Richard Johnston is fascinated with the Wild West and the outlaws who ruled it. He spends his free time researching and reading everything he can on the subject, from the overriding theses to the minute details of history.
So when a piece of it was up for sale online last March after turning up missing from the Utah State Archives, Johnston did his part to save it.
While the story played out only recently, the connection that made it possible happened 25 years ago.
In 1975, Johnston became interested in the town of Rawhide, a turn-of- the-last-century boomtown whose population exploded overnight and disappeared just as quickly. While his research on the town yielded little interesting material, it did divulge one nugget: C.L. Maxwell, an outlaw associated with Butch Cassidy, spent time in the town.
"Maxwell was more interesting than the town. He was a quasi-member of the Butch Cassidy gang operating in Utah," Johnston said.
After that, his focus became the outlaws of the West, including an associate of Maxwell, Matt Warner.
"I was at the state archives in Utah, and I found a letter from Warner to the governor written in 1900. It was on 5-by-7 paper, and you could tell that it was part of an ongoing series of letters between the governor and Warner," Johnston said.
Warner was released from jail shortly before the letter was written. As a condition of his early release, he agreed to hunt down and capture members of Cassidy's gang. In the letter, Warner said he would do what was asked of him.
"That letter stuck with me because Warner was such a good friend of Cassidy's, and yet here he is talking about hunting him down. I just always remembered that," Johnston said.
While Johnston expanded on his research over the years, that letter stuck with him. Then last March, he did an Internet search to see if new information on Warner had become available.
Among the results was Warner's letter, listed for sale for $5,995 by a company based in Las Vegas.
"I didn't think much of it at the time, but later that day I realized I knew that letter and checked it against a copy I have, and it matched," Johnston said.
Johnston sent an e-mail to the Utah archives informing them that a piece of the state's history was being sold.
"The told me they had microfilmed the letter in 1981 and were able to compare that film with the original. The seller said they had obtained the letter from a dealer in Connecticut, but the dealer didn't know where they had gotten it," Johnston said.
The letter was returned to the archives in May after authorities were able to prove its authenticity.
"It is really common for stolen documents to go through two or three sets of hands before it turns up again. That's just the problem that archives are having; more documents are being stolen because the value has just skyrocketed," Johnston said.
Johnston said he is just glad the letter was returned and is preserved so that future generations can connect with the outlaws of the Old West.
-- Contact reporter Jarid Shipley at email@example.com or 881-1217.