Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


Van Buren County native Sam Woodruff was born in Bentonsport December 8, 1853, where he attended school and grew to manhood. At age 19, he made his way to Wyoming Territory and began working for rancher John Freel. Unfortunately, the two men became bitter enemies after Freel caught Sam having an affair with his wife.

On December 2, 1874 Freel fired a shot at Woodruff, but Sam was the better marksman. Twice Woodruff returned fire, each time finding his mark. After he discovered that his boss was dead, Sam borrowed a horse and rode to Cheyenne, where he turned himself in to Laramie County Sheriff A. J. O’Brien.

A jury quickly found Sam Woodruff guilty of manslaughter, thus he began serving 10 years in the Wyoming Penitentiary. However, Sam had friends and relatives in Fairfield and in Van Buren County who apparently had never seen his dark side.

With boosts from editorials in the Van Buren Democrat and the Keosauqua Republican newspapers, some 200 supporters led by Governor Kirkwood signed petitions for Woodruff’s clemency. Swayed by such pleas, Wyoming Governor John Thayer had him set free on December 13, 1877.

After this adventure, Sam Woodruff made his home for awhile in Keosauqua where he found a young, beautiful wife. But his heart longed for the west. Sam left his wife and returned to Wyoming to seek gold and work as a guide. This time he met and teamed up with a man named Charles Clark, also known as "Joseph Seminole."

Clark had been found guilty of grand larceny and assault to commit murder, had been sentenced to four years in the Wyoming Penitentiary, and had served his full term. Soon on the run for a series of horse thefts, Clark hooked up with Woodruff, who had been rather unsuccessful in his mining venture.

After an unsuccessful robbery, the men kidnapped Hayward, a rancher whose body was later found stuffed in a culvert, and eventually made it to Denver with Hayward’s wagon and mule team. The state, together with the rancher’s family and friends, posted $1,800 in rewards for the two men who split up in Nebraska. On the run, Woodruff headed back to Iowa while Clark set out for Dakota Territory.

With the help of an Indian guide, Clark was soon captured and Woodruff was later found at his brother’s farm in Big Grove, Iowa. Using an alias, detective Hawley posed as a "field hand" in order to find Woodruff. With the help of a constable, Woodruff was captured in a store and taken to Denver where both men were identified by Hayward’s wife and daughters and the men were dragged to jail in chains to await their murder trial.

December 27 was a warm night with a full moon. A vigilante crowd of about 100 men assembled near the county jail. One cut the telegraph line, while others slipped into the area where the watchmen were sleeping and overpowered them. The crowd marched to the cell where Woodruff and Clark were being held prisoner and laid siege to the iron door of the main cell.

Once the crowd opened the cells, they took the pair to the railroad crossing over Kinney Creek. A noose was placed around each man’s neck and tied to the wood ties. Each man was asked if he had anything to say.

"Gentlemen, you are hanging an innocent man," Woodruff replied, "but I trust God will forgive you as I do. May God have mercy on your souls. May I say my prayers?" The doomed man knelt to pray. When he stood up, he was pushed off the trestle.

Clark told the men to "beware of your first bad step. The after ones are not to be feared, it is the beginnings. But for my first evil break I would not be standing here tonight with this rope around my neck and death staring me in the face. In relation to the murder, we are guilty. I have no excuse to offer."

(This is condensed from an article by Larry K. Brown in the October, 2004 edition of Wild West magazine. The article was given to me by Bob Vickerman.)

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick