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Winchester Rifle

Close-up of Winchester inscription plate

The citizens of Caldwell proudly presented this Winchester rifle to their new marshal on New Year's Day 1883. One year later he used it to rob the Medicine Lodge bank.

The short but amazing career of Henry Brown as a Kansas lawman began in July 1882 when Caldwell's city council appointed him assistant marshal. Caldwell's tough cowtown reputation had worsened in the months before Brown's arrival as the city recorded four murders (all of them lawmen) and eight lynchings.

In the face of such lawlessness, Brown was a welcome addition to the town's police force. The Caldwell Post, advocating "a little bit of fine shooting" to keep order in the town, bragged he was "one of the quickest men on the trigger in the Southwest."

A Dark Past

Unbeknownst to the citizenry, Brown's experience at gunplay was mostly on the wrong side of the law. Just four years earlier he had ridden with the notorious Billy the Kid, stolen horses, and fled from New Mexico to avoid murder charges. By 1880, though, Brown had a change of heart and took on the job of deputy sheriff in Oldham County, Texas.

By the time he drifted into Caldwell two years later, Brown was serious about law enforcement. Quiet and business-like, he was so popular that the city promoted him to marshal after just six months. On New Year's Day 1883, a few days after the appointment became official, Caldwell presented Brown with a fine Winchester rifle. Gold and silver inlay and ornate engraving decorated the gun, which also had an inscription plate (pictured above):

"Presented to City Marshall H.N. Brown for valuable services rendered in behalf of the Citizens of Caldwell Kas., A.N. Colson, Mayor, Dec. 1882."

Settling Down

Brown continued to serve the city well during the following year. No one complained when he shot and killed two miscreants in the line of duty; in fact, the Caldwell Commercial lauded him as "cool, courageous and gentlemanly, and free from...vices." In early spring of 1884 he married a local woman, purchased a house and furnishings, and seemed to settle down.

The only obstacle to continued contentment apparently was the fact that Brown was living beyond his means. Debts weighing heavily on his mind, the marshal decided to fall back on his old skills as a lawbreaker. With his assistant marshal and two cowboys, he devised a plan to rob the bank in nearby Medicine Lodge.

Bank Robbery

Rain poured down on the morning of April 30, 1884, as the four men rode into town and hitched their horses behind the coal shed of the Medicine Valley Bank. The bank had just opened when three of the men burst in and demanded cash.

The bank president reached for his revolver and was shot by Brown. The clerk was shot twice by another gang member but was able to stagger to the vault and trigger the combination lock. Both men died soon after. Meanwhile, an alarm was raised on the street outside the bank. Foiled in their robbery attempt, the gang quickly mounted their horses and fled town with an angry posse in pursuit. They surrendered about two hours later after being trapped in a box canyon outside town.

Bank robbers after capture

The photo at left was taken after the gang's capture. Of the four men grouped at the center of the photo, Marshal Henry Brown is second from left, and Assistant Marshal Ben Wheeler is at far right in the line-up.

A mob chanted "Hang them!" as the party was secured in the Medicine Lodge jail. The Caldwell Journal later reported that a hush then descended on the town, and "the impression prevailed that before many hours the bodies of four murderers would swing in the soft night air." Perhaps sensing he would not live through the night, Brown drafted a letter to his wife of six weeks. As darkness fell, he wrote of his love for her, claimed he did not shoot anyone, and directed her to dispose of his property. "I will send you all of my things, and you can sell them," he wrote, "but keep the Winchester."

When the mob broke into the jail later that night the prisoners attempted a dash for freedom. Brown quickly fell dead, his body riddled with buckshot and balls from other men's Winchesters. The rest of the gang was caught and hanged from an elm tree in the moonlight.

Brown's widow continued to live in Caldwell after his death but ignored his instructions about the Winchester, giving the gun to acquaintances. The rifle moved to Texas with its new owners, and two generations later was sold to a gun collector. In 1977 the gun was donated to the Kansas Museum of History, where it is on display in the main gallery.

Entry: Winchester Rifle

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: November 1995

Date Modified: July 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.