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Old West Outlaw "Lame Johnny"
Maybe you’ve never heard of “Lame Johnny.” Many haven’t. He was a lesser known outlaw of the Old West whose name has been buried in the back dusty pages of history. He was born Cornelius Donahue in Philadelphia in 1850 and he died at the end of a posse’s noose in October of 1878.
At first, Lame Johnny was a cattle rustler and horse thief who later graduated to stage coach robbery. His criminal career began after moving south following the Civil War. He hired on at a Texas ranch where Apache Indians frequently stole their horses. Texas cowboys taught him how to steal them back, a skill he was later to make extensive use of.
It’s not known for certain why Donahue limped. Some say it was from falling off a horse, others believe it was from polio. But, whatever the reason it gained him the nickname of “Lame Johnny.” He also used the alias John Hurley in many of his business transactions.
However, by the mid-1870s the law began closing in on Donahue and he made tracks for the Black Hills of South Dakota and its gold fields. Donahue reportedly arrived in the Black Hills by wagon train in the spring of 1876 using his Hurley alias.
He initially tried prospecting along Castle Creek in the central Hills. Then a band of Sioux stole his horses. Apparently, they didn’t know they were dealing with a professional horse thief. He borrowed a horse in Custer City and stampeded over 300 horses from the Red Cloud Agency towards the Black Hills.
Donahue shortly after gave up prospecting and tried going legit by taking a bookkeeping job with Homestake Mine in Lead. But, it wasn’t long before someone recognized him as the horse thief known as Lame Johnny. So he resumed his old occupation as a cattle rustler and horse thief and then tried his hand at robbing stage coaches. Lame Johnny picked the wrong career as his marked limp was a dead giveaway for pursuing lawmen.
Lame Johnny’s gang was perhaps best known for holding up the stage called the "Monitor" owned by his previous employer, the Homestate Mine in October of 1878. Once a month the stage would travel south with gold shipments from the mines. The take was reported to have been about $3,500 in currency, $500 in diamonds, hundreds of dollars worth of jewelry and 700 pounds of gold dust, nuggets and bullion.
Lame Johnny’s crime spree ended when he went to the Pine Ridge Reservation to steal more horses. He was arrested and plans were made to take him to Deadwood to face charges of stagecoach robbery and mail theft. Johnny was shackled, handcuffed and put in leg irons riveted to a metal plate fastened to the stagecoach floor. He never made it.
The exact details of what followed are unclear. But, it’s generally believed a band of masked vigilante’s stopped the coach about eight miles north of Buffalo Gap. They then shot Lame Johnny and hung him still in chains from a nearby elm tree. His corpse was found still hanging from the tree the next morning by a freight outfit. They buried him under the tree.
Some legends say Lame Johnny’s head was cut off and later sold to a museum. There is some evidence this happened. It’s said a few men who lived near the burial site exhumed the body and found human remains, presumed to be that of Lame Johnny, still shackled, but headless. They reportedly removed the shackles and boots before reburying him. One of the boots had a high heel which would indicate they were made for someone with a deformed foot. They were displayed in the Buffalo Gap general store until it was destroyed by a fire. One of the shackles ended up in the state historical museum at Pierre and the other at the Frontier Museum in Custer.
A concrete bridge a few miles north of Buffalo Gap on State Highway 79 identifies a small stream there as Lame Johnny Creek.
Local historians say there was once an epitaph posted on a headboard over Lame Johnny’s grave which read:
You’re standing on the molding clay of Limping John.
Tread lightly, stranger, on this sod.
For if he moves, you’re robbed, by God.