Historical research can be both fun and exasperating. Sometimes a single tale or a single person has multiple stories, none the same and it gets difficult trying to separate truth from fiction. Working on a story dealing with lesser know members of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch led me to Tom O’Day and the most convoluted last 30 years, or so, of his life.
There are many, many, head scratchers like this in history, that’s what makes research worthwhile and fun.
Outlaw Tom O’Day rode with the Wild Bunch, or at least they put up with him, according to some Butch Cassidy experts. He is sometimes referred to as a forward scout, you know the guy who goes in and cases the joint, before the robbery. Others say he may have been kept around for comedic relief, like the time he got too drunk to even watch the horses properly.
Regardless of which Tom O’Day the real guy was, he is interesting and certainly much more than just a footnote in Wyoming and Wild West history. Almost any mention of the Wild Bunch and you will find Tom O’Day’s name.
In November of 1903 O’Day was tired of working for wages for area ranchers and decided to run off a few horses to sell for himself, something he had done in the past and was quite good at. He rustled fifteen head of fine horses and took off for the rugged lands of the Owl Creek Mountains of central Wyoming.
The penalty for horse stealing in 1903 Wyoming was five years a horse, so O’Day was looking at 75 years worth of horses. It was a good business if you got away with it. Each prime horse could be worth two or three months wages. O’Day liked his chances, a little bit of work; hide the horses for a few weeks in a mountain pass, then run them into Montana to sell. Easy street, for the next few years, was just around the corner.
But, things didn’t work out so well for Tom O’Day, he got caught, likely because he stole the horse flesh from Bryant B. Brooks, an important Wyoming politician of the day. The judge was soft hearted toward the amicable O’Day and sentenced him to six year in the Wyoming state penitentiary in Rawlins.
Well of all the crazy stuff! Bryant Brooks was elected as Wyoming’s seventh governor two years later and two years after that re-elected to a second term. And then he pardoned O’Day with a year and a half left on his sentence.
Who says politicians can’t be understanding fellows at time?
O’Day went straight after leaving prison, moving to a Nebraska farm where he lived and worked happily ever after until his death in 1936. Or maybe he moved to Deadwood where he worked as a greater in a gambling and other entertainment business up to his death in 1930. Some Wild West historian’s note O’Day left prison, never to be heard from again until his death in Iowa in the 30s.
OK, so no one knows what become of the horse thief after leaving prison. Well at least we know he left other peoples horse flesh alone for the rest of his life----maybe.
Now get out there and research--and scratch your head too.