A Crooked Poker Table, Teddy’s Rough Riders and the Life of Ben Daniels

c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins

This article originally appeared in Frontier Gazette magazine.

Benjamin Franklin Daniels

Benjamin Franklin Daniels

Try as he might, lawman Benjamin Franklin Daniels was a schemer at heart. Born in 1852, Daniels lost his mother and six siblings at an early age. He moved with his father and stepmother to Kansas in 1863, striking out five years later for Texas. Daniels was convicted of his first crime, stealing government mules, in Montana in about 1870. After a brief stint in prison, he returned to Kansas.

At Dodge City, Daniels became a marshal under Bat Masterson. He also worked in Oklahoma and Missouri before landing in Cripple Creek, Colorado. All was well until January of 1897, when Daniels was accused of “tolerating” a crooked roulette wheel and poker table in town for a share of the take, while blackmailing both lawbreakers and respectable citizens.

The poker table with its cheating device disappeared, but a boy eventually found it in a prospect hole outside of town and alerted police. Daniels’ trial was the stuff of movie fodder: Bribes. Threats. Conflicting stories. Testimony by jailbirds who had paid Daniels for their freedom and the floozy who witnessed such transactions. Wrongful arrests. One man was run out of town for “talking too much”, and a fellow officer had been fired for questioning Daniels’ business. Daniels had even taken the crooked table home after it was found and tried to sell it.

Amazingly, Daniels was acquitted and wisely decided to move on, joining Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in 1898. Some quick training in San Antonio, and the lawman was off to fight in Cuba. Cripple Creekers quickly turned face. “Ben has a record,” the Cripple Creek Morning Times admitted, but went on to describe him as a man “who goes about his business of thief-catching as relentlessly as a blood hound.”

Daniels’ seedy reputation was redeemed when he personally saved Roosevelt’s life on San Juan Hill. The future president gratefully appointed Daniels U.S. Marshal in Arizona. A proud Daniels permitted the Morning Times to publish a letter to his wife in Kansas, describing his adventures and vainly ending with “Whoops! What a long letter for me to write. Just make me a leather medal.”

Those who knew of Daniels’ wicked past were not happy. Daniels’ former boss in Cripple Creek, Jacob Bloom, was quick to point out the Montana incident and Daniels’ former reputation as a “hold-up man”. Bloom claimed Daniels had run some shady establishments in Dodge City, calling him “an all-around bad man”. He also told of Daniels killing restaurant keeper Ed Julian in 1885 (for which he was acquitted), and the killing of a hotel keeper (for which he was never arrested). “Ben Daniels will not be marshal of Arizona,” warned the Durango[Colorado] Herald. “Mr. Daniels is guilty of the unpardonable offense of committing a crime, being found out, and serving a term in the penitentiary.”

Even Roosevelt was disappointed in his prodigy, saying, “You did a grave wrong to me when you failed to be frank…and tell me about this one blot on your record.” Daniels’ appointment as Arizona marshal was revoked, but Roosevelt continued his support. With his help, Daniels was made superintendent of Yuma’s Territorial Prison in 1904 and reappointed as U.S. Marshal in 1906.

When Roosevelt’s Presidential term ended in 1909, Daniels was politely asked to resign. He remained in Arizona, dabbling in politics and mining. In 1917 he presented Roosevelt with a “handsome cane beautifully fashioned from cow horns.” Ben Daniels died in 1923. Whatever his sordid past, he is still best remembered as the loyal problem child of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.

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