Notable Black Hills People-Fly Speck Billy
Written by Dawn Murray
April 14, 2020

Many famous people have visited Custer throughout the years, but a few of the infamous variety have wandered through town as well. One such desperado, Fly Speck Billy, met his demise here in town.

James Fowler, known as Fly Speck Billy due to his unkempt appearance and sprinkling of freckles, was reportedly a horse thief, robber and cohort of Lame Johnny. After making his initial appearance in Custer in 1876, he was rarely seen in town again preferring to spend his time along the trail from the Black Hills to Sidney, NE. One fateful day in February of 1881 that changed when Fly Speck Billy joined up with Abe Barnes and his freighters who were hauling goods from Kearney Junction, NE to Custer on the Bull Team Freight Train. Fly Speck Billy told Abe Barnes that he had just left a freight outfit going from Deadwood to Sydney and that he had a desire to travel to Custer. Abe Barnes reluctantly agreed to let Billy to join his group, partly through fear.

The group arrived in Custer City on a Sunday afternoon and Billy, after inquiring about the whereabouts of the Sherriff, began going about from one saloon to another making a nuisance of himself and trying to start fights. Billy made his way back to Barnes and asked to borrow a pistol saying that he needed to defend himself. Barnes rather reluctantly, gave him a Colt 45 revolver.

As the night progressed Billy was seen threatening the locals and even firing several shots into the air. Finally, at 10 pm that night, Billy entered Palmers Saloon (the location of present-day Custer restaurant, Baker’s Bakery), ordered a stranger to come in and drink with him while brandishing the gun and firing 3 shots into the building over the man’s shoulder. After harassing and threatening several patrons, Billy walked over to Abe Barnes, who was playing billiards, caught him by the collar and put the pistol against his right breast. The words “come and take a drink” and the shot were simultaneous. Barnes cried out “Oh, I am shot”, ran a few steps and then fell dead after being shot by his own gun. (Never loan your gun) Billy tried to run for it but was grappled by Mr Eby, who Billy had previously attempted to provoke. Billy was then clocked in the head by the Red Moor’s pistol, causing him to fall into the waiting arms of Sherriff John T Code.

Sheriff Code sensing the crowd’s hostility, deputized several locals and carried a bound Billy to Pat McHugh’s saloon (now Highmark Credit Union) across the street. Once the crowd had died down several hours later, the sheriff attempted to move Fly Speck Billy to his cabin as the jail was not in any condition to put the prisoner in. Upon arriving at Code’s cabin, the Sheriff and his men were jumped by a group of masked vigilantes, who stole the prisoner away. This group of avengers dragged Fly Speck Billy off across French Creek and into the woods. When the Sheriff arrived at the site, he found Billy hanging from a pine tree and no evidence of another living thing.   Fly Speck Billy was later buried in the Boot Hill Cemetery just east of the city.

There was a full-page article in the February 12, 1881 edition of the Custer Chronicle depicting the night as “the most thrilling and exciting scene that Custer has seen since her resurrection.”

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