(February 9, 1851 - December 27, 1913)
Doc Middleton was born James M. Riley in Bastrop County, Texas (his death certificate says he was born in Mississippi). Family members state the middle name was Middleton. Doc's early years are confusing, but sorted out nicely by Harold Hutton in his book. Suffice to say, Doc got into some trouble in Texas, joined a cattle drive and headed to Nebraska.
Middleton was not much of a cowhand rather his fancy was horses. It was this passion which molded the renowned horse thief of the Nebraska plains.
In Sidney, Nebraska at a local saloon Doc got into an argument with a soldier. The soldier decked Middleton with a blow to the face. Doc jumped back up only to be knocked down again. He drew his revolver and shot the soldier in the belly. Middleton jumped on the next stage in bitter cold of January. Without his coat, J.E. North, a brother of the famous Pawnee Scout commanders, gave Doc a buffalo robe to keep warm. Later when Doc began his horse stealing career, the North herds never lost one horse.
Before Doc arrived in the sandhills of Nebraska, minor horse stealing occurred, but Middleton organized this group of ruffians and turned the theft into a science of sorts. This group of toughs included Kid Wade, Curly Grimes, Jack Nolan and for a brief time Luke Short. Middleton always claimed he stole horses from the "Indians" on the reservation in South Dakota or U.S Government stock. Many losses were attributed to the "ponyboys" and it is difficult to sort through all the claims.
The Native Americans became angry at loosing their mounts and retaliated by stealing horses from local ranches in Nebraska. The uproar to stop these "ponyboys" began and a $1,000 reward was place on Middleton's head.
However, Doc had made a number of friends among some ranchers, he knew the sandhills area well and had several elaborate hideouts - one being underground. The Department of Justice brought in a special agent - William Llewellyn. Llewellyn's sole task was capturing Doc Middleton. Even this man-hunter had a difficult time cornering the elusive Middleton.
Llewellyn obtained a "pardon" for Middleton from the Governor. When word reach Doc, he agreed to meet with Llewellyn. Riding to town, Llewellyn with some of his men and Doc with his "ponyboys" were traveling through the rain. Unknown to the outlaws was another lawman waiting in ambush. Doc sensed something was wrong. In the melee, one lawman was severly wounded, two of Doc's men were killed and Doc was wounded in the back. The survivors made haste away. Middleton fell from his horse and crawled to the bushes. He was eventually captured.
Oddly, Doc was taken to Wyoming, tried and convicted of Grand Larceny. He was placed in a Nebraska prison on September 18, 1879 and released on June, 18 1883.
By the time he was released, Doc's old gang had been run down with most being killed. He began his career as a bartender, did some gambling and lived off his reputation.
In a promotional stunt for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a 1,000 mile horse race from Chadron, NE to Chicago was established. The purse was $1,500 and a silver adorned saddle for the winner. To give the ride some flavor, Doc Middleton was asked and joined the group. The race was a farce with the eventual "winner" climbing a train and hauling his horses a number of miles. Doc rode most of the way, but knew he would not win. At some point in Illinois, Middleton took a steam train part of the way and "finished" the race to a lot of fanfare. His picture was taken and he was given a velvet saddle blanket with the words "Chadron to Chicago". It was an item he used for years.
Middleton supported himself through his saloons and as an expert gambler. In his later years, Doc opened a saloon tent in Douglas, WY. His bootleg brew drew characters of all kinds. When problems arose, Middleton now in his 60s was not able to squash trouble. In one incident, two drunken patrons fought with one receiving a knife wound. The local law enforcement investigated, charged Doc with dispensing liquor without a license and threw him in jail. Here Middleton contracted an illness. Some say it was erysipelas, a type of severe skin rash and others say it was consumption. It was probably a combination of both. Whatever the ailment, Doc Middleton died on December 13, 1913.
Doc Middleton could be deadly, but he had a twinkle of humor in his eyes. He was also a man of compassion. From Doc Middleton - The Unwickest Outlaw":
However, came the day when a little girl in the town became ill and, in spite of such medical attention as was available, she died. This, in itself, was sufficient to cause Doc to grieve as he had not gotten over the absence of his own two first children. What made it worse was a shortage of lumber with which to construct a coffin for the girl. Planed lumber was all but impossible to come by and the effort involved in hewing out a log for this purpose was out of the question. That meant that the little body was going to have to be wrapped in a blanket for burial. Without an instant's hesitation, Doc solved the dilemma. Tearing down his fine wooden bar, Doc and another citizen sawed and pounded and fitted until they had before them a reasonable facsimile of a small coffin. The ladies of the camp lined it with white linen and the body of the little girl was gently laid inside. In Doc's mind it was a funeral worthy of such a precious being and he didn't mind at all having to continue business using the flat side of a log laid across two barrels in the classic mould of early boom camp dispensaries. While the tent saloon was only temporary, the bar which had adorned it became a symbol of Doc's feelings and is a permanent monument to the soft side of the King of Horse Thieves.
Another story attributed to Doc Middleton involves a number of men admiring a horse. Always interested in horse flesh, Doc walked over as one man offered $15 dollars for the horse. Middleton said "I've sold a lot better horses than that for fifteen dollars". One of the men joked "Maybe you had an easier way of getting them than this boy". The rest of the men shot quick glances of astonishment toward the man. But Doc merely laughed, swung on his heels and headed to his saloon.
Doc Middleton is buried in the Douglas Cemetery in Douglas, WY.
Information compiled by Steve Grimm
Books About Doc Middleton
Doc Middleton - Life and Legends Of The Notorious Plains Outlaw by Harold Hutton
Hutton has hunted down a lot of information on this legend of the Niobara. A household name in northern Nebraska, this book is a satisfying combination of information, references and photos.
Doc Middleton - The Unwickest Outlaw by Jon Carson
A booklet published in 1966, this has the condensed version of Doc Middleton's life.