In Nebraska in the 1870s a man either bought the law with cash or made his own laws with a gun.
Print Olive, a cattleman who came to Nebraska from Texas, did both.
Isom Prentice “Print” Olive was born in 1840, one of five children to James and Julia (Brashear) Olive. Depending upon which account one reads, there may have been up to nine children.
At the age of 21, Print joined the Confederate Army, fighting in the battles at Luka, Farmington and Shiloh, where he was wounded. He was captured on July 4, 1863 at the fall of Vicksburg, Miss., and let go after three days, but only after signing an agreement, sometimes referred to as a loyalty oath, to never again bear arms against the United States of America.
After the war, Print returned to the family ranch, realizing that he would have to work hard and fight ruthlessly to prosper as a rancher. The two years Print spent fighting in war taught him how to fight and use a gun. Now, at the age of 25, Print had also acquired a taste for hard liquor and gambling.
Print’s concession to civilized life was finding a wife, getting married and having children of his own. To this end he married Louisa Reno on Feb. 4, 1866, and was a good father and provider.
And provide well for his family, he did.
By the 1870s the Olive herd of cattle was doubling each year, even though the smaller neighboring ranches had a shrinking number of stock.
Longhorn cattle, only worth $5 to $7 ($100 in today’s money) each in Texas, was worth about triple that amount in the populous areas in the North, so the Olive family drove the long cattle trails into Custer, Buffalo and Sherman Counties, settling in the Plum Creek area.*
As cattle operations grew sparse and more families were without food, cattle rustling was on the increase. Because Print had one of the largest herds in the area, he was also the most likely target for the rustlers.
Print’s vengeance on rustlers who were caught was swift, but not always fatal. Those who crossed him more than once, however, felt Print’s wrath in full.
Rumors had traveled from Texas up to Nebraska of Print’s methods of dealing with the men who crossed him and legend had it that the Olive cistern in Texas was full of dead bodies.
Rumor also had it the trail of dead bodies seemed to appear wherever Print traveled.
One man, Pea Eye, told folks he was eyewitness to a few of these killings. Whether it was true, or whether Pea Eye made up stories to tell around the campfire is anybody’s guess, but Pea Eye ended up dead, full of buckshot, lying dead in the bottom of his wagon with his ox team pulling him home.
Although Print was never connected to any of these so-called murders, he did end up being tried for killing Dave Fream.
Fream was an area homesteader who was not afraid of Print and the “Olive gang” as his men were called. While settlers typically did not get along with cattlemen, Fream went out of his way to antagonize Print.
Print ignored the man until a few Olive cattle disappeared in the vicinity of Fream’s homestead. Print accused him of killing Olive cattle, pistol-whipping the settler across the face, knocking him to the ground and promising him a bullet if he was caught in the area again.
Then, to make matters worse, his brother, Bob, was shot at while riding in the area and when Print went to investigate, he observed Olive cattle roaming with Fream’s herd.
Print asked if Fream had taken a shot at his brother, Bob.
“No I didn’t,” was the young man’s reply, “but I’d damn well like to take a pop at you.”
The two men fired, each wounding the other. Fream’s wound instantly fatal. Print would live to be tried and acquitted for the killing, but he was never the same again.
But Print had his wish; Fream was out of his way.
Afterward, Print would laugh and tell those within earshot that it was easier to move men than it was to move cattle. And he meant it, dealing with anyone who tried to take what was rightfully his with a bullet, rather than depending on the law.
Two black men, Red Banks and Jack Dodson, traveling with guns strapped to the sides of their horses, stopped and asked Louisa Olive, Print’s wife, for a drink of water. One of the men reportedly asked Mrs. Olive where her husband was and Print, who was inside the house and heard the conversation, became enraged, putting a bullet into one and splitting wide open the face of the other with a bullwhip.
He was tried and acquitted within the month.
Two men suspected of rustling Olive cattle, Turk Turner and James Crow, also met a painful demise, Olive style. Both men were wrapped in fresh cowhides and left in the hot sun, the leather hide shrinking up, iron-clad tight, constricting the two men until their tongues protruded and their eyes popped out of their sockets.
Depending on which story one believes, the men were mercifully shot first, then wrapped into the hides.
With Print’s penchant for swift and blinding violence toward cattle rustlers, those who knew the man claimed it was unlikely that any mercy would have been shown on the men and that they had probably been wrapped into hides while they were still alive. The Spanish name for the killing is, “the death of the skins,” and the hides came from none other than the two Olive cattle the men were caught butchering.
Often, when charges were brought against Print, the witnesses would disappear, which is what took place when other homesteaders who did not scare off; killed Print’s brother.
Ami Ketchum and Luther Mitchell, two men who had a reputation for cattle rustling, and on whose property were found Olive cattle and cattle carcasses. As it was in the case of Fream, the two men and their families were told to leave the area, or else. The warning went unheeded.
The animosity between the Olive family and the two men continued for a couple of years until Bob Olive saw a bunch of Olive cattle for sale at the market in Kearney. The man in charge of the sale claimed he bought them from Ketchum and Mitchell.
With proof of the theft, Bob went to the sheriff in Kearney and in late November 1878, he was deputized as a deputy sheriff of Buffalo County. With an arrest warrant in hand, he rode up to the Ketchum house and demanded the two men surrender into custody.
The reports are conflicted regarding who fired the first shot, but after a barrage of gunfire Bob was dropped with a single shot from a rifle, alive, but barely. Olive ranch hands, desperate to keep Bob alive lest suffering the vengeance of Print, hurried him to the home of a neighboring settler.
Bob died within a couple of days, asphyxiating on his own blood.
Print went blind with rage, telling everyone he met he was offering a $700 reward to the person who brought the two men to him. In today’s money, $700 was equivalent to about $15,000; a princely sum.
Sheriff’s departments from Howard, Keith and Buffalo counties became involved in the manhunt with Sheriff Gillian of Keith County becoming the man to turn the two men over to Print. The prisoners were put into a wagon with Sheriff Gillian along for the ride.
At some point in the journey, the wagon train stopped, Gillian was let out, given his $700 and told that someone would be along for him later.
The wagon was led into Devil’s canyon and parked under a tree. Ketchum was the first man to hang, while Mitchell watched. As Mitchell was the man whose rifle shot killed Bob Olive, he was shot as payment in return, then strung up beside Ketchum.
The men were doused with either whiskey or kerosene; again it depends on whose accounting is the closest to truth, and the men were set ablaze while they dangled by their ropes from the trees.
Later, the corpses of the two men were exhumed and photographed, the photos of their charred remains made into penny postcards and circulated throughout the region.
Afterward Print was given the nickname “Man Burner.”
This time, though, Print would stand trial for the murders.
Print and a dozen of his men were arrested in connection with the incident and a trial was scheduled in Hastings.
Print Olive still had money, though, and rumors had it that Print’s men had approached every witness and juror connected with the case a choice: a fat wad of bills (said to be $1,000) or the loss of their tongues, should they not take the cash.
The trial took place in April 1879 and Print had some of the best lawyers in the state defending him, a luxury which would eventually cost him a little more than $5 million dollars in today’s currency.
Judge William Gaslin opened Print’s trial with a selection of pistols fanned on the bench before him, a statement to spectators that there would be no funny business in his courtroom during the notorious trial. He also asked the local papers not to print evidence in the case.
Print was found guilty in the murder of the two men. Although there was enough evidence to convict him for first-degree murder, the jury brought in a second-degree verdict. Gaslin sentenced Print to spend the rest of his life in prison.
The case was appealed, however, and in a two-to-one decision the conviction was reversed on the opinion that only the defense can ask for a change of venue, not the prosecution. By taking Print out of the county for prosecution, his rights had been violated.
He was set free.
The case against Print finally came to a close in December 1880 when Print appeared in Custer County on the same charges and there was no complaining witness to be had.
Print left the area for Colorado, deciding upon an area near Trail City, to recoup his wealth, much of which was lost defending himself. He managed to amass a bit of wealth, but not like he had 10 years prior.
Taking pity on a local cattleman in need of some cash, Print lent the young man, Joe Sparrow, approximately one hundred dollars. After some hounding, Sparrow paid Print back the money, except for about $10 of it.
That small amount of owed money ate at Print and he confronted the cowboy in a bar, warning him. Sparrow laughed and Print became angry, drew his gun to fire, but Sparrow got the first shot in.
Print died at about 4:30 p.m. on Aug. 16, 1886. He was just 45. Local sentiment was that Print lived by the gun, and died by the gun.
The late Harlan Anderson, whose parents homesteaded the land adjacent to the Olive ranch, said that history was not good to the Olive family. He clarified his statement in a written account of his memories of the family, which is now on record at the Dawson County Historical Museum.
“They fought lawless people in Texas mostly in self-defense,” Anderson wrote. “They came to Nebraska and maybe the homesteaders did steal their cattle.
“We know the law was weak at that period of time in Texas, also in Nebraska,” he continued. “So who knows for sure how we would have behaved, as cattlemen or as homesteaders under those circumstances.”
A detailed account of Print Olive’s life can be found in “The Ladder of Rivers,” by Harry E. Chrisman. It is available at the Dawson County Historical Museum.
*Print’s brother, Ira W. Olive, became a bank director, was on the city council for Plum Creek, later Lexington, and settled into a large frame two-story house, which is now owned by the Waterman family.