Yankton, D[akota]. T[erritory]. 25 April 1878. Quarto (ca. 27,5x21 cm). 2 pp. Brown ink on watermarked laid paper, West’s printed letterhead on top. Ink stamp of “James O. Aplan Library Collection” on verso. Fold marks, but overall a very good letter.
Rare original Wild West letter, giving an insight into the 1878 trial of notorious Deadwood gambler and stagecoach robber Samuel S. Hartman, or “Laughing Sam.” The letter was written by Laughing Sam’s attorney Isaac E. West and addressed to “My dear Sheriff” – most likely, to the sheriff of Pennington County Frank P. Moulton (1845-1922), who based in Rapid City where Laughing Sam was being detained.
Laughing Sam, “a hard case <…> widely known in the [Black Hills]” (Three Omaha Men, while on their Way Home from Deadwood, Corraled and Robbed by Three Road Agents// St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 27 September 1877, p. 2), was a gambler and highway robber, active in and around Deadwood in the late 1870s and once was confronted by the famous Calamity Jane. He was known as a criminal who “moves around town by daylight searching for his victim, and when night comes invariably has two or three captured” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri), 13 August 1877, p. 2).
In early 1878 Laughing Sam was arrested for robbery and had a trial in Rapid City. During the trial, he told the jury about “his life’s wanderings [which] carried him all over the western States and Territories, from Illinois, Mercer county, the place of his birth, to Mexico, Colorado, Salt Lake and the Buffalo country. He has been engaged in all kinds of business from driving government mules to hunting buffaloes, and from his statement, it has been a hard, laborious one, and from the sweat of his brow has he earned his bread” (All about Laughing Sam// The Black Hills Daily Times (Deadwood, South Dakota), 8 October 1878, p. 1). Nevertheless, Laughing Sam was found guilty and sentenced to nine years and eight months, which he spent in the Detroit house of correction.
Isaac E. West was born in Shiloh, N.J. and started his law career in Newbern, N.C. in 1867, where “he acquired the title of judge which he now wears, being elected judge of probate and clerk of the superior court. <…> He resigned in 1877 to come to Dakota and located at Yankton in the practice of law. He served as private secretary to Gov. Pennington and afterwards to Gov. Howard. In 1878 he was appointed deputy collector of internal revenue for North Dakota, having removed to Fargo. When the legislature created the board of railroad commissioners Gov. Ordway appointed Judge West a member and the present board has chosen him secretary. The judge is a member of the staff of Gen. Dennis, commander of the Dakota militia, and one of the most active officers of the G.A.R. <…> The judge is a staunch Republican but thinks better of Cleveland than he ever expected to of any Democrat in that position. He also favors the division of Dakota upon the 46th parallel, and the admission of two states” (The Saint Paul Globe (Saint Paul, Minnesota), 3 April 1886, p. 11).
The letter also mentions the just appointed 6th Governor of the Dakota Territory William A. Howard (in office: 1878-1880), Alonzo Joseph Flanner (1851-1913) - a resident of the Crook City and the first State’s Attorney of Dakota’s Lawrence County, and Captain A.W. Lavender (1842- after 1905), a grocery shop owner and a long-time resident of Yankton. The verso of the letter bears an ink stamp of the library of a noted South Dakota art and antique dealer and historian James O. Aplan (1931-2018).
The text of the letter:
"My Dear Sheriff,
I received a letter from Laughing Sam Saturday asking if I had seen or heard from you, that he was anxious to see you &c. What in your opinion ought I to do in his matter? I wish to act fairly and honorably by him, but I am really unable financially to go to Rapid City and incur the expense of hotel bills &c. during what may be a tedious trial, with little prospect of remuneration. Yet I told him I would do so. If he can raise money to pay expenses only, I will gladly keep my promise & defend him to the best of my skill & ability. By the way did you use your warrant under the requisition you had when here? I wish you would counsel Sam about this matter & let me hear from you soon, as Court is not far off.
Tell Flanner he owes me two letters & that I expect him to either discharge the debt or go into bankruptcy before they repeal the Statute. I have just gotten a job for Elk Point firm to file a Petition in bankruptcy for them, one partner has left the Terr. which complicates the matter very much. Gov. Howard has assumed the reigns. I think him very pleasant, he is old but has a clear head, has appointed me Private Secretary (which does not interfere with my law practice) and I remain in the room I have heretofore occupied.
Mr. Lavender has gone East. Cap. rooms at my house, so I keep him straight. By the way, he has signed the Pledge “while yet the lamp holds out to burn,” &c."
Price: $1,750.00 USD