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Old West Legends IconOLD WEST LEGENDS

"Doc" Middleton - King of the Horse Thieves

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Born on February 9, 1851 as James M. Riley in Mississippi, he was working as a cowboy in Texas when he grew up. A lifelong horse thief, he was said to have stolen his first steed at the age of 14. In 1870, he was convicted of murder in Texas, but was able to make his escape.

It was probably after this scrape with the law that he began to use the alias David Charles Middleton, but for whatever reasons, was often more familiarly called "Doc." During his "career" has a horse thief, he would also go by the name of Jack Lyons, and was also known as "Texas Jack," "Gold-Tooth Jack," "Gold-Tooth Charley," and others.

He made his way north on a cattle drive to Ogallala, Nebraska in 1876. In January, 1877, he killed a soldier named James Keefe in a Sidney, Nebraska saloon.


Though arrested, he was able to escape again and made his way to Wyoming, where he began to organize a gang of outlaws called the "Pony Boys.” The men quickly began to steal horses, primarily from Indians but sometimes from the government as well. Operating in Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas, and as far south as Texas, they were responsible for stealing thousands of horses.


Doc Middleton

Doc Middleton about 1891.

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The Indians became angry at losing the horses and began to retaliate by taking the mounts of ranchers. Within no time, nearly every stolen horse was blamed on the Pony Boys and a $1,000 reward was placed on Middleton’s head.

After the gang stole some 40 head of horses in 1878, Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association detective Billy Lykins gathered a posse and began to pursue the bandits. Catching up with the outlaws near Julesburg, Colorado, Middleton was captured after a shoot out and the stolen horses retrieved. That night; however, Middleton was once again able to escape, but the detective was determined.

Soon, Lykins joined efforts with the Union Pacific Railroad and Department of Justice Special Agent, William Llewellyn. They tracked Middleton to the Niobrara Valley in Nebraska, where, after a shoot-out, in which Middleton was struck in the stomach, he was finally captured. He was first taken to Sidney, Nebraska, and later transferred to Cheyenne, Wyoming to stand trial. There, he pleaded guilty to horse stealing and received a five year sentence. He was placed in a Nebraska prison on September 18, 1879 and released on June, 18 1883.

After his release, the members of his old gang had either been captured or killed and Middleton worked at a variety of occupations. He made his way to Gordon, Nebraska where he lived for several years, making his way as a bartender, a gambler, a deputy sheriff, and for a few months, even worked in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.


During the 1890s, he relocated to Edgemont, South Dakota, where he operated a saloon for several years. In 1893, he entered the famed Chadron, Nebraska, to Chicago horse race, when the Columbian Exposition was being held in Chicago. Though he finished, he didn’t win.


Later, he opened a saloon at Ardmore, Nebraska and was involved in bootlegging to the Sioux Indians on the Pine Ridge Reservation. After Fort Robinson soldiers wrecked his saloon, he moved again to Orin Junction, near Douglas, Wyoming, where he operated an illegal saloon.


During this time, a knife fight occurred in the saloon, in which Doc was stabbed in the stomach.  Doc was arrested and held in the county jail. Infection developed just days later and he died on December 13, 1913. He is  buried in the Douglas Cemetery in Douglas, Wyoming.


Despite his horse-thieving ways, Doc Middleton was described as a likeable man, good tempered, sober and industrious. He was never known to drink or gamble and made a number of friends among the frontier, including Bill Cody, Jim Cook, Print Olive, and several ranchers in the areas in which he was known to steal horses. He was described by the Cheyenne Daily Sun as a "golden-toothed lover of other folks' cattle and horseflesh."


© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, December, 2008.

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