The Harmless Horse Thief

By Douglas W. Ellison

Southwestern North Dakota has seen its share of characters, but perhaps none had a more entertaining impact than a young Minnesota charmer named Cleveland G. Murphy. His stay in the area was brief, most of it on the public dole as a resident of the Stark County jail at Dickinson. For their money, the people were treated to an extended comedic drama of western burlesque.
Cleveland Murphy hailed from Anoka, Minnesota. It is not known when or why he left home, but about the last of June, 1906, at the age of 18, he drifted to Dickinson. His first month in town was relatively quiet, but that would soon change.
About 8:00 on the evening of July 28, 1906, 30 year old Lawrence R. Waldron, Superintendent of the Dickinson Experiment Station, stopped at the residence of E. L. Scofield at the corner of Oakes and Hannaford Streets. Waldron hitched his horse and buggy to a telephone pole and went inside. When he emerged about an hour later, his mare and buggy were gone.
Superintendent Waldron immediately notified 36 year old Theodore N. Hartung, Sheriff of Stark County, and began sending a detailed description of his horse and rig to neighboring towns. He offered a reward of $10 for information leading to the location of his property, and $25 for information leading to the conviction of the thief.
Almost a week later word came from Seim, South Dakota, more than 80 miles south on Grand River, that such a rig had been seen there on the evening of July 29, just one day after the theft. The driver had proceeded east the next morning, taking with him a passenger named Jack McCarthy, a land locator. Their destination was Evarts, the cattle-shipping town on the east bank of the Missouri River that was the next settlement beyond Seim.
It was later learned that the thief had continued his rapid pace, pushing 65 miles the first day and 45 miles the second, which took them to the Missouri River. On August 1 they crossed the Missouri to Evarts.
At Evarts the young driver began proposing a trade, telling so many different stories about how he came to possess the rig that he immediately drew attention to himself.

Nevertheless, he did succeed in trading the rig for a span of horses and a saddle and bridle.
Upon receipt of the news from Seim, Sheriff Hartung immediately sent a telegram to Evarts, asking the local authorities to be on the lookout for the stolen rig, to arrest the driver, and to hold the property. Superintendent Waldron left Dickinson for Seim and then turned toward Evarts.
Sheriff Hartung received a wire from Evarts on August 6 that his man was in custody. The sheriff left that evening to retrieve his prisoner.
Waldron soon arrived at Evarts, where he found his mare and buggy in good shape and the suspect in custody. The young man, who gave his name as Robert Murphy, now claimed that he had bought the rig from a gambler named Tom Hughes at Glendive, Montana. On the face of it this alibi was ridiculous, for time and distance did not allow that the rig could have been driven from Dickinson to Glendive, and then to Seim, in only one day.
After proper identification was given, Waldron was allowed to claim his mare and buggy and he immediately started north for Mandan, leaving the legalities of the affair to Sheriff Hartung, who was on his way. Waldron left his mare to rest at Mandan, and took the train home to Dickinson on August 11. A few days later his rig was finally back home, where local opinion praised the mare for her fine endurance in withstanding the long, difficult drive.
When Sheriff Hartung arrived at Evarts on August 8, he was in for a surprise. The young prisoner was gone. The town marshal pitifully explained that when the boy had been taken out for a meal on the previous evening, and while his captor waited by the front door of the restaurant, the prisoner had conveniently slipped out the back. By the time he was missed, he was nowhere in sight, though it was presumed he must have gone east.
Disgusted, Sheriff Hartung pushed on. Finally, late that afternoon about 25 miles east of Evarts, he spied a man afoot who soon dodged from the road into a nearby wheatfield. The sheriff soon had the elusive traveler collared, and from the description he had been given he knew he had his prize. It would be the start of an interesting relationship. Sheriff Hartung and his prisoner, now giving his name as Cleveland G. Murphy, arrived back at Dickinson late on August 10, where Murphy was made familiar with a cell in the Stark County jail.
One of young Murphy’s first acts was to write his mother at Anoka, Minnesota, detailing his alibi of having bought a stolen horse and buggy at Glendive, and explaining how he was arrested as a thief at Evarts. It was all a mistake, he bemoaned, and now he needed money to cover his defense. A few days later he received an answer to his plea. As reported by the local press, his parents wrote “that their Cleveland was a fine boy, that he always attended Sunday school and did those things that he ought to do and they do not think he could have stolen anything. It is noted, however, that they do not offer to come out or to send any money to help Cleveland out of his present scrape.” This denial “arouses the suspicion that the present trouble is not the first offense for the young man.”
From all accounts, Cleveland had a winning personality. The press was already describing him as “a bright, intelligent young fellow” who “gives the appearance of having received better training than his stealing act would indicate.” This is clearly why Sheriff Hartung allowed Cleveland out of his cell to help in the courthouse kitchen.
On the morning of August 19, while helping wash dishes, Cleveland was sent out to the yard for a pail of water. Twenty minutes later a posse was scouring the neighborhood looking for the errant water boy, but he was not to be found.
About 4:00 the next morning, just at dawn, John Reynolds, the Northern Pacific section foreman at Gladstone, 10 miles east of Dickinson, spied a solitary figure walking east along the track, “enjoying the morning air while he wondered where breakfast was coming from.” The hungry jailbreaker was soon back in his cell, eagerly recounting details of his escape, including how he had lain under the nearby house of A. H. Arnett, watching from concealment as searchers passed close by.
“Murphy is evidently working for a nice long stay at the penitentiary,” observed the local press. For his part, an embarrassed Sheriff Hartung assured the press “that he has learned his lesson and that in the future horse thieves and other parties arrested under criminal charges and placed in his keeping, will not have any liberties outside of the cells that will enable them to make their escape.”
On August 22, two days after his return, Cleveland faced his preliminary hearing before Justice of the Peace Folsom. Through his court-appointed attorney L. A. Simpson, the prisoner pleaded not guilty and waived preliminary examination, and the Justice ordered that he be held for the next term of District Court. His bond was fixed at $1,000. Not having that much cash on him, Cleveland remained fixated on his own method of release.
At noon on September 10, Cleveland saw a few seconds of opportunity when the iron doors were unlocked to bring meals to the prisoners. He dashed through the corridor and into the sleeping rooms over the sheriff’s residence, pulled a screen off a second-story window, and dropped to the ground. A guard caught a fleeting glimpse of him dashing around a corner, and then he was gone … again.
An intense search of the area was begun and maintained until darkness fell. Sheriff Hartung had been at Richardton arresting Frank McCoy, a burglar wanted at Glendive, Montana, when he received a telephone call informing him that he was one prisoner short at his jail. The sheriff was, the press politely recorded, “very much taken aback” at the news.
Early the next morning local resident Charles Rau discovered that his white horse was missing from his stable, and local resident Cecil Dobson reported a bridle missing. The sheriff offered a $50 reward for Murphy and was forced to await developments.
The next morning, September 12, rancher C. W. Herstein, living some 25 miles southeast of town, reported a saddle and bridle missing. Sheriff Hartung arranged with local resident Charles Langley to take him out in his new-fangled Maxwell automobile, and by 3:30 that afternoon the two men were chugging toward the Black Butte settlement. This image of a motorized lawman in pursuit of a horseback fugitive offers a literal and compelling vision of the merging of the old West into the new.
By the next morning Sheriff Hartung and his driver had enlisted the aid of two cowboys, Robert Clyde and Walter Phillips, in the search for the fugitive. Details become sketchy, but about noon that day, September 13, after three days of freedom, Cleveland Murphy was overtaken by the two cowboys and meekly surrendered. He had made it over the South Dakota line, still riding the white horse stolen from Charles Rau.
After handing the two cowboys $25 for their assistance and making arrangements for the return of the Rau horse, Sheriff Hartung, with his driver and his handcuffed prisoner, started back the 100 or so miles toward Dickinson about 2:00 that afternoon. The auto proved its worth, and the trio rolled up to the Stark County jail shortly after 7:00 that evening. The sheriff reckoned he had made about 250 miles in his pursuit since leaving town the previous afternoon.
Cleveland proudly explained how he had again so quickly disappeared from sight following his break. He had slipped into a barn owned by H. L. Dickinson and had burrowed into the hay, lying still all afternoon as searchers repeatedly passed close by. After darkness fell he found his way to the Rau stable and was soon on his way.
“Cleveland the Great” has returned, intoned the local press, “worn out and entirely tame after the hard journey and from sleeping without shelter on the open prairie.”
“Murphy’s chances for a light sentence grow less with each escape,” continued the paper in a more serious tone. “However, should he be sent to the reform school it is doubtful if further prosecution would be made against him, as his continued running away after pleading not guilty proves that the boy is just a boy, or is a subject of emotional insanity.”
Cleveland would soon give the paper reason for more analysis.
On the evening of October 11 the expected happened. The details are vague, but that night Cleveland — “artist, horse-thief, foot racer, child criminal, and general pet with the sheriff” — got out of his cell and out of the building with several minutes head start. The press, remembering that on his last escape Cleveland had turned a few seconds head start into three days of freedom, opined, “With two minutes start he will probably stay away a month.”
Being dark, the usual extensive manhunt seems not to have occurred. Sheriff Hartung would simply wait until reports began to come in. Throughout the next day no reports of missing horses or equipment were heard, but the observant officer noted that the remaining prisoners were caching bits of their food. He also knew that Cleveland had run away without his shoes. The sheriff had a feeling that his wayfaring prisoner would soon return.
That evening, Sheriff Hartung laid his trap. He placed his 29 year old wife Myrtle at the window of their jailhouse pantry, he placed Deputy Brislin at the coal shed north of the jail, and he took a position by the north window in the Register of Deeds office, giving him a full view of the west jail windows. About 9:00 that evening the sheriff saw the prisoners drop a pair of shoes and several packets of food from their barred windows. A short time later the watchers saw a shadowy figure emerge from the darkness and silently make its way toward the prizes. As the form passed her dark open window, Myrtle Hartung sprang into action. “Put up your hands!” she shouted, triggering a pistol shot into the chilly air for emphasis. “They are up, Mrs. Hartung!” cried Cleveland as the two officers came running.
In reporting the successful closure of this latest chapter in the Saga of Murphy, the press bestowed a new moniker upon their jailhouse prince and wrote with tongue firmly in cheek:
“Everybody felt sorry for Murphy, and Murphy felt sorry for himself. His traveling outfit consisted of a limited assortment of clothes and he had tied a blue handkerchief about his head. No shoes, and it frosts a little every night. Skidoo said he would be nice and not run away any more without plenty of clothes and something to eat.”
This escape, his fourth in two months, marked a turning point in the career of “Skidoo” Murphy. His running days were over. No more would he play the cat and mouse game. Had the jail suddenly become escape-proof; had Cleveland suddenly reformed; or was it just too cold outside for an escape?
District Court convened at Dickinson on December 3, 1906. Among the most anticipated of the forty-nine cases due before the court was that of “Skidoo” Murphy. In addition to the original Grand Larceny charge for stealing the Experiment Station horse and buggy from L. R. Waldron, Cleveland had been charged with a second count of Grand Larceny for stealing Charles Rau’s horse during his second jailbreak. It had already been rumored in the press that Attorney L. A. Simpson would put up an insanity plea for his client.
On December 21 Attorney Simpson petitioned the Court for a change of venue on the original count. The petition was granted and venue was given to the McLean County Court at Washburn. Dickinson’s crowded court calendar could not be disposed of with speed, and on December 26 those cases that had not yet been heard were ordered carried over to the next term of Court in April. Among the many remaining cases moved forward was that of Cleveland Murphy. He would spend the winter at Dickinson.
Remarkably, Cleveland was still in the Stark County jail when the next term of Court opened at Dickinson in April, 1907. Attorney Simpson had devised a new strategy for the teenager, and had been quietly circulating a petition among officials which requested that Cleveland be sent to the Reformatory.
Accordingly, with petition in hand on the morning of April 17, “the hero of Sheriff Hartung’s administration” withdrew his former plea of Not Guilty and pleaded Guilty to one count of Grand Larceny. Sixty-three year old Judge Walter H. Winchester accepted the plea, withdrew the change of venue order to McLean County, and the following morning he sentenced Cleveland G. Murphy to the State Reform School at Mandan “until he arrives at the age of 21 years, unless sooner pardoned.”
The local press bid a fond farewell to their maker of good copy with the announcement that “Skidoo Murphy, child wonder, phrenologist, artist, myth, will adorn the state reform school at Mandan with his trouble-producing presence.”
There is no record of an early pardon, and no record of what became of Cleveland G. Murphy after he walked out of the State Reform School on his twenty-first birthday. It is to be hoped that the better angels of his nature moved him beyond the passionate extremes of his youth, and that his winning ways served him well.

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