Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Forgotten Legend of the Wild West

Hugh Whitney's Ride into Darkness
by Robert A. Waters

A murderous thug was Hugh Whitney, and a desperate fugitive, too. A legend perhaps, or just another outlaw following a dark trail to oblivion.

On June 17, 1911, Whitney and an accomplice named Sesler, both armed with revolvers, robbed a saloon-keeper in Monia, Montana. Pearl M. Oberg of the Idaho State Journal wrote that "they were not masked. The two helped themselves to everything in sight and talked freely with the bartender until a few minutes before train time. Then they walked toward the water tank and the train depot."

The saloon-keeper, figuring they planned to escape by train, called the sheriff in Spencer, the next town on the line. The saloon-keeper then boarded the Oregon Short Line train to keep an eye on the fugitives.

Sheriff Sam Milton (sometimes spelled Melton) met up with the victim in Spencer. They began walking down the aisles, searching for the robbers. The lawman found them sitting in the smoking compartment of the day coach. Conductor William Kidd stood a few feet from the fugitives.

Oberg wrote: "Sheriff Milton took their guns and put them on a seat out of the way. With his gun in one hand and handcuffs in the other, he approached the larger of the two men and told him to hold out his hands. At that moment, the smallest man (e.g., Whitney) leaped forward, grabbed Milton, and at the same time grabbed the revolvers from the seat where Milton had placed them."

Suddenly, gunfire filled the coach. Milton went down with bullets in his chest and shoulder. Conductor Kidd charged toward the robbers in a vain attempt to help. He was shot just below the heart. As the smoke cleared, the robbers set off after the saloon-keeper, firing as he ran and darted through the train.

Kidd would die from his wounds, while Milton survived. The saloon-keeper was not hit.

Sesler pulled the signal cord, and the train ground to a halt near High Bridge, about 60 miles northwest of Idaho Falls. The outlaws leaped from the train and began running. They got lucky. The area was known for its heavy sagebrush and deep gorges. Whitney and Sesler, with a headstart, threaded their way into the high mountains.

A posse from the Woods Livestock Company in Spencer, assisted by armed guards and bloodhounds from nearby Deer Lodge Prison, joined the hunt for the fugitives. But a heavy, all-day downpour slowed the pursuers and rendered the dogs useless. However, runners went to many of the ranches in the area, spreading the word about the murderous thieves .

Whitney was described as being five feet, seven inches tall, and weighing about 140 pounds. He had a dark complexion and a heavy growth of beard. The fugitive wore blue trousers, a blue flannel shirt, and a white hat studded with nickel tacks on a leather hatband.

Soon a stranger showed up at Magill Ranch, 30 miles from Idaho Falls. After being fed a hearty meal, the man left on foot. The rancher later heard the fugitive's description and realized the stranger was Whitney. Evidently, the outlaw and his partner had split up. The rancher rounded up some cowhands, including his son, Edgar Magill, to chase down the fugitive.

Oberg described what happened next. "Before he realized it, Edgar Magill was on top of the outlaw who shot him off his horse. Standing over the fallen man, Whitney said, 'I'm going to send you on a long journey.' He took deliberate aim and pulled the trigger. The bullet hit Edgar's rib, glancing around his body. Young Magill feigned death as the outlaw mounted his horse and rode away, once more to make his escape."

In addition to Magill's horse, he stole the young man's Winchester rifle and revolver.

By now, news had reached the posse that conductor Kidd had died. The pursuers, consisting of more than 200 men, posted guards on several bridges that crossed the Snake River, thinking Whitney might try to escape via that route. After midnight, a river guard was shot by someone thought to be Whitney. The guard survived with only a superificial wound.

Whitney ate breakfast at the Cal Peiot ranch 16 miles from Idaho Falls. That night, he met a group of sheepherders near Long Valley. Whitney told the men he was also a sheepherder, and traded horses with them.

The fugitive visited at least one other ranch before disappearing.

Oberg writes: "Whitney was last seen on September 12, 1911, when he and his brother robbed the Cokeville [Wyoming] bank of $600. They had stolen horses at the Taylor ranch at Thomas Fork, Wyoming, and stationed them at different places along the route to Jackson Hole. Once they reached the Jackson Hole area, no one could find [Hugh Whitney or his brother]."

Through the years, with each new bank heist, train robbery, and unsolved murder in Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, or even California, newspapers blared the news that Whitney had struck again. These stories were all bogus. Rumor had it that he had fled to South America, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but that was never proven. Another tall tale even had him joining the military during World War I.

The truth is that in 1911, Whitney vanished from sight, and never resurfaced. What happened to him is anyone's guess.

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