By Jennifer Uhlarik
Two months ago, I began sharing about the true crimes case of serial killer Stephen Dee Richards—a man who charmed those who knew him into believing he was an upstanding man of excellent character. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I was unable to continue the post last month, so here is the “end of the story.” In case you missed the first half or want to refresh your memory, you can find it here: https://www.hhhistory.com/2021/06/true-crimes-old-wests-ted-bundypart-1.html
|Sketch of Stephen Dee Richards|
After killing a man he’d camped with and hiding out in another county for a few days, Stephen Dee Richards returned to the area and quickly ran across a man on foot. When the man saw Stephen, he began asking if he’d seen Stephen’s first murder victim. The man on foot and the murdered man were business partners. When the new man began asking Stephen many questions—and saying he’d seen Stephen with his partner not long before he went missing—Stephen grew nervous. He offered to let the man ride his spare horse, which he gratefully accepted. When they came to a secluded place, Stephen let the fellow pull ahead of him and shot him in the back of the head. He hid the body, sold the spare horse, and carried on as if nothing had happened.
From the scene of his second murder, Stephen went to see outlaw Jasper Harlson, his wife Mary, and their three children Daisy, Mabel, and Jesse. While visiting with the family, Mary noticed blood on Stephen’s shirt in a couple of different places, so asked if he’d been fighting. Not realizing he’d left evidence of his crime so noticeably on his person, he responded to Mary’s question by “joking” that it must have been the blood of some of the men he’d killed. The topic was dropped quickly from there.
By October of 1876, Stephen was living large. He spent much of his time traveling around, passing counterfeit money which he’d received from a New York man, and hanging with his nefarious friends. He did take a job at a local farm for time, but after a 6-week illness, left there to head into Iowa. There, he used counterfeit money to purchase a buggy and horses from a young man. It didn’t take long for the buggy’s former owner to discover that the money he’d received was counterfeit, and he came looking for Stephen. Upon finding him, he demanded Stephen either pay him with good money or return the merchandise.
I’m sure you can guess what happened next. Stephen led the man to a secluded place to “talk business”—and shot him. The young man’s body was concealed by throwing brush over him, and Stephen high-tailed it from the area.
In January of 1877, Stephen turned back toward Kearney, Nebraska, to visit his friend Jasper again. Only Jasper and a friend of his, Mr. Nixon (aka Mr. Underwood), were both being held in the Kearney jail on different charges. Jasper was accused and awaiting trial for having stolen lumber from a train trestle, and Underwood/Nixon for train robbery. Stephen and his friends were able to smuggle some kind of saw or cutting tool into the men so they could cut their way out of the jail.
Stephen hid out after the jail break by visiting a lady friend, “Dolly” (of whom he again hid all personal information) in Hastings, Nebraska, and riding around the countryside. A couple of months later in March 1877, he met up with a man by the last name of Gemge and began traveling with him. On the moonlit night of March 19, the pair went to sleep in their camp, but as the moon was so bright at about 3 AM, Stephen awakened Gemge and told him to get up and prepare to travel. This led to a quarrel between them, and when accusations of lying were hurled Stephen’s way, he grew angry and shot Gemge dead. He dropped Gemge’s horse with a local settler, telling the story that his “partner” would be coming for it in a few days, and carried on. Of course, surely no “partner” came in search of his horse.
Not long after Gemge’s death, Stephen and several of his friends were arrested for murder, and Stephen figured the gig was up. Surely, his life of crime had come to an end. However, it turns out that it was not Gemge’s death for which they were arrested, but another man’s who he says he had no dealings with. After a brief investigation, he was released.
His Most Notorious Murders
After that release, Stephen’s confession (where much of this information comes from) skips a wide swath of time, from March of 1877 until Spring of 1878. At that time, he once again came across Mary Harlson—in jail. Stephen was being held for larceny, Mary for her part in the jail-break that saw her husband Jasper go free. While they both were incarcerated, they struck upon the plan for Stephen to purchase a quarter section of the homestead Mary and Jasper lived on. But first, she had to “prove up” on the land, which would happen about six months later. (If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “proving up” means to satisfy the government’s requirements of living on/improving/farming the land so that you can receive it for free). Once Stephen was released from the jail, he traveled around until about October, when he once more went to the Harlson homestead to make the land deal.
However, Mary proved to be a smart and inquisitive woman. She got into Stephen’s trunk and read the many letters he had from his various outlaw friends, realized the types of nefarious deeds he’d done, and told him she knew. Rather than allow her to live, he set out to murder her. So on November 3rd, 1878, he woke early. He was sharing a bed with another man, Mr. Brown, who was also visiting Mary Harlson at the time. Stephen and Brown rose early, and they each headed outside to putter around the homestead. When Brown headed off to the stable, Stephen returned to the house with an ax and dispatched Mary and her three sleeping children in their beds. He then disposed of their bodies by burying them in a shallow grave and scattering hay from a haystack over the grave. He and Brown rode away from the homestead then, apparently Brown none the wiser, and parted company in a distant town. Stephen returned to the Harlson homestead a couple of days later to carry on as if nothing had happened. When he was asked where Mary and the children had gone, he lied and said she’d departed with Brown.
Stephen’s final murder came on December 9, 1878. Mary’s neighbor, Peter Anderson, had asked Stephen to help with a building project on his homestead a few miles away, but while working together, Anderson grew sick and ultimately accused Stephen of having poisoned him. Stephen denied the claim, and when he was called a liar by Anderson, the two fought. In his confession, Stephen swears he had no intention of killing Anderson (though do we trust his word? No…not particularly!), but he struck him with a hammer and caved his skull in during their altercation. He carried the man’s body into the cellar and concealed it under a pile of coal, but before he could leave the house, concerned neighbors arrived. Stephen was able to slip away while they checked the house, and ultimately, he made his way back to Mount Pleasant, Ohio.
While in Mount Pleasant, Stephen made no attempt to conceal himself. In fact, he paraded himself openly. While on his way to a party in the company of two young ladies, he was captured in the middle of town by a prison guard and other officials from the area and ultimately returned to Nebraska for trial. On January 15, 1879, the trial began at 9 AM, and by 4 PM the same day, he was found guilty of the murder of Peter Anderson. His execution by hanging was scheduled for April 26, 1879.
But this is where the story gets interesting. Between the time Stephen was convicted and his hanging several months later, he professed that he found true faith in Jesus Christ and looked forward to his ultimate home-going. At his execution, he asked for the words of a hymn, Precious Name, to be read aloud, and the 2000 people in attendance began to sing along with the preacher who read the lyrics. Once the crowd quieted from their impromptu sing-along, Stephen was hung.
It’s Your Turn: Do you believe Stephen Dee Richards’ profession of faith might have been true? Why or why not?
The Scarlet Pen by Jennifer Uhlarik (Now Available)
Step into True Colors — a series of Historical Stories of Romance and True American Crime
Enjoy a tale of true but forgotten history of a 19th century serial killer whose silver-tongued ways almost trap a young woman into a nightmarish marriage.
In 1876, Emma Draycott is charmed into a quick engagement with childhood friend Stephen Dee Richards after reconnecting with him at a church event in Mount Pleasant, Ohio. But within the week, Stephen leaves to “make his fame and fortune.” The heartbroken Emma gives him a special pen to write to her, and he does with tales of grand adventures. Secret Service agent Clay Timmons arrives in Mount Pleasant to track purchases made with fake currency. Every trail leads back to Stephen—and therefore, Emma. Can he convince the naive woman she is engaged to a charlatan who is being linked a string of deaths in Nebraska?
Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has finaled and won in numerous writing competitions, and been on the ECPA best-seller list several times. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers, Women Writing the West, and is a lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, adult son, and four fur children.
Barbour’s True Colors Crime series (http://www.truecolorscrime.com)