The hanging and burning of Luther M. Mitchell and Ami W. Ketchum in late 1878 in southern Custer County was a shocking event that made news all over the state and across the nation. Newspaper headlines screamed, "Man Burners! Man Burners!"
The tragedy was a culmination of the battle between the homesteaders and the cattlemen. Although a blow-up was expected between the principals involved and possible killings anticipated, no one was prepared for the shock of the planned murder, and burning of the men.
Homesteaders were trickling into Sherman, Custer and northern Buffalo Counties in the 1870's. As a rule they were quiet and inoffensive, of limited means, and desirous of making a home for themselves and their families on the plains of Nebraska. At this same time cattlemen from Texas, discovering their cattle did well on the nutritious grasses of the Nebraska rangeland, brought great herds and established cattle ranches on thousands of acres, building their home ranches on every available river or stream in an effort to exclude the settlers.
The largest ranch operation was that of Texan Isom Prentice (Print) Olive. In the autumn of 1876 he settled his family in a home along the railroad at Plum Creek (Lexington), but established the Olive Ranch north of Plum Creek on the South Loup River, with his brother Bob as ranch foreman. Bob had recently returned from Wyoming and had taken the name of Bob Stevens to avoid arrest on a murder charge, for which a $400.00 reward had been posted. Several thousand head of longhorn Texas cattle were driven to pasture on the hills of what is now Custer County. These cattle wandered all over the country, destroying crops of homesteaders and forcing many to give up their claims. This was unorganized territory, the law was difficult to administer, and many cattlemen took advantage of the situation.
Print Olive was the head of the ranch and the self-appointed new cattle king. Together with his brother Bob they formed a ruthless pair. The Olives made their own laws and forced many settlers, some with families, home and crops, to leave their homesteads.
Mari Sandoz, in The Cattlemen, describes the situation:
The transplantation of the new cattle king and his methods to Nebraska from south-central Texas, where he was almost literally driven out, caused much stir. Everything he did was big, highhanded, overbearing, bulldozing. At the ranch Print's word was law.... Before long the little ranchers who ran cattle on the government land were commanded to keep their stock out of it, and homeseekers warned not to come in. This range was now Olive property.
Along with cattle ranching went cattle stealing, and some would-be settlers made their living by killing off the ranchman's cattle and disposing of it at points within driving distance, often Kearney where it was referred to as "slow elk". When Whit Ketchum was implicated in such a charge by one Manly Capel who had been arrested in Kearney for cattle stealing, it was the opportunity the Olives had been waiting for. The charge against Ketchum was never proved. However, Bob Stevens obtained a warrant from Sheriff David Anderson for Ketchum's arrest, and with three others - all desperate men - proceeded to the Ketchum farm home on November 26 to arrest him.
Ketchum was in Mitchell's corral where the two men were hooking up to a wagon to return a borrowed bull when Bob Stevens and his men dashed into the yard on horses, revolvers in hand, and opened fire on Ketchum. Both Mitchell and Ketchum returned fire from the protection of the wagon box where they had been working. Several shots were fired from both sides. Ketchum was shot in the elbow and some of Stevens' men received wounds, but Bob Stevens was mortally wounded from a shot fired by Luther Mitchell. Dr. Dildine was brought from Kearney but could not save him. Stevens died on November 30 and his body was returned to Texas to lie beside another brother killed in a gun battle.
Mitchell and Ketchum, realizing what would happen if they fell into the hands of the Olives, started for Merrick County where Mitchells had previously lived. Their first stop was the Loup City home of Judge Aaron Wall who advised them to keep moving east out of range of the Olive gang and to turn themselves in to the authorities for protection. After securing a place for Mrs. Mitchell and her daughters, the two men turned themselves in to Wm. Letcher, sheriff of Merrick County. Doubting the ability of his own jail to withstand an attack by the Olives, Sheriff Letcher decided that the only safe place for the men was in Kearney, which had the strongest jail in the area, newly built from Kansas limestone. So the prisoners were turned over to Buffalo County Sheriff David (Cap) Anderson.
meantime, Print Olive had offered a $700 reward for the arrest of the
men and their return to Custer County. No sheriff was willing to turn
prisoners over to Custer County and the outlaw cattlemen who controlled
that area. Finally, Sheriff Gillan of Keith County arranged to take the
prisoners to Custer County. He promised to notify their attorneys,
Calkins of Kearney and Thomas Darnell of St. Paul, so they could
them to Plum Creek, and thence to Custer County. Suspicious that
Gillan might be allied with the Olives, the attorneys kept a close
on the situation, and on the morning of December 10, Darnell watched
noon train pull in, fearing the prisoners might be put on board, but
no activity, turned away and did not see Gillan who at the last moment
hurried the prisoners onto the train. When they realized what had
Calkins and Darnell telegraphed Gillan at Elm Creek asking him to hold
the prisoners at Plum Creek until they could arrive on the evening
and this Gillan promised to do. The lawyers also telegraphed Attorney
at Plum Creek to alert him to the situation, and to await the arrival
Attorney Darnell. By the time Darnell got there, Sheriff Gillan and the
prisoners were already gone. Two telegrams tell the story:
So great was the fear of the Olives that no sheriff would undertake the serving of a warrant issued by District Judge Wm. Gaslin for the arrest of those involved in the murders. Finally on January 6, almost four weeks after the murders, in a plan devised by Attorney General Dilworth and Lawrence Ketchum, brother of Whit, Olive and his accomplices were captured by surprise, one at a time, with no bloodshed or resistance.
District Judge William Gaslin about 1880.
Photo from Judge William Gaslin, by John Haskell.
There are many conflicting stories about the events involved in the Mitchell-Ketchum tragedy. Many questions have been raised that will never be answered. Probably the most confusion revolves around the Sheriff of Buffalo County, David (Cap) Anderson, and his decisions (1) to issue a warrant for the arrest of Ami Ketchum and hand it to an Olive to serve, and (2) to hand over the two prisoners who were entrusted to his custody to suspected Olive men.
Joel Walker in a paper written for a Kearney State College history class has researched the questions and refutes the opinion expressed by Historian Richard Crabb in his book, Empire of the Platte, that Anderson received a $500 bribe from Sheriff Gillan and Phillip DuFran, two corrupted officials ruled by Print Olive. There is no proof that any money ever changed hands. Furthermore, there was never at any time a blotch of Anderson's military or public record. He had had a very active and honorable military career in the Union Army. Anderson came to Kearney in 1872 and was elected sheriff in 1876, serving until 1879. Walker concludes that there is no way of determining that Sheriff Anderson was aware of Bob Stevens being an Olive. Stevens was the sheriff-elect of Custer County but not yet qualified to make an arrest. Furthermore, in Anderson's testimony at the inquest on the body of Stevens he stated: "There was a warrant issued here by Justice Cannon, sworn out by Henry Stevens and handed to me, and I deputized him to make the arrest." So the request was not made of Anderson, but of Justice Cannon. It was not mentioned at the inquest that Stevens was an Olive or that he was wanted for murder in Texas. Walker's conclusion is that "Anderson did not have any primary jurisdiction to arrest anyone in Custer County but possibly through the deputizing of Stevens, he was lending his authority to an already elected official and since it was Stevens and not Olive who requested the warrant, any power Print Olive had over Anderson was minimal and indirect."
Anderson's December 10 decision to hand the prisoners over to Custer County was, according to Walker's study, at least justice oriented. Assuming that Anderson did not know Stevens was a brother of Print Olive or that Sheriff Gillan was an Olive man, perhaps, Walker suggests, Anderson did not see this case as it has since been seen. He saw cattle thieves, fugitives and murderers, his deputy had been killed by one of them; they were law breakers and should be handed over to the Custer County officials.
Also, Anderson had other things on his mind at this time. The murder in Kearney County of a widow and her three daughters had just come to light and Anderson left on the manhunt for the murderer at about the same time Mitchell and Ketchum were released to Custer County.
These were chaotic times in this area of Nebraska when counties were not fully organized and jurisdictions not always clear. The brutal deaths of Mitchell and Ketchum were sad and unfortunate events in the development of the central Platte area but, as concluded by Walker, these murders forced important issues to surface. One to be dealt with was that equality before the law must be established between the ranchers and the homesteaders so that savage vigilante justice would not become commonplace within the boundaries of the state.
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