“Hoodoo Brown & the Dodge City Gang”

by Don Bullis

Not long after the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad reached the Las Vegas, New Mexico, area on April 4, 1879, the New Town section was organized into Precinct 29. A grifter and petty thief, some said from St. Louis, named Hyman G. Neill managed to get himself elected justice of the peace and acting coroner. He soon became known as Hoodoo Brown was a sobriquet given to him by a saloon girl who considered Neill bad luck.

He was described as tall and thin with light hair and a small mustache. One reporter said he had “a rakish look…and one would set him down as a desperate character and a man to beware of.”

That was a correct assessment. Hoodoo’s main assistant was a largish man named John Schunderberger, better known as Dutchy. Tales of Dutchy’s prowess with his fists were many, and besides his loyalty to Hoodoo, he would sweep out the office each morning. Brown also appointed a posse of constables to enforce the law in Precinct 29. The problem was that most of them were criminals of one kind or another, and most had ties to Dodge City, Kansas, hence they came to be called the Dodge City Gang. Brown paid their salaries from funds he collected from the town’s merchants for the security the constables provided.  A modern term for it would be extortion.

Among the deputies were “Mysterious” Dave Mather, Dave Rudabaugh, John Joshua “J. J.” Webb, and Joe Carson. Carson was shot and killed by four drunken cowboys in mid January 1880, leaving a wife and young daughter behind.

There is no question that East Las Vegas was a violent place. Miguel A. Otero, who later became territorial governor of New Mexico (1897-1906), spent some time there in the late 1870s. He wrote, “For more than a year after the entry of the railroad, it can be stated without fear of contradiction that Las Vegas was the ‘hottest’ town in the country. Such a statement would be substantiated by the record, for one month, which the old files of the Daily Optic establish. They show that twenty-nine men were killed in and around Las Vegas, either murdered outright or shot in self-defense, or hung by the well-regulated Vigilance Committee.”

In the event of a shooting or killing by one of his constables, Brown would quickly convene a coroner’s jury which would declare the matter justifiable homicide, thus concluding the matter. That worked well until Michael Kelliher came to town.

Kelliher arrived in the Las Vegas area at the end of February 1880. He was in the freighting business, and had served as a Chicago policeman. He had with him $2,115 in cash, with which he intended to purchase cattle for his brother’s ranch in the Dakotas. He meant to deposit the money in a bank, but hadn’t got around to it before he and a traveling companion named Bill Brickley went on a drinking spree on the evening of March 1.

The two of them are reported to have visited every saloon and dancehall in both East and West Las Vegas, before they headed back to their camp at the edge of town at about 3:00 the next morning.  Kelliher had not done a good job of concealing the money he had on him, and it came to Hoodoo Brown’s attention that the visitor had a large stash of cash in a leather wallet he carried in an inside coat pocket. Kelliher and Brickley made a final stop for just one more drink at the Goodlet and Roberts Saloon. (Otero says that it was the Locke & Brooks Saloon. It was most likely the Goodlet and Roberts Saloon, though, because Bill Goodlet was one of Hoodoo Brown’s criminal associates.)

One version of events is that Constable J. J. Webb walked into the saloon thirty or so minutes later and simply shot Kelliher to death. Another version is that Brown set up a trap that involved a man named Sport Boyle. Boyle’s instructions were to take Kelliher into the saloon for a drink, and start some sort of altercation. Boyle ordered drinks and then refused to pay for them, accusing Kelliher of refusing to pay.  The two men began to quarrel and the saloonkeeper summoned Webb and Dutchy who had been stationed nearby. One of the two officers then shot Kelliher without warning, killing him instantly.

Hoodoo Brown was Johnny-on-the-spot. He quickly convened a coroner’s jury that ruled thus: “the deceased came to his death from a pistol in the hand of J. J. Webb, being an officer in the discharge of his duty, and the killing was justifiable and necessary under the circumstances.”

Then Hoodoo made a mistake. He went to Charles Blanchard, the probate judge, and asked to be appointed the administrator of Kelliher’s estate. Blanchard was a bit reluctant, and soon learned that the $1,000 Brown reported that he took from Keliher’s body was somewhat less than the total amount reportedly there. Since the Grand Jury was in session in West Las Vegas, at Blanchard’s it looked into the entire matter. Very shortly, warrants were issued for J. J. Webb, charging first-degree murder, and H. G. Neill, AKA Hoodoo Brown, charging larceny. Sheriff’s Deputies arrested Webb on March 5, but there was no trace of Hoodoo Brown in East Las Vegas, or anywhere else in New Mexico. The rule of the Dodge City Gang was over.

Neill/Brown was arrested at Parsons, Kansas, a week later, but released on a technicality. He left Parsons with Joe Carson’s widow, and disappeared from history.  J. J. Webb was tried and convicted and sentenced to hang. He escaped from custody on December 3, 1881, and died of smallpox in Arkansas in April 1882.

(Don Bullis’ newest book, A New Mexico Historical Encyclopedia, will be published later this year. It is a companion book to his earlier New Mexico Historical Biographies, published in 2013.)