answered by requesting that his body be sent to friends in Vernon, Texas. When the ropes were ready they were fastened around the robbers’ necks and were tossed over a limb. In a few minutes the bodies hung swinging in the wind.
The jail where Brown and his men were held was torn down long ago, and the site redeveloped. In 2000, at least, it was the site of the 1st National Bank drive-through window.
Of course, any true weapons man will be thinking: whatever became of Brown’s prized Winchester? It was in the possession of Sheriff C.F. Rigg, who intended to dispose of it as Brown had desired — return it to his widow in Caldwell. But it was stolen from Rigg, and for a long time its whereabouts were unknown until it surfaced in the hands of a Texas collector. It came, by a circuitous route and at great expense, to the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka in 1977, where, as of 2000, it could be seen by appointment; it’s now on display in the main gallery.
And so we have one more illustration of the sad fact that crime does pay, just not in the coin the criminal intends to collect. For the four doomed robbers of Medicine Lodge didn’t get a dime from the robbery for which they threw away their lives and their previously good reputations. “The wages of sin is death,” is not only Scripture but also a fairly practical guide to the consequences of violent criminality — then, or now.