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History of the Medicine Lodge, Kansas Bank Robbery

On April 30, 1884, four armed men burst into the Medicine Valley Bank. In the ensuing melee, both the bank's president Wylie Payne and its chief cashier George Geppert were shot and killed. Before he died Geppert managed to seal the vault and the robbers left empty-handed.

As it happened, a group of a dozen cowboys who by chance were in a stable across the street at the time, formed a posse and gave immediate chase. The four culprits were trapped in a box canyon and forced to surrender. Imagine the shock when two of the robbers proved to be Henry Newton Brown, marshal of nearby Caldwell, Kansas, and Ben Wheeler, his assistant marshal.

Despite a sketchy past, Brown had become a respected citizen of Caldwell, a rough and tumble town similar to Dodge City and Abilene and located where the Chisholm Trail met the Santa Fe Railroad tracks. Indeed, in December of 1882 brown was presented with a beautifully engraved gold and silver mounted Winchester bearing a silver plaque honoring him for cleaning up the town.

Henry Newton Brown started off in New Mexico, where he was one of the prominent members, along with Billy the Kid, of the famous Lincoln County Regulators. Brown managed to escape from the deadly gunfight on July 15, 1878, which effectively ended the Lincoln County War. Named in two New Mexico arrest warrants, Brown decamped for Texas where he ended up a lawman in Oldham County. His reputation was that of a "two-gun man" whose outwardly mellow demeanor changed quickly when the occasion demanded. Thereafter he drifted north through Oklahoma Indian Territory and into Kansas, settling in Caldwell in July 1882. Hired as assistant marshal, he was quickly promoted to town marshal. Brown married Alice Levagood, who possessed a rare college degree and was the daughter of a prosperous Caldwell businessman. It was through Alice that important artifacts were preserved and passed down.

Brown appointed as his assistant marshal Ben Wheeler, a former Texas lawman and sometime outlaw, and the two men were very effective in cleaning up Caldwell. Why the two men decided to rob the Medicine Lodge Bank will probably never be fully known. A letter written by Brown to his wife shortly after the capture suggests it was an isolated and impulsive act, never intended to cause fatalities, which went tragically awry. In any case, the two men recruited local cowhands William Smith and John Wesley to help them rob the bank.

All four were taken to the Medicine Lodge jail, where an angry crowd quickly formed. Anticipating a lynching, the men managed to free themselves from their shackles, and when the lynch mob opened the jail's door attempted a breakout. Brown was shot dead, cut nearly in half by two shotgun blasts at close range. Wheeler broke free, but made it only perhaps 100 yards before being cut down by gunfire. Although badly wounded, he lived long enough to be hanged from an elm tree along with his two cohorts, thus ending one of the bloodiest and most infamous bank robberies in the annals of the Old West.

The Henry Brown / Ben Wheeler Collection: An Introduction

Heritage is pleased to offer the highlight items from an important specialized collection, the result of two decades of research and single-minded collecting by well-known Oregon collector Len Gratteri.

Len Gratteri, a noted western author and collector, became captivated with a certain lawman turned outlaw and bank robber from Caldwell, Kansas, by the name of Ben Wheeler. Henry Newton Brown (a known Regulator and gang member with Billy the Kid) was the Marshal of Caldwell, Kansas, and Ben Wheeler was the Assistant Marshal. Although Wheeler had many aliases, careful research over twenty-one years has exposed the life and exploits of this short-lived career criminal. Many outstanding artifacts from this man were carefully preserved by his family and other interested individuals.

Ben Wheeler (and Possibly Henry Brown's) Caldwell, Kansas Assistant Marshal's Badge Wheeler was a man that rocked between lawman and criminal, then lawman again in 1882, and became Assistant Marshal in Caldwell, Kansas riding beside Henry Newton Brown, Marshal there. Wheeler's badge and six-gun are part of this auction. He came to an abrupt end when he was hanged by a posse after being captured while committing a bank robbery that ended the life of the bank president and teller in Medicine Lodge, Kansas. His sidekick, Henry Newton Brown was also killed during that attempted bank robbery and was nearly cut in two by two barrels of number 8 buckshot. What was left of Ben Wheeler's life and possessions was left to his then wife, Alice Wheeler, together with tintypes and cabinet card photographs of him and various family members, which were found in the possession of Alice Wheeler's 98 year old daughter in 1989. The badge resurfaced after years of being stowed away in an old trunk, together with the Wheeler family bible, an exceedingly rape first edition book of Midnight and Noonday , the definitive early history of Caldwell, Kansas, published in 1890, and other relics saved by Marian Green, great-granddaughter to Alice Wheeler. Surprisingly, the entire chapter describing the robbery and hanging of Ben Wheeler had been removed from Midnight and Noonday , presumably by Alice Wheeler to protect her son from knowing what happened to his father.

Ben Wheeler's Colt Single Action Revolver As it turned out, Ben Wheeler's six-gun had been purchased by Harry Leah of Todmorton, England, but because a new law had been passed in England forcing Leah to give up the gun, it became available through Christie's in New York, and Len Gratteri was able to procure possession in 1998. After 104 years, the gun and Marshal's badge were reunited and are available here.

Few categories of Old West collectibles seem to excite more interest from collectors than lawman and outlaw relics, and in this very special grouping we have great artifacts of lawmen acting as outlaws