On this date in 1877, Bismarck saloonkeeper Peter Branigan* was supposed to be executed. He had killed a soldier named Massengale in his saloon on Christmas Day and was almost lynched by angry soldiers that night. Branigan was found guilty in February, escaped from jail in March, and was caught again Audubon, Minnesota, a few weeks later.
Bismarck was considered one of the toughest towns in America in the 1870s, but much of its past never made it into the history of the Wild West. Bismarck’s lawless era began when hundreds of railroad workers began advancing the Northern Pacific from Duluth. As the workers moved west, so did those who entertained them and took their money, including prostitutes, gamblers, saloonkeepers and drug dealers. Collectively, they were called the “End of the Track Gang.”
When railroad construction stalled in Bismarck, these “people of bad character” settled in for the duration. Two spots became particularly dangerous – Whiskey Point, opposite the Missouri River from Fort Abraham Lincoln, and “bloody Fourth Street.”
Two of the gang’s worst were Dave Mullen and Jack O’Neil, who had followed the rail line to Bismarck where they opened a saloon. No love was lost between the fort’s soldiers and the End of the Track Gang. Even though the soldiers were among their best customers, Mullen said he never “missed a good opportunity to shoot or rob a soldier.”
One October night in 1873, a gambler named “Spotty” Whalen shot and killed a soldier out at Whiskey Point. The civilian authorities didn’t do anything about it, so a group of soldiers took matters into their own hands. In what became known as the “Battle of Mullen’s Corner,” the soldiers tracked Whalen to Mullen and O’Neil’s saloon. Mullen answered their knock by opening the door and shooting a soldier. The soldiers returned fire and Mullen quickly passed into the next life.
In the winter of 1876-77 a man named Lawrence shot a soldier out at the Point, and the victim ended up dying of lockjaw.
Branigan’s killing of Massengale was perhaps the end of Bismarck’s most violent era. Gold was discovered in the Black Hills that year, and the “End of the Track Gang” moved on – taking the stagecoach to Deadwood, the “next” toughest town in America.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm
Frank Vyzralek, The Last Stand of the “End of the Track Gang”, A Peek at Justice on the Dakota Frontier, North Dakota Humanities Council, January-February 2000; Bismarck Tribune, June 23, 1882
* Branigan can be found under these alternate spellings: Brannigan, Banigan and Bannigan