City of Stranglers

Perhaps the most impressive sight in Rapid City – admittedly a town without many impressive sights – is the group of seven WPA dinosaurs atop Skyline Drive just west of Downtown. These jolly green concrete creatures have been a fixture of the skyline since they were dedicated in 1936 as a joint project between the Depression Era Works Progress Administration and the Rapid City Parks department. Today the 20-acre Dinosaur Park is one of the most visited sites in town.dino

If you are a kid of a certain age, these dinosaurs will grab your attention. But if you are a kid of a slightly older certain age, a dead pine tree a few hundred yards down the hill is much more appealing. That tree, now encased in a concrete base, is known locally as “the hanging tree.” Long before the area was known as either Skyline Drive or Dinosaur Park, the place was called Hangman's Hill.

The hill, a ridge really, that separates the east and west sides of Rapid City, got its name on June 21, 1887, when three alleged horse thieves were hung by vigilantes from a tree on the hill and their bodies were left to twist in the wind for all to see. One of the men, James "Kid" Hall, proclaimed his innocence by saying he had just met the other two outside of town. Hall's story was corroborated by the other two men, yet he was hung with them anyway.

Hall, A.J. Allen and Louis Curry had allegedly stole horses from the Salisbury-Gilmer Stage Company’s barn in Crook City. A sheriff's posse caught the trio allegedly napping on Cowboy Hill Hangin' Treeand they were brought before Judge Robert Burleigh that very evening. Burleigh conducted a hearing and turned the evidence over to a grand jury, but no written record was kept of the proceedings. There was no verdict but officials from the Salisbury-Gilmer Stage Company identified the stolen horses as belonging to them, and subsequently ordered free drinks for a “Vigilante Committee” who then proceeded to have their justice on the hill.

Nooses were placed around the necks of the three men as they sat on horseback. The horses were then struck with spurs and bolted leaving the victims dangling. It was said that they died slowly of strangulation because the ropes were too long. The next morning when the bodies were cut down, Judge Burleigh said that the knots had been tied so poorly that the victims toes had been touching the ground as they hung. Instead of dying of broken necks as horse thieves were supposed to, the men died of asphyxiation. To this day, if you want to insult Rapid City, just call it the “City of Stranglers.”

Hall, who claimed he was unknowingly lent a stolen horse by Allen and Curry, screamed his innocence until his final breath. The truth will never be known. The actual tree from which the three were hung is also unknown. It could very well be the dead pine embedded in concrete. Or perhaps some other tree.  Nobody who was there at the time can say.

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