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Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Stephen D. Richards - The Old West's Serial Killer

Stephen D. Richards - The Old West's Serial Killer

C.A. Asbrey

A number of people have been named as the USA's first serial killer. In truth, the name of that person will probably never be known as baby farming was a common crime in the past. Unfortunate babes were farmed out for a small fee, allegedly for adoption, but in reality for a quick death with plausible deniability. Some of the women, and they were usually females, convicted of such crimes were guilty of killing literally hundreds of children as they operated for years before being caught. The records could never prove all of those though, so most were only convicted for the last few which were provable. Amelia Dyer is calculated to have killed at least 400 babies in her criminal career.

Then there are the more traditional models of the serial killer - the stranger who kills indiscriminately, or the charming psychopath who feels no remorse. People like H.H. Holmes has often been cited as the first serial killer in the USA, but Stephen D. Richards was executed a full twenty years before Holmes. He was hanged for nine murders in Nebraska and Iowa between 1876 and 1878. 

Richards operated under a number of pseudonyms;  F.A. Hoge, Dee Richards, Dick Richards, George Gallagher, D.J. Roberts, William Hudson, W.A. Littleton, J. Littleton, "The Nebraska Fiend". He had echoes of modern-day killer, Ted Bundy, in that he was remarkably calm and assured in the face of certain death by hanging. He was charm personified when dealing with the press too, and would speak only to polite members of the press. This affable murderer was described thus by a reporter;

He is a good reasoner, a fluent talker, uses on the whole very fair English, has a soft, melodious and well-modulated voice, a rare amount of personal magnetism over all with whom he is brought in contact, and is as lithe, graceful and stalwart a specimen of physical manhood as ever strode a prison cell… A constant smile plays over his face... He talks of murders as openly and with as little concealment as of the most trifling matter,” the reporter wrote. “He insists that none of the last five were committed in passion, but with a motive which he will not reveal, and were planned deliberately. He promises revelations in a day or two on matters here which he has kept silent about, which he says will astonish the whole western country as nothing has for years.

The Omaha Herald was his preferred newspaper, although the reason for his cooperating with this newspaper isn't recorded, it may have been just a personal connection to the journalist, or that they gave him a prominence which appealed to his vanity.

While Richards was handsome, charismatic, and eloquent, the resemblance to Ted Bundu ended there. He did not kill for sexual reasons and he did not try to avoid hanging. Nor did he have only one kind of victim. Also, Bundy's brain showed no sign of any kind of old brain injury or abnormality, where Richards did have a head injury shortly before he starting killing; something he shares with many violent criminals.

Richards was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1856. The family moved several times throughout his life. As a young man he worked as an attendant on the violent ward at a lunatic asylum in Iowa, where part if his job was to bury the bodies of deceased patients. “That took away to some extent my feeling and sympathy for mankind,” he is quoted as saying.

After leaving the asylum he drifted into a life of crime, consorting with petty criminals and train robbers around the Midwest. In Kearney, Richards met another man while traveling through the Nebraska countryside. By Richards' account, they camped out for the night near Dobytown and began to play cards for money.

Richards won almost every cent the stranger had. The next morning, the two men set off for Kearney, but before they got far the stranger turned to Richards and demanded his money back. In Richards' words: "I refused to refund, and he got kind of savage, and so I shot him. The ball struck him above the left eye and killed him almost instantly. After killing him I dragged him down to the river and pitched him in."

A few days later Richards had to dispatch a friend of the dead man who had been asking too many questions. "The stranger asked me so many questions that I got nervous, and it seemed to me it would be safest to kill him to stop his mouth." The next time the other man turned his back, Richards shot him in the back of the head and killed him. "I never heard of either one of them afterwards," he said later."

In March 1877, Richards killed another man over an argument about waking the other man too early.

In June 1878, he was imprisoned for theft. While in jail he met Mrs. Harleson, who was imprisoned for helping her criminal husband evade justice. They struck a deal for him to purchase the deeds to her homestead, but the murderous criminal saw a cheaper way. Mrs. Harleson, her and her three children: ten-year-old Daisy, four-year-old Mabel and two-year-old Jasper, nicknamed "Jesse", all had to die.

He gave three reasons for the killings. The first was that Mrs. Harleson talked too much. The second, was that she had asked too many questions, and the third was that she had gone through his papers and had some incriminating evidence on him.

"She would have 'given me away' had I let her live ... and so, knowing what she did, I thought it the safest plan to put her out of the way," he said. "It struck me that it would be just as well for everybody if the whole family were of the world. I thought the matter over, thought of the best way of disposing of the bodies, the chance of discovery, and made up my mind the scheme was a good one.” He dug a mass grave and then killed them all. Richards later said he had no more feeling about it than if he’d slaughtered some jackrabbits."

The killings took no more than half an hour, with everyone dying quickly, "except for Daisy, who "moaned and murmured and writhed around some."

When asked where the family had gone, Richards told people that the family had gone off with another man, name of Brown, who'd been staying at the house.

In December 1878, Richards killed a Swedish neighbour called Anderson after another argument. The Times account of Richards' crimes says, "That evening a party of neighbors came up to inquire after Anderson, and found Richards hitching up the Swede's team. He told them to go into the house and see, and then threw off the harness from one of the animals, mounted him, and made for Bloomington."

Richards was not afraid to die; he said that he would have to die someday and it didn't matter how or when.

At the time, Stephen D. Richards was the worst serial killer to have ever plagued Nebraska. Although he admitted to the murders noted here, law enforcement at the time thought that he may have killed as many as three more people.

The Rope used to hang Stephen D. Richards

Innocent Bystander EXCERPT

A vacant-looking man with prominent yellow teeth walked into her field of vision, striding beyond the blinding sun and dragged her roughly from the horse. She had expected to be searched and had ruthlessly bound her body with bandages to try to flatten and conceal her breasts, but the man merely patted down her sides before turning his attentions to her jacket. He pulled out the pistol which had been loosely placed in her pocket and slapped his way down her legs. She was instantly glad she had foregone the Derringer she usually wore at her ankle. A concealed weapon was too risky.
“He’s clean.”
“Well, boy. It seems like you’re gonna get your wish, but if you’ve been messin’ with us and you ain’t Quinn’s kin, you’re gonna regret it. He don’t like to be messed with.”
Abigail felt her arms grabbed as she was roughly turned around and her carefully dirtied hands were bound behind her back, the rope biting deeply into her skin as it was pulled tight. They must have seen her wince as it provoked a chorus of laughter which rang in her ears.
“Looks like this life’s a bit too rough for you, sonny.”
 A thick, smelly bag was thrust over her head, obliterating the world, before she was lifted back onto her little colt and she felt herself led off to face the rest of the gang.



  1. Hi, C.A., great excerpt. I have to confess to having a fascination with true crime and serial killers, my guilty pleasure now aided by podcasts on the topic, but I never heard of this chap before! I had to look him up and as chilling as this tale is what struck me the most was that he was only 23 when he was executed. Can you imagine the lives he would have taken if he hadn't been caught? Human nature being what it is, it's not surprising that a parallel to a Ted Bundy like killer could be found in past history. Thanks, for an interesting post. What a psychopath!

    1. Thank you, Patti. Yes, it doesn't bear thinking about! I'm sure they don't know all his victims as it is.

  2. Well... that was intriguingly creepy. *wink* I agree with Patti that there is a fascination with what makes a serial killer tick. I will confess to having a fascination with the fictional character Hannibal Lecter more than an interest in real life killers. Maybe psychologically I feel safer that way. lolol

    1. I so agree. Serial killers are fascinating - on paper. Down a dark alley, not so much!

  3. Serial killers are terrifying people. I did not know about the women who killed children. Oh God, that's just awful, like a scary story with characters so corrupt I wish they were fiction instead of real.

    Richards sounds so much like many serial killers who, like Ted Bundy, charming, somewhat handsome, and social, but who in private were monsters. It makes me feel unsafe because e could be walking past them or even converse with one while we're in line at the grocery store. CHILLS!

    I want to wish you all the best with INNOCENT BYSTANDER. The excerpt certainly started off with a creep character and an abduction of an innocent. Did you have nightmares when you wrote it?

  4. Thank you, Sarah. It does make you wonder how many were never identified in the past. I didn't have nightmares writing Innocent Bystander. I had loads of fun writing it.

  5. Baby killing? Wow. That's chilling. Thank for an insightful post about the pathology of criminals in the old west.

    1. Oh, yes. He was completely devoid of conscience, by all accounts. Horrible man.

  6. That's the way a lot of criminals think. It is always the other person who 'needed' or the 'had' something the criminal wanted.

    Very fascinating overview. Reminds me of some of the juveniles I locked up, they just hadn't become homicidal yet. Doris

  7. Thanks, Renaissance Women. Yes, I've met them too. Nothing, and nobody, matters when they want something.