“Was he good or bad? He was some fellow, that much you could be sure of,” – Judge Louis M. Day, once said of Robert “Reddy” McKimmie.
There has likely never has there been such a figure of controversy in Highland County than McKimmie. Some viewed him as a scoundrel and a crook, but others insisted he was the victim of circumstance and history has painted him the villain. The story of McKimmie has been embellished over the years through legend and folklore, but the following account is what is believed to be the story of Southern Ohio’s own Jessie James.
His story begins in 1855, when McKimmie was born the illegitimate son of Rosie McKimmie and Charles Richards. McKimmie’s parents had plans to marry, but when Rosie became pregnant, Charles left her abruptly. Unprepared for life as a single mother, young Rosie gave her newborn to her married sister to raise.
Robert, or “Bob,” as he was sometimes called, was an exuberant and mischievous boy. By all accounts, his childhood was a lighthearted and carefree one, and friends recall fond memories of cavorting through the countryside and forests. He was particularly fond of the former Seven Caves area, where he explored the secret caverns and grottos.
Lean, red-haired Robert was a charming and honest boy, beloved by all. When he was 14, he went to Columbus to enlist in the army. For two years, his aunt waited in Rainsboro, oblivious to her nephew’s affairs. Then she received a letter containing $50 and a note which explained Robert’s discharge from the army and his new job — selling cattle in Kansas. He assured her that he would someday return a rich man.
In 1877, Robert made good on his promise. The town of Rainsboro welcomed him with open arms, eager to hear the great tales of his time in the West. In Rainsboro, Robert met and married the town heartthrob, Clara Ferguson. Robert purchased property in Rainsboro and opened a general store. He enjoyed showing off his newfound fortune and entertaining the customers of his store. Life was good for Robert. He was the perfect family man and an upstanding citizen, until one man rode into town and his newly-built life came crashing down.
In Deadwood, South Dakota, Seth Bullock had heard the rumors of the successful Rainsboro businessman, flaunting his wealth and sharing stories of the American West. Word had spread about the wealthy Rainsboro man, and Sheriff Bullock had a hunch that Robert was not who he claimed to be.
The real story began when Robert was not discharged from the army, but actually deserted his post. To escape, the 14-year-old boy stole a horse and shot down the rider. Robert was caught and sent to the Utah Penitentiary. This should have been the end of his story, but one year later he beat a guard to death with an iron bar and escaped.
His thirst for crime far from quenched, he joined a gang of infamous outlaws known as the Black Hills Bandits. Sam Bass and Joel Collins, notorious criminals, trained Robert as they traveled the Wild West holding up stagecoaches and trains. It was there that Robert earned the nickname “Little Reddy from Texas.”
Robert participated in the Cheyenne and Black Hills stage robbery in 1877, but faced backlash from the rest of the gang when he impulsively shot and killed the stagecoach driver, Johnny Slaughter. Even among the Wild West’s most ruthless villains, Robert was too impulsive and violent for organized crime.
During his time with the Black Hills Bandits, Robert became especially close with the gang’s only female member, a woman called “The Kid.” Rumor has is the two may have had a romantic relationship. When The Kid heard of another gang member’s plans to kill Robert, she immediately told him, and the two made off with the cash the gang had stolen from the stagecoaches. They hopped a train to St. Louis with $12,000 in stolen funds, where they separated, The Kid taking $1,000 with her to start a new life. Robert, $11,000 richer, returned to Rainsboro, to all appearances a successful businessman.
The citizens of Rainsboro, oblivious to McKimmie’s devious schemes, were shocked when Sheriff Bullock of Deadwood sent “Little Reddy” to the county jail in 1878. Many friends, customers and family members begged the sheriff to release him, but to no avail. Robert was held in the county jail for several days under constant surveillance.
But the infamous Little Reddy was no stranger to daring prison escapes. While the sheriff was out of town, he placed his father in charge of watching the cell. The elderly man went to replenish the outlaw’s coal box when Robert brandished a smuggled pistol at the man. As he fled, the man was able to shoot Robert in a hand hand, taking the middle finger off clean.
After escaping yet another prison, Robert’s loyal friends smuggled him into their homes while the county searched high and low for the notorious bandit. Robert was able to stay in Rainsboro for a week or two, but when the police searched the house he was hiding in, it became apparent that it was time to make a break for it. Robert’s friends purchased him black dye to conceal his fiery red hair and one friend went so far as to cut off his own mustache to give to Robert as a disguise.
Robert boarded a train for Virginia, where he met Clara and set off for a new life. They lived in Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia, but they finally settled in Nassau, Bermuda. For a while the two lived in peace, but soon the money ran out. Robert, unable to pay for he and his wife’s board, was thrown into prison for debt. When he was released, he left Clara to return to Ohio, where he planned to make his money to return to Bermuda.
When he arrived back in Rainsboro, however, he returned to his old habits. He gathered a gang of friends and together they robbed houses, held up stores and banks, and even once tortured residents of a house until they told where the valuables were stored. While he plundered his hometown, he returned to a place he knew since childhood — the Seven Caves. He found a remote cave, known for many years as McKimmie’s Cave, and made his hideout. Legend has it that a portion of Robert’s gold is still hidden in the cave today.
While Robert hid in caves, famous detective John T. Norris was slowly tracking down his friends and throwing them in the county jail. His accomplices were tight-lipped, but Norris knew their wives would know something. One of the ladies broke down during interrogation, as she had been dining with stolen silverware. Around that time, the house of one of the imprisoned men was spewing smoke from its fireplace. Suspicious, a neighbor notified the police, whom immediately realized that Robert was inside.
Eyewitness accounts of the event describe a mob of angry citizens demanding his surrender. When Robert attempted to take a hostage, his plan was foiled and bullets grazed his body as he tried to escape. Finally, Norris was able to place Robert under the strictest security measures a Highland County jail had ever seen. Robert tried another getaway, but this time it was foiled. Robert was extradited to a Columbus jail and served a full 14-year term before being released.
Believe it or not, the story doesn’t end there. As if murder, robbery and daring escapes were not enough for one lifetime, Robert also had an esteemed career under a new name in the West. He was said to have served in the Spanish American War with the Rough Riders, where he befriended Teddy Roosevelt, whom was impressed by his horsemanship. Friends of Robert recalled that Roosevelt appointed him Territorial Governor of Oklahoma, although records do not substantiate that claim. Historians reported that he moved to Texas, where he is believed to have taught Sunday school and opened a dry goods store. He is said to have died in Texas with an estate worth $1 million, an amount equivalent to more than $25 million today.
Isabella Warner is a stringer for The Times-Gazette. Her source for this story was Ohio Southland Magazine.