From killer to inventor — the strange saga of Martin Gabritsch

The other day I heard from a reader whose great uncle shared a cell with one of the bad guys from my book, “Notorious Telluride.” The reader, Sonya Hall, is researching her ancestor and had some fascinating facts to share about a fellow I previously thought was no more than a cold-blooded murderer who was mentally impaired.

The chapter in question, “For Love of Diamonds,” tells the story of Martin Gabritsch, an Austrian miner who could not resist a pretty bauble worn by Henry Baisch, a prominent and popular druggist in Telluride at the turn of the last century.

…near midnight of June 29, 1921, [a]s Henry Baisch and his clerk closed the store, a man with a gun suddenly appeared out of the darkness. He ordered them to put up their hands. Baisch didn’t get his hands up quickly enough and the man shot him to death.

Posses quickly formed in town and there was much talk of lynching, as Henry Baisch was a very popular member of the community.

The clerk must have recognized him because within twenty-four hours, the shooter, [thirty]-five-year-old Martin Gabritsch of Austria, was apprehended at Ophir Loop by two Telluride special deputies, Sam Richards and Jim Penaluna. Gabritsch told his captors that he’d been attracted by Baisch’s personal jewelry and could think of no other way of getting the precious gems from Baisch except to hold him up.

On September 9, 1921, an unperturbed Gabritsch pleaded guilty at his preliminary hearing. He was reported to have a “coolness almost amounting to effrontery.”  Refusing the services of an attorney, he said he had $,2,200 in the bank but preferred that “mein brudters und sisters can have de money.”  A trial was set for November to determine whether he would get a life sentence or death by hanging.

In late October, Gabritsch’s plea still stood at “guilty” but the question of his sanity had become an issue. He was examined by a Denver alienist (psychologist), Dr. Edward Delehanty. In his report, Delehanty stated that “Gabritsch was of very low mentality, but not sufficiently low to excuse him from responsibility for the crime of murdering Mr. Baisch.”  Gabritsch’s head was covered with scars, which the psychologist seemed to regard as significant. Rumors circulated that Gabritsch had the nickname around Telluride as “Crazy Martin,” and that he had a “mania for diamonds.”  Delehanty recommended life in prison.

Martin Gabritsch mug shot

Mug shot of Martin Gabritsch

Before the verdict came back, Gabritsch made a brief and odd statement to the Court, which may or may not be attributable to the language problem, since his English was not too hot: “I’m guilty. Not responsible. I sorry. Please give me short sentence.”

Martin Gabritsch corrections record

Martin Gabritsch corrections record

Gabritsch was found guilty and sentenced to life, and a few months later was escorted off to Canyon City…which is where Sonya Hall’s story comes in.

According to Sonya, her great uncle, James Levi Axtell, had robbed a train in the Ludlow area sometime in the 1910s. Family rumors have it that there’s a million dollars buried somewhere in the region. Axtell was arrested for the robbery and sent off to prison. As it turns out, James Axtell shared a cell at Canyon City with Martin Gabritsch.

Even more interesting, during his long life in the pen for the murder of the Telluride druggist, the “low mentality” Martin Gabritsch invented a lighter.

The patent was first filed January 10, 1938 by Martin Gabritsch of Canyon City. Copies are readily available for viewing online. It provides detailed information about how the gadget works, and his drawings look eerily familiar.
Patent for lighter

Patent for lighter

It’s not clear whether Gabritsch ever made any money off his invention. Later patents for lighters reference Gabritsch’s patent, including a couple from the prominent lighter company, Bic. I’m not at all familiar with patent law so it’s not clear to me what it all means. Even if he did make a fortune from his invention, it’s likely that it all went to his ‘”brudters und sisters” since there’s not much he could do with the cash within the confines of Canyon City.

Sonya says that Gabritsch gave Axtell one of his three prototype lighters as a gift.

Whatever happened, the imprisoned Gabritsch sure comes off as a lot more on the ball than the Crazy Martin from the streets of frontier Telluride. One wonders if his “mania for diamonds” later developed into a mania for small flames.

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3 thoughts on “From killer to inventor — the strange saga of Martin Gabritsch

  1. While searching the Gabritsch surname! One tends to find interesting stories. Although I have never heard of a Martin Gabritsch before.

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