Sunday, March 11, 2012

Goochey's Story About Vigilantes

Doc Middleton
In a February blog I shared the transcript of one version of the story Louis Goochey told his grandchildren about the Turpin shooting.  I promised more information to help sort through the story.  This is a start....

Goochey told his family that “shortly after the family moved to their claim on the Niobrara [he] was approached by a committee from the neighborhood. They stated that the area was rife with horse thieves, and, since law authority was tenuous at best, they had formed a vigilante committee to protect their property from these thieves.” 

How true is this?  Let’s look at what was going on.

As for the Goochey family, they were in Baker, Guthrie County, Iowa when the 1880 census taker made his rounds.  They show up in Ponca, Dixon County, Nebraska in 1885 according to the 1885 state census.  According to Goochey researcher Vicki Daughton they next went to Stuart, Holt County but then were on a tree claim north of Stuart at the time of the 1888 blizzard.  From there they went to Rock County, arriving around 1890.

How about the horse thieves?  What were they doing? 

We know that Kid Wade, the notorious horse thief was hung from the whistling post in Bassett in 1884.  The Goocheys missed that one – they were barely in Nebraska by then.  It was reported that Doc Middleton had stolen about 3,000 horses by the time he retired from “gang life” and started to settle down in 1879.  An article in the May/June 2011 Nebraska Life magazine tells us he spent some time in prison in 1883 and then was deputy sheriff of Sheridan County, Nebraska  in 1885-1886.  It goes on to say that “eastern newspapers convicted Middleton as the scourge of the Midwest and blamed him for every missing animal within 500 miles of O’Neill.”  By 1890 he was involved with smuggling whiskey to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  

And where was Doc in 1893 when Newt Turpin was shot?  A story in the May 1970 issue of Boys’ Life magazine reported that on June 17th despite an attempt by worried animal rescue groups to stop the event” nine riders took off in a 1,000 mile horse race from Chadron, Nebraska to Chicago to commemorate the Columbian Exhibition.   Doc was among the riders. 

And finally, let’s talk about the “tenuous at best law authorities” and vigilantes. 

Historian Harold Hutton wrote about the lack of law enforcement when Brown County, Nebraska was organized in 1883.  Rock County was formed from the eastern part of Brown County in 1888.  The principle county offices in Brown County had not yet been filled and settlers were close-knit in order to protect each other. 

In a February 1, 2010 article in the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal-Star, Jim McKee wrote “A group of 18 farmers, ranchers and settlers in the Niobrara area called the Niobrara Mutual Protective Association and the Chelsea Regulators, or simply the Regulators, formed under the loose control of "Captain" Burnham, though the title seemed to drift between leaders.”  Other vigilante committees were formed near Keya Paha and in Holt County. 

But Hutton explained in his book The Luckiest Outlaw that sometimes it was just necessary to get along, even with the outlaws.  Newt Turpin tried to get along with everyone and it’s told in our family that he tried to stay on friendly terms with Doc Middleton, offering him meals when he travelled through.  I’ve found no reports or evidence that Turpin was a member of a vigilante committee. 

After vigilantes took Kid Wade from the Holt County sheriff and hung him in 1884, the vigilante committees began to lose favor with the public.  Kid Wade was dead.  Doc was retired and living in Gordon, Sheridan County, Nebraska.  In 1888 Rock County was formed, the area was being settled, and citizens had the protection of law enforcement.

By 1890 when the Goochey family arrived, all that remained were the stories and fear. 

The Goochey grandchildren heard from old Louis that “the committee invited [him] to join their organization.  He took their offer under consideration but later refused the offer, stating that he considered the actions of the vigilantes to be worse than that of the so-called horse thieves.  This refusal set into action a series of attempts to remove [him] from the area.”

Personally I find that unlikely. 

First, the events and timing are wrong.  Secondly, I have found no proof and the Goochey researchers have not provided any either.  It’s more likely that, over the years, Goochey enhanced his own tale with various bits and pieces of real history that he himself had not experienced. 

Lastly in looking at Louis Goochey’s behavior it appears that he needed no prodding to move on.  In truth, he was Canadian-born and spent his entire life moving from one place to another.  Between 1880 and 1890, he moved five times.  After he shot and killed Newt Turpin, he continued to move about – he moved to Newport, then Ainsworth, then the State of Missouri, back to Schuyler, Nebraska, then to Ericson, and then a return to Rock County.  All of this was in a relatively short time period.  He eventually ended up in California, with how many stops in between here and there?  

One could speculate.  Maybe he was always looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and just always had bad luck.  Perhaps unlike Will Rogers, Louis never met a man he liked so he kept moving west.  Most likely, the life of a homesteader on the plains of Nebraska was very difficult and it took faith, courage, people skills, and a lot of very hard work for which Louis was not suited.  He tried and tried but could not make a life in Nebraska.

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