Laramie Mayor, Former Sheriff Both Die With Boots Off Despite Vigilante History

When Nicholas F. Spicer (1836-1907) died while still in office as mayor of Laramie, the obituary writer for the front-page story in the Laramie Boomerang said that he had been a member of a vigilante mob that had hung five men nearly 40 years earlier.

The claim is credible because one of Spicer’s best friends was N.K. Boswell, who was to become a well-known lawman and vigilance committee organizer. Spicer had run into Boswell in 1862 when both were in the Denver area. Boswell was married; he may have left his wife Martha behind when he and Spicer went to Dakota Territory (Cheyenne) in 1867 or possibly 1865.  Spicer was a bachelor then.

Spicer’s obituary claims that there was a vigilance committee in Cheyenne when Boswell and Spicer arrived that they participated in. The following summer both men moved on to Laramie and another vigilante group.

Boswell is credited with organizing the vigilantes in Laramie in response to the lawlessness that had gripped the city before the Union Pacific tracks arrived and also because all of its elected officials resigned abruptly in the late summer of 1868.

Anarchy reigned in those early days. Murray Carroll, former director of the Laramie Plains Museum in the 1980's, described it this way:  "Throughout the summer of 1868, the town ran wide-open day and night.  Shootings and murders occurred daily, and after dark, respectable citizens stayed off the streets. Asa Moore, proprietor of the Diana and the Belle of the West, formed a rump government with himself as mayor and justice of the peace."

If there was a circuit-riding justice of the peace for Dakota Territory, there’s no mention of him showing up in Laramie in summer 1868. He would have had no authority to deal with capital offenses anyway. Accused murderers had to be taken to Yankton, Dakota Territory, and few if any ever made it to trial there.

The October 20, 1868 Cheyenne Leader reported two days after a Laramie raid that resulted in three hangings: “The vigilante organization of Laramie, is said to number about three hundred persons, consisting principally of the business and railroad men of the place. They are said to be thoroughly organized and are taking measures to raise a fund for those of their members who were wounded, and for the purpose of a permanent organization.”

The Cheyenne account says that Steve Young was hung on October 19, 1868 “in open daylight, with not one Vigilante masked or in any way disguised, neither did any one of that dread organization appear in any way to doubt the propriety or fear the consequences of this act.” Indeed, as the photo shows, those grouped around the body are looking squarely at the photographer, with no attempt to conceal identities.

Fifteen years after the mob action in Laramie, the Weekly Boomerang recapped their actions. In that account, the first hanging at the end of August 1868 was of a young man named only as “Kid,” when about 20 men were part of the vigilantes.

After that hanging, other desperadoes in Laramie organized and dared townspeople to interfere with their actions. This fired up the “cool-headed men…[and] a new vigilance committee was formed, numbering from 300 to 500 men,” the paper said.

Emboldened by their numbers, the Laramie vigilantes developed a plan to raid several gambling halls simultaneously. But the plan went awry, and only the Belle of the West (also known as the “Bucket of Blood”) was raided, resulting in three dead: “one of the committee, one a member of the band of music, and one noted desperado—and about fifteen men wounded” the paper reported.

The Boomerang recap of 1883 claims that the three “leading roughs,” Con Wagner, Asa Moore and Big Ned were taken by the vigilantes and hung on August 18 from John Keene’s unfinished cabin or barn, the same place where “Kid” had been hung in August. But a major target had been Steve Young (also referred to in other accounts as “Long Steve” or “Steve Long”).  He was said to have killed at least 13 men in Laramie through his role as deputy marshal, a title conferred upon him by one of the other desperados. He was captured the next morning (October 19, 1868) and hung from a telegraph pole.

The story is confusing in that there are so many different names for the three who were hung October 18, 1868. “Con” and “Ace” (or Asa) were said to be brothers and Steve (the one hung the next day) their half-brother.  Their last names might have been Wagner, Moore or Moyer.  Men whose business was gambling and fleecing other men might often change their names making identification in life or death difficult.

The Boomerang’s retrospective says the vigilance committee had served its purpose and the “really good men” soon dropped out. But this left the committee in the hands of “unscrupulous bad men, whose chief object was revenge. Under the guise of public protectors and avengers of public wrongs [they could] murder their personal enemies” the paper reported.  

Eventually law and order did prevail in Laramie, though this was not the end of lynching here. In 1904, a mob stormed the Albany County Courthouse. Fired up by inflammatory newspaper accounts of Joseph Martin’s assault upon a young white woman, who was working in the courthouse kitchen, the mob dragged the black prisoner away and hung him from a pole just one block away from the schoolhouse (now the Laramie Plains Civic Center). As with the earlier mob actions, no one was held accountable for the crime despite the best efforts of the district court judge at the time.

As for Spicer and Boswell, both lived long and colorful lives. Spicer married in 1871 and listed ranching as his primary occupation in the 1870 census. He had also incorporated a water company that was to supply Laramie with piped water from springs east of town. This proved contentious because the city of Laramie was negotiating in 1891 to buy these water rights from the UPRR. Despite the ongoing lawsuit, Spicer was elected mayor in 1900 and served most of 2 terms before dying at age 70. 

Boswell (1836-1921) became the first sheriff of Albany County and soon developed a reputation as a highly skilled lawman. He became the first warden of the Wyoming Territorial Prison in 1872. He also turned to ranching, and was long retired when he died at his home in Laramie at age 85. So both men “died with their boots off” -- a relatively peaceful death of old age as opposed to “dying with boots on,” signifying a life cut short by tragedy.

One of the desperadoes is said to have requested that his boots be removed before he was strung up so he wouldn’t “die with his shoes on” as his mother had predicted. The mob obliged him.

By Judy Knight

Caption: Tough blurry, this photo shows the Laramie lynching of Steve Young on October 19, 1868. “Witnesses” are unidentified except the 9-year-old boy left of the pole,  Billy Owen.  As the only witness to come forward (in 1943), the names Owen gave for the victims “Big Ed Wilson, Asa Moore, Con Wagner and Steve Young” tend to be accepted.  Location is where Grand Avenue crossed the tracks, looking north to the Union Pacific octagonal oil storage building, behind that a 2-story dormitory for hotel workers, and beyond that the Union Pacific Hotel and Depot. Photo Courtesy of the UW American Heritage Center, Fritiof Fryxell Collection