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.”
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.