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Likeable Old West Swindler Ben Hodges
Benjamin F. Hodges arrived in Dodge City, Kansas in 1872 as a drover bringing in a herd of cattle from San Antonio, Texas. Nobody seemed to know anything about this mysterious stranger in town other than he had just came from Texas. That and he was of mixed parentage. His father was a buffalo soldier with the Ninth Cavalry in San Antonio and his mother was Hispanic.
Benjamin wanted more out of life than just being a cowboy and he figured Dodge City was the place he could make that happen. At the time, Dodge was a melting pot of nationalities, races and people…good and bad. But, it was also the gateway to a new frontier where businesses of all types were being established, including saloons, dance halls, brothels, and gambling houses. And that suited Hodges just fine since his skills as a card cheat, swindler and master forge would fit in quite nicely.
Hodges arrived dead broke, but everybody has to start somewhere and he took a menial job as a handyman. One day he overheard a group of ranchers having a discussion about an old Spanish Land Grant and the rightful heirs were thought to be in Texas. Since everyone knew he had just came from there it wasn’t hard to pry a little more information out of them.
Hodges, being of mixed ancestry, went back to San Antonio and used that to his advantage. He set about learning all he could about the land grant. Through some artful forgery and acting skills he was able to procure documentation indicating he was the sole heir. However, Hodges wasn’t interested in the land per se, but rather how he could use it to part wealthy citizens in Dodge from their money.
A short time later he returned to Dodge City, where his documents and a fanciful tale allowed him to secure large loans. From there it was easy to outfit himself in the fashion of a rich businessman and join the ranks of Dodge City’s socially elite. He also retained the services of a prominent local attorney to represent his claims. The scam almost succeeded. A man recognized Hodges as someone he almost hanged for rustling his cattle.
However, Benjamin was the sort who subscribed to the philosophy “If at first you don’t succeed…” He kept his eyes and ears open looking for situations he could take advantage of. He didn’t have long to wait.
When a fire destroyed the Wright, Beverly & Company store, their four-ton safe had fallen into the basement, landing face down unable to be opened. Hodges knew Texas cattlemen deposited their legal documents in the vault. He also knew a large section of land was currently open for settlement in Gray County and those documents happened to be in the safe.
A new land office had been set up in Garden City, Kansas and believing the documents concerning the property had been destroyed in the fire, Hodges wrote a letter to the land commissioner submitting his claim to the land. Attaching a number of signed affidavits to support his position, he was able to convince the commissioner to issue him a letter of credit identifying him as the owner until the land documents could be retrieved.
This letter of credit also included false claims Hodges had made indicating he also owned a large Mexican land grant in New Mexico containing profitable gold and silver mines. With the document in hand Hodges strutted about town playing the part of a wealthy cattle baron negotiating for cattle herds.
However, his plans backfired when prices for beef spiraled, leaving him unable to meet his debts. When the scheme finally unraveled, Hodges's reputation was in the toilet with financial institutions from San Antonio to Kansas City. But, Hodges persevered. He made a bid for the position of Dodge City's livestock inspector, but that failed as well when local ranchers informed the governor he was the region’s biggest and most ingenious cow thief.
Hodges patiently awaited another opportunity to ply his trade. It came in the form of a huge storm which scattered a large herd of cattle and horses belonging to John Lytle and his partner, a Major Conklin. The two informed the public their company would issue receipts which could be redeemed for cash to any who assisted in rounding up their livestock. Enter Benjamin F. Hodges, master forge.
Hodges forged several hundred receipts and headed to Kansas City to redeem them for cash. There he met Major Conklin, the partner responsible for redeeming valid receipts. Conklin didn’t know Hodges or his shady reputation and was known to be an incurable cheapskate. Trying to save a few bucks Conklin made Hodges an offer. Instead of all cash he enticed Hodges with a reduced amount of cash, new clothes, ten dollars in spending money and a week's boarding at an upscale local hotel. Hodges couldn’t lose either way so he accepted the deal.
Hodges lived high on the hog for a while but decided it was time to clear out when he got wind John Lytle and a group of business partners were headed into town. When the group met with Conklin, he bragged about how he had made a sucker out of a man named Ben Hodges. Lytle knew Hodges and therefore was naturally unimpressed with his partner’s ignorance. However, the other cattlemen knowing Hodges as well, got a good laugh at Conklin’s expense.
Despite his soiled reputation as a notorious con man, people of Dodge City liked Hodges. He was charming and polite, but what really attracted people to him was watching him work a scam. His brilliance, ingenuity and mastery of the art thoroughly amused judges and citizens alike. It was fortunate for Hodge’s he was well liked.
One job he tried to pull off nearly cost him his life. He was arrested on suspicion of rustling a herd of dairy cattle. The penalty for cattle rustling was death. Ironically, it was none other than Robert M. Wright of the Wright, Beverly & Company store who posted his bond.
At Hodges's trial the courtroom was filled to capacity with those curious as to how he would manage to wiggle his way out of this predicament. As usual, he didn’t fail to entertain. His courtroom performance was brilliant making the case it was the death penalty which inspired him to lie about his ties to Spanish nobility and landholdings in New Mexico .
His theatrics caused the courtroom to explode into bouts of hysterical laughter. The jury later returned a verdict of not guilty, not so much for his performance but because, the cows had returned to their owners on their own. A storm had scattered them from a canyon Hodges had secluded them in.
Hodges’s lived out the rest of his life in Dodge City, later on becoming somewhat of a celebrity. He finally retired and lived the straight and narrow. Although poor, he managed to make a living selling geese and vegetables he grew. Children frequently visited him, loving the stories he spun about the Old West.
He died in 1929 at Dodge City’s Saint Anthony's Hospital and was buried in Maple Grove Cemetery. An inscription on his tombstone reads “Ben Hodges, Self-styled Desperado, a Colorful Pioneer.”