State's most famous rustler escaped Mitchell jail in 1903The most infamous cattle rustler in South Dakota history was once jailed in Mitchell.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
The most infamous cattle rustler in South Dakota history was once jailed in Mitchell.
But Jack Sully wasn’t held behind bars long. The “notorious desperado,” as The New York Times referred to him after his death, escaped and returned to his outlaw ways.
Sully was a lot of things in his life, and cattle rustler was one of them. He was also on the right side of the law, in the ory anyway, for a few years, according to numerous published accounts of his life and legend.
Sully, whose real name was supposedly Arthur McDonald, was a Virginia native born in 1839, according to his grave marker. There are reports he attended a local university and some claim he fought in the Civil War, although it’s unclear if he did and, if he did, what side he was on.
He moved west as a young man and settled in Canada before he moved to Dakota Territory around 1870.
A skilled horseman and crack shot, Sully was elected sheriff of Charles Mix County in a landslide in 1872. He won the race 61-1, but that raised some eyebrows, since reportedly fewer than 62 registered voters cast ballots.
No matter, however, since Sully soon switched sides and became a rustler. By the 1880s, he was a notorious cattle thief, known for moving stolen cattle back and forth across the U.S.-Canada border with his gang of outlaws.
Published reports claim that by the turn of the century, Sully and his gang had stolen 50,000 cattle and 6,000 horses. They were also blamed for sawing down timber on government land, which they sold, and reportedly killed up to 12 settlers.
Outlaws known as Joe Blackbird, Lame Johnny and Big Nose George were among his notorious gang, which included whites, Native Americans and people of mixed blood. Sully himself married a Lakota woman named Mary.
Some claim Sully’s outlaw reputation is undeserved, that he was a good man caught up in a rough and rowdy time. He has been dubbed “The Robin Hood of Rosebud Country.”
There is no dispute that Sully ran free across the prairie for more than two decades before returning to Canada in 1901. But he came back to South Dakota and, in late 1902, was captured with stolen cattle in Verdigre, Neb. After at first being taken to Oacoma, Sully was transferred to and held in a jail in Mitchell.
According to a Jan. 26, 1903, story in The Evening Republican, a forerunner of The Daily Republic, Sully was a pleasant prisoner, usually “in a cheerful frame of mind.”
That changed during his final day behind bars. When last seen, the infamous rustler was “decidedly out of temper, seemed cross and somewhat nervous,” the paper reported.
Sheriff George H. Brooks had died the day before after less than a month in office — an apparently unrelated event, according to longtime former Davison County sheriff Lyle Swenson, an avid local historian. Deputy Rogan and R.F. Dundas, the county coroner who was the acting sheriff, delivered supper to Sully around 7 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 25, 1903, but found an empty cell.
Sully, with the apparent assistance of some of his gang, had broken out of the Mitchell jail.
According to the 1903 newspaper account, Brooks’ death may have set the outlaws to work to bust out their leader. An investigation determined that a hole had been cut through the stone in the southeast corner of the jail. Black powder was also used to open a hole large enough for a man to get through, according to the newspaper story.
An alert was sounded via telephone, but Sully had escaped. His life on the lam was short-lived, however.
Sully was shot dead by a posse led by U.S. Deputy Marshal Johnny Petrie on May 16, 1904, on the Rosebud Indian Reservation.
Petrie had already arrested Sully once, years earlier, for illegally cutting timber. Sully was fined $500 that time.
But in 1904, Sully was unwilling to go to jail. According to a story published in 1911 as Petrie’s health was failing, the lawman and four allies crept up on Sully’s home, which was set on a hill so he could see if anyone was closing in on him. Sully also reportedly used “a spyglass” to watch for lawmen.
Petrie told one of the ranch’s hired hands to notify Sully the lawmen were present and advise him to surrender. Instead, Sully jumped on a horse and made a dash for freedom.
“Fire low at the horse and bring him down,” Petrie reportedly cried out. The air was filled with lead, and one bullet struck Sully.
Petrie rushed to him and asked why he hadn’t surrendered. The two men had a friendly relationship despite their opposing stances.
“Only one thing to do, Johnny,” Sully supposedly said. “I’m 59 — couldn’t stand a long sentence.”
He died about 45 minutes later and is buried in an abandoned cemetery in Gregory County near where he was killed. The area is still called Sully Flats.
By 1906, his gang had been broken up and large-scale cattle rustling was a thing of the past in South Dakota. But Sully’s colorful career has become the stuff of legend.
A Colt Lawman revolver with mother-of-pearl grips that reportedly belonged to him was sold online for $15,000 in 2010.
Charles Mix County refers to the old rogue as one of its famous citizens.
Sully County in South Dakota is not named for him, however. It bears the name of General Alfred Sully, who fought in the Civil War and then came to the Great Plains for battles against the Lakota and other tribes.
In 2008, South Dakota Magazine Publisher Bernie Hunhoff wrote a story titled “Jack Sully, Our Likeable Outlaw.” A ballad, “The Death of Jack Sully,” has been written and is online. There are videos re-enacting his death on YouTube.
The old rustler even has the ultimate sign of modern-day interest: He has his own Facebook page.