Con Stapleton – Deadwood, South Dakota Marshal

Deadwood from Mt. Moriah in 1888

Deadwood from Mt. Moriah in 1888

Though the HBO series Deadwood shows Con Stapleton as a dim-witted card dealer at the Number 10 Saloon, who gained his short-lived marshal’s position by begging Al Swearengen to appoint him, Stapleton was actually elected as the Deadwood, South Dakota Marshal by the miners on September 16, 1876.

Stapleton, who had immigrated from Ireland to the United States in 1871, was in Montana when word of the gold strike in Deadwood arrived. Along with the many others that flooded into the booming mining camp, Stapleton arrived in the spring of 1876.

When Wild Bill Hickok was shot down by Jack McCall in Nuttall & Mann’s Number 10 Saloon on August 2, 1876, Stapleton played cards with him, along with Charles Rich, Carl Mann, and Captain Willie Massie.

Afterward, McCall was chased down the street and arrested. A couple of days later, a trial was held, charging McCall with murder. However, because McCall claimed Hickok had killed his brother and he had only been taking revenge, he was found not guilty. Later the trial was found to be illegal, and Jack McCall was arrested and hanged.

After the trial, on August 5, 1876, the men of Deadwood decided they needed law and order in the camp and elected Isaac Brown as Deadwood’s first marshal on August 5, 1876. But for Marshal Brown being a lawman would be a short-lived career. When he, along with the Reverend Smith and two other men named Charles Mason and Charles Holland, traveled between Crook City and Deadwood, they were ambushed and killed on August 20. Leaving an open position, the miner’s court soon met again on September 16, and this time they elected Con Stapleton as the new marshal.

Though he would only serve as the town’s marshal for a little over a year, one of the most widely publicized events during his short tenure was the shooting of David Lunt. On January 14, 1877, Stapleton, along with Lunt and several other men, were standing around talking at Al Chapman’s saloon when a man named Tom Smith came barreling into the saloon with his pistol in the air. Shouting threats and leveling his gun on the saloon’s patrons, he barked, “Anyone who moves gets shot!”

When the crazed man neared Stapleton’s group, the marshal tried to disarm him, and in the frenzy, the pistol discharged, barely missing Stapleton’s head and striking Lunt in the forehead. As the amazed crowd looked down upon what they thought was surely a dead man, amazingly, David Lunt stood up, brushed himself, and went about his business as if nothing happened. Stapleton then arrested Smith on a charge of shooting at an officer and though Smith was found guilty. He was soon released and made his way to San Francisco.

In the meantime, David Lunt continued as usual, even though he had a hole that went entirely through his head. That was, until March 22, 1877, when he began to complain of a terrible headache. Friends and staff cared for him as he took to his bed at the Centennial Hotel, but it was to no avail. That night, some 67 days after he had been shot, he died. Afterward, the doctor performed an autopsy and found that the bullet had carried a bone fragment deep into his brain, causing a large abscess and filling his brain with fluid. The doctor was amazed that he lived any time at all, much less for more than two months.

After Lunt’s death, a new warrant was issued for Tom Smith, this time for murder. He was re-arrested in California and taken to Yankton, Dakota Territory, to stand trial.

In addition to his marshaling duties, one of Stapleton’s favorite past times was organizing wrestling matches, most often at the Gem Theater. Sometimes he acted as a referee and at others as a participant.

In March 1877, Seth Bullock was appointed the Lawrence County Sheriff and gradually assumed many of Stapleton’s duties. On November 7 of the same year, the position of city marshal was eliminated.

 Wild West Winners Casino is an interpretive display

In the basement of the Wild West Winners Casino is an interpretive display of what happened on the day Wild Bill Hickok was killed.

By the following year, many of the town’s citizens had started moving to Colorado, where another boomtown was forming in Leadville. Stapleton followed the rest in February 1878, but whether he did any prospecting in Leadville is unknown. Eight months later, he reportedly died in Denver, Colorado, on September 10, 1879. He was just 31 years old.

© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2022.

Also See:

Black Hills Historic Characters & Tales

Deadwood – Rough & Tumble Mining Camp

Deadwood, South Dakota Timeline

HBO’s Deadwood – Facts & Fiction