Pink Bruner was serving a life sentence at Leavenworth Penitentiary for a murder he didn’t commit.
It happened on a Saturday night in early May 1900. The city marshal, Hugh Myers, had ridden on horseback to the western edge of Davis, a small town in Indian Territory, to investigate gunshots. There he found three Black men firing their pistols in the air. Myers exchanged gunfire with the men and took a bullet to his abdomen. He was able to get back to his home, but the wound was fatal. He died within the hour. Before he died he told his family he thought he’d wounded one of the men.
Pink Bruner had a bullet in his left leg above the knee. He was captured the following day when he sought treatment for the leg wound. Lyman Mahardy was also located and arrested. The third man, Ben Cage, escaped.
Pink was a nickname. His given name was Legus and he was born in 1878 in the tiny town of Sasakwa in Indian Territory. He was the oldest child of John Bruner and Rose Colbert Bruner. His father was a Seminole Freedman and his mother descended from the Chickasaw Freedmen. The Chickasaw follow a system of matrilineal descent in which children are considered to be part of their mother’s clan.
Maintaining his innocence in the shooting, Pink claimed Mahardy had a grudge against Myers and planned to kill him after luring him to a remote spot outside of town. Ben Cage remained at large but he was also indicted for the murder.
The cases of the two men were separated and Pink was tried first. He was found guilty of first-degree murder on May 23, 1901 and sentenced to 99 years in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.
Mahardy’s trial was postponed until the following June. On June 28, 1902, he died in jail, apparently while still awaiting trial. Death records were not kept in Oklahoma until 1908, after statehood and the cause of Mahardy’s death remains a mystery.
As part of the Curtis Act, a federal law that resulted in the break up of tribal governments, Pink Bruner, his mother, Rose, and his four siblings enrolled as members of the Chickasaw Nation in 1898. According to her Dawes card Rose, who was born in 1842, had been the slave of Holmes Colbert. As Chickasaw Freedmen, Rose and her children each received an allotment of 40 acres of land in Indian Territory in 1906. The following year Indian Territory merged with Oklahoma Territory to become the state of Oklahoma.
Pink’s 40 acres were in the center of an oil belt and had value far beyond ordinary farmland. It was worth about $1000 (close to $30,000 now) — a fortune for a man in his circumstances.
The Leavenworth warden received letters from many people on the outside who wanted to get their hands on Pink’s allotment. Some claimed, incorrectly, that it was about to be sold for back taxes.
Pink’s attorney at his murder trial was Moman Pruiett, an ex-con with a violent streak. Pruiett was a controversial criminal lawyer who bragged that of the 343 murder cases in which he’d defended the accused, 303 of his clients had been acquitted. Pink was one of Pruiett’s 40 clients who’d been convicted.
Pruiett claimed Pink owed him his allotment in payment for “saving his life from a legal execution and an execution by a howling mob” and as payment for work on a pardon or commutation of his sentence, despite the fact that he hadn’t achieved that result yet. The allotment was the only thing Pink had of value. It would be a lifeline to a better life when he was finally released from Leavenworth. Pink refused to sign over his allotment over to Pruiett.
In July 1915, Ben Cage, the third suspect in the Myers murder, was jailed for drunkenness in Wewoka, Oklahoma. While he was held in jail he boasted that he was the trigger man for the Myers murder. It was reported by the press that Cage was tried in August 1915, but there’s no record of a conviction.
Pink’s sentence was commuted in March 1917 and he was released from Leavenworth. Pruiett and E.G. Hall, an Oklahoma City businessman appointed his “first friend” out of prison, fought over the title to Pink’s allotment. It’s unclear which man finally managed to get his hands on it.
Pink dropped his nickname and returned to using his given name — Legus — after he was released from prison. He married twice and in 1925 had a son named Willie. Over the years he worked as a porter in a Muskogee grocery store, a laborer for a soft drink company in Oklahoma City. By 1940 he was living with a cousin and farming in Econtuchka, Oklahoma.
More than 100 years has passed since Pink Bruner was released from prison. Econtuchka is now a ghost town. Pink’s death date and burial place are unknown.
Featured photo: Pink Bruner’s first Leavenworth Penitentiary mugshot. The National Archives at Kansas City, Missouri.