James “Whispering” Smith

By Dawn Graves


James “Whispering” Smith was a well-known private detective when he came to Sidney. Working for the Union Pacific railroad, he was sent to investigate Sidney's gold-bullion robbery of 1880, which was said to be the largest gold robbery in the world up to that time. 

Movies and TV shows about Whispering Smith have portrayed him as a soft-spoken, peace-keeping hero of the frontier, but in reality he was more of an outlaw himself.

Court records and stories about his real life reveal a trail of murder, assaults, drunken brawls and abuses of power. 

In his investigation of the gold robbery, he believed it was an inside job and that Cornelius “Con” McCarty, Cheyenne County's second sheriff, was behind it. Smith was never able to prove this, however.

While here, Smith passed most his time drinking in saloons, getting in at least two gunfights with people unconnected with the robbery, which he was supposed to have been investigating.

His reputation and activities became more than the citizens of Sidney wanted to put up with. During Smith's last court appearance in which he was fined for shooting two people, a large group of citizens were waiting to have words with him.

He was given 10 minutes to leave Sidney or be hung. Smith boarded a train immediately and left for Cheyenne. 

A newspaper report in 1881 had these words: “Captain J.L. Smith, the U.P. detective has been drinking heavily, and his manner has been very offensive to even the law-abiding citizens … Smith will certainly be lynched if he appears in Sidney again.”