Monthly Archives: October 2014

Death, the old fashioned way

c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins

“How do you like your blue eyed boy, Mr. Death?”
     – Buffalo Bill’s by E.E. Cummings

To say it wasn’t easy to die in the old west is misleading. Actually, dying came rather naturally to an unnaturally high number of unfortunate folks. It was the act itself of drawing one’s last breath and heaving that final sigh that took on difficult proportions.

Death wore many hats in the Cripple Creek District, the high mountain gold mining district on the back of Pikes Peak in Colorado. The ever-present grim reaper could visit under many guises. Frightful sounding names such as Apoplexy, Nepluritis, Gastritis and Enteritis were assigned as causes of death. Other ailments, including appendicitis, pneumonia and “acute indigestion” represent those illnesses we can treat today with fewer fatalities.

Much of the romance connected with the District’s history revolves around the dead. Local funeral records offer a vivid glimpse at real, uncensored death at its worst. Between 1910 and 1913, one mortician recorded 29 fatalities at Sisters’ Hospital (now the Hotel St. Nicholas) and 15 at the County Hospital (now the Cripple Creek Hospitality House). Add that to the many more who died at home or on the job, and here is death running rampant in a frontier town.

Here were typical situations which have since evolved into classic western scenarios. For the gunshot scene we have Rube Miller, the first man killed at Cripple Creek. Miller was shot in the head by Charles A. Hudspeth at the Ironclad Dance Hall in 1892. We also have W.P. Pate, who was shot to death on bawdy Myers Avenue a few days after Christmas 1911. Preceding him was fourteen year old James Truitt, who was shot in the head at Lake George in October of that year. The next year, Walter Irwin suffered a fatal bullet at Four Mile Creek.

Children were most susceptible to a premature passing. Records from 1910 to 1913 record nine stillborns, some of which included death of the mother. From 1913 to 1916, 33 children were recorded by just one of Cripple Creek’s many funeral homes. Measles, pneumonia, scarlet fever and appendicitis were the usual suspects. But there are others: Four year old Carl Olson died near Cripple Creek from an “explosion” in 1912. As late as 1928, twelve year old George Fleetwood succumbed to 3rd degree burns.

The national Influenza Epidemic of 1918 also found a home in the District. In roughly a year’s time, one funeral director recorded 45 deaths. Among them were the Snowden boys, ages ten and fifteen, who died within a day of each other at the District town of Elkton. Their mother died just four days later, leaving a single grieving husband and father.

Suicides were another common malady. In 1916, Charles W. Richards died at his cabin in Cripple Creek. “Poison and alcohol”, notes the record flippantly, “probably suicide”. Emma Johnson followed suit, as did W.W.Holmes. With time, the depression during the 1920’s and 30’s also imposed fatalities on the shrinking district. Witness William Walker, who shot himself in the head at home in 1928. There is Clarence Newman, who made a political point at the Victor City Hall by slitting his own neck on New Years Day 1930. Then there is Eva Drake, who did herself in with a messy bullet in 1936.

By these same accounts, job stress is nothing new to America. We have Arthur Carnduff, a night watchman who killed himself at Vindicator Heights outside of Victor in 1930. Most intriguing is Victor postmaster Dixon Durette Pennington, who literally went postal and shot himself, at the post office, that same year.

Naturally, a wide assortment of mine accidents also kept the population in check. Most fatalities were caused by falling rock, interspersed with more interesting deaths like being crushed by the cage or timbers, falling down shafts, and getting blown to smithereens by misplaced dynamite. Others were run over by trains, and an assortment of grisly head injuries were common.
We even have mysterious deaths like that of Thomas Carter, whose body was found in July of 1912 on Beacon Hill. In 1913, Absear Avery and H.W. Lyal were both killed by lightening. In 1915, an unidentified body was discovered in Cripple Creek. In 1918, watchman Fred Kimpes was found dead at the Kavanaugh Mill. Warren McMann and Gordon Edwards also died when they “came in contact with heavily charged wire”.

What to do with the dead? True to tradition, deaths were reported by the men of the family, who then left the women to prepare for the funeral. Many funeral services and the rowdy wakes that followed took place in the privacy of the home. For those who could afford it, a handful of funeral directors were always on hand to render aid.

Funeral homes capitalized on their thriving industry with an assortment of fancy services. In 1910, the average casket cost from $15 to $350 depending on whether you wanted a pine box or the more exclusive “Fairy Couch”, a favorite among women and girls. Services included embalming at $5 to $50, opening the grave for $5 to $7.50; outlaying the lot for about $4.50 and hearse rental at $10 to $15. Extras consisted of burial robes, hair dressing, candles, flowers and even underwear and socks, which were frequently purchased for the deceased.

Even the poor were subject to the services offered by undertakers. Usually the county or local hospitals footed the bill for burial at a cost of about $15. Upon being hauled to the cemetery, the body was deposited in its proper designated area. At Mt. Pisgah Cemetery in Cripple Creek, African American women like Mrs. Clara Owen and Hattie Whitfield were buried in the “colored” spaces. Others, such as alcoholic Dan Duffy, merited a plot in the “poor” section.

As in the present, families sometimes opted to send the deceased elsewhere for burial. In 1913 Philip Roberts, who was killed in self defense by prostitute Jennie Wenner, was shipped off to Denver. Irvine Pogue, who died of a gunshot wound in 1917, was sent to Boulder. Evelyn Buchanan’s husband even had her body exhumed and exported to Nebraska when he could afford to pay for transportation. In turn, Mt. Pisgah Cemetery received the bodies of James Hamond from Excelsior Springs, Missouri and Bud Johnson of Greeley.

Wherever they landed, most of the District’s deceased were laid to rest with as much ceremony as possible. Peaceful sleep was intended for all, despite the century-old ghost stories and reported hauntings of today. Perhaps Denver’s Rocky Mountain News was wisest when it published this announcement back in 1874: “The News hereby declares its purpose to insert gratuitously notices of no more ghosts. They are becoming altogether too common, and the denizens of the other world appear to be encouraged by the attention they receive in this, to make unduly frequent visits.”10 Mt Pisgah Cemetery Jan MacKell

Mt. Pisgah Cemetery in Cripple Creek is the final home of many area pioneers. Many remain unmarked and unidentified, largely due to a mortuary fire in the 1940’s that destroyed almost all of the burial records.

My Love Affair with Lida, Explained

One of the reasons I so enjoy researching and writing about prostitutes of the past is the ladies themselves. When I write articles and books about them, I am often lambasted by scholars and other historians for not including deep analyses of the statistics I find. Such fodder doesn’t interest me. Rather, I like getting to know these women personally. By finding out where they were from, learning about their families and gleaning information from the cryptic notes and photographs they left behind, I can keep their memories alive a bit longer. It is important to me to let their spirits know that not everyone thinks that what they did was particularly shameful or up for ridicule. So many of them deserve a better memory of their lives. In short, I love these women. They feel like sisters, aunts and grandmas I never had, even if they were “bad girls.”

To date, I have researched literally thousands of shady ladies throughout Arizona, California, Alaska, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, Kansas, Nebraska, even as far away as Washington D.C. and New York. When my first book about prostitution history, Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado 1860-1930, came out in 2003 I was proud to say I knew of each and every woman in the book. I was a fountain of trivia. One could name any lady in that tome, and I would instantly recall everything I knew about her. In the time since, however, the overstuffed filing cabinet in my brain is overrun with names, dates, places and events. Even so, hundreds of ladies still haunt me, especially the ones with whom I feel an unexplained kinship. Lida is one of these.

I first ran across Lida when I was researching my second book about prostitution, Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains. That book transpired during a most wild time in my life; while trying to research and write the thing, I had broken out of a long term relationship, was taken a major new job responsibility, lost an old friend, sat by my mother and best friend as she died holding my hand, and experienced the utter joy of finding the true love of my life. In between were these crazy, rather blurry road trips all over the west. I had just one year in which to visit seven states, research all I could, and make some sense out of what I found. The end result was a giant volume that makes a great door stop, or even a small coffee table.

Throughout these gonzo research trips, certain women reached out through the piles of paperwork, pictures, documents and books to embed themselves in my memory. One of them was Lida, whom I discovered in Prescott, Arizona. She was memorable because someone had given her ample space in a research paper as one of the most prominent madams in town. When I moved to Arizona I found out a little more. Chief among the few facts about Lida was that one time, when forced by the state to establish an official red light district to keep the ladies in line, city authorities made an exception for Lida’s place. They had to, because it sat mostly in the middle of a busy intersection.

But Lida was clever, masquerading under several names, skillfully avoiding arrest and census takers, moving around a lot and never really revealing her true self in any existing documents. Because she seemed such a revered woman in red, and because she has been quietly tugging at my sleeve for over five years now, I have of course yearned to know more about her. I have been as true to Lida as I would to any living friend, diligently searching for clues about her life. Often I feel like her spirit is hovering over me while I work, gently prodding me to find out the rest of her story.

Yesterday I experienced a rare treat when I was invited to view the estate of another prominent prostitute. I looked forward to this visit for weeks, and my gracious hosts did not disappoint. Here were pictures, personal belongings, letters, newspaper articles and more, a pleasing variety of information that filled in a lot gaps about this woman. Tucked into one binder, we found a lone article about someone this woman had known. This lady had saved clippings about her friends and fellow working girls, and my heart jumped a bit when I saw that this particular piece was about Lida.

When I got home, I put all other research aside in favor of Lida’s article. Some of the mystery about her was cleared up, but as I read about her the tiny voice in the back of my head continued to puzzle over why she intrigues me so. The end of the article answered my question. Lida came to Arizona from Victor, Colorado, my former hometown which remains very close to my heart. In fact, my home there sits in the heart of the original red light district. For the twenty or so years I lived near or in that town, I researched the prostitutes there probably more than anywhere else. To find out Lida came from there makes me smile, a really big smile. Because it explains why this lady loves to haunt me, and why I in turn love to haunt her.


Third Street is part of the former red light district in Victor, Colorado, where my beloved Lida might have once lived.

Ghost Stories from Victor, Colorado

c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins

A reckless day once passed through the streets of Victor, once a booming mining town high on the backside of Pikes Peak. It was a time before flu and polio vaccinations, a time when the chilling fingers of winter easily wrapped themselves around one’s neck. It was a time when teams of horses trod down the streets careless of pedestrians. When miners in deep shafts sometimes forgot to holler before a blast of dynamite went off. Dangers lurked menacingly around every corner, exercising no prejudice for those who fell victim.

When Victor settled into silent submission for a number of decades in the early 1900’s, the past was somewhat forgotten as folks died or moved away. Among those who stayed, a condescending smile surely passed over their faces as newcomers arrived as the tourism era began some years ago. Visitors drank in the town’s ethereal charm and yearned to hear stories of what they had missed. For while the physical population of Victor had dwindled, more than one spirit arose to meet new generations. Many bewailed a tragic or bewildering past while others simply drifted about, here one moment and gone the next. A handful of new stories soon mixed with the old, weaving an unseen pattern into the fascinating fabric that is now Victor.

It is hard to say which story of Victor’s afterlife is most fascinating. Hardly a building in Victor, it seems, is without its share of eerie noises, fleeting shadows and apparitions. Most of Victor’s prominent buildings—the former high school, the Gold Coin Club, the Victor Hotel and a healthy handful of downtown business blocks—claim some spirit or another. As almost any resident, regular visitor or others who carry on a love affair with this charming town will tell you, ghost stories are many in Victor. Some have been passed down for generations, but the restless spirits wafting through the buildings and down the streets seem to have increased in time with the growing population over the last several years.

Some of the tales are no more than passing folklore, such as that of the petrified remains of a cat which were once found at the District Museum in nearby Cripple Creek and somehow found their way to the Victor Lowell-Thomas Museum. One time curator Mike Moore always claimed the cat became “unhappy” when Cripple Creek legalized gambling over twenty years ago, and somehow spirited its boney little body over to Victor. Thankfully, the mummified beast no longer appears in the upper story windows of either museum.

Other stories bear more explanation, including the likeness of a man who occasionally appears in an upstairs window of the Miner’s Union Hall. Most tragically, that building burned this last summer but the front facade remains intact as preservationists scramble to save what is left. No reports have surfaced, however, as to whether the man still appears.

Stories of the ghost of Eddie McDermott at the Victor Hotel are much more solid. For years the hotel was the finest in Victor and once sported a bar where the said Eddie liked to drink. As the mines around Victor slowed, the hotel became a semi-permanent home for miners like Eddie, who inhabited Room 301. When the historic hotel was first restored to its former glory in 1993, an increasing number of guests began complaining of a man who was hanging around Room 301. Former manager Bill Kemp once recalled a geology professor who said he was repeatedly awakened by the vision of an elderly man wrapping on the radiator. Around the same time, a woman reported seeing the same man fiddling with the knobs in the elevator. Both guests described their visitor as an older gent wearing a flannel shirt, old jeans and a baseball cap.

Yes, Victor’s main drag fairly brims with an unseen population. Renowned artist Charlie Frizzell once rented a room above the Monarch building, touted as the “finest gentleman’s club west of the Mississippi” when it was built in 1899. Frizzell said he felt some sort of “pressure” in the stairwell, which only subsided after the walls received a new coat of paint. A friend of Frizzell also claimed to have seen the apparition of a woman at his studio apartment. Other lodgers in the time since have reported people walking through empty rooms, the heels of their shoes making a distinct tapping on the floors as they pass by. June Bradley, who owned an exquisite art gallery on the Monarch’s bottom floor for many decades, once said that although she didn’t believe in ghosts, she did occasionally arrive at her shop to find paintings hanging at odd angles or rearranged on the walls.

Likewise the Fortune Club, also once a gambling resort and now a wonderfully nostalgic restaurant, is home to apparitions thought to be former working girls from the upstairs rooms. Two doors up the street is the Headframe Tavern which has served as a bar ever since the building was constructed. The tales in that place run amock, from bottles mysteriously lifting off the shelves and dashing to the floor to a small shadow which enjoys whipping through the place and startling bartenders.

One of Victor’s longtime tales centers on T. F. Dunn’s funeral parlor. Apartments now fill the eleven rooms upstairs, where Mrs. Dunn rented rooms long after her husband’s death. With Mrs. Dunn’s passing, residents of the building began hearing footsteps upstairs. The feeling of being watched is prevalent. Others claim to have seen a woman in black, and one man reported the apparition laughed at him. Still others say they have heard a baby crying. But Mrs. Dunn appears to be a friendly sort, if a bit mischievous. She favors stealing small items from residents and has even been known to tidy up a bit.

Outside of town is Sunnyside Cemetery, home to several more delightfully scary tales. Among them is the rumor that strange lights can occasionally be seen dancing on various tombstones at night. And while Victor remains relatively quiet both day and night, even the silence can prove a little eerie. For in the dead of night, on the random occasion, residents have reported hearing a train. The sound of the engine starts from far away, perhaps following the path of the tracks which once came into town. The noise appears to edge closer to downtown, growing slightly louder before chugging off again into the night. The passengers disembarking are surely members of Victor’s unseen population, destined to spend eternity riding a ghost train to nowhere.

The Miners Union Hall in Victor is pictured here during the tumultuous labor wars of 1903. Most unfortunately the building was severely damaged during a recent fire, leading one to wonder whether the ghostly apparition of a man still appears in an upstairs window.

The Miner’s Union Hall in Victor is pictured here during the tumultuous labor wars of 1903. Most unfortunately the building was severely damaged during a recent fire, leading one to wonder whether the ghostly apparition of a man still appears in an upstairs window.