EDITORIAL NOTE: This article is the third installment of a four-part series prepared by former GCHS officer, Josephine Munson. Today’s topic covers one of the most infamous episodes in 20th Century Kansas history, the Dewey/Berry feud. Though these events took place in the sparsely settled northwestern regions of the state, the gunfight and resulting trial were of great interest both locally and to the national press because of the great wealth and prestige of C.P. Dewey and the elements of the “Wild West” which the whole affair evoked.
Much of the material for this column came from a summary written in 1968 by Kathleen P. Claar based on a collection of factual evidence from the Decatur County Historical Museum, in Oberlin, Kansas.
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Americans are always fascinated with stories about gun battles and feuds in the “Old West.” Among the most interesting in local parts, is the feud between the Deweys and the Berrys. It all started in the early part of the Twentieth Century in Northwest Kansas.
Wealthy Chicago Industrialist C.P. Dewey, after securing vast holdings in Riley and Geary County, had acquired about 80,000 acres of land in four Kansas counties--Cheyenne, Sheridan, Rawlins, and Thomas. He bought up western Kansas farms in a “checkerboard pattern” from settlers who could not pay their mortgages or taxes. Times were hard in the 1890’s with crop failures and poor pastures for their cattle. Up to that time it had been pretty much “free range” and ranchers grazed their cattle wherever there was any grass. Naturally this gave rise to conflicts among the ranchers.
In 1903 C. P. Dewey sent his son Chauncey out from Chicago to run his Oak Ranch in western Kansas. Chauncey was only 23 years old and had been educated in the Arts in eastern colleges and in Europe. He was inexperienced and had grand ideas of extending the ranch from Atwood, Kansas to the Colorado line. Some of this land had been foreclosed upon and the settlers were unhappy. When Dewey fenced the pastures in, not only did he include his own land but also public grazing areas that many ranchers needed and had freely used.
Chauncey Dewey was a gentleman of culture with polished manners that seemed strange to most of the settlers who had little education. It was said that he had a library of 2,000 rare books and he lived in a luxurious style. Being so different from his neighbors did not engender trust with them. The Hutchinson News-Herald reported that Chauncey--as a rich man’s son-- was a mite arrogant, but he had many good qualities. He dressed himself in the fashion of the cowboy--perhaps a little over done, but he was frankly charmed with the country, with its prospects, and its people. He was hurt when his friendliness was rebuffed by suspicion of himself as a representative of the eastern capitalist whom the Populist orators had been holding “indignation meetings” about for years.
Among the most defiant of the people around the Oak Ranch was old Daniel Berry and his sons. They claimed that Dewey was trying to drive them out of the county. There were quarrels over the grazing of livestock, and there were threats on both sides. Both factions went armed and “looking for trouble” and such things as the maiming of cattle and fence-cutting took place.
The Berrys were also quite colorful in their own way. Their name was linked to cattle rustling and other shady activities. Daniel Berry, head of the family, was even reported to have given state’s evidence against his son, Burchard, in a cattle-stealing case. Despite their questionable personal activities, the Berry family was also trying to establish land holdings and they had equal claims on much of the same land as Dewey had. In the spring of 1903 the bitter feelings reached a feverish pitch.
On June 2, 1903, a sheriff’s sale was held on a quarter section of land occupied by Alpheus Berry, Daniel’s oldest son. On that day an employee of Dewey Ranch went to bid on an old wooden water tank and was run off by gunfire from the Berry brothers. Finally, with the protection of the Sheriff, Dewey’s men went back to the sale and bought the tank. The next day Chauncey took a contingent of his cowboys, including a 12-year-old boy, and a wagon and rode over to retrieve the tank.
According to the Berry’s story, Daniel and Alpheus Berry went to the corral to help the Deweys load the tank. As they began the loading, the two other Berry sons, Beach and Burchard, and a cousin Roy Berry, rode up, tied their horses to trees, and started toward the corral. They claimed that Chauncey Dewey opened fire at that moment, shooting Roy Berry in the jaw and in the gunfight that followed Alpheus and Burchard were shot in the back.
Dewey maintained that they had taken refuge back of a sod wall when the Berrys opened fire first and they shot back in self-defense. When the shooting ended, Burchard and Alpheus Berry were dead and Daniel died later. Roy’s lower jaw was shot away and Beach had a wound in his leg, but they both survived.
The killing of the Berrys led to an angry uprising among the homesteaders and lynching mobs formed. On June 4th, Chauncey Dewey, and two of his men, Clyde Wilson, and M.J. McBride, were arrested and charged with first-degree murder. Public feeling against them was so high that the Kansas Governor ordered the state militia out to protect them. The Justice of Peace bound the case over to the next session of the District Court without bail, and the prisoners were taken to the Shawnee County Jail in Topeka for safe keeping. Quickly this jail was completely renovated and provided with furniture, a library, and a telephone–-all paid for by Chauncey Dewey, so their jail stay was quite enjoyable. After their bail was made, the accused spent the summer in seclusion at the Eureka Lake resort near Manhattan, which of course Chauncey's father owned.
The case came up on the court docket in December 1903, and though the trial was set to begin on January 3, 1904, it was moved to St. Francis in neighboring Cheyenne County. The courtroom battle was long and hard, with both sides taking advantage of every legal technicality. When all testimony concluded, neither side was blameless. The important point to establish was whether the Berrys were armed or not. The State’s case declared that it was “murder in cold blood.” Dewey’s defense was “shoot or be shot.” The trial was prolonged, but finally, on March 19, 1904, after 28 ½ hours of deliberation, the jury returned a “Not Guilty” verdict. That night the twelve jurors were hanged in effigy from a tree on the courthouse lawn.
The case was immediately appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court where the acquittal was sustained. The Berrys then sued for damages for their deaths and injuries. This case was not settled until March of 1921. The judgement rendered required Dewey to pay $4,500 to Mrs. Harriet Berry, widow of Daniel and $1,000 to William Roy Berry. Dewey appealed, keeping the case in litigation into the 1930’s, and there has been no record found that indicates whether any payments were ever made in this remarkable case that spanned over 30 years.
The story of the Dewey-Berry Feud made national headlines and in Kansas became a legend, which is talked about to this day.
Magic Lantern Shows, the forerunner of today’s slide-illustrated travelogues and lectures, were common forms of entertainment in the early part of the 20th Century. One of the favorite shows on the mid-western circuit was about the Dewey-Berry Feud. There were no pictures taken at the time of the shoot-out, but shortly afterward, the fight was re-enacted at the Berry place and pictures were taken for one of these travelling shows. The slides portraying Chauncey Dewey as a cold blooded killer, were shown all over the country and the show was accompanied by a sad lament called “The Ballad of the Berry Boys”:
Way out on the plains of Kansas
Where the wind blows hard and hot
Stands a little old shanty
Where the Berry Boys were shot.
Two men in the prime of manhood
And a man with silvery hair
Were cruelly murdered that bright day
By the outlaw millionaire
Must wives be changed to widows
In the space of fleeting breath
And children be made orphans
And men be shot to death.
It is hard to believe it true
In this land we love so well;
It is hard for us to believe
That men will their honor sell.
Oh, is there no punishment
For this murderer’s blood-stained hand?
Is there no court of justice
In this glorious Christian land?
I would think the murderers,
Although they may be free,
Those quiet and deathly faces
In troubled dreams would see.
That aged and furrowed brow
Those bloodstained locks of gray
I think that Chauncey Dewey
Would see them night and day.
The jury has cleared the savages,
The court its verdict has given,
But they’ll find when through this life,
They can’t buy the courts of Heaven.
After the trials, Chauncey Dewey seldom was seen in public until April 20, 1908, when he married Miss Elvira Millspaugh, daughter of the Rev. Frank R. Millspaugh, Bishop of the Kansas Diocese of the Episcopal Church, at Grace Cathedral in Topeka. He then became prominent in social circles in Topeka and attended many events and parties. On one occasion he entertained the Topeka Evening Club at Eureka Lake, where he gave the club a motorboat, which was christened “Topeka.” Chauncey and his wife lived mainly in Chicago where he was prominent in Republican politics. During this time, he directed Teddy Roosevelt’s campaign when he ran for President on the Bull Moose ticket in 1912. In appreciation, Roosevelt gave Dewey a large hand-painted portrait of himself.
When the United States entered World War I, Chauncey Dewey enlisted in the army at Fort Riley, where he was assigned to the staff of General Leonard Wood. He served for three years, including 18 months overseas, and held the rank of major when discharged.
COMING NEXT: Our saga of the Deweys will conclude next week when, after 40 years, Chauncey Dewey reveals what really happened during the infamous gunfight. We’ll also learn about the Deweys' Junction City connections.
|Dewey cowboys waiting to unload a 35 car train of cattle at the Rock Island yards, Manhattan Ks, April 1907.|