Well-loved by all who met him, Hooky Jack was an enigma who lived in Rapid City during its humble beginnings. With humble beginnings himself, Hooky Jack became more than just a local name – he became a legend.
Born John Leary in 1849 in Newburg, New York, he left home at 16 to find his wealth in gold. According to historians, Leary worked in the famous Gold Hill mines near Virginia City, Nevada first, and then made his way to the Black Hills. There, he married Alvina Ruth Meyer in 1880.
On March 17, 1882, Leary and a gentleman by the name of Jim Scott were working at the Old Grand Junction Mine at Custer City when their lives changed forever. On November 2, 1906, Leary, who was then known as Hooky Jack, spoke to the “Black Hills Union and Western Stock Review” about the incident:
- "Him and me were getting ready to shoot a round of holes. The powder was froze solider than a mule at pullin’ time. Me partner and me were rollin' of it between our hands when the darn stuff suddenly and without a word of warnin’ went off. Whatever caused it to commence operations premature that a way, neither Jim nor me could ever figure. Off she went and when we came to and began to notice places in the scenery again we found that considerable of us was missin’. Several of our grub trams had been plum blown away…And this only goes to prove that that galoot who says power won’t go off only under certain conditions, is clear locoed. I say that it will go off under certain given formulae and a heap of times in between when the formulae ain’t nowhere around [sic]."
Leary’s wife used cold water and cloths to stem the damage, but the doctors said he wouldn’t survive the night. He had lost sight in one eye and hearing in one ear – possibly because his head was turned at the time of the explosion – and both hands. He survived this accident that would have, and did, kill hundreds of other miners.
He was given hooks for hands by Henry Molle, who had created them to work through the movements of Leary’s shoulders. They were attached to the arms and stretched across the shoulders and back, and as Leary moved, the hooks would open and close.
The Leary family moved to Rapid City not too long after the accident. In 1884, Leary “signed” for his house, located on lots 22, 23 and 24 in the 29th block of Rapid City. Today, that’s on New York Street. The house stood until the 1972 Black Hills Flood.
So what is a man to do when he only has one eye, one ear, and no hands? “Hooky” Jack became a night watchman but wasn’t without his issues. He lost three children and his wife was placed in the Yankton Asylum. She never returned home, outliving him in the Asylum.
In 1889, Leary was accused of pickpocketing prisoners along with a few other people. He lost his job in August of 1890. The next three years are silent on Hooky Jack – there are no newspaper articles, or anything else, dictating what happened to the man with hooks for hands. In fact, no articles can be found describing whether or not he was ever convicted of any crime.
In the 1893 “Rapid City Journal,” on March 21, it is documented that “Jack Leary will be appointed to the position of Night Watchman for a salary not exceeding $20 a month.” And Hooky Jack was once again a night watchman until the end of his days.
He would walk from business to business in downtown Rapid City, checking doors and looking into windows. He’d hook his hook over door handles and tug; it was said that he could see well enough to tell whether there was a light on that wasn’t supposed to be on inside.
Leary was a thoughtful, friendly man. He and Alice Gossage had a unique friendship. Every evening, when Gossage worked late, he would stop and ask for a light for his cigar. She fueled his habit even though she hated tobacco herself. Leary would also stop at the diner for a cup of coffee, carrying it carefully to the telegraph office for the young woman working there to take her break.
His most faithful companion and friend was Rags, a dog who got his name because he looked like a pile of scrapped fabric. Stories vary as to how Leary came into the companionship of Rags, but the understanding is that Rags was faithful to him until the end. In his book “From the Black Hills – And Their Incredible Character’s,” Robert Casey stated that Rags was 15 when Hooky Jack saved him, and he slept in the police station. Rags, according to a Nov. 5, 1926 newspaper article, “was only a tramp, kicked from one backyard of Rapid City to another, half-starved and very dissatisfied with the world when Hooky Jack took him in many years ago.”
Rags followed him until he was hit by a car in 1919 while following Leary across a street. According to the same newspaper article, “Hooky Jack mourned the loss of that faithful pal, and never did he forget.”
Hooky Jack worked another seven years without a partner until he too was hit by a car on the night of November 3, 1926. He held on until Nov. 6, passing away in the early morning hours.
“It is lonely tonight in the ‘Journal’ Office for the familiar sound of Hooky Jack trying the door has not been heard and never will be heard again,” wrote columnist A.G.
The legend man lives on. In the Public Safety Building in Rapid City, there are two plaques honoring Hooky Jack. One is in the lobby, recognizing that he died in the line of duty. The other is in the Briefing Room for the Rapid City Police Department. The second plaque was given to Mayor Arthur LaCroix by Leary’s grandchildren. In 1991, Hooky Jack was honored when South Dakota honored all fallen officers at the State Capitol.
There are rumors that Hooky Jack is still doing his job. The building that Hooky Jack is specifically rumored to haunt is at 321 Seventh Street, which for many years had a bar named “Hooky Jack’s.” One legend is that Hooky Jack lived on the third floor of the building for several years and that the employees of the different bars that inhabited the building over the years refused to go up to that floor during the day.
Hooky Jack is a man of Rapid City lore. Good or bad, he is a permanent piece of what Rapid City was, what it is, and what it will continue to be.
Below: Listen to an SDPB Radio "In The Moment" interview with Corey Christenson, article author and AEC Coordinator at The Journey Museum and Learning Center, Rapid City.