Published on Wednesday, October 12, 2011
The Debonair Killer:
By Janett L. Grady
At odds with our conception of the way men dressed in the old west, an outlaw named Marion Hedgepeth wore a conservative blue suit, clean white shirt with a diamond stickpin, and derby hat. In none of his photos was he dressed in the traditional wide-brimmed hat, neckerchief or buckskin jacket. His appearance as a gentle man, however, belied the fact that he was a deadly killer.
Hedgepeth was born in Cooper County, Missouri. He ran away from home at the age of 15, and by the time he turned 20, he had been a cowboy in Wyoming, a train robber in Colorado, and a killer in both states.
Hedgepeth was a handsome six feet tall, with a dark complexion and wavy black hair, and his shoes were usually polished. Polished, too, was the speed at which he could pull and fire his gun.
William Pinkerton, the General Superintendent for Pinkerton's National Detective Agency, told the story of a day in Colorado when Hedgepeth had out-gunned another outlaw. With a pistol already out of its holster and aimed at him, Hedgepeth drew his own and fired, driving a slug into the man's heart.
In 1890, Hedgepeth led a gang the newspapers called The Hedgepeth Four. Hedgepeth and his three confederates specialized in robbing stores and trains. In his book, Great American Train Robberies, Charles Francis Burke described The Hedgepeth Four as "the most amazing criminal aggregation ever brought together in the United States."
On November 4, 1890, Hedgepeth and two of his men clambered aboard the moving Missouri Pacific a few miles from Omaha, while the fourth outlaw led their galloping horses alongside the tracks. In a blaze of gunfire, Hedgepeth and his two men leaped from the rumbling train into their saddles and escaped into the wilderness with $1,000 in cash. A week later, they did it again. With guns aimed at the engineer, they stopped the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Express. Again, they leaped into their saddles and made their escape into the wilderness, this time with $5,000 in cash. Eight days later, they robbed another train on the outskirts of St. Louis, stuffing their saddlebags with $50,000 in cash. This time, though, instead of leading his men into the wilderness and relative safety, Hedgepeth led his men into the heart of St. Louis. Hedgepeth's picture had been in all the newspapers, and there was no shortage of St. Louis citizens who had spotted the dandily-dressed, debonair killer.
William Pinkerton, his operatives, and the St. Louis police followed the outlaws' trail through the city. In a very short time, a large number of lawmen had surrounded the small house where Hedgepeth and his men were hiding. Faced with overwhelming odds, The Hedgepeth Four surrendered without firing a shot.
During the course of his trial, Hedgepeth befriended a fellow prisoner who called himself Mr. Holmes. Holmes told Hedgepeth he was awaiting trial for obtaining money under false pretenses. Hedgepeth probably laughed at the man, because Holmes went on to brag that his real name was Herman Webster Mudgett, alias H.H. Holmes, the man who was being called America's Blue Beard in all the newspapers. Hedgepeth realized he was in jail with the man who was being hunted for murdering scores of women, and Hedgepeth more than likely heard opportunity knocking.
Within a few days, Hedgepeth was talking to his lawyer and told the lawyer about the infamous Mr. Holmes, already in custody for another crime. Elated, the lawyer told the jailer, the jailer told the sheriff, and Mudgett died on the gallows.
Instead of a life sentence for robbing trains, during which several men had been killed, Hedgepeth was given 12 years in the penitentiary at Jefferson City, Missouri.
After serving his time, Hedgepeth made his way to Nebraska, blew a safe in Omaha, and was caught in the act. He was tried and sentenced to spend 10 more years behind bars. He was, however, released after serving just 2 years because he was sick with tuberculosis.
Now sick, Hedgepeth was nevertheless a dandily-dressed killer with a Colt under his coat. Within a few weeks, he had gathered together another gang and was on a cross-country rampage of robbery and murder. Hedgepeth seemed to be leading a charmed life. Nobody could catch him. For close to 5 years, an outlaw wearing a derby hat, a blue suit and polished shoes out-rode and out-gunned all the posses. Marion Hedgepeth was once again in the headlines.
But his luck ran out.
On New Year's Eve, 1910, as the church bells rang in the new year, a well-dressed man swaggered into a crowded saloon on the west side of Chicago. He boldly pulled out a revolver, smiled at the ladies, and ordered the men to get down on the floor. The well-dressed man was filling a sack with money from the loaded till, when a Chicago policeman suddenly appeared in the doorway, gun out and aimed.
"Drop it," said the lawman, giving the outlaw his chance to surrender. Instinctively the outlaw crouched and fired, but the shot went wide, thumping into the wall. The lawman fired back and the slug hit the outlaw high on his chest, spinning him to the floor. Already dying, Hedgepeth struggled to his knees and, holding his Colt in both hands, traded shots with the man who was still trying to kill him. One of the outlaw's bullets ripped through the tail of the lawman's coat, but his other bullets went wild, splintering wood and shattering glass. Hedgepeth was again hit in his chest and he died still firing his revolver.
They buried him in his blue suit.
Janett L. Grady is a senior citizen who lives and writes with her husband in Palmer, Alaska.