Museum hauntings blamed on outlaws
Published: Thursday, November 1st, 2012
A bump or creak in the night would make anyone question who — or what — is in the room with them, but not Sandy Ackman, director of the 1881 Custer County Courthouse Museum.
“I’m not exactly a believer because I’ve never seen anything,” Ackman said. “Doesn’t mean they do or don’t exist. I just haven’t seen them.”
Even though Ackman hasn’t had a personal experience in the courthouse, she hears claims from tourists who visit during the summer.
“We’ve had visitors say they saw something in the courtroom and schoolroom upstairs,” she said. “I think it’s an overactive imagination, but who knows!”
Visitors claimed to see an apparition in the courtroom near the schoolroom, as well as in the jail downstairs.
“Sometimes the light in the jail cell will flicker on and off,” said April Johnson, museum employee. “When I go to turn it on, it sometimes flicks off.”
“That’s probably an electrical problem,” Ackman said.
“You never know around here if it’s a ghost or electrical,” Johnson joked.
While Ackman or Johnson haven’t had personal experiences, there’s no denying a ghostly presence based on the history of the courthouse.
The 1881 Courthouse Museum is known for its displays of Custer County’s history, including the hanging of John Lehman — the only legal hanging in the county.
Lehman’s execution garnered a lot of attention in its day. In 1889, Lehman killed a constable who was serving a warrant to him. He was tried three times before the sentence of hanging was announced. He was executed on Feb. 19, 1892 — two and a half years after the murder — on an enclosed gallows constructed across the alley to the north from the present 1881 Courthouse Museum.
Two other deaths associated with the courthouse are the two lynchings of ‘Lame Johnny’ and ‘Fly-Speck Billy.’
Cornelius Donahue, otherwise known as “Lame Johnny,” was a deputy sheriff for Custer County who turned into a horse thief and stage robber until about 1878. He was arrested at Buffalo Gap by a U.S. marshal deputy and shackled to the floor of the stage headed for his trial in Deadwood. Before he could leave, a lynch mob dragged him off the stage and hung him from a nearby cottonwood tree, part of which remains in the upstairs of the museum near the courtroom. Lame Johnny was buried under the cottonwood tree 25 miles southeast of Custer near Highway 79, what is now known as Lame Johnny Creek.
There is a rumor of a cowboy who dug up Lame Johnny’s body and sold his skull in Chicago. Years later, Lame Johnny’s remains were dug up by Ephriem Dean, who found that the skull was indeed missing. Dean removed the shackle from Lame Johnny’s leg and donated it to the 1881 Courthouse, as well as a photo of the tree and gravestone. The portion of the cottonwood tree was donated by Mel Gibbs.
The second lynching in Custer County was of Billy Fowler, aka Fly-Specked Billy. Fowler was supposedly a cohort of Lame Johnny and was very impulsive. He joined a freight train gang led by Abe Barnes that made its way into Custer in 1881. Despite the fact that he was a wanted man, Fly-Specked Billy frequented the taverns and saloons on his arrival. After running into Barnes, Fly-Specked Billy asked to borrow his gun and then set off looking for a victim. Little did Barnes know that he had presented his own death weapon to Billy.
Fly-Specked Billy staggered into a saloon later that day, inebriated beyond reason, and began bullying people with the Colt .45. Billy then grabbed Barnes by the collar and ordered him to order a drink and pulled the trigger. Fifteen minutes later, Barnes died and Fly-Specked Billy attempted to leave the scene. Those in the saloon wrestled with him and knocked him unconscious before delivering him to the sheriff. As jail wasn’t a secure place, Fly-Specked Billy was taken to a local cabin where he would then be transferred to his holding cell in the middle of the night. As they left the cabin, a lynch mob surrounded the place and stole Fly-Specked Billy from the “secret” location while the sheriff and his men were forced back into the cabin.
The next morning, the sheriff and deputies followed the tracks of the lynch mob to the edge of the timber across French Creek where they found Fly-Specked Billy hanging from a tree.
Some say Fowler was buried in Boot Hill cemetery east of Custer, but others remember his body being dragged across the hills towards the cemetery before it fell into a prospect hole where the vigilantes let him die. All that remains of Fly-Specked Billy is a mural in the 1881 Courthouse Museum.
About three years ago, the museum had a ghost hunt led by local hunter Sean Carr. The group didn’t come up with much, but one tour member felt the presence of a visitor.
“One lady a part of the tour was a sensitive,” Ackman said. “I was standing near her when she started describing some clothing items.”
Upstairs on display were clothing and other personal items from Mary Humphries, a long-time Custer resident who taught at the school and later became superintendent of schools.
“She kept saying, ‘This lady was a teacher,’” Ackman said. “And then she said, ‘My name is Mary.’ That was kind of spooky.”
Ackman said this sensitive had never been in the museum before and at the time, there was no sign about Humphries’s display case.
“She also talked about some of the other things that have happened here, particularly in the jail cell,” Ackman said. “It gave me chills.”
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