Lame Johnny's Lost Treasure

This is the story of an old-time Black Hills outlaw named Lame Johnny. It has been taken from several references all of which seem to disagree. It seems there are only two parts of story on which everyone agrees: (1.) 400 pounds of gold was stolen from a shipment from the Homestake gold mine in Deadwood. And, (2.) There's no proof it was ever recovered. Now the rest of the story:

Lame Johnny was a fairly well-known outlaw who specialized in horse thievery and stage holdups in various places in and around the Black Hills in the mid 1870s. Born Cornelius Donahue in the 1850s in Philadelphia, he was said to have learned the fine art of horse thievery in Texas before coming to the Black Hills in 1876. He and his gang usually rustled horses, but occasionally went after the strongbox on various stage routes in the Black Hills. He was, in other words, your average old-West, small-time stick-up man ... that is, until a gang decided to knock off a Homestate Mine gold shipment in October of 1878.

Now the Homestake, in a effort to discourage such activity, shipped most of its gold as 200-pound ingots so as to be more than a pack animal could carry. Moreover, the gold was shipped in a special “treasure coach” called the Monitor. This coach was an iron-clad, port-holed fort on wheels that never carried passengers or other freight. It was operated by The Cheyenne and Black Hills Stage Line, commonly known as the Deadwood Stage, which was owned and operated by two men known at the time as the “stage coach kings,” Gilmer and Salisbury.

In the fall of 1878, the Monitor was held up at a stage stop called Canyon Springs about 37 miles south of Deadwood. According to accounts at the time, five gunmen took over the stage stop and waited for the coach to arrive. Once the stage arrived a gunfight erupted and one of the guards was seriously wounded by a high calibre rifle bullet. Another guard inside the coach was wounded and a third killed when he tried to run off.

The gang took the stage into the woods where they worked for two hours to open the strongbox and eventually made off with $3,500 in currency, $500 in diamonds, hundreds of dollars worth of jewelry and 700 pounds of gold dust, nuggets and bullion. The gold ingots were loaded onto a two-wheeled wagon and the tracks set off to the East through the Black Hills following various canyons and stream beds.

As the news of the holdup (and a reward from Homestake Mine) spread throughout Dakota and Wyoming several posses formed up and rode in every direction based on rumors of where the outlaws had been seen. As a result, within six weeks, the stageline let it be known that 60 percent of the loot had been recovered. But the wagon and two big ingots were still missing. It was about this time that, the law caught up to Johnny near Pine Ridge and took him to Chadron, Nebraska, where he was put on the Sydney-Deadwood Stage and sent north.

Unfortunately for Johnny, a mob grabbed Johnny off the stage near Buffalo Gap and threatened to hang him unless he told them where he hid the gold. He didn't. They did. Apparently you didn't have to be too smart to be on a lynch mob in those days. For sure, once Johnny was hung, he wasn't going to tell them where the gold was. To make matters worse, the trail had gone real cold by now with rain, weathering and what-not so there was no way for the mob to backtrack and find the gold. It's been missing ever since.

Or is it?

In the beginning most people believed this story happened more or less as told -- that is, that Johnny's gang pulled the holdup then hid the gold somewhere along his route through the Black Hills. Apparently lots of people hold this theory because treasure hunters have been looking for the gold ever since. This begs the question of how Johnny hid the gold. He could have left it in a previously unknown cave. Or, perhaps, he dumped the gold down an abandoned mine then dynamited the entrance. Or, maybe, he left it under water in a stream. Could it be under Deerfield or Sherdan Lakes? Or, did he simply bury it? (Maybe by covering it with tons of rock with dynamite.)

The other theory held that Johnny didn't do the job in the first place. It was fairly well-planned for someone who was basically a small-time horse thief. Also, Johnny was no rocket scientist. (Wait a minute ... nobody was into rocket science back then.) This theory suggested that somebody else did the job and then framed Johnny. It seems plausible because Johnny was known to have had a hideout near Black Gap in the East Side of Hills and the real crooks could have just left the empty gold cart in the area where they knew Johnny would be.

In any event, after the hanging, Johnny's still shackled body was buried under the Elm from which he was hung. (The tree is no more, but the grave is still there, about 8 miles north of Buffalo Gap.) Later the body was dug up and the shackles and shoes removed. The shackles now reside in the South Dakota State Historical Museum in Pierre. His shoes were put on display in a store but were later destroyed in a fire when the store burned down. A secret cave in a box canyon was discovered in the 1960s that is believed to be Johnny's hideout.

Johnny's head stone (wood actually), long since removed, read:
    Pilgrim Pause!
    You're standing on
    The molding clay of Limping John.
    Tread lightly, stranger, on this sod.
    For if he moves, you're robbed, by God.

Much later, it was learned that Charles Carey, who had been a scout for General Custer, was the leader of the bandit gang that held up the Monitor. Vigilantes hanged Carey at the Jenny Stockade in Wyoming. One by one, each of the bandits were caught and were either imprisoned or found hanging from a limb. But there's no evidence Johnny was ever part of that gang.

And, oh yes. Johnny now lies in his grave headless. Somebody stole his head.

If you want to look for the gold here are some clues: US Highway 85 leaves Deadwood, SD, heading southwest winding its way through Cheyenne Crossing and then into Wyoming. Highway 85 then turns south and heads straight to Cheyenne following, for the most part, the old stage road, passing close to Jenny Stockade near Newcastle and continuing south to Lusk, the home of the famed Stagecoach Museum. The treasure is said to be buried somewhere near the old Canyon Springs Stage Station. Canyon Springs was a relay station located in Beaver Canyon about 37 miles south of Deadwood. Of course the gold could be anywhere between there and, say, Buffalo Gap.



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