Things turned deadly the month of Hickok’s murder.
In July 1876 James Butler Hickok, better known as “Wild Bill,” was looking for a new start when he arrived in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, with a party of adventurers—among them, “Calamity Jane” Canary, Joe “White Eye” Anderson and brothers Steve and “Colorado Charlie” Utter. The new arrivals changed into their finest buckskins and paraded through Deadwood to celebrate the end of their long trail ride from Cheyenne, Wyoming. Wild Bill’s days, as even casual fans of the era know, were numbered. Violence went with the untamed territory. Already in place in the rough-and-tumble town that summer were 25-year-old Samuel “Harry” Young, 29-year-old Samuel S. “Laughing Sam” Hartman and his partner, Myer “Bummer Dan” Baum. Those three colorful but often forgotten residents would soon be involved in a feud that turned deadly, and none would linger in Deadwood much longer than Wild Bill—though one would survive to take up a life of highway robbery in the area.
Hickok hadn’t come there to enforce any laws. After the parade through town, Wild Bill and company, followed by a large crowd, entered Saloon No. 10 to drink. Owner Carl Mann, a friend of Wild Bill’s, told Hickok he could use the place as his headquarters, thinking the notorious gunman and former lawman would draw a crowd. Tending bar was Harry Young, who had run away from his New York home at age 14 to see the West.Young first met Hickok in Hays City, Kan., and had since run into him on several occasions in different towns. Wild Bill said on seeing bartender Harry, “Kid, here you are again, like the bad penny, but I am awfully glad to see you.” Hickok told Mann: “He is a good boy, and you can trust him. Take my word for that.”
As the days passed, Wild Bill did more than his share of gambling. Tid Bit, one of the sporting girls who had arrived in Hickok’s party, spent a night with Laughing Sam Hartman. Instead of paying Tid Bit with 2 ounces of gold dust, Laughing Sam had tricked her with copper filings. Learning of the deception, Calamity Jane borrowed two ivory-handled six-shooters from Charlie Utter, and she, Charlie, White Eye Anderson and others entered a crowded saloon and gambling hall where Laughing Sam and Bummer Dan were running a faro game. With a pistol in each hand, Calamity announced to the crowd what Laughing Sam had done to Tid Bit. “I never heard a man get such a cussing as she gave him,” White Eye wrote in his memoirs. “And she made him give Tid Bit two $20 gold pieces.”
Young was tending bar in Saloon No. 10 on August 2, 1876, as Hickok played poker with Carl Mann, Charlie Rich and Captain William R. Massie. After 20 minutes of play, Massie won a big hand from Hickok. “Bill then asked me to bring him $50 worth of checks, which I did,” Young wrote in his 1915 memoir Hard Knocks. “I placed the checks on the table in front of Bill, standing as I did so between him and Carl Mann. Bill looked up at me and remarked: ‘The old duffer [meaning Massie] broke me on the hand.’ Those were the last words he ever uttered. There was a loud report, followed by the words ‘Take that!’” Jack McCall had shot Hickok in the back of the head, killing him instantly. Caught in the street, McCall faced a miner’s court. He falsely claimed Hickok had killed his brother, and the jury came back with a verdict of not guilty. McCall then left Deadwood. In Cheyenne he bragged about the killing, was arrested, found guilty in federal court at Yankton, Dakota Territory, and hanged.
Back in Deadwood it was business as usual for Young. One of the bar customers was Hartman, and a feud, probably over a woman, arose between the two men. On various occasions Laughing Sam told people he was going to kill Harry. The bartender learned of the threats and, on August 19, asked bar owner Mann if he could borrow a gun. Not wanting any more trouble in his place and not wanting to lose his bartender, Mann said no. Twice Mann asked Hartman to refrain from making any more threats against Young. But Laughing Sam was in no mood to laugh off the feud, telling Mann, “Sam Young, the son of a bitch, I will kill him.”
With the feud red hot on the evening of August 22, Mann told Young to work in a dimly lit portion of the saloon, so he wouldn’t be a sitting duck. Mann then tracked down Hartman at a dance hall and warned him that should he kill Young, he would “go up” in a second, meaning Harry’s friends would lynch him on the spot.“He won’t speak to me,” Laughing Sam said of Harry, adding that he would “kill that Young and whore,” no matter the consequences.
Hartman forced the issue. At 10 that evening he entered Saloon No. 10 and asked for Mann. At the same time, Hartman’s partner, Bummer Dan Baum, borrowed Laughing Sam’s hat and overcoat and walked through the saloon to the rear door. Exactly what the partners had in mind was never spelled out, but perhaps they meant for Bummer Dan, dressed like his friend, to distract Young, allowing Hartman a better chance to shoot Young when he wasn’t looking. No matter what the pair was planning, things didn’t work out for them. Young saw a figure walking toward him who sure looked like enemy Laughing Sam. Thinking Hartman had come to kill him, Young pulled out a revolver and shot twice. “I am murdered,” Bummer Dan shouted and soon after died.
A crowd gathered around Young. “If I am the man you are looking for, I deliver myself up,” the bartender said. When asked if he had done the shooting, Young answered, “I did, and all I want is a fair trial, and if found guilty am willing to suffer the consequences.” Young said he had shot the wrong man. The townsfolk appointed Judge W. R. Keithley to preside over the trial. Fellow citizens acted as prosecution and defense attorneys, and they empaneled a jury. The plea was self-defense. After more than three hours of deliberation, according to The Black Hills Pioneer, “The jury…returned the usual verdict of not guilty.”
Young remained in town through September, but perhaps he didn’t feel quite as comfortable in Saloon No.10 after the shooting. Mann granted his bartender permission to make a trip to Fort Laramie, and on October 1Young left Deadwood to help guard a gold dust shipment. But after receiving his pay in Cheyenne, he headed for the West Coast and never returned to Deadwood.
Laughing Sam Hartman may have left town earlier, perhaps right after Young shot Bummer Dan. There is no record of him as a witness in Young’s court case or that he had any intention of seeking revenge for his partner’s death. But Hartman remained in the area, apparently devoting himself to a life of crime. Newspaper accounts say he robbed stages, teamsters and other travelers. The October4,1877,editionof The Cheyenne Daily Sun stated, “Parties that are well acquainted with Laughing Sam assure us that he is a desperate fellow who would not hesitate to take life in order to accomplish any object he might have in view.”
In August 1877 C.C. Sweeny, A.A. Jones and Henry A. Homan were traveling by wagon on the Fort Pierre–Deadwood trail. Reaching the Cheyenne River crossing, they noticed three men on horseback observing them from a far hill.The next morning the trio approached the wagon as it traveled westward. One rider came within 20 feet and said, “Good morning.”The riders then closed on the wagon, two on one side and one on the other. Once in position they pulled their revolvers. One uttered an oath and then shouted, “Put up your hands and stop that team!” The bandits, none of whom wore a mask or other disguise, ordered the travelers to climb down from the right side of the wagon. They then searched the wagon and their victims, taking more than $300 in cash and other items. Jones recognized the man searching him as Hartman.
“Hello, Sam!” said Jones. “For God’s sake, leave me my watch, as I think the world of it.” Laughing Sam jumped back in surprise and asked, “Where have you ever seen me?” Jones answered,“In Deadwood.” Hartman left Jones his watch, but the thieves took all the weapons as well as Jones’ good horse, leaving behind a worthless mount.
Hartman later threw in with notorious highwayman Clark “The Kid” Pelton, pulling off several robberies before traveling to Iowa to lay low for a while. They buried some $4,000 worth of loot and workedforalocalfarmerat$18amonth. As it happened, one of the farmer’s neighbors was just back from the Black Hills, where he’d been robbed on the trail. He thought Laughing Sam was the man who had held a pistol to his head and demanded money, and he was certain when he heard Hartman speak.The neighbor traveled to Omaha and shared his suspicions with a deputy U.S. marshal, who arrested both suspects in October and learned the true identities of the Kid and Laughing Sam.
Hartman stood trial in Rapid City, Dakota Territory, in 1878 and was sentenced to nine years and eight months at the Detroit House of Corrections in Michigan. The only two longer sentences to come out of Dakota Territory were both for murder.The usual robbery sentence averaged just 11⁄2 years. Authorities released Hartman on February 10, 1882. Someone wrote PARDONED on the register, and Laughing Sam disappeared from the record. Or did he?
About this time a so-called Hole in the Wall Gang operated out of Wyoming, and one of the members was “Laughing Sam” Carey. Could he have been one and the same Laughing Sam Hartman, who had used such aliases as Sam Hartwell and even Sam Young, the surname of his onetime nemesis? In any event, Laughing Sam Carey also soon vanished from record. As for Samuel “Harry” Young, he wrote in his memoirs about serving Wild Bill Hickok his last drink but made no mention of his feud with Laughing Sam or his shooting of Bummer Dan.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.