HORSE THIEF OF 1875, BERNARD DUNN
BY JIM HANSEN
An oral history of a horse thief being killed near Walnut, Iowa has persisted throughout the years.
As the years passed and the citizens of early Walnut passed away, the story was repeated by a new generation. The son of one of the early Walnut families, who helped start Walnut Creek Station, passed on the only remembered information, since the Walnut Bureau newspaper did not exist at the time of the event. Was the following article possibly part of that memory? “W. S. Sankey said the cemetery was started when a horse thief was shot in May, 1885, and was the first man buried in the potter’s field, there being but one other grave in the cemetery at that time.” (The Walnut Bureau, October 6, 1927) [Ed. Note: Was the 1885 date a mistake by the storyteller, writer or a misprint by the typesetter? The date was actually May 26, 1875.]
Here is the oral rendition. “This was open range with no fences and this little town was trying to grow in a sea of prairie grass.
Among the few businesses that were here were two livery stables – one stood one-half block east of the bank and the other one-half block east of that. A rider, who was a stranger, rode in hard from the west on a hot, lathered, winded horse and stopped at the first barn to try to trade or buy a horse. They had none, and when he was told the same at the other livery barn, he rode on east over the hill.
The horse and rider had no more than gotten out of sight when the Sheriff came in from the west looking for this man and horse. He was told that the man had just ridden out east, and the Sheriff was seen heading that direction. Shortly after, both were sighted riding full gallop from east of town to the southwest, no more than a quarter mile south of town on the north slope of the hill.
The Sheriff started shooting at the horse thief. The head of the horse ridden by the thief was turning from side to side, and when it turned once too often, one of the bullets from the Sheriff’s gun took out an eye. This made the horse turn in circles, and the Sheriff shot the horse thief dead at that spot, which would be about 400 feet east of the highway and halfway up the hill south of town.
The horse thief not only caused a lot of excitement in this little pioneer town, but it gave the residents someone to bury in the new cemetery. It was told that his was the first body buried in the south cemetery, in the far southeast corner. It is said that a stone was never put up with an exact date, but it could have been about 1876 as that was the year the cemetery was started.”
New information came about by chance when my wife, Karen, was searching for information on her ancestors in an 1875 Atlantic, Iowa newspaper. With this information, I searched more issues of the Atlantic Telegraph, The Avoca Delta, The Harlan Hub and the Harlan Weekly Herald. We now know that the story of the infamous Walnut horse thief actually began in another community some days before the excitement of the riding and shooting that occurred near Walnut.
A farmer and businessman by the name of Thomas McDonald lived with his family, about 8 miles north of Avoca, on a large farm that included the future site of Corley. As a matter of fact, the new community was created by Mr. McDonald and named “Corley” after his wife’s family name. He was elected twice as treasurer of Shelby County. He also was instrumental in bringing the first railroad to Harlan and Shelby County. At the time of his death in 1881, at the age of 38 years, he was president of that railroad line. The McDonalds were of Irish decent and hired a number of Irish men for the required labor on the farm. One of the Irish men working there was Barney Dunn who was approximately 25 years old. No record has been found as to the reason Mr. Dunn was discharged at the time, but there had been a number of horses stolen from farms northwest of Avoca, and Barney didn’t have a spotless reputation. The following statement was made after the event near Walnut. “The fact is, the Avoca officers knew Dunn by reputation, knew him to be a man who would commit any crime, and they felt it their duty to secure his arrest. . . .” (The Avoca Delta, June 3, 1875)
The earliest article I found is from The Avoca Delta, May 27, 1875. The following is from more than one article in the Avoca Delta and the Atlantic Telegraph.
A man named Barney Dunn, who had been working for Thomas McDonald, living eight miles north of Avoca, was recently discharged. After he left Mr. McDonald’s farm, a man by the name of Geo. Brown, who came here from Nebraska, fell in with Dunn with whom he had been acquainted. Dunn wanted to know if he “wouldn’t like to make a raise.” Brown said he would, where upon Dunn told him he knew where he could steal a couple of horses—make a raise and enable him to pay a grudge owed.
Brown came to Avoca night watch Car and told him Dunn was going to steal a horse last Tuesday night week, and wanted him to arrange to arrest him. Car informed the Marshal of Dunn’s plan. Marshal Beswick got hold of Brown and told him he must go in with Dunn and learn his plans to steal the horse so he could entice Dunn into town to enable him to arrest him. Brown refused at first but was finally prevailed upon to do so. Before he went after the horses Dunn proposed that he and Brown should go and ravish a woman who lived alone not far from Avoca, but Brown refused. After this he went to steal the horses.
Brown notified Beswick they would not be coming into Avoca, but rather through Walnut about three o’clock Wednesday morning, Mr. B. and John Cool went down there (Walnut) and remained until daylight, when they returned to Avoca, leaving the matter in Hinckley’s hands. (Hinckley was the acting law in Walnut.) They had not unhitched their horses when, on the seven o’clock train, they received notice that the thief was near Walnut, and they again started about eight o’clock in the morning to arrest him. In the meantime, Brown had been in Walnut and informed Mr. Charles Hinckley that the thief was near town, and he would entice him in for breakfast. He did so, but Mr. Hinckley was gone.
Soon after, Dunn left town, but Brown remained when he arranged with Hinckley to arrest Dunn. Dunn passed over to the south side of the track, but Brown followed him. Mr. Hinckley mounted his horse and rode after them. When within a short distance of them Brown discharged a pistol as previously arranged, which attracted the attention of Dunn, who wheeled in his saddle and fired at Hinckley three times, the third shot striking his horse in the eye. Dunn would have fired again, but was having trouble with his pistol. Hinckley then drew his pistol, took deliberate aim and fired, the ball striking Dunn below the shoulder-blade, killing him instantly.
The Atlantic Telegraph’s first report on the shooting was not complimentary to the Avoca and Walnut law officers. An article from theAtlantic Telegraph, June 2, 1875 reads: “. . . a prominent citizen of Avoca assures us that the officers only desired to discharge their duty. The gentleman said so many horses had been stolen in the country northwest from Avoca, that the officers were determined to catch one of the thieves at least—hence, when it was learned that Dunn had a notion to steal a horse, he was not dissuaded from his purpose because the officers thought that by letting him take the horse, and then arresting him, they might get a clue to a gang of the villains, and get more of them. The gentleman farther assured us that Hinckley had no opportunity of arresting Dunn while in Walnut, and could have done nothing less than return the fire when fired upon.
Under the immediate circumstances, Hinckley certainly did the right in firing, but the part that Brown played was villainous. Had he not fired, Dunn would not have fired. What part of the arrangement could it have been that Brown was carrying out by firing his pistol? It is said he discharged his revolver to keep up appearances—to make Dunn continue to believe him (Brown) a thief and not a detective, so that when he (Dunn) served his time out of the penitentiary he wouldn’t come home and kill Brown for betraying him. That is quite an imaginary excuse. Brown should be arrested immediately. He is certainly a bad man. A gentleman from Walnut informs us that citizens of Avoca raised Brown a purse of $150 for meritorious conduct.”
The Coroner’s Inquisition May 26, 1875
“STATE OF IOWA.
An inquisition holden at Walnut, in the County of Pottawattamie and State of Iowa, on the 26th day of May 1875, before W. H. Linfor, Justice of the Peace, acting as coroner of said County, upon the body of Bernard Dunn, there lying dead, by the jurors whose names are hereto subscribed.
The said jury when on their oaths do say that the said Bernard Dunn came to his death while attempting to escape from C. R. Hinckley, who was endeavoring to arrest him, and who was, at the time of said death acting as an officer of the law in making said arrest, and that said Bernard Dunn had deliberately fired a revolver at said Hinckley, and was attempting to again fire at him and escape from custody, when he was shot by said Hinckley, and that said Hinckley shot said Dunn in self-defense when his own life was in imminent peril at the hands of said Dunn, who had committed the crime of grand larceny and was attempting to escape and to murder said Hinckley. And the said jurors exonerate said Hinckley from all blame or guilt in this matter, and find that the killing of said Dunn was done in self-defense by said Hinckley and while said Hinckley was in the discharge of his duty as aforesaid.
In testimony whereof the said jurors have hereunto set their hands the day and year aforesaid.
M. P. HARRIS.
W. H. WHITACKER.
W. H. LINFOR, J. P. and Acting Coroner.” (The Avoca Delta, June 3, 1875)
Now we can compare the oral story to the printed material of the time. Following are 12 comparisons:
A rider, who was a stranger, rode in hard from the west on a hot, lathered, winded horse and stopped at the first barn to try to trade or buy a horse. They had none, and when he was told the same at the other livery barn, he rode on east over the hill. True or false?
The newspaper said that Brown, Dunn’s partner, searched out acting Marshal Hinckley. It also identified Dunn as a known scourge; as least in the Avoca area. Another article said the two men had breakfast in Walnut and spent some time in town before Hinckley was located.
The horse and rider had no more than gotten out of sight when the Sheriff came in from the west looking for this man and horse. True or false? The Avoca Sheriff was looking for the thief, but he arrived after the thief was dead.
Shortly after, both were sighted riding at full gallop from east of town to the southwest, no more than a quarter of a mile south of town on the north slope of the hill. True or false? Similar stories with some variances.
The Sheriff started shooting at the horse thief. True or false? Brown fired first, in the air, so Hinckley would know which one was the thief. Then Dunn fired 3 shots at Hinckley. Hinckley’s one shot was fired in self-defense, killing Dunn.
The head of the horse ridden by the thief was turning from side to side, and when it turned once too often, one of the bullets from the Sheriff’s gun took out an eye. True or false? The newspaper said the third shot from the thief’s gun hit Hinckley’s horse in the eye.
The Sheriff shot the horse thief dead. True or false? Again, it wasn’t the Sheriff, it was Hinckley. But, true, the horse thief was dead.
The spot, which today would be about 400 feet east of the road and half way up the hill just south of town. True or false? Probably very close.
As shown in the painting of the incident, a rifle was used to shoot the horse thief. True or False? Per the newspaper reports and the hearing, pistols were used.
The horse thief not only caused a lot of excitement in this little pioneer town, but it gave the residents someone to bury in the new cemetery. True or false? True.
It is said that a stone was never put up with an exact date, but it could have been about 1876. True or false? True, no stone was put up, but the Coroner’s Inquisition gives the exact date of May 26, 1875, so “could have been about 1876” was just a guess.
It was told that his was the first body buried in the south cemetery, in the far southeast corner. True or false? Upon witching in the far southeast corner, the wires I used did cross, indicating the earth had been disturbed at some time. Was he first? Possibly.
1876 was the year the cemetery was started. True or false? It so happens that the Avoca Delta had an article about Walnut’s new cemetery in the very same paper where the Coroner’s Jury report was printed. The article reads: “The cemetery at Walnut lies just east of town. The lots have been surveyed off in streets and sell according to location from $1 up to $10. It is nicely enclosed.” (The Avoca Delta, June 3, 1875) As with most oral stories, facts become altered over time. For the most part, the story is close.