c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article were originally published in All About History magazine.
“I was born November 4, 1842, in New Lantern, Nottingham, England.” So begins a seemingly plain and humble autobiography by a woman who was anything but plain, or humble. Ellen Elliott Jack’s book, The Fate of a Fairy, or, Twenty Seven Years in the Far West, would later tell of the spunky little woman’s amazing adventures. And although her facts were often sprinkled with a good dose of fiction, her story is very much worth telling.
When she was seven years old, Ellen met a “gypsy queen” at Nottingham’s annual Goose Fair who touched her on the head. “This child was born to be a great traveler, and if she had been a male would have been a great mining expert,” the gypsy said. “She is a Rosicrucian, born to find hidden treasures. She will meet great sorrows and be a widow early in life. Fire will cause her great trouble and losses.” Indeed, Ellen had already lost one sister in a fire. And as a teen, she had a brief romance with a man, “Carl,” who stabbed her in a fit of jealousy after seeing her in the company of her male cousin. Ellen recovered, and when her sister Lydia and her husband sailed to New York, Ellen successfully begged to go along.
Ellen loved New York, but fell ill and was unable to return to England with her sister until she was well. Upon boarding another ship, she recalled the horror of assisting a doctor in amputating the legs of a young Irish girl. But she also met first officer Charles E. Jack. The couple married at Liverpool in 1860 and returned to New York before Jack was called for duty during the Civil War.
The Jack’s first child, Nettie, was born between 1862 and 1864. During this time, Ellen claimed she took charge of a ring presented to her husband by General Robert E. Lee, attended a “president’s reception” with her husband during which she met President and Mrs. Lincoln, and toured Europe. After Charles Jack returned from the war with heart trouble, Ellen gave birth to a son. Both the infant and Nettie died just before the Jacks next moved to Chicago. Over the next three years another daughter, Jenny, was born. The family also lost everything in a fire, just like the gypsy predicted, and briefly farmed in Kansas before returning to Brooklyn. Ellen’s last child, Daisy, was born just before Charles Jack died in 1873.
The widow Ellen next built a hotel called the Bon Ton, but it burned in March of 1876 as she rescued her daughters and their nurse from the second floor. Daisy died three years later. Soon afterwards Ellen made friends with psychic Madam Clifford who, like the gypsy queen, told Ellen she was “born to find hidden treasures.” Ellen decided to head west, leaving Jenny with her sister-in-law. She arrived in Denver in about 1880, where she ran into her former nursemaid, Jennie. The woman advised her to go to Gunnison, but Ellen went to Leadville first. There, she was a witness when “Curley Frank” and another gambler killed each other in a shootout. A shook-up Ellen heeded Jennie’s advice and headed to Gunnison, where she arrived in the spring of 1881.
Ellen’s first night in Gunnison was spent at the Gunnison House where she paid a dollar to sleep in the lobby of the crowded hotel. The landlady advised Ellen to hide her valuables on her person, “as this is a very rough place.” Ellen followed the woman’s advice, saying she had “diamonds and government bonds sewed up in my bustle.” The next morning, Ellen was exploring the town when a stray bullet passed through her cloak. Ellen identified the shooter as “Wild Bill,” who scared her so badly that she shot him. Two lawmen appeared, but Ellen implored them to leave Wild Bill alone, “for he is a dying man.” Wild Bill gave her his gun, which the officers tried to take from her after the man died. Ellen boldy told them, “No. He gave me the gun, for you were too big a coward to get it, and you shall never have it.”
Ellen next purchased a tent with a cook stove, as well as a lot on Tomichi Avenue. She called her place “Jack’s Cabin” and began advertising a restaurant and “furnished rooms” in Gunnison’s Daily-News Democrat. Running a boardinghouse was no less exciting, for Ellen once discovered a group of Indian marauders pilfering Jack’s Cabin. Ellen said one of them was Ute leader Colorow, a “big buck” with “large gold earrings” who “came to me dancing and trying to touch my hair.” Ellen cut a lock of her golden hair for Colorow to keep, and a friendship was formed.
Eventually Ellen constructed some buildings. She rented one of them to Jeff Mickey, whom she had met on her trip to Gunnison. Mickey opened a saloon which became “headquarters for the freighters, and it was very crowded at night.” He was quite the businessman; once, the Gunnison Daily News Democrat revealed that the guest of honor at a funeral in the saloon was really only a passed-out drunk. “The joke was a profitable one for Jeff Mickey,” the paper explained. The supposed victim, with “burning candles at his head and feet, was better for business purposes, so Mickey said, than a free lunch or brass band.” Mickey also opened a gymnasium and “boxing school” next to the saloon.
Ellen would later attribute a large scar on her forehead to another Indian raid. This time, Jack’s Cabin was set on fire and she “was struck on the forehead with a tomahawk” laced with poison. Ellen claimed that she managed to kill some of the Indians before Chief Colorow declared a truce. “Pale face! Me wants to save her,” he exclaimed upon seeing her. “Bloody poison killy the white squaw, and we lovey the pale face.”[sic] There is no recorded Indian raid in Gunnison at the time, although it is true that Colorow often camped nearby. Only Ellen’s scar remained as a testament to her whimsical story.
Jack’s Cabin made the news again in January of 1882, when escaped convict Jim McClees appeared there. Ellen recalled that one of her employees told her, “There will be trouble in the bunkhouse, for Jim is full [of liquor] and has a gun, and is abusing one of the carpenters.” Ellen tried to make McClees leave. Instead, she said, McClees “pulled out his gun to fire at the man. I pulled mine and shot the gun out of his hands and part of his hand off with it.” A Sheriff Clark soon came looking for McClees and searched a room “occupied as a sleeping apartment by Mr. and Mrs. Mickey.”
When the officers found a trap door in the floor, “Mrs. Mickey” called out, “There is no use, Jim; there are fifty men here with guns, and you might as well come out without losing your life or shedding their blood.” McClees surrendered, Jeff Mickey was arrested, and Mrs. Mickey was notified she must appear in court. Ellen never admitted that she was “Mrs. Mickey.” She did admit, however, that she was unduly credited with beating everyone up during a fight in the courtroom and that a news reporter called her “Mrs. Captain Jack, the Dare Devil of the West”. All that is known for sure is that Ellen accused Sheriff Clark of false arrest while McClees bonded out and returned to Jack’s Cabin as he awaited his trial.
Ellen next decided to go to Crested Butte and told Jeff Mickey to leave. Mickey, she said, proposed marriage and promised to stop drinking. When she refused him, he told her that “when I breathe my last breath on earth it will be, ‘love for you, my fairy queen’, goodbye!” The Daily News-Democrat later explained more truthfully that “when (Mickey) took to drinking there was sure to be trouble. This last spree angered Mrs. Mickey so much that hot words followed and she left the house.” Ellen went on to Crested Butte. Later that evening at Jack’s Cabin, McClees saw Mickey with a vial of morphine powder. “Here’s the thing that will end all of my troubles,” he said. He died after consuming half of the vial.
The Daily News-Democrat noted that Ellen was slow to return to Gunnison because “the telegram instead of reading, ‘Jeff has taken poison,’ read, ‘Jeff has taken horses,’ and she supposed he coming for her with a team.” The paper also revealed Ellen was trying to lease the Miners’ Boarding House in Crested Butte “hoping in that way to get her husband away from his present business”. Ellen “thought her absence would bring him to his senses, and sober him up.” But Ellen had already placed a new advertisement for Jack’s Cabin, which appeared on the same day as Mickey’s funeral. “The business will be carried on as heretofore,” it said, “and Mrs. Jeff Mickey will be glad to see old friends.”
Within a month of Mickey’s death, however, Ellen rented Jack’s Cabin to someone else and ventured “into the mountains in Wild Cat Gulch where the Indians camped,” looking for mining investments. This time her partner was sometime outlaw Bill Edwards, who promised to share any gold discoveries if Ellen would bail him out of jail. Edwards kept his promise and for the first time, Ellen made money off of the Big Congo and Maggie Jack mining claims. She also became half owner of the Black Queen Mine near Crystal City.
In 1882 Ellen had returned to Jack’s Cabin when one of her boarders, Redmond Walsh, proposed marriage. The couple traveled to Denver, but the night before the wedding, Ellen dreamed of children crying and awoke with a sense of dread. During the ceremony, the children’s crying sounded again, as well as a man’s voice. Startled, Ellen dropped the ring on the floor, but Walsh “grabbed my hand and put the ring on my finger without any more ceremony.” Afterwards, Walsh left Ellen at a hotel and did not return.
The next morning, Ellen caught the train back to Gunnison. Walsh eventually returned too, but spent much of his time away from home. A few months later he asked Ellen to take out a note for $2,600, explaining that the Black Queen’s payroll was short. But the miners only received half of their promised pay. A cashier from the bank informed Ellen that Walsh had “duped” her, and advised that Walsh had his eye on her half of the Black Queen. “Be on your lookout for that man,” he said. “He would not hesitate to take your life to get that mine.”
There was more about the deceitful Walsh. For one thing, he was still married to another woman. Ellen confronted him about it and recalled that his face turned into “an incarnated demon, and such a hellish, fiendish look I never saw on a human face before.” The next day, Walsh tried to make Ellen sign a contract deeding half of her properties to him. When she threw it in the fire, Walsh “grabbed me and tried to stick my head in the fire. I clung to him and screamed until two men came and took him by the collar, and then he let go of me.” Ellen’s hair, she said, “was nearly all burned and my face and neck were in blisters.”
Walsh’s debtors soon came after Ellen, who next caught Walsh planting dynamite under her window. She finally divorced him, but spent two years battling him in court. She also was arrested, in 1886, for applying for the pension left to her by Charles Jack. The reason? Nobody knew her as Ellen Jack, and the court believed she was trying to steal the pension. It took almost a year for Ellen to gain an acquittal, at which time she also was embroiled in another suit with the other owners of the Black Queen. Ellen’s rollercoaster of money troubles continued: She nearly lost the Black Queen in 1888, although she did manage to invest in the Little Mandie mine. Also, however, some property she purchased in Ouray in 1891 was seized to pay an outstanding bill.
In 1894 Denver’s Queen Bee, a feminist newspaper “devoted to the interests of humanity, woman’s political quality and individuality,” at last defended Ellen. “Captain Ellen E. Jack is back on her claim near Gunnison, again,” the paper reported. “The powers that be have had the wiley Captain Jack arrested for defending her claim at the point of her pistols…Men are simply absurd or they would let her alone, and fight professional pugilists and small dogs. It is shameful how the lords of creation will condescend to badger a plucky woman just because they like to have a winning fight.”
Ellen was likely not aware of the article, for she never mentioned it. Her autobiography ends after her account of a trip she took through Utah and Arizona, as well as her musings on God and how far society had come. “So, cheer up, for the aura light is breaking through the dark circle of apprehension,” she concluded, “And this is the prophecy of the Fated Fairy and a wanderer for twenty-seven years in the far West.”
Ellen’s adventures, however, were far from over. In February, 1900, the Aspen Daily Times reported that Ellen sold her interest in the Black Queen and was heading to Cripple Creek. “She is a good rustler and will make a strike in that camp,” the paper predicted. But Ellen did not invest in any mines in the Cripple Creek District. Instead she merely rented a lodging house above a grocery store. By 1903 she was in Colorado Springs, where it was reported a year later that she had established a mining claim in nearby Cheyenne Canyon called the Mars group, with four gold and copper mines. There also was a “tent town” called Camp Jack. Ellen said the claims were averaging $21.00 per ton.
None of Ellen’s claims ever amounted to much. Beginning in about 1907, she turned to the tourism industry. One of her endeavors was generating photographic postcards, featuring herself in various scenarios. In the earliest known image, she poses along with several men, two burros and some equipment. The image is captioned hopefully, “Mrs. Capt. Jack Looking for a Company to Buy Mine.” Next, in 1909, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported that Ellen had located a cave “of wonderful formation”, but was keeping its location a secret until she could “purchase the property and turn it into a tourist attraction.”
Promotion of the cave never did come to fruition, but Ellen did establish a resort on High Drive in Cheyenne Canyon. She called it “Captain Jack’s” and told visitors colorful stories while hawking her postcards and copies of Fate of a Fairy. During 1912, her advertisement in a traveler’s guide of the Pikes Peak region commanded, “Stop at Captain Jack’s!”
Ellen also maintained a separate home in Colorado Springs, where passerby remembered seeing her “brilliantly colored parrots in the trees in front of her house.” In 1921 she filed for patents on her Cobra No. 3 and Mars No. 1 mining claims and seemed to be doing well until a flood which washed out the road to Captain Jack’s. The loss of her tourist resort was Ellen’s undoing. Her heart failed and she died on June 17. She was buried in Colorado Springs’ Evergreen Cemetery. Her long-forgotten daughter, Jenny, appeared in the hopes of gaining something from her mother’s will, but received nothing.
Ellen’s rival tour operator, Nora Gaines, purchased Ellen’s resort in 1923. The Colorado Springs Gazette noted that the “New Captain Jack’s Place Now Being Constructed on the High Drive” would offer rest for hikers and motorists, but Nora died just ten years later. The property was abandoned, and the “rotting cabins” were torn down in 1965. Today, Captain Jack’s Mountain Bike Trail outside of Colorado Springs is named for her.