Buckskin Riley: A noted desperdo
By George Rogers
If you believe what it says on the entrance gate, Union Cemetery dates only to 1927. But that just seems to be the year the gate was erected. The burial ground on Water Street, just south of the Wisconsin Central tracks, is much older. Seldom used now, Union Cemetery is ancient as we measure such things in central Wisconsin, with graves that go back to the 1840s, a few years after settlement began.
Some remarkable local citizens rest there, ranging from Don Carlos Hall to Jack A. “Buckskin” Riley. And a wide range it is. Hall, a colorful showman who bore a striking, and well-cultivated, resemblance to Buffalo Bill Cody, traveled with his own acting company in a private railroad car. He died in 1953, and his photo and that of his wife are on their headstone.
Under his name are the words “author, actor, statesman,” the title of statesman being earned through his career in the state legislature – a single two-year term (1913-15).
And then there’s Buckskin Riley, who gained renown in other ways. Riley, sometimes spelled Reilly, died shortly after midnight on Aug. 24, 1883. In reporting his demise, newspapers used such descriptive terms as “noted desperado” and “one of the toughest characters in the state.”
He died in a cell in a Stevens Point police station/jail, known locally as “the calaboose.” It was not a natural death. According to a coroner’s jury, the cause was gunshot wounds “from the hands of a party or parties unknown.” Well over a century later, they remain unknown. Suffice it to say that half the town seems to have had reason to do Riley/Reilly in.
The Stevens Point Journal, in reporting his death, said, “As a burglar he no doubt stood well up in his profession.”
The Gazette was the paper that called him one of the toughest characters in the state. Nevertheless the Gazette was critical of the method used to put him out of circulation. The paper said he “was undoubtedly capable of any crime known within the history of criminals,” but added that “our citizens do not approve of the manner in which he was called to pay for his misdemeanors. Reilly was a human being, and the taking of his life was murder.”
It all ended for Buckskin in Union Cemetery, but don’t look for a headstone because there isn’t any. Even the exact spot where he rests is uncertain. Years ago the city of Stevens Point took over the graveyard from the now-defunct Union Cemetery Association, whose records were sketchy and didn’t show Buckskin’s burial plot.
“There are a lot of unknowns in there,” said a city hall employee.
A story in the Journal on May 24, 1934, said the burial took place in the northwest corner of the cemetery. It was written a half-century after the fact and may have been based only on someone’s memory, but it’s the best clue available.
That 1934 article was about the old calaboose, which was being razed. It stood on Second Street, just north of the business district, and was described as a stone building, 20 by 32 feet, with a small office in front and four cells behind. It was about 60 years old and toward the end the city had been using it as a two-car garage.
Continued next week