My new book “Notorious San Juans” is out this week so I’m posting a few juicy nibbles. It took a certain kind of person to come to the remote regions of the west and build a life. As shown by the tragic story of a man like Thomas Greatorex, good breeding and civic-mindedness was not always appreciated or rewarded. On the other hand, plenty of unruly fellows, like Ike Stockton or Kid Adams, found out the hard way that living beyond the boundaries of a regulated society was not always a free pass to raise hell. Justice in the San Juans was certainly uneven. Even if you murdered someone in cold-blood, there was a good chance you’d spend only a few years in prison for your crime. That is, if you somehow managed to avoid being lynched.
The events in Notorious San Juans took place in three counties – Ouray, San Juan, and La Plata. The source material was primarily the regional newspapers, of which there were many. Oftentimes, the newspaper publishers themselves served as more than just recorders – several of them played a major role in the drama. None of them shied away from controversy or taking sides. With at least one notable exception, they all seemed to be having a jolly good time.
One interesting note about these stories is that so many of them involved the same revolving set of local attorneys.
Death of the Secret Service Man
On November 3, 1907 four men approached an airshaft on a homestead claim west of Hesperus. Two of them worked for the U.S. Secret Service. Agent Joseph Walker stayed up top while the other three climbed down the 60 foot shaft to investigate. They wanted to know if the shaft was connected to a nearby coal mine, the Hesperus. If it was, it meant the homestead claim was fraudulent and that the coal company had been involved in the scheme. The three men indeed found a tunnel to the mine. Unfortunately, after investigating for an hour or so, they returned to the shaft to find the rope they had used to climb down coiled in a heap in the dirt. They called up to Agent Walker but he didn’t respond. One of the men, a miner named Tom Harper, somehow managed to climb up the deep shaft, using the log lining as footholds. Up top, he rigged the rope so the other two could escape. Once they were all back in sunlight, they had to face up to the bullet-riddled body lying atop a dump – Agent Walker had been murdered.
Willis Reese and Ben Russell defended; James Pulliam and George Lane prosecuted.
Bad Blood on Bear Creek
Matt Luxsinger was a helpful and popular Swiss immigrant living on Bear Creek, north of Bayfield. One cold morning in November 1903, his neighbors found him in his cabin, dying of three gunshot wounds in his back. Before he died, he told them that a local man named Jacob Zipperian had ambushed him, shooting him and trying to drown him. Zipperian was out on bond after burglarizing Luxsinger’s cabin – and was presumably trying to eliminate his victim. The case would prove to be a tricky one, with Zipperian’s lawyers pulling some fancy tricks out of their legal hats. James Pulliam and Ben B. Russell prosecuted; Reese McCloskey and Willis A. Reese defended.
The Grave Misfortune of Kid Adams, the Ouray Highwayman
Sometimes it’s hard to tell really bad guys from pesky mischief-makers – such as the case of Kid Adams. He and another fellow robbed the Sneffels stage in 1899. Somehow, they managed to get away with almost nothing, yet half the men in the San Juans joined one posse or another, eager to catch the bandits. Maybe it was the $1,000 reward offered by the Camp Bird Mine. After a couple weeks of circus-like efforts to catch the fellows, Kid Adams had the misfortune of being tracked down by a San Miguel County deputy sheriff named George Kinchen. It didn’t end well.
The death of Max Dallavalle is still a mystery. We know his wife Rosa was involved in his death, along with a fellow named Victor Pangranzi. What we don’t know is who really pulled the trigger and whether or not Max deserved it. Only one of the two who went on trial for the murder was found guilty.
In the second of our disgruntled wife series, Dr. W.C. DuBois was called to the Martine Atencio home in the wee hours of a May morning in 1912. There he found Martine with his head smashed in. Martine’s wife, Bernardina, said he’d been kicked by a horse then walked home and died. The doc somehow didn’t believe it. Newspaper coverage of the trial was pretty sketchy – probably because the folks involved weren’t quite white enough.
A couple folks went to prison for this one. I’m still trying to figure out who the man is in Bernardina’s cameo. It’s not Juan Garcia – her accomplice.
The third dangerous woman was just an innocent-looking teenage girl with a nasty goiter on her neck. Lucia’s husband Mercurio Vallejos was found down a well – not living. Apparently his nephew Francisco decided he liked Lucia and got rid of Mercurio. Again, the coverage was incredibly sketchy – for the same reason as the Atencio case. Very annoying. Even more annoying was that the newspapers consistently misspelled their name as Ballegos, which made researching the story pretty difficult. Colorado prison officials finally got the spelling correct.
Durango Desperadoes: Porter and Ike Stockton
These two roughnecks had fairly short careers as desperadoes – 1880 to 1882 was their “hot” period. Porter went rampaging around the countryside killing and bashing folks until some irate ranchers finally rode up to his ranchhouse and killed him in a shootout. This sent brother Ike on a similar rampage, all in the name of revenge. Ike had something about him though, and he had a lot of newspaper men gushing over him and defending him – until he betrayed one of his own men. Then the honeymoon was over.
The Tragic Tale of Mary Rose and the Cuddigans
A truly awful story of child abuse in 1883, with a lot of neighbors who saw things but took no action until it was too late and little ten year old Mary was dead. The wrath of the town at that point was truly awful as well. No lawyers were needed.
The Famous and Infamous Days of the San Juans
Although he has lots of admirers, David Frakes Day was a bombastic populist and former war hero who probably would have done well on cable television. He ran the Solid Muldoon in Ouray in the early 1880s, then the Durango Democrat in the 1890s. He bashed a lot of prominent people in the region and more than a couple of them challenged him to a duel. He always wriggled out of it somehow. Years later, his son Roderick shot and killed another well-known newspaper editor, William Wood, son of the famed Dave Wood, the road builder of Montrose.
Colorado’s Range War: The Cox-Truby Feud
Members of the Truby family tried more than once to kill Ike Cox, but they never pulled it off. In 1911 and 1912, two of them lost their lives in this fruitless endeavor. Ike Cox survived two point blank shots to his neck and chin – from a teenage assassin who might have been hired or might have been in love, or both. (The seemingly indestructible Cox survived other calamities as well.) And all this shooting was apparently over which type of stock was better – cattle or sheep. Or something along those lines. I haven’t been able to find a comprehensible explanation for the western range wars.
“The Utes Must Go”
Centuries of habitation in the region did not protect the Ute Nation from the onslaught of unevolved Anglos. Chief Ouray and his beautiful wife Chipeta tried to prevent warfare but other chiefs had other ideas, and blood did flow. Predictably, most of the Anglos didn’t concern themselves much about fairness or justice. As gold flowed from the mines, the Utes were forced out of the way – but in the end they’ve had the last laugh.
The Wild and Wonderful Circle Route Stage
If you think it’s scary trying to drive over Highway 550 between Ouray and Silverton (I do), think what it must have been like sitting on top of a wobbly stagecoach crammed with a dozen or more other passengers, being pulled by a six horse team. Especially in winter, with ice and avalanches. Things often went wrong when they were going downhill and the horses got spooked. But these terrors never stopped the indomitable folks at the Circle Route Stage. When all else failed, they still had Maude the mule.
“White Capping” in the San Juans
It wasn’t just southerners who liked putting on a white hood and abusing folks of another race. In the Old West, nobody was abused worse than the Chinese and Japanese. In 1902, the Cooks & Waiters Union 16 of Silverton went on a rampage against longtime Chinese residents of the town. Though all the region’s newspapers had devoted plenty of space to bashing the “Celestials,” even these editors were disgusted by what happened during this incident.
Tragedy at Pine River
Ludwig Mountain was probably named after the Ludwig family, early settlers in the Pine River valley. Unfortunately, the patriarch, Henry Ludwig, had a really bad temper. One July day in 1916, his neighbors, the Lowells, found that out the hard way. It didn’t end well.
The Sheriff and Marshal Shoot It Out
What do you do when there’s a gunbattle and the shooters are the town’s lawmen? Sheriff William J. Thompson was upset because the Durango marshal and his deputies didn’t seem to be upholding the laws against gambling. In fact, they seemed kind of involved. One day in 1906, Thompson got drunk and accosted Deputy Marshal Jesse C. Stansel. When the gunsmoke cleared, both of them had a lot of bullet holes in them, but only one of them was still alive.
The High Price of Being (and Killing) a Gentleman
Thomas Greatorex was handsome and funny and a good dancer. He respected women. His mother was a well-known artist and his two sisters were gaining reputations as artists as well. The family had traveled all over Europe. He was a classy guy and had a lot of friends in the Durango and Ouray region. Unfortunately, being a gentleman, he stepped into a situation that involved men who were not gentlemen. It did not end well.