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When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow needed an Indian warrior to play the villain in his poem about Custer’s Last Stand, he intuitively selected Rain-in-the-Face, the Hunkpapa Lakota (Sioux) war chief who once boasted that he cut out Tom Custer’s heart and ate it. Good choice. Rain-in-the-Face, with his reportedly high tolerance for pain and single-minded pursuit of glory—equal to George Armstrong Custer’s own—absolutely terrified his enemies.

Rain’s own description of his response to Custer’s attack on the Indian village was transcribed by W. Kent Thomas in 1894—long after Longfellow’s poem, “The Revenge of Rain-in-the-Face,” culminated by blaming “our broken faith,” the unilateral discarding of the Sioux Treaty of 1868, as the cause of the “ruin and scathe” at the Little Bighorn. But if Longfellow wanted to show his Victorian readers a real scary Indian, he picked the right role model. Listen to Rain, according to Thomas:

I had sung the war song, I had smelt the powder smoke. My heart was bad—I was like one that had no mind. I rushed in and took their flag; my pony fell dead as I took it. I cut the thong that bound me. I jumped up and brained the long sword flagman with my war club.…

The long sword’s blood and brains splashed in my face. It felt hot, and blood ran in my mouth. I could taste it. I was mad. I got a fresh pony and rushed back, shooting, cutting and slashing.

This time I saw Little Hair [Captain Tom Custer]. I remembered my vow. I was crazy. I feared nothing.… I don’t know how many I killed trying to get at him. He knew me. I laughed at him and yelled at him.… He was afraid. When I got near enough, I shot him with my revolver. My gun was gone, I don’t know where. I leaped from my pony and cut out his heart and bit a piece out of it and spit it in his face. I got back on my pony and rode off shaking it. I was satisfied and sick of fighting; I didn’t scalp him.

Downslope from all this slaughter— according to Lakota witnesses early to the fight—the fearsome Rain-in-the-Face came upon another white soldier, already dead. He looked down with remorse, shook the dead man’s hand and said sadly, “My poor friend.” Some white officers assumed Rain-in-the-Face was gazing at Tom’s older brother George Custer, who escaped serious mutilation. In fact, the body was almost certainly that of Corporal William Teeman of F Company, the “Bandbox Troop” (so named for their sharp, straight-from-the-box appearance).

“Everybody was scalped and mutilated except for General Custer and Corporal Tieman [sic], whose scalp was partially off and who had the sleeve of his blouse with the chevron uplaid over in a particular manner,” wrote a sergeant of the 6th Infantry, present on the battlefield on June 27, to The New York Herald in 1876. “This enabled a good many men of the 7th Cavalry, who are here dismounted, to detect one of the participants on the Indians’ side in the person of Rain-in-the-Face, who was in the guardhouse last winter and chained to a corporal, also a prisoner at the time.”

Rain-in-the-Face expressed no remorse for having killed soldiers who had attacked the Sioux and Cheyenne encampment on June 25, 1876. But he dropped his merciless stance to halt Teeman’s scalping and bodily mutilation and to express sorrow at Teeman’s death.

Rain-in-the-Face was born to a warrior culture. Lakota boys were raised with kindness and affection as small children—spanking was unknown, and Indians found it abhorrent—but in adolescence, boys were encouraged to play rough. As adolescents, Rain and a visiting Cheyenne boy supposedly beat one another bloody, but he never cried: The “rain” in his name refers to drops of blood, not tears. An alternative explanation is that he never let rain or any other atmospheric event interfere with the warpath.

William Teeman also grew up in a warrior culture at a time when his native Denmark was mostly agricultural. He had won admittance to the Royal Danish Army, a privilege passed on from father to son or uncle to nephew. He became a soldier and did not want to return to farming or the skilled trades from a role considered one step below knighthood in Denmark. Soon after his native country lost the Second Schleswig War in 1864, Teeman lost his home in Schleswig—once part of Denmark, then part of Prussia and later of Germany—and emigrated to the United States, where his first enlistment form gives his profession as “soldier.”

Teeman soldiered capably during a five-year hitch in the 4th Artillery, but his service with the 7th Cavalry was more problematic: He deserted twice, yet each time made corporal once he returned to duty.

Rain-in-the-Face met Teeman in the guardhouse at Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory. During Custer’s 1873 Yellowstone Expedition, Rain had picked off two stragglers from the 7th Cavalry: Dr. John Honsinger, the 7th’s Germanborn veterinarian, and sutler Augustus Baliran, a more shadowy figure who may or may not have been a business partner of the Custer brothers before Rain was rude enough to kill him. Rain had later boasted of the killings at the Standing Rock Agency, drawing the ear of trusted Custer scout Lonesome Charley Reynolds. Tom Custer and five burly troopers had ridden to Standing Rock, arrested the loud Lakota in the post trader’s store and returned him to Fort Lincoln to face murder charges.

“I was treated like a squaw, not a chief,” he told Thomas in 1894. “They put me in a room, chained me, gave me only one blanket. The snow blew through the cracks and onto me all winter. Once Little Hair [Tom Custer] let me out, and the long swords [soldiers] told me to run. I knew they wanted to shoot me in the back. I told Little Hair I would get away some time; I wasn’t ready then; when I did, I would cut his heart out and eat it.”

While in the guardhouse, Rain-in-the-Face met a friendly white man. “There was an old soldier who used to bring my food and stand guard over me—he was a white man, it is true, but he had an Indian heart!” Rain, on his deathbed in 1905, told Dr. Charles Eastman, a mixed-blood Santee Sioux and medical graduate of Boston University. “He came to me one day and unfastened the iron chain and ball with which they had locked my leg, saying by signs and what little Sioux he could muster: ‘Go, friend! Take the chain and ball with you. I shall shoot, but the voice of the gun will lie.’

“When he had made me understand, you may guess that I ran my best! I was almost over the bank when he fired his piece at me several times, but I had already gained cover and was safe.… That old soldier taught me that some of the white people have hearts.”

Tom Custer and Rain-in-the-Face would meet again at the Little Bighorn. While the story that Rain cut out Tom’s heart, bit off a piece and spat it out is difficult to verify, the version he told W. Kent Thomas in 1894 at Coney Island, N.Y., of all places, has the ring of truth about it. Having knocked off two pocket flasks of whiskey, along with a bellyful of hot dogs, peanuts and popcorn he had picked up while signing autographs, Rainin-the-Face was in no mood to prevaricate, and his description of what really happened at the Little Bighorn was a prescient confirmation of the archaeology of Richard Allen Fox Jr. and Doug Scott: “We were better armed than the long swords. Their guns wouldn’t shoot but once—the thing wouldn’t throw out the empty cartridge shells. When we found they could not shoot, we saved our bullets by knocking the long swords over with our war clubs— it was just like killing sheep. Some of them got on their knees and begged; we spared none—ugh!”

Corporal William Teeman was already dead when Rain found his body, but Teeman was the only 7th Cavalry enlisted man not subjected to grievous posthumous mutilation. “The Revenge of Rainin-the-Face,” as immortalized by Longfellow, was punctuated by the remorse of Rain-in-the-Face for the one white man he might have spared.

John Koster wrote Custer Survivor. Suzie Koster and Minjae Kim provided research for this story.

Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Wild West.