Bartholomew County may seem fairly peaceful these days, but in the late nineteenth century, Indiana was the Wild West of the United States. And there was no more notorious outlaw than Bartholomew County’s own infamous desperado, Buck McKinney.

This was a man who never refused a chance to get in a fight or to take revenge, and who survived all attempts to take him down by shotgun, knife, pitchfork, cleaver, or officer of the law.

The notorious "Buck" McKinney was born Leander B. McKinney in Virginia in 1826. The entire McKinney clan soon moved to Indiana and settled in Columbus, where Buck’s uncle, John McKinney, was Columbus’s first sheriff. The McKinneys owned a racetrack and a tavern, and Sheriff McKinney was convicted of assault and embezzlement — not a promising record for a town official. But Sheriff McKinney was not even the worst of the bunch. Buck’s father John was the worst of the elder McKinneys, and Buck himself was the worst of the younger McKinneys.

At the age of 20, Buck displayed some patriotic feeling by going off to the Mexican-American war, serving as a sergeant in Company F, Third Indiana Infantry, and reportedly distinguishing himself at the Battle of Buena Vista. There what must have been a personal inclination toward violence apparently served him well.

It served him less well in private life. By 1850 he was back in Columbus, acquitted of stealing a horse from one William Hayes, though many believed him guilty. He also got into a fight with a man from Kentucky, trying to pound him in the head with a stone, whereupon the man from Kentucky shot McKinney in the chest. Despite the fact that McKinney was “known for acts of a desperate character in Mexico and elsewhere,” as the Indiana State Sentinel wrote, “It is thought he can scarcely recover.”

But it would take a great deal more than a single bullet to bring McKinney down.

Some aspects of McKinney’s life were less violent, at least initially. On returning from the war he had married Elizabeth “Betty” Lee, who came from an old county family with a prosperous farm between Clifford and Flat Rock. (One of Betty’s sisters, Nancy Jane Lee, married Charles Everroad and thus developed a connection to Hope.) McKinney and Betty had three sons, two of whom survived to adulthood: James and Thomas, whose nickname was “Blue.”

But McKinney’s most notorious crime was yet to come. On Nov. 20, 1856, McKinney was walking along Washington Street in Columbus with a boot under his arm, accompanied by his friend Mike Emig. As the two proceeded, someone shot at McKinney but missed. McKinney was enraged and wanted to pursue the shooter, but Emig persuaded him to return home. When McKinney got home, his wife asked him to go out again for a bucket of milk — a fatal errand, as it turned out.

On the way to get the milk, McKinney passed the saloon of John B. Pettilott, a prominent citizen and the town’s first mayor. Pettilott was apparently the shooter from earlier in the day, as he rushed out of the saloon and attempted to shoot McKinney again. This was too much for McKinney, who chased Pettilott back into the saloon and fired at him, missing his target and instead hitting a German man, Martin Rubrecht, in the forehead.

Leaving the scene of carnage, McKinney then went to get the milk and calmly returned home to his wife. When the police came to arrest him, he held them off with revolvers for two hours, until his friend Emig persuaded him to surrender. Rubrecht died two days later. About his failure to kill the intended man, McKinney remarked, “What’s the difference; one Dutchman is the same as another. I got one of them.”

“The friends of the deceased were prepared to kill him at the first opportunity,” reported the Bedford Independent, and McKinney had to be protected from lynch mobs.

None of the people involved in this violent scene seem to have been upstanding citizens, and they were all involved in a web of criminality. Pettilott’s son, John F. Pettilott, was later convicted of murdering his wife. The murdered wife in turn had had an “evil reputation” until she had turned to the church; but one of her sisters was still involved with a man who was in prison for embezzling $40,000 from a factory. Another sister was involved with a Columbus man named Harry Palmer, whom she attempted to shoot to death. Palmer recovered from his wounds, however, whereupon the two got married. Life was never dull in nineteenth-century Columbus.

In any case, McKinney was given a life sentence for Rubrecht’s murder — a disappointment to many who had wanted to see him executed. He was sent to the prison in Madison, but before six months had passed he was at large once more. He and some accomplices had picked the lock of their cell with a wire and escaped through an opening in the roof. He made it to Greensburg but was spotted and returned to prison within the week. At some point in all of the turmoil his wife divorced him.

By 1871 McKinney was in the state prison at Jeffersonville. This he shared with a number of criminals, including Sarah “Aunt Sallie” Hubbard, who, with her husband, had murdered a family of five and buried them all under the floor of her cabin, and Mary Ann Longnecker, who was convicted, some said wrongfully, of poisoning her husband.

Predictably, McKinney was no model prisoner. He had always been fastidious to a fault, and early in his prison career he crossed paths with a particularly grubby prisoner. McKinney had drawn a bucket of clean water, but the other prisoner dropped a cup in the bucket and went to retrieve it with filthy hands. This enraged McKinney so greatly that he stabbed the other man to death. As he was already under maximum sentence, he endured no punishment for this crime. Later he also stabbed a prisoner named Cyrus Carlisle, who recovered and was mercifully pardoned before McKinney could have another go at him.

McKinney did refrain from successfully murdering anyone else in prison, and maneuvered hard for a pardon. In 1873 Governor Thomas Hendricks visited the State Prison to interview prisoners recommended for pardon, among whom were family-murderer Hubbard, husband-poisoner Longnecker, and all-around terror McKinney. Aunt Sallie Hubbard and Mary Ann Longnecker remained unpardoned, but Gov. Hendricks’ last official act before leaving office in 1877 was to pardon McKinney. The governor’s statement reported that McKinney had been a well-behaved prisoner (the stabbings did not receive a mention) and asserted, “The application by prominent citizens for his pardon, made in letters and personally, have been more numerous and earnest than in the case of any other prisoner. At one time his father-in-law expressed an unwillingness to his pardon; but now the entire family united in a letter asking that he be pardoned.” He had been in prison almost twenty years.

As soon as he emerged from prison he remarried Betty. But soon it was reported that one of his sons “was compelled to whip him nearly to death to protect his mother.” On another occasion he got into a fight with his sons, both of whom shot at their father, “the balls both grazing the scalp, but doing no material damage,” in the words of the newspaper report. In another incident, “he got into a fight with his son Blue the other day, in which he got a thrust from a pitchfork near the base of the skull, which may put an end to his turbulent career,” as the Indianapolis News described it. Within two years the paper reported of Betty, “she now sues for another divorce on the ground of cruelty and failure to provide.”

Evicted by Betty, McKinney attempted to lodge with the family of a man named George Layton, who was unaware of McKinney’s past. The Daily Wabash described the scene: “When his wife was enlightened she notified McKinney that he must leave. The man attempted to attack her husband, who defended himself with a cleaver. In the evening he returned to the house, threw a huge stone through the window of the sitting room, demolishing panes and sash. The family, fortunately, were at supper, and so escaped injury.”

McKinney’s income now came from “asking” people for loans which they were afraid to refuse. He also made the papers for an extraordinary crime aboard a train. The Indianapolis News wrote that McKinney “attacked John Miller with a club, because he refused to let McKinney have a knife to stab a man on the train coming back from Columbus. When the train stopped, McKinney, who was under the influence of liquor, caught Miller by the throat and was about to strike him, when Miller wrested the club from him. He then drew a knife and stabbed McKinney three times, inflicting dangerous wounds which it is hoped will prove fatal.”

But McKinney could not be killed by anything as minor as three stab wounds. He and Miller were at it again not a year later. In October 1885 the Daily Wabash Express reported that Miller had shot McKinney in the arm, with another bullet grazing his head, and concluded, “It is generally regretted that his wounds are not mortal.” The case went to trial, and eventually Miller was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense, McKinney having frequently threatened his life.

Meanwhile the wound in McKinney’s arm became infected. He was still suffering a full year later, in October 1886, living at the county poor farm outside Columbus, afflicted by gangrene and fevers, and reported to be “dying by inches.” By November he was so desperate that he begged to be allowed back into the prison in Jeffersonville, to serve out the rest of his sentence. His family, Betty, James, and Blue, also petitioned for him to be sent back, declaring that they were afraid of him, and that they had had to have a restraining order issued to keep him away from their farm.

McKinney was not readmitted to the prison, and his choice of associates remained poor.

The following year, apparently recovered from gangrene, he got into an argument in a card game with a man named Louis Farrell, and, reported the Indianapolis News, “was badly beaten up by Farrell. Had Farrell not been taken off he would probably have killed him.” At this point McKinney was 61 years old. Soon afterwards he took refuge in the Soldier’s Home in Marion, “old and feeble and so mean that he has to be confined in a room by himself.” One son visited him, but the visit went so badly that he never returned.

The papers reported that McKinney “was kept alive for nearly three years on alcoholic stimulants.” Impervious to all human attempts to kill him, he died of natural causes on Dec.7, 1899, at the age of 73. He is buried in the Marion National Cemetery, his simple gravestone giving no hint of the turmoil he caused in life.

McKinney’s wife, the long-suffering Betty, lived until 1920, dying at the age of 93. Her obituary noted, “She was a good woman, lived a Christian life and her many beautiful characteristics endeared her to all who knew her.” No mention was made of Buck McKinney.

If McKinney ever made it to Hope, he committed no crimes of note there, which is something of a record in itself. There is one notice of him from the town, however. Hope pioneer Sandford Rominger kept a diary for the year 1857, now in the possession of the Hope Moravian Church. In the diary Rominger records things strictly of practical interest: the weather, the crops, the price of flour, chickens, and turkeys, the dates of prayer meetings, births and funerals.

In the entire year, he records only one thing that happens outside of his personal experience in Hope. That one thing is the prison break of Buck McKinney — a scandal that even the most pragmatic farmer could not ignore. This fascinating little note is testimony to the notoriety of Buck McKinney, one of the most irrepressible outlaws of Hoosier history.