Several years ago, I found an old-timey Wild West paperback featuring the exploits of Robert “Little Reddy” McKimie. I didn’t have the book, and at the time, Googling was a dead end. (Yes, really, there was such a time when Googling led to diddly squat!) More recently, I was trying to decide what to do as an inaugural post for the blog, something that would set the tone and yet not be all “well, here I am”. Once I decided to begin as I meant to go on, deciding to explore the shenanigans of Little Reddy was a no-brainer.
Robert is mentioned in a number of books featuring tails of the “Wild West” of Texas and Ohio. He gained a rather solid reputation, both as a kind and generous man and as a notorious killer, depending on who you asked.
The following is from the Fall 2011/Winter 2012 publication of Ohio State Parks. The article, titled “Face Off: The Two Faces of Robert McKimie” and written by the editor, Jean Backs, introduces our guy quite well.
By all accounts, Robert McKimie was a lively, charming boy whose tousled red hair suited his warm and carefree disposition. Growing up in and around the Highland County town of Rainsboro
(near Rocky Fork State Park) under the watchful eye of his aunt, Robert was known amongst the adults for his kindness and friendliness, and popular with his friends for instigating fun and boyhood mischief. He loved exploring the landscape of his childhood, from the sun dappled banks of Rocky Fork to the dark and mysterious Seven Caves.
In 1869, at the tender age of 14, Robert packed up his few possessions and set out for Columbus to join the army, where he was assigned to a cavalry unit in Texas. Two years later, Robert sent his aunt a generous gift of $50 tucked inside a letter explaining that he had left the army and joined a prosperous cattle raising business in Kansas. He promised to return to Rainsboro to settle down after building his fortune.
True to his word, Robert returned home in September 1877 with enough cash to buy a home, start a dry goods business, and court the town’s heartthrob, Clara Ferguson. Robert and Clara married, and started a promising new life together. Robert enjoyed instant success as a merchant and a local celebrity. He delighted in showing off his wealth and entertaining customers and neighbors late into the
night with colorful stories of his travels in the American West.
Robert’s love for the limelight proved to be his undoing. His neighbors were so impressed with Robert that they shared his larger-than-life tales with relatives and friends beyond Ohio’s borders. Eventually, the amusing anecdotes found more skeptical, faraway audiences who were immune from Robert’s charms. One astute listener shared his hunch that the rich and famous redhead from Rainsboro had been living a double life as the infamous outlaw known as “Little Reddy” in Texas. The legendary sheriff of Deadwood South Dakota, Seth Bullock, took the tip and rode herd to Ohio to test the theory of Little Reddy’s alias.
Bullock’s investigation uncovered an astounding story. The criminal Bullock was pursuing was an army deserter who started his life of violent crime by stealing a horse and shooting down its rider. He was caught and sent to the Utah penitentiary for the murder, but escaped after a year by brutally assaulting a guard with an iron bar. Next, he joined Sam Bass and his newly organized gang of stagecoach robbers. He nearly botched their first hold-up by impulsively shooting the stagecoach driver before they caught up to the coach. He was such a cold-hearted loose cannon that the gang kicked him out.
He continued to plunder and terrorize travelers through the Black Hills for several months until he, and his ill-gotten gains, disappeared.
Bullock quickly concluded that Robert McKimie was indeed Little Reddy, and tossed him in the county jail in January 1878 for robbery and murder.Robert’s adoring wife and loyal friends protested, but Robert wasn’t worried. When Highland County Sheriff Newell left town and left his father in charge of the jail for the night, Robert seized the opportunity to make a bold escape. As the old man approached his cell, Robert sprang at him and flew out the door, but not before the elder Newell could fire his pistol at the fleeing felon, and shoot clean through the third finger of Robert’s right hand. For weeks, Robert hid out in the barns, haylofts and homes of his friends, staying just one step ahead of the lawmen. He dyed his hair black, sported a false moustache, and hopped a train for Virginia.
Clara joined him on the lam, and together they slipped further away, from North Carolina to Georgia, and finally to Bermuda. They lived there in luxury for several months until their money was all spent, and Robert was arrested for an unpaid hotel bill. After about six weeks, Robert was released from the Nassau jail and sent to New York to make amends and earn the money for Clara’s ticket home. While Clara stewed alone in Bermuda, Robert resumed his old habits. He stripped an elderly man of his life savings to rescue Clara from Nassau, and schemed in secret as they made their way home to Ohio. Back in Highland County, Robert assembled a gang of his faithful friends, and convinced them to join him on a crime spree. They held up banks, looted stores, broke into homes, and resorted to torture, if need be, to persuade terrified residents to surrender their hidden stashes of cash and valuables. Fear and fury spread through Rainsboro, nearby communities, and neighboring counties as the robberies and assaults continued.
Now that Robert had shown his hometown his true colors, he could no longer hide in plain sight. He returned to his boyhood haunt, the Seven Caves, and chose a remote spot (still known as McKimie’s Cave) to serve as his hideout. Robert’s partners in crime were not as skilled at evading capture, however. A well-known detective from Springfield, John T. Norris, tracked down Robert’s accomplices one by one and tossed them in jail. The men refused to cooperate with Norris’ investigation, so Norris interrogated their wives, hoping to tweak a conscience.
While Norris listened to the confession of a nervous spouse who was feeling guilty about enjoying her neighbor’s stolen silver, smoke was seen rising suspiciously from the chimney of her vacant home.
Robert had brazenly assumed he could enjoy a soft bed and hot meal in his friends’ empty cabin without being detected, but vigilant neighbors raised the alert that the outlaw could be hiding out there. A posse of more than 100 angry citizens, robbery victims and law enforcement officers swarmed the cabin and demanded that Robert surrender. True to form, Robert managed to hold the crowd at bay and nearly slip away with a hostage, until sharpshooters grazed his face and chest. Back in the Highland County jail awaiting trial, Robert plotted yet another escape, but was foiled. He was convicted of a string of robberies, and served out his entire 14 year sentence in the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus.
After his release from prison, Robert headed back to the Black Hills. From there, the facts about Robert’s later life grow hazy. Among Robert’s contemporaries in Rainsboro, many were relieved that his reign of terror had ended for good, while others grew nostalgic for the romance of the genuine
Wild West desperado in their midst. Rumors persisted that the mysterious two-faced man changed his identity once again, reformed his wicked ways, and led a comfortable and respectable life as a wealthy businessman and Sunday school teacher in the West. A local legend claimed that he left behind a stash of loot in McKimie’s Cave, which has never been found.
The face-off between good and evil in a single soul made a lasting impact on an entire community. Whether the real Robert McKimie was the charming boy and kind old man that some befrie
the daring bandit that others despised, he was truly the colorful main character in one of the most bizarre chapters in southwest Ohio history.
Robert was likely the son of Rosa E. McKimie and Charles Richards. According to anecdotal findings, Charles seduced Rosa with the promise of marriage, but disappeared after she found herself with child. Robert was raised by a sister of Rosa’s. Rosa later married Thomas Ferguson. (Rosa’s grave.) Interestingly, Robert married Clara Ferguson in 1877. Were they connected? Robert’s Clara ended up joining him on the lam, urging him to distance himself from his notoriety and traveling down to Nassau. Without a doubt, this was an interesting couple.
When Robert was released from the Ohio Penitentiary in 1890, he reportedly changed his name to Robert M. Ferguson and assumed a life as an upstanding citizen. Some say he went on to serve during the Spanish-American War and was recognized by Teddy Roosevelt himself with an appointment as Territorial Governor of Oklahoma. Research doesn’t concur with such a noble conclusion to this adventurous life, but then, what kind of Dime Novel would it be if it ended without flair?
Do you know more about Rosa, Robert or Clara?
If you do, tell tell!
“From Gangster to Governor”, Ohio Southland, Issue #3, 1991, pgs 6-20.
Backs, Jean, “Face Off: The Two Faces of Robert McKimie”, Ohio State Parks, Fall 2011/Winter 2012, pgs 6-7.
DeArment, Robert K., Assault on the Deadwood Stage: Road Agents and Shotgun Messengers, University of Oklahoma Press, 2012.