In the last century and change, western Nebraska’s tallgrass prairies have given way to corn and soybeans, cattle have replaced the bison, and barbed wire fence and telephone poles cut through all but the most remote crannies. But there are holdouts, like the deep canyon long known as “Devil’s Gap,” southeast of Callaway. If you can find it, it’s not hard to imagine the way it looked in December 1878, two hostages swinging from an elm tree, their fate to make headlines across the country.
Following the Homestead Act, in 1877, a small group of settlers established themselves along Clear Creek in central Nebraska, not far from the ranch of I.P. Olive, one of the state’s wealthiest cattlemen. At the time, tensions over land use were simmering between homesteaders and ranchers, who had chased the market prices north from Texas. Describing the feud in her 1958 book The Cattlemen, Nebraska author Mari Sandoz wrote, “The transplantation of the new cattle king and his methods to Nebraska … caused much stir. Everything he did was big, bighanded, overbearing, bulldozing.”
I.P. Olive didn’t take kindly to cattle thieves and suspected Ami Ketchum, a Clear Creek homesteader, of stealing his property. Olive sent his notoriously barbaric brother, Bob—deputized by the neighboring county’s sheriff—to arrest Ketchum, who lived with fellow homesteader Luther Mitchell. Bob arrived on Nov. 28, 1878, two gunmen by his side, and opened fire. When the skirmish was over, Ketchum’s arm was broken and bleeding, and Bob was slumped over his horse and his gunshot wound, held up by his gang. He would die three days later in a nearby dugout.
Mitchell and Ketchum fled, vowing to present themselves to the authorities for the killing of Bob Olive. Halfway back, an attorney advised them against it. The cowboys in Custer County were riled up and had already burned Mitchell’s home, and would surely lynch the pair upon arrival. Heeding his advice, they gave themselves up in Howard County, instead. Nevertheless, with I.P. offering a $700 reward, the homesteaders were loaded into a wagon, only to be turned over to Olive’s men.
The gang arrived at Devil’s Gap and hanged Ketchum. They shot Mitchell, then drew him up, too. They were found the next day, Ketchum still twisting on the line and, though handcuffed together, Mitchell on the ground beside him, both bodies burned. Most assume the gang, drunk and vengeful, poured their whiskey on the bodies and set them aflame.
Olive served 19 months in the penitentiary before his release. He was shot and killed four years later in Colorado.
According to photographer S.D. Butcher, in The Pioneer History of Custer County, “Thus ended the last act of a drama of blood … unequaled in the annals of crime in the great west.”