A four-man posse cornered them in a farmhouse near Grand Island.
Hall County Sheriff Joseph Kilian was taking a break from his law-enforcement duties that cold fall night in Grand Island, Nebraska. It was Monday, November 7, 1881, and he was rehearsing with the orchestra he belonged to in preparation for a Saturday night dance. But then Deputy Chris Staal of neighboring Merrick County showed up with an urgent message: Two men wanted in the Midwest for the murders of three sheriffs were spending the night at the home of resident farmer William Niedfeldt. Another neighbor had refused the two “goose hunters” lodging but vaguely recalled having read their descriptions in a newspaper report. Checking the old issue, he was satisfied they were the same outlaws accused of murdering lawmen and brothers Charles and Milton Coleman in a shootout at Durand, Wisconsin, on July 19. In September the Maxwells had killed another sheriff and wounded two deputies in a wild gunfight in Illinois. For Sheriff Kilian orchestra practice would have to be cut short. He knew it was going to be a long night.
Ed and Alonzo (Lon) Maxwell were two very desperate men on the run. Fugitives for almost 10 months for crimes ranging from horse theft to murder, they had sworn many times to not be taken alive. At least three other sheriffs from Minnesota to Illinois had stared down the barrels of the Maxwells’ guns and were spared because they used discretion and backed off. Each of the Maxwells was a crack shot with both pistol and rifle, and they had no fear of the law. In Illinois they were known by their real names, but in Wisconsin they used their alias, the Williams brothers. Communication between law enforcement of the two states was poor, which had enabled the killers to escape detection. But by November, with three sheriffs dead, every lawman in the surrounding states was aware of their dual identities, their descriptions and the sizable bounties on their heads.
In Nebraska, Ed and Lon claimed to have come up for the day from Hastings to do some goose hunting. But the Winchesters they carried belied any bird hunting; goose hunters would use shotguns, not rifles. They also carried revolvers. The suspicious farmer had sent them away. But Niedfeldt, a German immigrant who spoke little English, was more hospitable. The Maxwells holed up at his place for the night.
Knowing the Maxwell brothers’ propensity for shooting at lawmen, Sheriff Kilian was not going to take any chances while trying to arrest the pair. He recruited a posse, comprising Deputy Staal; Ludwig Shultz, a neighbor of Niedfeldt; and August Nitsch, a young cigar-maker from Grand Island who was not a regular deputy but would show plenty of mettle.
Armed with shotguns and revolvers, the men arrived at Niedfeldt’s farm about 5 in the morning on November 8. The house had only two rooms—a front kitchen-living area and a back bedroom where the Maxwells spent the night in bedrolls on the floor. Each brother had two revolvers under his pillow and a Winchester within reach. Ed and Lon were just waking up when the four strangers showed up.
Also passing themselves off as goose hunters, the four possemen made small talk with the Maxwells while Niedfeldt’s wife prepared them all a light break fast. During the conversation Kilian asked the pair several questions about Hastings the Maxwells could not adequately answer. He also noticed that the younger of the two men put on his socks with his feet hidden beneath the bedclothes. Lon Maxwell’s distinctive identifying feature was a missing toe, amputated after an accident with an ax the previous winter. Kilian was convinced these were the notorious Maxwells, but he wasn’t quite ready to play his hand.
The general chitchat had seemingly put the killers at ease. Lon, perhaps feeling “nature’s call” or wanting to check on their horses, put on his hat and coat and excused himself from the house, not bothering to take his rifle. He headed toward the barn.
With Lon temporarily out of the picture, Kilian decided to make his move. “I want you,” the sheriff told Ed, who was only 5-foot-3 but wiry and quick. The older Maxwell instinctively reached for his gun. But Killian, who had been a cavalryman during the Civil War, proved even quicker, grabbing Ed around both arms and throwing him to the floor. Meanwhile, Staal scooped up Ed’s rifle while Nitsch covered Ed with a double-barreled shotgun. When Kilian took Ed’s Winchester to the bedroom, Ed made a move for a hidden revolver. But Nitsch and Schultz pounced on him before he could reach the weapon. Kilian and Staal then put the older Maxwell in handcuffs.
Ed was no longer in a position to make a fight of it, but to warn his brother he let out a series of war whoops—a predetermined signal there was trouble. In the past such signals between the brothers had proved effective. Sheriff Kilian was afraid Lon would heed the warning and bolt. But Lon had the opposite intention.
With revolver in hand, the sheriff stepped outside the kitchen door as Nitsch covered him from inside with his shotgun. Lon also had his revolver in hand and was racing toward the small farmhouse. When Kilian ordered him to halt, Lon instead fired a shot. The slug zipped past the sheriff’s ear as he ducked back into the kitchen. Lon squeezed off a second shot, which lodged in a table leg.
With the kitchen door slightly ajar, Kilian stepped to one side and blocked the sill with his foot. The fearless Lon kept coming, intending to kick the door wide open and enter the kitchen with his revolver blazing. But with the sheriff’s foot in the way, the door only opened a few inches, and Lon found himself looking down the barrels of Nitsch’s shotgun.
Undeterred, the younger Maxwell darted from the door and ran around the side of the house to a window, where he hoped to get clear shots at the possemen. Anticipating this, Nitsch got there first and raised his shotgun. When Lon peered through the glass, Nitsch pulled both triggers. Both shells misfired. Nitsch cursed and scrambled to reload, but the outlaw didn’t shoot. When Nitsch glanced up, Lon was nowhere in sight.
Killian and his companions didn’t dare step outside, and they stayed away from the windows, fearing Lon might appear at any one of them. After several minutes a face did appear at the kitchen window —that of Niedfeldt’s stable hand, who had heard the ruckus from the barn. Fortunately, the possemen held their fire. The stable hand then told them he had seen Lon Maxwell hightailing it across the bottomland toward the tall grass. Sheriff Kilian still wanted Lon of course, but first things first. The possemen loaded Ed Maxwell into the back of a lumber wagon, and Nitsch climbed up behind to keep his shotgun trained on the prisoner during the ride to jail. The lawmen half expected Lon to ambush them en route, but he didn’t show. Kilian soon had Ed locked up in a Grand Island holding cell.
The posse managed, along with capturing Ed, to seize two Winchester rifles, two revolvers, $2 in cash, a silver watch and a quantity of ammunition. Lon had escaped with about 100 rounds, but they were for the rifles, and he had left his Winchester in the house. That might explain why he had felt compelled to flee.
A day or two later in nearby Hamilton County, Lon gave a boy some money and sent him into a store for groceries. That was the last verified sighting of the younger Maxwell in Nebraska or anywhere else.
Ed Maxwell was returned to Durand, Wis., to face charges of murdering Deputy Sheriff Charles Coleman and Undersheriff Milton Coleman. After the judge ordered Ed back to his jail cell following a preliminary hearing, local vigilantes, not in a mood to be patient, provided their own brand of justice.
Ed was still wearing handcuffs and shackles when the vigilantes dragged the prisoner down the courthouse steps and across the front lawn to an oak tree. Ed remained defiant as the citizens threw a rope over a branch and put the noose around his neck. “Haul away!” someone shouted, and several eager hands pulled the rope taut and tied it to the trunk of the oak. After the deed was done, the crowd dispersed quietly into anonymity as a few flakes of snow fell.
Canadian Les Kruger of Ontario spent four years researching the Maxwells for his 2008 book Brothers in Blood: The True Story of Ed and Alonzo Maxwell.
Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.