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How Limpy Jack's Limp Got Worse


Limpy Jack Clayton was in a world of hurt on this date in 1879. If you remember, he was a cowboy, gambler, stagecoach driver, Sunday School teacher, and whiskey salesman at his dirt ranch on Stoney Creek, about 23 miles north of Jamestown.

Clayton got his nickname by double-crossing a friend; at the time Clayton was in Duluth going by the name of Hamilton. Major Dana Wright said, “Among the assistants that Mr. Hamilton collected in Duluth was a character named Jack O’Neal and another named Dave Mullen, these missionaries of the...Six Shooter days got themselves into some difficulties with the law and were arrested. Mr. Hamilton so far forgot himself as to testify in court against Dave so when the affair was cleared up Dave shot Hamilton in the leg...”

Hamilton moved to Jamestown after that, going by the name of Limpy Jack Clayton. Eight years later, that limp got a good deal worse. It happened after Clayton did his part to bring in the New Year the night before. When he started for home the next day, he was carrying a heavy internal load of “40 rod” whiskey. The temperature was 37 below.

Major Wright’s version of the story says Limpy Jack struck out alone on foot and passed out on the trail. “Pat Moran was making a trip with freight,” he wrote, “(and) picked him up and took him on top of the load to (Clayton’s) dugout.”

Jamestown historian August Leisch told it differently. He said that Jack was riding in the back of a wagon, and the driver didn’t realize until he reached Clayton’s dugout that Jack had fallen out. Despite the frigid weather, the driver backtracked, found Clayton and took him home.

Maybe they’re both right. Either way, Clayton’s hands and feet were badly frozen. About 10 days later, Colonel Crofton, the Post Commander of Fort Totten, passed through on the stage route. Seeing Jack’s condition, he ordered Clayton to be taken to the fort for treatment.

Leisch writes, “The hospital attendants cut his rags off, carried them to the stove on hot pokers and burned the outfit, bugs and all.”

Henry Hale, a Ft. Totten Army Steward, later wrote to Dr. Grassick in Grand Forks, saying, “Jack entertained us for quite a while, we finally amputated part of one hand and the toes of one foot, we first tried to put him under (with) ether but it was only a good jag for Jack, during the process I remember him saying ‘this is the second time the vigilantes have been after me.’”

The medical record states that Jack made it more than four months before the surgery was attempted. “May 6th, Endevoured (sic) to amputate Clayton’s foot,” Davis wrote, “but after using 15 oz. of Ether found it impossible to bring him under the influence, for just as he became insensible he stopped breathing and the anaesthetic had to be removed.”

They tried it again on May 11th. “2nd attempt at Clayton’s foot, and though he went under Ether very well, he did not reach the amputating stage tho’ 25 oz. of Ether were used.” One week later, Col. Davis was finally successful. “With the assistance of A.A. Surg. Ruger, USA, I removed Jack Clayton’s toes today. Anaesthetic use – Chloroform. Reaction perfect.”

And now you know how Limpy Jack’s limp got worse.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm