Outlaw on the Big Screen

by Andy Taylor


He was born Napoleon Blackstone Vann, but ever since he was a little shaver, “Nip” Vann was destined to be a star.

His monosyllabic name was the perfect size for a movie marquee. Tall, good-looking, and able to make friends with total strangers, Vann was a former Wild West show hotshot in the earliest years of cinema. He had all the makings of a major name on the movie screen, one to rival Tom Mix.

But a few bad decisions—namely, killing a cop in Caney, Kansas—sealed his fate on the night of November 12, 1913.

Vann, born in Fort Gibson, Indian Territory, around 1885 and a Bartlesville resident in the early 1910s, was in Caney—located immediately north of the bullet-strewn border between Kansas and Oklahoma—that November night to find a herd of sheep needed to complete filming of The Escape of Jim Dolan, a two-reel Western that was being filmed near Okesa, Oklahoma. Mix, who had befriended Vann when the two were performers with the Oklahoma-based Miller Brothers 101 Wild West Show, had the lead role in that film; Vann was a supporting character.

Rolling into Caney with his teenage brother as the designated driver, a drunken Vann thought he would visit one of his former haunts, the Elks Lodge, before attempting to locate the owner of a sheep farm near Caney. But the inebriated Vann created a bit of commotion when he was denied entrance into the Elks Lodge. His whiskey breath and belligerent behavior gave strong indication to a one-night stay in the local jail.

Tall, good-looking, and able to make friends with total strangers, Vann was a former Wild West show hotshot in the earliest years of cinema.

While being taken to the local slammer by the Marshal John McInroy, Vann handed over a loaded pistol to Caney’s top cop. Somehow, the gun discharged as Vann was pulling it from his boot. The bullet struck McInroy in the chest. He slumped to the brick street below and died.

In his drunken stupor, Vann panicked and fled southwest into the Osage Hills of Oklahoma. There, within the vast hills of the Osage, Vann would gain safe harbor with friends, family, and even some of the former Wild West show performers.

Meanwhile, pandemonium ensued in Caney, and the area’s No. 2 law enforcement officer, Undersheriff Bert Ziegenfuss, vowed to bring Vann to justice.

Ziegenfuss’ search for Vann had multiple reasons. Not only did Ziegenfuss consider McInroy a brother of the badge, but McInroy was also was Ziegenfuss’ first cousin. The two also were co-owners of the Pussyfoot Detective Agency (whose motto, stamped on every business card, was “We Always Catch Our Man”) in Caney.

In his drunken stupor, Vann panicked and fled southwest into the Osage Hills of Oklahoma.

However, Ziegenfuss quickly found out that sleuthing for Vann’s whereabouts would be difficult. Many times, Ziegenfuss would come across some of Vann’s family and friends, but all of them were tight-lipped about divulging any clues to Vann’s location.

Local residents described, in vague detail, seeing men who looked like Nip Vann in the area, but further investigation resulted in wild-goose chases.

Even some of the clues were surreal. Such was the case in 1917 when Ziegenfuss received a mysterious unsigned postcard in the mail.

“Know where Vann is located,” read the anonymous note. “Place advertisement in Muskogee newspaper. ‘For Sale: One Gray Mare.’ Await response.”

Ziegenfuss figured the postcard was probably a hoax, but he placed the ad anyway. Several days later, another postcard was delivered.

“Contact made. Go to Fort Gibson Hotel [on a specific date and time] and locate man standing in lobby. Man will be noticed by wearing a pink flower in lapel. Approach man and say, ‘That’s a nice flower in your lapel.’ Await response.”

Ziegenfuss seriously believed he was the victim of a massive leg-pull, and he contacted his fellow law enforcement authorities in Fort Gibson and Muskogee to make sure they weren’t also being drawn into an elaborate ruse.

When the date and time of the meeting came, Ziegenfuss had several fellow law enforcement officers in street clothes strategically located inside the hotel lobby and outside. Ziegenfuss sat quietly in a lobby chair while scanning the array of customers who sauntered through the hotel lobby. When the man with the identifiable flower was seen standing in the corner reading a newspaper, Ziegenfuss nervously approached him and whispered, “That’s a nice flower in your lapel.”

The informant never glanced from his newspaper but quickly replied, “Your man Vann is in Naples, Italy.”

The stranger folded his newspaper and walked out the hotel entrance. Ziegenfuss never knew his identity.

The information proved true. Vann had earned a job with the Miller Brothers as mule shipper. The Miller Brothers had contracted with the U.S. military to send mules to Europe to serve as the four-legged transports for Allied forces in their quest to defeat the Kaiser. Vann was among the employees who moved the ornery equines off the transport ships to their holding corrals and eventually into the hands of the Allied forces.

Ziegenfuss sent cables to the U.S. embassies in western and central Europe, but by the time U.S. authorities were contacted, Vann had slipped away and was back in the United States.

Over the next several decades, Ziegenfuss would come within an arm’s reach of Vann, who, the detective would later confide, was always looking over his shoulder, knowing that the slain marshal’s cousin was in close pursuit. And, each time Ziegenfuss would get close enough to almost slap the cuffs on Vann’s wrists, the ever-elusive Vann would slip away in the darkness, changing his identity and even his personality to match the prevailing culture and climate of the region.

During the course of Vann being a fugitive from justice, he changed his name almost a dozen times. His confirmed whereabouts included Naples, Italy; Athens, Greece; Richmond, Virginia; Helena, Montana; and even Hollywood, California.

Then, one day in 1935, Ziegenfuss was sitting in a movie theater in Coffeyville, Kansas. He stared up at the screen while Nip Vann stared down at him. Vann had found his way back into the movie business, surrounded by the very men—like Tom Mix—who had ushered his career some two decades earlier.

Ziegenfuss’ hunt for Vann finally caught up to the actor in Nogales, Arizona, in March 1937—almost 24 years after the shooting. Vann was found using an alias and working for a federal government project near the Mexican border.

What was the reaction of Bert Ziegenfuss, who, by 1937, was a middle-aged, mad-as-hell, out-of-breath, tired-out detective when he cast his eyes on Nip Vann as he was led from his Nogales jail cell?

“I remember, as I waited for the man I had hunted so long to be brought in, I had a distinct fear that something would be wrong,” Ziegenfuss wrote in a 1951 edition of True Detective magazine. “Perhaps once again the man brought forward would be the wrong man—as had happened scores of times before.

“But it was Nip. He was much older than I remembered him, and thinner, too. He still walked with the excessive show of pride. His eyes flashed toward me, then away.

“ ‘Why, there’s old Bert,’ said Nip. ‘You could pick that face out of a million.’

“All I said was, ‘Hello, Nip.’ ”

And, as if attending a high school reunion, the two men shook hands before Vann was taken into custody and prepared for the long road trip back to Kansas via dusty Route 66 through Oklahoma.

Vann, who still had family in the Bartlesville area at the time of his arrest, stood trial for the killing of McInroy. But he was a dying man at the time of his trial, and the jury had sympathy for his declining condition. Maybe it had something to do with the bloody phlegm he coughed up during the trial, or the fact that he was stretched out in a hospital cot in front of the jury box. Or maybe it was his admission of guilt (he confessed he accidentally shot the marshal while handing the gun to him), or his tear-jerk story of a life as a fugitive.

The trial itself had the makings of a movie script. Newspaper reporters from the Associated Press and Kansas City Times sent bulletins about the trial proceedings. The Bartlesville Morning Examiner carried banner headlines about the trial. The courtroom in Coffeyville, Kansas, had to be modified to contain the standing-room-only gallery, as well as Vann’s diminished state of health.

Vann was sentenced to two years in prison, but spent only one year behind bars, after which the Kansas governor pardoned him due to his poor health.

Vann returned to Arizona, where he spent the remainder of his life using the alias that people in that region knew him by: Dick Martin. He responded well to the dry climate but took a hard liking to alcohol. A town drunk and bumbling, mumbling vagrant, Vann was arrested on the streets of Phoenix in 1952 after threatening a police officer. Realizing he was alone and unable to care for himself, the State of Arizona placed the former Bartlesville man in the state’s insane asylum, where doctors tried to get him to retell his past, including rumors of a shooting that took place in north of the Oklahoma border on the night of November 12, 1913.

But all Dick Martin, a.k.a. Nip Vann, would do during the questioning was put his index finger to his lips and whisper, “Shhhh.”

Vann died quietly in the Arizona asylum in 1955 and was buried on the grounds. His tombstone, along with dozens of others on the grounds, was vandalized after the cemetery was abandoned in the late 1950s. To this very day, no one knows for sure the location of Vann’s final whereabouts.

It’s the kind of story, missing its final chapter, that a showman like Nip Vann would have loved.


Originally published in This Land Vol. 5, Issue 6, March 15, 2014.