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Jim McKee: The short, unfortunate career of Kid Wade
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Jim McKee: The short, unfortunate career of Kid Wade

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Like many of the heroes and villains of the Old West, Albert "Kid" Wade's story is difficult to research because fact and exaggeration often mingle, overlap and vary between reporters.

While still in his late teens, Kid Wade studied the craft of horse stealing under the professorship of "Doc" Middleton, whose Pony Boys were working the Niobrara River valley. When Middleton was captured and sentenced to the state penitentiary, Wade assumed a leadership role in the gang, only to be apprehended near Sioux City, Iowa, in late 1879. After serving a bit over two years, Wade headed back to Nebraska to resume his career.

At this time, horse stealing was considered on par with murder and, while local law enforcement was either unwilling or unable to pursue the miscreants, bands of vigilantes formed to squelch the practice by whatever means they saw proper. A group of 18 farmers, ranchers and settlers in the Niobrara area called the Niobrara Mutual Protective Association and the Chelsea Regulators, or simply the Regulators, formed under the loose control of "Captain" Burnham, though the title seemed to drift between leaders.

In January of 1884, the Regulators headed for Carns in Brown County, where about 30 horses had been stolen. One by one, the thieves were caught, the first in Middleton's Canyon, and though it had the earmarks of Kid Wade's work, he slipped away. Each captive supplied a bit of information, which sent the vigilantes to the Black Hills.

Although the stolen horses were still intact as a group in Wade's control, he began selling them off one at a time. When he accidentally sold an easily identifiable split-hoofed horse to a farmer, Wade suddenly realized he had left an easy clue to his presence. To rectify the oversight, he retraced his steps and bought the horse back. The suspicious farmer decided to follow Wade as he left. As the farmer watched from a safe distance, Wade shot the horse and buried it. The farmer quickly informed the sheriff, who dug up the horse, which matched one of the recently stolen ones and recognized Kid Wade from the farmer's description.

Fearing he might be lynched, Jim Smith, the most recently captured of the gang, admitted that Wade was probably in the vicinity of LeMars, Iowa. Wade, who was in fact hiding in a house near LeMars, was persuaded to come out under the pretext of a potential horse sale. Captured without incident, Wade was taken to Yankton, Dakota Territory, where he had supposedly stolen a wagon.

Justice was apparently not the posse's primary goal, however, as they advertised that Kid Wade would put on a show and lecture, where he would demonstrate his skill with a revolver "superior to all frontier celebrities." The reported reason for the event, which had a 50 cent admission charge, was to raise funds to reimburse the Regulators for their expenses in effecting the capture. The show did not take place, however, as local officials wisely forbade it.

In what is, at best, a circuitous path, the Regulators then took Wade to Long Pine, where some of the vigilantes' "sponsors" lived.

On Feb. 7, 1884, Kid Wade was turned over to the Holt County sheriff, who then moved Wade to Bassett, where they were to catch a Chicago & North Western Railroad train to Ainsworth, where Wade had been promised a fair, open trial. Unfortunately, the group missed the train and was forced to spend the night in Bassett.

About midnight, vigilantes broke into the room where Kid Wade was sleeping on the floor and relieved Sheriff Hersheiser of his prisoner. Ignoring Wade's pleas, the vigilantes wasted no time in dragging their target out of town. The following morning, a conductor on an eastbound freight train spotted a man hanging from a "whistling post," a railroad sign with the letter W alerting the engineer to sound his whistle.

The following morning, the frozen corpse was cut down and taken back to Bassett for an inquest. The body was then unceremoniously stored atop a pile of firewood outside a store and buried a day later. Wade's father, also a known horse thief, arrived to seek out his son's "murderer" but was himself killed near Carns and buried head-first, his feet sticking out of the ground.

Unanswered questions lingered: Was the train connection missed on purpose in order to allow the capture and lynching? Were some of the vigilantes also horse thieves who feared exposure should the Kid ever be tried in a fair, open court? Was the frozen body even that of the infamous Kid Wade?

Sadly, there is no known photo or engraving of Kid Wade, but the legend lives on.

Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at jim@leebooksellers.com.

 

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