The Mysterious Duel and Death of J.T. Schlessinger

c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins

gun and glove

It was no slouch job, being private secretary to the founder of Colorado Springs. So when J.T. Schlesinger was commissioned to travel here under the employ of General William Jackson Palmer, he did so under the most well intentioned of circumstances.

There is a definite air of mystery surrounding Schlesinger (or Schlessinger) and his unfortunate death. It is known that he hailed from a well known eastern family of German descent. It is also known that he arrived in Colorado Springs in about 1877 on a temporary business excursion. It is also known that his arrival in Colorado Springs created a buzz in the highest of social circles.

After that, the details get a bit fuzzy. For one thing, if Schlesinger had indeed been Palmer’s private secretary for a long time, why was he only in the city on a temporary assignment? Two known newspaper accounts, both dating several decades after Schlesinger’s death, do not answer that question. They do state that on a sunny September morning the young secretary mounted his horse and embarked on an excursion in the hills.

Apparently, morning rides were a part of Schlesinger’s daily routine. But the two sources mentioned here differ on which way he went. One source says he went east, another claims he headed west. Either way, Schlesinger seems to have disappeared for several days and was next located in Ute Pass on what was known as the Lawson Ranch.

He was very dead.

Schlesinger’s mysterious disappearance and subsequent demise was made even more mysterious by the way he died. The area around the body was marked off as if for a duel. Schlesinger’s body bore a neat bullet hole through the heart, covered by a daintily placed woman’s handkerchief. One account claims the handkerchief was blood soaked, as it would have been after being placed over a gaping wound. Another account adds that the handkerchief was heavily scented with a woman’s perfume. In addition, a woman’s glove lay on the ground beside the body. Nearby, tracks left by carriage wheels led to and from the scene.

Ironically, the Colorado Springs Gazette had just published an item regarding duels in its September 1 edition. The article was in fact referring to duels among the Kordofans, wherein the participants lash each other with leather. Surely, however, excerpts of one particular line might have caught both Schlesinger and his unknown killers’ eye: “When two men appeal to the code to settle a quarrel…the two repair to the place chosen, generally some open ground…”

No one seemed to have a clue as to who the duel’s victor was. Equally mystifying was the identity of the heartbroken miss who surely wept as she placed the scented handkerchief over her dead lover’s heart. And, to the bane of historians today, the Gazette does not appear to have reported on the murder or any follow up investigation. Presumably Schlesinger’s remains were shipped back to his family in the east, with neither his lover nor his killer ever being identified.

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