by Dick Taylor
Galloping their steeds up from a previous stop at Hiawatha, KS, in early 1882, a bearded horseman brought his younger associate to the rejuvenated Pawnee City, NE, arriving probably on the very first day of spring to discover a downtown resurrected from ashes like the mythical Phoenix of ancient Egypt.
The unshaven fellow had been born to a dedicated Baptist minister and his prideful wife 34 years earlier, and habitually introduced himself as Mr. Johnston while his family usually just called him "Dave." The traveler, whose late father had been respected as one of the founders of William Jewell College at Liberty, MO, frequently explained that his new assistant, 24-year-old Charles, was a nephew.
Coming all the way from St. Joseph, MO, the two riders were conducting a field trip to survey fresh territory for practicing their profession which focused on the banking industry and railroads. Privately, Charles couldn't commit himself wholeheartedly to the venture, being preoccupied with thoughts shared only with his younger brother.
Known as a leader of men, the older man from the Show-Me State had amusingly been nicknamed "Dingus" in his youth, and since then had traveled extensively throughout the country. Dingus was rather familiar with southeast Nebraska, once staying with relatives at Rulo to recuperate from physical injuries, and presently interested in buying a farm to settle his family of four out in Franklin county of south-central Nebraska. His elder brother, Alexander, who later worked as a doorman and greeter in St. Louis, MO, had himself ridden all the way up to Omaha almost eight years earlier to begin a long and happy marriage.
Nevertheless, the out-of-towner with perhaps $1500 cash, a large sum to be carrying in 1882, would not find a single resident of the rebuilt Pawnee City who knew him personally to vouch for his character, nor any local citizen who even recognized his hairy face. While in Pawnee City, the charismatic Missourian notified Charles that he needed to convert some greenbacks to a different dollar denomination. The fuzzy-chinned senior partner decided to complete his personal business, finding a nearby bank across from the Pawnee county courthouse, on the northeast corner of the city square. Presumably, while waiting for his correct change, the congenial customer scrutinized the new interior of the C. T. Edee Bank reconstructed in a business district which had been consumed by flames almost eight months earlier.
For years, the well-traveled stranger visiting Pawnee City had been exceptionally lucky as well as proficient, boldly mixing calculated risks with timeliness, resulting in sudden substantial monetary gains. His reputation for pecuniary slyness was well-known beyond his home state, and he haughtily ignored the governor of Missouri, who had expressed proposals for his future.
Railroad tycoons wanted him. Delegates of a Chicago company had persistently sought him. He proudly boasted of accurately evaluating other men, adding that he "did not make mistakes." A very private individual, he exercised a "get tough" policy that put the opposition at a decided disadvantage, causing the downfall of many unfortunates who were luckless enough to have dealt with him.
Over at the Arlington House, the staff were routinely preparing for the usual commotion of the daily luncheon crowd, knowing a large number of people were in town on that March day. More than a year earlier, a 34-year-old Ohio native named Samuel R. Johnston had leased the fine 14-year-old two-story structure (formerly called the Woods House) from its builder-owner-operator, Joseph S. Woods, a 77-year-old widower who once helped incorporate the city. The newly-renamed Arlington House, just a block north of the C. T. Edee Bank, was an active stop on the stagecoach lines and served as Pawnee City's only hotel. Waitress Elizabeth Jane "Jennie" Hurley would soon wed her intended, Adoniram Judson "Jud" Davis, about six and a half months later, but presently the 17-year-old bride-to-be worked in food service along with other duties at the Arlington.
As noontime approached, hotel residents, local business men and women, farmers with their wives, and visiting out-of-towners all began finding their way through the main lobby to a door accessing the spacious dining hall on the ground level of the hotel's north wing. Upon entry, the patrons viewed a large fireplace made of stone and mortar at the far end of the dining room. On that busy morning, the proprietor and his 29-year-old spouse, Rasala Johnston, were helping serve in the large dining room. Back in the kitchen near the east side of the dining area, the chief cook and her assistants busily prepared the culinary fare of the day. During the rush, Jennie noticed Mr. Johnston showing two men to a table. Their faces were unfamiliar to her.
Later, after the final paying customer had departed, focus of the business place automatically shifted toward nourishing those remaining, the restaurant workers themselves. A more relaxed atmosphere of the employee lunch period in the nearly vacant room allowed hotel manager Sam Johnston to reflect on the conspicuous reticence of the strangers whom he had earlier seated at their table. That couple of fellows with the unusual demeanor had not asked for information nor directions as strangers usually do; instead, one of the pair merely commented about the weather.
Arlington House in Pawnee City as it appeared at a later date
Not being overly-impressed with any future prospect of financial success in Pawnee City, the two Missourians rode horseback eastward through a greening countryside which still had not seen the last of the seasonal snow. The enterprising speculators had yet to inspect other selected towns on their itinerary, Forest City, MO, White Cloud, KS, and Oregon, MO. Later, the bewhiskered entrepreneur chose Platte City, MO, declaring, in jargon of the times, that it was the better place for someone of his occupation to "make a raise."
But only a few days following, while Dingus was back home again at 1318 Lafayette Street in St. Joe, his good luck expired after returning from a brief jaunt to visit friends and relatives in the Kansas City area, where he had acquired a puppy for his young son. On Monday morning, April 3, while reading a local newspaper, Dingus discovered that an intimate associate in Kansas City, James A. "Dick" Liddil, had turned against him. His snap judgment of people would also prove dangerously unreliable; warily, but foolishly, Dingus had placed himself in a perilous situation. Moments later, he fell face-down on the living room floor, and gasped his final breaths.
Charles' younger brother, Robert, was only two months past being a teenager, and the kindred duo had suddenly found themselves in serious trouble. Charles informed the dying man's startled first-cousin, who scurried from the kitchen after hearing a loud noise, that a gun had fired accidently. Young Robert had fatally wounded the popular man whose death would be grievously mourned by a surprising number of angry northwest Missouri citizens. Both brothers were hauled off to jail while local lawmen began untangling the whole episode.
The body of the St. Joseph resident was transported to Kansas City by rail, and then on to Kearney, MO, in a fancy $500 glass-windowed casket for burial under a coffee bean tree growing in his distraught one-armed mother's front yard. The funeral services were embellished with "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." News of the shooting and aftermath soon made its way to Pawnee City, the southeast Nebraska town where only days earlier no one had known him.
To perpetuate his memory, a sympathetic tribute was soon composed by the unknown songwriter Billy Gashade. The dead man's dejected cousin was also his faithful wife and dedicated mother of their two young children. The couple were descendants of the same grandparents.
Their son, immediately forced into selling his newly-obtained pup for $15, later retailed cigars in Kansas City, played baseball for the Armour Meat Packing Co., married a great-great-great-granddaughter of the legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone, once extended the youthful Harry S Truman five cents soda fountain credit, practiced as a successful lawyer in Kansas City and Los Angeles, acted in a motion picture, lost a fortune in the movie business, and was buried at Forest Lawn in Glendale, CA.
Alexander, older brother of the deceased, was better known by his middle name, Franklin, or "Frank," whose ashes were later stored nearly 30 years in a Kansas City bank.
The single gunshot in St. Joe was indeed intentional, and Robert himself someday would be mortally terminated by the bullet in Creede, CO. The facts soon revealed that Charles was not really Johnston's nephew, but Charles Ford of Ray County, MO, who went on to commit suicide years later.
Quite unlike the proverbial prophet, an infamous character originally from Kearney, MO, would long be honored in his own hometown, strangely. History has categorized him as a thief and murderer. Representatives of the Chicago company who had earlier been searching for the slain Missourian were from the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, outlaw-chasers working undercover.
"Mr. Johnston," the man with the beard, or "Dave," or "Dingus," or "J. T. Jackson," or "Thomas Howard," also fibbed continually about his own identity. He was actually Jesse W. James, son of a preacher man.