The Northwestern Exchange

In 1882, a ranch hand saw a fire on the prairie. When he went to help, he discovered the body of Daniel Wolfe.

A color, antique postcard of Main Street, Miller, South Dakota

Daniel Wolfe arrived in Miller, a year-old boomtown in the Dakota Territory, on October 6, 1882. Having traveled the hundred or so miles from Mitchell, he took a room at the newly opened, three-story Vanderbilt Hotel. There he kicked off his boots and likely took measures to secure what gossips later claimed was a “considerable” amount of money.

Wolfe was a bachelor, pushing fifty and beginning to lose his hair, an effect he mitigated with a fashionably heavy mustache. Those who saw him commented that he was on the heavier side, with front teeth that had gone rotten. Those who had conducted business with him, or maybe just politely tipped their caps in the street, kept landing on the word “genial” to describe this itinerant Irishman — “genial and well disposed.”

They said he had come, like half of Miller before him, from Carroll, Iowa, a small farming community northwest of Des Moines. Miller’s founder also hailed from Iowa, and it had gotten so that the local paper made sure to note when a newcomer wasn’t from the Hawkeye State. Frank Mead, himself from Carroll and owner of Pioneer Lumber Yard with yet another Carroll native, said that he had known Wolfe for two years there, although he apparently remembered little about the man. Some said the Irishman practiced no particular trade. Others said he had traveled all over the country.

In Miller, Wolfe seemed intent on playing the entrepreneur. In January, the town had consisted of a mere three houses; by June the population had mushroomed to nearly four hundred people. By the time Wolfe arrived, dozens of businesses crowded this dry patch of plain along the Chicago and Northwestern Rail Line. The Vanderbilt had opened its doors a week earlier under the management of two more Iowans and was already the burg’s third hotel, not to mention its fanciest. Locals bragged it cost eight thousand dollars to construct, or about eight times more than any other building in town. It joined a Noah’s Ark of drugstores, hardware stores, blacksmith shops, lumber yards, and saloons.

A black and white photograph of the Vanderbilt Hotel, taken soon after it opened by Jasper N. Templeman. An Ohio native, Templeman fought in an Iowa regiment during the Civil War and afterward moved to Miller, where he opened a photographic studio. He died in Oxford, Iowa, in 1890.
Vanderbilt Hotel, Miller SD, Hand County by Jasper N. Templeman (South Dakota State Historical Society). An Ohio native, Templeman fought in an Iowa regiment during the Civil War and afterward moved to Miller, where he opened a photographic studio. He died in Oxford, Iowa, in 1890.

Sanford Boatman — to everyone’s relief, a Buckeye — owned one of those two bars, and he had spent the entire summer turning it into a respectable establishment: a mirror from Pierre, a fine coat of paint and an awning to block the sun, choice Milwaukee beer on draught. The other saloon had opened in June, and come fall Wolfe judged there was room for a third. Within two weeks of his arrival, he had begun pouring drinks in a billiard hall he dubbed the Northwestern Exchange.

On November 1, the Hand County Press introduced the town to its new Irishman. “He is a genial gentleman,” the editor (still another Iowan) wrote on page four, “and deserving of a large patronage.”

A clipping from the Hand County Press that includes the few lines welcoming Daniel Wolfe to Miller.

Such was the generosity of Miller. Here was a town on the way up — the finest soil, the finest architecture, the finest people in the whole territory. Not even Iowa had it so good, or so the editor insisted with hardly even a wink. Here, in other words, was the start of something big. And all comers were welcome.

Then, on November 10, a ranch hand galloping through the hills east of town noticed a curl of gray smoke on the horizon. It was about half past noon on a Friday, and thinking he could offer help in putting out the fire, the man rode in its direction.

The smell is what probably hit him first. As for the sight of it — once he urged his nervous mount near enough to understand what had happened, he traveled no closer. The corpse’s neatly fitted gray-checkered suit was still burning.

ii

The Wessington Hills were formed by the debris of a glacier, much the way a snow shovel, when pushed through a wintry driveway, will produce parallel ridges of pebbles and snow. Fifty thousand years later, these high, rolling plains made for stunning views but also arduous travel.

“The country in the immediate neighborhood of the murder is very wild and hilly,” the Hand County Press reported. “So steep are the hills and so dark the night, that the [recovery] party, although guided by a person familiar with the country, could not get within a half mile of the spot where Wolfe lay.” At one point the wagon in which they rode spilled over a rocky cliff, leaving some members of the expedition severely injured and the wagon considerably damaged.

According to legend Wessington’s first white settlers consisted of ministers and horse thieves. Chasing one another through dried-up gulches and narrow, treacherous valleys, they were locked in a perpetual battle for the soul of these hills. The authorities in Deadwood complained that the landscape’s many ingenious hiding spots made it almost impossible for lawmen to track down the territory’s malcontents. “The robbers hold their retreat there,” Deadwood’s paper grumbled, and they did so in plain sight of the railroad.

A color photograph of the Wessington Hills in South Dakota.
Wessington Hills (Sioux Empire podcast)

Even the name, Wessington, carries some of that outlaw violence inside of it. The area’s Norwegians, Englishmen, Germans, and even an Irishman or two — génocidaires all, we should remember — never tired of explaining how a teamster by that surname had accompanied an 1857 expedition across the territory. Captain Wessington, they called him, although no one ever ventured to guess his Christian name. He was captured by Indians in these hills and slowly tortured to death, eventually being set on fire. “In proof of this story,” reads a WPA anthology of place names, “a fire-charred tree is still shown as the torture site.”

This is where the barman Wolfe slipped the uncertain bonds of this life — in a deep gulch, the Hand County Press reported, lying on his back, and surrounded by the blood of history.

What the paper doesn’t ask is why he was there to begin with.

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Daniel Wolfe’s great-great-grandfather, known as Old Maurice, first lived and farmed near an old stone church called Templeathea, in the westernmost part of County Limerick. The church had housed an order of Augustinian friars when Queen Elizabeth’s men, struggling to tamp down the second violent rebellion in a decade, burned it in 1580. A makeshift replacement was destroyed in 1649, and from then on all that remained was the graveyard.

After thirty years of marriage, Old Maurice buried his wife in that graveyard. Unable to bear the sight of it anymore, he soon moved down the road to Cratloe, near the village of Athea, where he died on Christmas night of 1792. He appeared to fall asleep beside the fire as the children danced merrily around him. His family later marveled that even at age one hundred and two he retained thirty-one of his teeth, with the thirty-second tucked away in his waistcoat pocket.

Old Maurice’s sons included Short Dick, Wiggie, Young Maurice, and the Barrister, whose stately nickname derived not from his profession (he was a farmer) but from his widely acknowledged wisdom. The Barrister was the only one of the boys not to take up land in Cratloe. Instead, he ventured a few miles west and across the border into northern County Kerry. His son Maurice moved again, this time to the nearby townland of Knockanasig.

A detail from the Ordnance Survey of Ireland from 1842 showing the area around Listowel, Co. Kerry, and Athea, Co. Limerick.
Detail from the Ordnance Survey map of Ireland, 1842 (Ordnance Survey Ireland). Knockanasig is located at about the location of the number 209. The Templeathea graveyard is located off the road just above and to the right of the number 239.

Cnoc an Fhásaigh, or hill of the wilderness. This is where Daniel Wolfe was born. He was the sixth of his father Richard’s eleven children. The land around the family’s farm was an often spongy patchwork of acidic bogs and heaths, forest, and scrubland. While cutting peat, farmers occasionally unearthed the long dead — bones mostly, but sometimes whole bodies. Not far from Knockanasig, in 1879, a man named Barry pulled from the bog a full human skeleton. A curiously long lock of brown hair still clung to its head. The coroner in Athea determined the man had been resting there for centuries.

Instead of releasing bodies, the bog sometimes snatched them away in the night. A few days after Christmas, in 1896, a bog to the south of Knockanasig, near Killarney, began to slowly move. Come darkness it shook free of its earthly constraints and bled silently down the hill, eventually oozing through the house of the Donnelly family. Eight of them were sucked under.

A stereo photograph, taken sometime between 1860 and 1880, showing men cutting turf from a bog in Connemara.
Cutting turf from a bog in Connemara, c. 1860–1880 (National Library of Ireland)

Such were the whims of County Kerry. The Lord giveth, but the Lord also taketh away. In 1847 He took the potatoes and turned them black. With even young people laying down to die in roadside ditches, the Barrister’s progeny, including eleven of his grandchildren, all fled for more verdant pastures. A brother and first cousin[1] of Daniel Wolfe’s father left first, sailing the packet ship Cornelia from Liverpool that same year. After landing in New York, they moved on to Chicago, purchased land in nearby LaSalle County, and finally settled for good in eastern Iowa. Daniel’s family left in 1848 and another of his dad’s brothers in 1849. Almost to a man they stopped first in LaSalle.

A detail from the 1848 passenger list of the ship Thomas H. Perkins that includes the name of Daniel Wolfe.
“New York, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820–1957,” database with images, 29 September 1848, Thomas H. Perkins, image 6 of 8, Ancestry.com.

His father, like most Wolfes, chose to farm — the land held fast to this family — while Daniel moved to the county seat of Ottawa, a city of not quite eight thousand people. In 1868, he partnered with his cousin Dick Jr. in a liquor dealership called R. Wolfe & Co. In 1871, the same year his father died, Daniel seems to have quit town, and the next few years are lost to history.

Another cousin, Anna, married an Englishman she met in Chicago, and in 1875 she and her husband drove oxen the more than four hundred miles west to Carroll, Iowa. At some point her mother Bridget, her brother (also a Daniel), and his wife (also a Bridget), made the same trip along with half a dozen other cousins. The barman Daniel Wolfe did, too, as did his younger brother Edward, although the year of their arrival is unclear. At the time of his death, Daniel was remembered in Carroll — to the extent that he was remembered at all — for having engaged in the butter and egg business.

A Kerryman by birth, a wanderer by instinct, he was, the local paper eulogized, “a quiet and good citizen so far as we ever knew.”

An antique, color postcard of 5th Street, Carroll, Iowa, from about 1915.
5th Street, west, Carroll, Iowa, c. 1915 (Grinnell College, Special Collections and Archives)

iv

Willie Macomber, fresh-faced and twenty-one, arrived in Miller just eight days after Wolfe. He, too, came from Carroll and was briefly chaperoned by a father who could be described as — take your pick — doting, protective, or concerned. Most folks who struck out for the Dakota Territory were the fiercely independent types, risk-takers who saw an opportunity and seized it. Or, like the Irishman, they may have been a little restless, in search of whatever came next. For the Macombers, Hand County appeared to be an investment scoped out by the elder, a lawyer, and approved for his firstborn son. In the end, Willie claimed land eight miles from town and informed those he met that he hoped to establish an insurance business.

His parents named him Wilfred, a fact young Macomber must not have advertised. To his friends he was just Willie, and this may have been why so many newspaper accounts later identified him as William. He was born in Readfield, Maine, just west of the state capital, and was descended from an actual William Macomber, who hailed from Devonshire. The deep valleys of southwest England are believed to stretch and bloom inside that county’s name,[2] and in the family’s, too. In Old English, combe means valley and Macomber, perhaps, May Valley. In fact, our William Macomber first appears in the records of the Plymouth Colony as Maycumber. He apprenticed as a cooper and eventually built a house in Marshfield that he heavily fortified against the Wampanoag. In 1644 he was fined for speaking against the Indians.

A page view from the Plymouth Colony records showing William Maycumber being fined for speaking against the Indians in 1644.
Records of the Colony of New Plymouth, in New England, vol. 2, page 74.

Four generations later and the Wampanoag had largely disappeared, but the Macomber family still occupied that original Marshfield estate. Another William married a direct descendant of the Mayflower and, perhaps awkwardly, supported the British during the American Revolution. It was his son, William Jr., who, in 1808, moved north to Readfield. Junior begot James, and James begot Henry Ward, Willie’s father. In 1859 H. W. Macomber married Kate Coombs (another valley name, as it happens), and wore three stripes in the Second Maine Infantry for exactly one hundred and three days before suffering a hernia. He enjoyed telling of how, on the blistering summer’s day of First Bull Run, he was entrusted with carrying a message from the Virginia side of the Potomac into Washington. As he made his way to the city, he found himself surrounded by panic-stricken bluecoats, fleeing for their lives. Returning to Virginia he experienced only an eerie silence and the fear of advancing rebels. It was, he concluded late in life, the most uncomfortable journey he had ever made.

A detail from an 1856 map of Kennebec County, Maine, showing where the Macombers lived in Readfield.
Detail showing property of “H. Macomber” in Readfield, Maine, from Map of Kennebec Co., Maine by J. Southwick and J. Chase, 1856 (Library of Congress)

Once the war had finished, the former commissary sergeant packed up his family and took them west to Iowa. H. W. ran a hardware store in the eastern part of the state before ending up, like so many others, in Carroll, where he practiced law and was active in Republican politics.

His boy, W. H., could be described as — take your pick — curious, non-committal, or in some way academically wanting, having attended classes at no fewer than three colleges across the state. He stayed enrolled at Cornell College in Mount Vernon almost right up until he lit out for Dakota. In the meantime, he clerked at a bank, helped out around the newspaper office, and, perhaps inevitably, read the law under his father’s tutelage. Among the personal effects he left behind in Miller was a large collection of law books.

Willie Macomber likely struck those around him, including his old man, as someone who hadn’t yet found his way. If not the law, then insurance. And if not that, then something else perhaps. Maybe he would find a strong woman in Dakota, someone to clarify things. As the mercury started to tumble and winter made its move, Macomber took a room at the residence of Frank Mead, the lumberman, and ate his meals with the Presbyterian minister, Reverend Foster, and his wife.

Even on the wild and hilly frontier, life for young Macomber was still green with possibility — a long, deep valley laid out before him.

A 2006 photograph of Otter Valley, in Devon, England.
Otter Valley, in Devon, September 9, 2006, by Brian Toward (Flickr, public domain)

v

It was a Thursday evening in November when Willie Macomber walked over to Dr. W. E. Rowland’s livery stable and asked for a good team of horses. He needed them the next morning and maybe through the weekend.

“If I’m not back by Monday afternoon, don’t think I’ve run away!” Macomber said as he examined the stock.

Like the saloonkeeper Sanford Boatman, Rowland was a native Ohioan but had immigrated to Miller from Iowa. That was a year ago almost exactly, and he’d already needed to expand his business. He could accommodate thirty-eight horses now. In June one of them had kicked and dislocated his shoulder, and his medical training had done little to curb the pain. As he talked to Macomber, his shoulder was probably still a little stiff.

An antique postcard of Boadway, in Miller, South Dakota, about 1912
Broadway, Miller, South Dakota, c. 1912 (J. D. Fitzgerald)

Rowland told the young man that the horses would cost him five dollars per day.

“Exactly what I expected,” Macomber said and then ambled off in the direction of the Mead home.

Frank Mead supplemented his income renting out rooms, while his wife ran a millinery business from their drawing room. Like Macomber’s father, he had answered Lincoln’s call and spent much of the war in the swamps of Louisiana. In 1864 he saw action in the Shenandoah Valley, during which time his regiment, the 114th New York, suffered as much as sixty percent casualties. In Mead’s company, two enlisted men were killed and another ten wounded, including one unfortunate private whose face, in the final report, was listed as “missing.”

Macomber and Mead got along well enough, sometimes sitting down for a hand or two of cards. Before he stepped out for dinner, Macomber informed his host that he would be away for the next couple of days. He and Daniel Wolfe planned on taking a rig to Wessington, and from there they’d head to Huron.

“Can I borrow one of your buffalo robes?” he asked, noting the chill in the air.

vi

The land giveth, and it taketh away. In the Wessington Hills, pioneer farmers plowing their fields sometimes discovered Indian graves, many of them just three feet below the topsoil. Flat stones edged the sides, coffin-like, with earth and pebbles shrouding the naked white bones inside. Loam-covered pottery surfaced as well, and on one occasion an entire fireplace, all of which archaeologists dated to the so-called mound builders, who were said to have roamed this area thousands of years ago.

These mound builders could not have been the same savages who burned Captain Wessington, or so it was said. They must have been more sophisticated, a “lost race” of Europeans — most likely Phoenicians or maybe refugees from Atlantis. In 1877, a minister and amateur archaeologist living in Davenport, Iowa, presented to the world three tablets he claimed to have unearthed on a nearby farm. One of them narrated a cremation ritual complete with Hebrew letters.

The hills were pregnant with death. That was one way of looking at it. Here’s another: they were pregnant with stories, sprouting up like quackgrass and covering everything.

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“A stranger appearing in the town is a stranger for an hour only.” That’s how one account of the incident, published in western Pennsylvania, began. And while that likely was true, at least in Miller, evidence suggests that in the case of Daniel Wolfe and Willie Macomber there was more to it than that. Certainly they must have known each other in small-town Carroll — or at least known of each other. And men such as Mr. Mead and the Reverend Foster recalled that they had shared a room once or twice recently. So it seems likely that when they pooled their resources on a short excursion — to inspect a parcel of land (Macomber) and settle some bills (Wolfe) — they were neither intimates nor perfect strangers, just a couple of newcomers trying to make the best of things.

On Friday morning, at nine sharp, Macomber picked up his horses from Dr. Rowland. He asked for two buffalo robes, but Rowland informed him that the most he could offer was one robe and one blanket. Macomber accepted, after which he and Wolfe set off heading east. According to one story, “they were in good spirits, laughing and joking when they drove away.”

Why, though, did Wolfe and Macomber not take the train? By rail the trip to Wessington would have taken thirty-four minutes and to Huron another fifty-eight. The cost of a second-class ticket likely would have been at least comparable to the five-dollar horse fee and perhaps cheaper if they were required to pay for the horses’ feed. And a train ride would have avoided altogether the craggy knobs and fearsome draws of Wessington Hills. Not to mention it would have been much warmer.

A detail from an 1884 time table for the Chicago and Northwestern Railway showing the times of the train going through central Dakota, including Huron, Wessington, and Miller.
Time table for the Minnesota and Central Dakota Line; Chicago and North Western Railway, August 1884, page 21 (Railroads and the Making of Modern America, a digital project of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln).

Whatever logic drove them out onto the frosty plain, the two men must have found plenty of time to talk. Willie, for instance, might have confided that his oldest sister had died the year he was born, while his youngest, little Edith, had just turned six last March. For his part, Daniel had a cousin in Grand Forks (even colder up there!), and if memory served he was just out of law school — to which Willie might have responded with a vague, almost scholarly nod, as his mind drifted back to those books of his at Mr. Mead’s.

An image of the original recipe for Wolfe’s Liniment.
An image of the original recipe for Wolfe’s Liniment.
Detail of recipe in the hand of John C. Wolfe, pharmacist, San Rafael, California (Deborah Berthold)

Another cousin of Daniel’s had gone all the way to California searching for gold and now owned his own pharmacy in a place called San Rafael. Daniel’s aunt, known to everyone as Grandma, may have shared the recipe for Wolfe’s famous liniment that had been making the rounds among family members. Mix several pints of glycerin with carbolic acid, acetate of lead, zinc sulphate, and potassium permanganate — and sure your skin will be right as rain.

To which Willie may have chuckled and promised that one day he’d give it a try.

The hills were beginning to assert themselves now, devil-may-care against the wind and sky. It was difficult not to notice how empty it was out there.

Macomber, who had never traveled, surely would have asked about Ireland. Cnoc an Fhásaigh, or hill of the wilderness. That place must be empty now too, Wolfe might have thought — all of those crowded, desperate farms emptied, one after another, by famine and emigration.

Then filled back up again with ghosts.

Jumping back across the Atlantic, where he felt on surer ground, Daniel could have mentioned his distant cousin Maurice who a few years ago had attempted to post an Indian scalp from Wyoming all the way to his brother in Cratloe.

A real outlaw! Macomber might have clucked approvingly.

Actually a sergeant, Wolfe would have noted dryly. A sergeant who was busted down to private when he socked his captain and refused to apologize. A grand swing of the fists, though, wasn’t it?

At which point one or both of them must have mentioned Jesse James, whose shocking murder in April had warranted almost a column and a half of type in the Carroll newspaper. The elder Macomber likely would have disapproved of the train robber — for his crimes but even more so for his Confederate loyalties. Willie’s brother shared a Christian name with Jesse’s, but the boy’s middle name was Lincoln. The Union, now and forever. Willie, though, may have leaned discreetly in the direction of dime-novel romance. He may even have clipped that long story out of the Carroll newspaper and, lacking any strong sense of irony, pressed it inside one of his law books.

The late Jesse James was rumored to have been a North Kerryman, if not by birth then by ancestry, and newspapers reported how he had showed up in disguise to the St. Patrick’s Day parade that year. This was in St. Joseph, Missouri, where he and his wife had recently bought a home and where one of his own gang members shot him in the back of the head.

An 1882 lithograph showing the home where Jesse James was murdered and the Baptist church where his funeral was held.
The home of Frank & Jesse James, lithograph, c. May 20, 1882 (Library of Congress)

In a land of cowboys and Indians, James represented the cowboy. The Wolfes, on the other hand, had always played the Indian — or at least they had in Ireland. The idea of the “wild Irish” took hold late in the twelfth century, when the English first arrived, and never loosened its grip. In 1893, an English visitor to the (wild) west of Ireland made this observation: “Not only are the cabins in this district aboriginal in build, but they are also indescribably filthy, and the condition of the inmates, like that of the people inhabiting the poorer parts of Limerick, is no whit higher than that obtaining in the wigwams of the native Americans.” He wrote that the black-haired women resembled “squaws.”

A black-and-white photograph of a thatched hut near Athea, Co. Limerick, taken in 1940.
Thatch-roofed house near Athea, Co. Limerick, by Caoimhín Ó Danachair, 1940 (National Folklore Collection, University College, Dublin)

Just as much of a tradition for the Irish: defining themselves against the English. After all, the bastards had burned Old Maurice’s church and then burned it again. The Wolfes “could have joined with Elizabeth, Cromwell, William and swam with the tide,” one of the family’s historians wrote, “but they just did not — and fell in ruin. But I’d rather that kind of ruin than a castle of shame and betrayal.”

She, too, leaned in the direction of romance.

And anyway it was an Irish fella who had shot Jesse James. Come to think of it, it was an O’Brien who had burned Templeathea that second time, even if it had been on behalf of the king.

It was confusing, in other words, and led a man to wonder. What was it that marked you as the hunter or the hunted? Was it the cut of the land on which you traveled or something else, something deep underneath, something waiting to be plowed over and released?

For every Sergeant Wolfe taking scalps, there were men like Daniel’s cousin Tom, a farmer back in Kerry who just then was being terrorized by nightriders. The Macombers had battled Indians from the start, of course. And, regardless, Willie didn’t much care about the Toms of the world. Look at Robert Ford, he would have said — barely twenty years old and everyone knew his name. It’s true that Ford’s brother claimed the pistol went off by accident, that he didn’t actually mean to kill Jesse James. But we all know what really happened.

You’re right, Daniel might have sighed. A real outlaw.

After which he must have flapped the reins and urged their team forward.

viii

In that same western Pennsylvania broadsheet, the Irishman Daniel Wolfe opened his saloon not in Miller but in Wessington, and through his doors one day strode “a robust fellow” who “tossed his grip-sack on the bar [and] announced that he had come to buy a farm. He gave his name as William McComber, but he did not mention the place whence he had departed. The next day Wolfe happened to let it be known that he was going to Huron to pay some bills. McComber asked permission to join his host in the buggy ride, explaining that he wished to get a glimpse of the country.”

ix

Not long after lunchtime a Millerite spied Macomber on the streets of Wessington. This mustn’t have been business as usual, because the man made a point of asking the newcomer what he was about, all the way over here instead of in Miller. That’s when Macomber panicked.

He explained that he had been with Daniel Wolfe, of the Northwestern Exchange. And they had only just set out for Huron when the bite in the air got to be too much for the Irishman, so he hopped a train the rest of the way. And since only Wolfe had business in the capital, Macomber turned around.

Detail from “Correct map of Dakota compiled from United States and Territorial surveys Nov. 1, 1882,” showing the route of the Chicago and North Western Rail Line through Hand County, the towns of Miller and Wessington, and the Wessington Hills (Library of Congress)

Once his inquisitor had moved along, Macomber climbed back into the rig and pointed his rented team west to St. Lawrence, on the outskirts of Miller. There he found a card game and some beer. Dr. Rowland at the stable recalled him finally pulling in about five thirty. The one buffalo robe was missing, but Macomber explained that he had lent it to a friend. He promised to pay for it in the morning.

From Rowland’s, Macomber ran a few errands before heading over to the depot. The westbound train from Huron had just arrived. He picked up a copy of the Chicago Times and carried it to Mr. Mead’s house, where he unfolded the pages and settled down to read.

Was he planning to eat his supper with the Fosters?, Mr. Mead wanted to know.

He didn’t think so.

Would he like something here, then? It must have been a long day.

Macomber politely refused. And although the sun had long disappeared, he pulled the curtains shut anyway and returned to his paper. Frank Mead later said the young man had seemed nervous.

x

About this same time, Levi Hulbert brought news from Wessington. A man who answered the description of the Irishman Daniel Wolfe had been discovered in the hills, about three miles southwest of Wessington — with a bullet through his brain.

Here’s what Levi knew: One of Mr. Yaw’s ranch hands had seen a fire on the prairie midday. After rounding up a few cowboys to help, he finally approached the body, and together they determined the barman had been dead only a short time. His clothes were still burning, the hair partly singed off his head. The hole, meanwhile, looked to be about an inch and a half above his right ear. Thirty-two caliber — a Smith & Wesson, maybe?

Constable Lawrence caught a freight train for Wessington, while someone telegrammed Sheriff Price in St. Lawrence. It didn’t take long for word to spread that Wolfe had departed Miller that morning in the company of Willie Macomber, the kid who had arrived with his father only last month. Others recalled witnessing Macomber return that afternoon, alone.

As far as mysteries go, this one had pretty much solved itself. First a posse formed, then a lynch mob. The former’s ranks included a carpenter, one of Mr. Miller’s boys, and a proud member of the Miller Orchestra. “Miller has more musical talent in proportion to the population than any town in the territory,” the newspaper editor had written earlier in the year. He, too, reported for posse duty. Frank Mead had already been instructed to keep an eye on Macomber when the sheriff arrived about seven thirty that evening. He decided they would all march over to Mead’s place together.

By the time Willie Macomber opened up his paper, the posse was on its way and the lynch mob had begun to mill about restlessly, waiting for its chance.

xi

“The murderer had been seen in Lawrence, but was thought to have gone on to the town of Miller,” the paper in Pennsylvania reported. “Straight to Miller pushed the crowd. At the first public house McComber was found. ‘McComber,’ said the Sheriff, ‘I have come to arrest you on a very grave charge.’ ‘Are you an officer,’ said McComber cool[l]y. The Sheriff handed out his commission. McComber took it in his left hand (his right hand in his pocket), read it slowly and carefully through, remarked that it appeared all right and in a flash whipped out his revolver.”

xii

At a certain point someone must have talked to Dr. Rowland down at the stable, because he brought up the issue of a missing buffalo robe. He had given Macomber a robe and a blanket. That was the deal for five dollars a day. But in the end only the blanket came back. Mr. Mead had received his robes but not — it was important to stress — Dr. Rowland. So a telegram went out to Constable Lawrence in Wessington. Shortly after came the reply: “Found the buffalo robe at the depot all covered with blood. It was shipped to Cedar Rapids. I stopped it and will fetch it with me. Hold Wm. Macomber at all hazards.”

xiii

Here’s how Frank Mead testified at the inquest, which was conducted in Mead’s front parlor and where Willie Macomber’s blood must have still stained the floor:

Newspaper excerpt of Frank Mead’s testimony at the inquest.

And Sheriff Price:

Newspaper excerpt of Sheriff Price’s testimony at the inquest.
Newspaper excerpt of Sheriff Price’s testimony at the inquest.

And Dr. Rowland:

Newspaper excerpt of Dr. Rowland’s testimony at the inquest.
Newspaper excerpt of Dr. Rowland’s testimony at the inquest.

xiv

The recovery party, their wagon having capsized, didn’t reach Daniel Wolfe’s body until past midnight. A horseshoe nail lay on his stomach. An overcoat pocket was turned inside out, revealing several unsmoked cigars. And an empty liquor bottle had been tossed off nearby. The men transported the charred corpse, as best they could, to a nearby shanty.

What happened next, moaned the Hand County Press editor, was a “crying shame.” “The body was left lying in there from Friday night until Monday morning, lying on manure and hay.”

Once in town, they entrusted it to a different shanty, opposite the Vanderbilt and owned by another of the Miller brothers. “A string of visitors has passed in and out of the shanty ever since,” the editor wrote, “and they have witnessed a sight they will hardly forget soon. The body had holes eaten in it in various places by the mice while it was in [the previous] shanty. Part of the nose was gone, the flesh was partly eaten off one rib, etc.”

Daniel’s brother Edward ordered the body be sent to Ottawa, Illinois, where, apparently, the funeral was well attended. Daniel Wolfe is buried in St. Columba’s Cemetery with his parents.

A color photograph of Chicago and North Western engine no. 175, from about 1908.
Chicago and North Western engine no. 175, c. 1908 (Locomotive Wiki)

H. W. Macomber, on yet another long, uncomfortable journey, arrived in Miller four days after his boy’s death. He had been halfway to Dakota, the Hand County Press noted, before he learned what had happened.

What had happened, though? Mr. Macomber passed through Sioux City on his way home to Carroll and told the newspaper there that he could not fathom the circumstances surrounding his son’s death: “He said that Willie, as he affectionately called him, was a good boy and one who never had, so far as he knew, a criminal propensity.”

Perhaps, the reporter suggested, Willie had wanted to rob the Irishman of his money.

No, Mr. Macomber said. He had plenty of his own money, the family had made sure of that.

Then what?

“The affair is shrouded in deep mystery,” the reporter writes, “and the most charitable supposition is that Wolfe was killed by accident while handling Macomber’s revolver as they were riding along” — after which Macomber found himself cornered by his own lies.

The paper presents no evidence supporting this theory; neither does it wonder why the gun should have been aimed directly at Wolfe’s head.

xv

Yankton Sioux elders deny ever torturing and burning a man called Wessington, or, for that matter, any other white man. There is no record of a teamster called Wessington on that 1857 expedition across Dakota. In fact, not a single American with the name Wessington even appears in the 1850 census.

A stereo photograph of two chiefs of the Yankton Sioux, Dakota Territory, from about 1870: Strikes the Ree and Feather in the Ear.
Two chiefs of the Yankton Sioux, Dakota Territory, c. 1870: Strikes the Ree and Feather in the Ear (WorthPoint)

Meanwhile, those mound-builder tablets, found on a farm near Davenport, were later judged to be fake and may have been a friendly prank on the reverend who dug them up.

And yet, true or false, somehow the earth still manages to remember: a burnt tree out in the hills, the bones of a lost race.

xvi

Legend has it that when the English burned the church at Templeathea in 1580 the monks wrapped the church plate in cowhide and buried it. Subsequent attempts to find the plate were unsuccessful. “One treasure-hunter was disturbed in his work by a black bull,” a local explained. “Another saw his own house on fire and ran home to quench it only to find it was an illusion.”

In 1730 the ruins played host to an exorcism. This was the same year Old Maurice married, and the story is told by his great-grandson Dicky Ned, or Daniel Wolfe’s second cousin. A girl had been behaving strangely, so during the annual celebration of St. John’s Eve, on June 23, concerned villagers delivered her to a priest at the graveyard. A terrific bonfire raged nearby, for John, according to Jesus, “was a burning and a shining light.” And John himself had promised his followers a baptism with fire.

A color image of gravestones at Templeathea graveyard in Co. Limerick, taken in 2018.
Templeathea graveyard, 2018 (Brendan Wolfe)

The girl, it was believed, had been possessed by an evil spirit. So against the crackle of fire and the slosh of a nearby bog, the priest set about interrogating this spirit. He spoke in his best Munster Irish.

“Are you a spirit in possession of this young girl?” the priest asked.

“I am,” the spirit promptly replied. One can imagine the murmur that must have risen up from the assembled villagers. The spirit spoke in a strange yet somehow explicable language.

“What position do you hold among those spirits?” wondered the priest, who like all men of the church was a dedicated student of hierarchy.

“I am one of those selected for such possession.”

“Are you a spirit of evil?”

“No.”

To some this may have been a shocking response but not to the priest, who quickly moved on, posing a series of comparatively pedestrian questions. How many spirits like you are there? Have you ever been to Heaven? When will the English cease to persecute the Irish?

The more obvious question remained unasked: What did it mean for a “good” spirit to possess an otherwise innocent girl so that others should believe her to be evil?

Or was this claim by the spirit exactly the sort of thing you’d expect an evil spirit to say?

The priest eventually intoned the proper prayer, the girl returned to her normal self, and the celebration continued. From up the road in Athea, meanwhile, the fire appeared as nothing more than a curl of gray smoke on the horizon.

[1] The author’s great-great-grandfather.

[2] According to William Camden’s Brittania (1607), the name Devon indicates it was the land of the Celtic tribe Dumnonii, whose name, in turn, meant “people of the deep valleys.”

Author of Finding Bix (2017), Mr. Jefferson’s Telescope (2017), and Wolfe’s History (2019). Iowan in Virginia.

Author of Finding Bix (2017), Mr. Jefferson’s Telescope (2017), and Wolfe’s History (2019). Iowan in Virginia.