Vigilante Lynchings in Golden

Addendum to fall 2021 Discover magazine

Golden resident and local historian Richard Gardner authored the following article for that issue:

By Richard Gardner

Through time five people have been hung in the city of Golden, acts committed by vigilantes following what Transcript editor George West sarcastically called “the erratic and merciful code of Judge Lynch.”  Each of those hung had committed their own crimes, with each hung under different circumstances, with not all facts known of these events.  Here are their known stories: 

Edgar Vanover 

Frontier Golden, according to West, a founder of the city, faced a reality of law and order very different than today.  He wrote during the region’s first year “…society was somewhat crude, the roughest characters of course gathering in the towns in the valley.  The seat of justice in Kansas, of which this region then comprised a part, was a long way off, and separated from us by five or six hundred miles of practically trackless desert.  No courts had as yet been organized here and the better disposed people were compelled in many instances to take the law into their own hands and mete out justice to offenders as the facilities afforded.  Golden in the early winter of ’59 had not, of course, arrived at the dignity of a jail, or indeed even a calaboose, and each punishment as offenders might require had to be given in the open air or not at all.”  Golden of 1859 was hastily raised and for months had no elected government, police, or courts, and by necessity its citizens were heavily armed.  Denver was wracked by violence, with daily attacks by outlaw gangs countered by the ruthless, efficient and profoundly secret Vigilance Committee.  Central City and other towns endured violence and lynch law, and Golden was at severe risk of sharing their fate.

On September 5, 1859, according to an anonymous letter from “Truth” to the Rocky Mountain News, saloonkeeper Edgar Vanover went on a menacing rampage.  Reputed to have only by luck not shot J. Saaltzbauch after he lost to him playing cards five weeks before, Vanover began the morning determined to settle up with his partners, vowing to kill someone before nightfall.  He repeatedly threatened Mr. Pierson, demanding money and firing at the glasses behind the barkeeper who barely escaped jumping to one side.  He then demanded money at several stores, threatening to kill, until Mr. Chinn wrested his firearm and fired it empty, after which Vanover went through town trying to get ammunition without success.  Getting a knife, Vanover resumed threatening lives until citizens chased down and captured him in the log cabin of William Young at today’s southwest corner of 12th and Jackson Streets.  According to Truth the citizens then held a meeting, weighed the evidence, and decided without a dissenting vote to execute him for the safety of the townspeople, as they believed expelling him would only get him back as he was no longer welcome at his old Missouri home.  Vanover was then marched across the Ford Street bridge to the land at today’s southeast corner of Ford and Water Streets and hung from an old beef gallows there.  Truth appears to have supported the action, stating “We refrain from extending our remarks, believing that all good citizens, when the circumstances are known, will uphold the people of Golden City in performing an act which they believed to be a duty they owed to themselves and the community at large.”

Vanover Park, completed in 1990 and managed by the City of Golden Parks and Recreation Department, is part of a network of 253 acres of parkland within Golden. Photo © Andrew Terrill

However, on September 13th the Rocky Mountain News received a letter of protest.  It was signed by five of the leading citizens and firms of Golden including William A.H. Loveland & Company, Joseph C. Bowles & Company, Richard W. Clarke & Company, Eli C. Carter, and John H. St. Matthew.  They stated Truth’s letter “…did not, in scarcely a single particular, contain the truth in regard to the late lynching case at Golden City.  The Citizens, it is believed nine-tenths of them, repudiate the entire act of the mob that hanged Edgar Vanover”.  Although the writers said they would provide their own account it never appeared, though whether it wasn’t sent or the paper didn’t publish it is unknown.

Vanover, according to Truth, had previously lived in California and served as a private soldier in a position of command in William Walker’s filibustering expedition to Nicaragua (part of the pro-slavery Walker’s attempts to establish English-speaking colonies in Central America) that briefly installed Walker as President in 1856-1857 until Central American armies deposed him.  Between there and here Truth wrote of Vanover that he had been fired upon dozens of times but “Bullets were not destined to kill him.”  Vanover was buried at the northern foot of what would become Cemetery Hill just south of today’s 2nd Street.

Historian Richard Broad Jr., in 1922, had seen Truth’s letter (but not the protest) and also interviewed eyewitness Charles H. Judkins, whose family place around the corner of today’s 11th and Jackson Streets neighbored Vanover’s saloon to the east, and other witnesses.  Vanover was described as around 35 years old, of fine physique, personable while sober but mean tempered when drunk.  After returning to the United States after Walker’s capture Vanover went to Missouri and came west in 1859 with Ed Chinn and Mark Taylor, his partners in the saloon.  According to Broad Vanover did disagree with his partners and sold out to them that day of September 5th, celebrating by drinking heavily and then vowing to kill someone before nightfall.  Chinn confiscated and emptied his gun and Vanover then came to the Boston Company store, threw a drink offered him by John H. King in his face and renewed his threats against everyone, enough for King to have Judkins load a shotgun for him as a precaution.  Then as Vanover approached today’s 11th and Jackson he again found Chinn waiting for him with a gun, warning Vanover not to approach or be shot, at which point Broad said Vanover bared his chest and cursed him.  Chinn and fellow town saloonkeepers Hi and Billy Ford, and News Junior Editor Lew Bliss each shot at him but didn’t hit him at which point Vanover ran to the Young cabin.  It would appear if Truth’s letter was factual that Chinn and the others were there to intercept and capture him.  Upon detention in the Young cabin Hi Ford asked the assembled of several hundred what to do with Vanover, which reportedly took a vote between deportation and hanging, which out of fear of Vanover’s return was almost unanimous for hanging.  Fox Diefendorf and future Jeffco Sheriff Walter Pollard then bound his hands and led the completely calm Vanover and the crowd to the location of his hanging.  Upon being asked his last words, Vanover according to Broad “…straightened himself up, threw his shoulders back, and glancing at the afternoon sun, as it was sinking toward the mountains beyond, said “All I’ve got to say is that Fox Diefendorf is a blankety, blankety, blank!” (actually was more profane than news media could allow), and the hanging was done.

George West, in his known remarks upon Vanover and doubtless also an eyewitness, called him a desperado.  He wrote that “This stern act of justice had been executed upon the victim because he was endangering the lives of the people by shooting, in his mad frenzy, into crowds of citizens wherever and whenever met.”

The hanging of Vanover did have a lasting effect, for according to West because of this act and subsequent legal trials with stern punishments there came “…a wholesome fear among the roughs of the town of the sturdy justice of the law-abiding pioneers…very little trouble was experienced, as when any one, under the influence of liquor and a depraved heart, gave indications of losing control of himself, it was only necessary to hint at the fate of Vanover, and the troubled waters were settled.”  Today the location of the hanging is named Vanover Park, and although the landmark tree there according to its rings was too young to have been what he was hung from, it was one of the last things Vanover saw. 

Unknown Mexican 

On the evening of June 18, 1866 Mrs. Kenney and Ms. Ward (probably the wife of Calvin Kinney and daughter of James Ward), after a meeting of the Good Templars, were on their way to the Kenney home.  During their walk, according to William A.H. Loveland:

“…they were brutally assaulted by a Mexican, knocked down, and otherwise maltreated.  It is supposed that, failing in his hellish design he intended to commit murder to cover his crime.  Mrs. Kenney struck him several blows with a heavy glass lantern, and finally drove him off and escaped to her home, which is about a quarter mile from town.  The Mexican was shortly after arrested by the sheriff and placed the custody of Mr. Williams for safe keeping until morning.  During the night some parties came to the room where he was confined, took Mr. Williams away by force, and in the morning the Mexican was found hanging to an umbrageous cottonwood on the banks of Clear Creek.  From the indications it is supposed that he was first killed at some distance from the tree, and afterwards dragged there and hung up.  Both Mrs. Kenney and her friend, Miss Ward were considerably injured but not dangerously.”

Golden by this time was recovering from the Civil War depression and did not have a true jail or government.  It was up to Sheriff Charles A. Clark, with possibly an undersheriff and no standing deputized backup force, to make the arrest and incarcerate the suspect as best he could.  However, a determined group could overpower makeshift arrangements.  Where the prisoner was hung remains unknown, for the river had many cottonwoods, and the tree of today’s Vanover Park was still too young to support the weight of a grown man.  He was most likely buried upon Cemetery Hill.

Traveling journalist Bayard Taylor, delivering a lecture in Golden City on June 21st, heard with dismay early accounts.  He wrote “Affairs of this kind make an unpleasant impression.  The improvised code of a new settlement is no longer necessary here, and it seems to exist by virtue of a lingering taste for rude and violent justice…the few remaining Mexican residents, who appear to have had no fellowship with him, are ordered to leave the place.”  However, the forced eviction of all Mexicans turned out not to be the case, as revealed in a more detailed report the Rocky Mountain News provided four days after Taylor departed including information he likely was not party to:

“THE HANGING AFFAIR AT GOLDEN CITY. – We yesterday had an interview with Sheriff C.A. Clark, of Jefferson County, upon the subject of the hanging of the Mexican at Golden City some days since, by some citizens.  We learn that the assault upon Mrs. Kenney was the last of a long series of almost unbearable depredations which the people have suffered from a lot of hangers-on around a family or two of Mexicans who have lived in town for some time.  Two or three of the men are represented as good citizens, but the crowd that was continually around them have caused great trouble, and have already been of great expense to the county.  One of them is now in the Denver jail for horse-stealing, and since his incarceration other stock has been stolen by the same crowd.  Only a few days before the occurrence for which the Mexican was hung, a party of them chased two little girls who were out some distance from town gathering flowers, frightening them nearly to death.  On another occasion some children were chased by them and lariats thrown over their heads.  The brutal assault upon Mrs. Kenney capped the climax, and those that were left were given two days in which to leave.  They were working some ground upon shares, and the citizens bought their growing crop at a fair price, so that they would have nothing to complain of on that score.  As some parties, away from the scene of their depredations and who have not suffered from them, have found fault with the sheriff for not protecting them, this statement is due to Mr. Clark.  He does not think it his duty to put the county to the expense of hiring a force to protect these Mexicans, and indeed it would be impossible to hire men to attend to a duty so distasteful to the people at large.”

From the evidence public action was directed solely against the particular families attracting the troublemakers and not against Golden’s Mexican citizens in general, for Juanita Ortiz Smith, an 1859 pioneer and adventurous wife of Ensign Bryant Smith, never departed, nor did their children.  On December 6, 1866 the Mexican members of the Colorado Territorial Legislature were welcomed with open arms beginning with the Grand Legislative Ball, the grand opening event of the Burgess Block (now Burgess House).  West publicly gave these particular lawmakers high praise, with the 1859 gold rush pioneer stating “As the oldest settlers of our Territory, they are entitled to our fullest respect and consideration, and should have whatever special legislation they ask for the peculiar people they represent.  The descendants of Cortez and Hernan de Soto, they have been instruments in opening and settling our new world, and exploring its resources, even ahead of the Anglo-American race.”  The Mexican legislators allied with Loveland, Berthoud and others to keep Golden as the Colorado Territorial Capital.

However, the county government was not beyond learning from this event.  On July 1st the County Commissioners voted to hold an election to raise $20,000 to pay for a true courthouse and jail.  Even the Jefferson County Court only convened ten days a year, compelling the Sheriff to either speedily try all defendants or set them free.  However, the citizens voted against the appropriation, and so the original Loveland Building (at today’s 1107 Washington Avenue) remained the makeshift jail, with bars and boards added to its lower floor windows for security.

The Hayward Murderers 

At 6:30pm September 10, 1879, teamster Reuben Benton Hayward was at the reins of his wagon, passing through the Mt. Vernon toll gate with two passengers.  However, by the time his wagon reached the Cold Spring Ranch at South Golden Road, Hayward was no longer to be seen.  Some time later his body was found beneath a nearby bridge, and he was laid to rest at Golden Cemetery, leading to an interstate manhunt for his killers.

Hayward’s wife Sophronia identified the passengers as Samuel Woodruff and Joseph Seminole, men who hired him to take them from the mountains to a cattle camp they claimed was near Green Mountain.  They sold Hayward’s stolen wagon for $190 in Denver, stole a horse and buggy which was abandoned in Loveland, stole buffalo robes near LaPorte and fled the state.  Between Laramie and Cheyenne they were suspected by a rancher and reported to law enforcement, and after being seen near Sidney, Nebraska, detective W.N. Ayers of the Rocky Mountain Detective Agency was sent in pursuit.

Seminole was half-Sioux, had previously stolen a horse in Middle Park, and partnered up with stonecutter Woodruff at Leadville.  Woodruff travelled under the alias of Tom Johnson after serving three years for murdering a man whose wife he was having an affair with.  At Leadville the two noticed Mr. Aldrich withdrawing $200 and followed him towards Georgetown and attempted to rob him.  But Aldrich drew his own gun and immediately opened fire forcing them to flee.  They employed Mr. Anderson to take them to Denver, holding him at gunpoint after he noticed they had money when they said they had none.  They fled at the approach of oncoming wagons, and afterward came to the home of Reuben Hayward to hire him to take them onward.

Engraving of the hanging of Seminole and Woodruff, by A. P. Proctor of Denver, 1879. Photo © Golden History Museum & Park, City of Golden Collection

Ayers tracked down Seminole at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Dakota Territory, arresting the resisting prisoner with the help of Indian police.  While en route back to Golden in Nebraska Seminole jumped from the train, still handcuffed, and 15 cowboys recaptured him.  Meanwhile C.A. Hawley of the Rocky Mountain Detective Agency was on the trail of Woodruff, who finding a brother in Big Grove, Iowa went in with a constable of Council Bluffs, disguised as tramps, to arrest him. Hawley intercepted the brothers on the main street at the point of the double barreled shotgun, and as Samuel began to draw his revolver Hawley told him “Pull that pistol one inch and I’ll blow daylight through you.”  Woodruff dropped his weapon, was taken into custody, and transported to Denver.  There on December 3, 1879, in a dramatic scene, Mrs. Hayward and her two little daughters were brought into the jail parlor, sat on a sofa facing the jail doors, and immediately identified each of the men.  W.A. Patrick of the Mt. Vernon tollgate and William Martin of the Cold Spring Ranch also identified them.

Public outrage was incandescent, for Hayward was known as a fine, gentle man with a loving wife and sweet daughters.  On the cold, clear, brightly moonlit night of December 27th a mob of 35 horsemen and an equal number on foot came to the newly built Jefferson County Courthouse with its basement jail from the direction of Mt. Vernon, one crowd via Ford Street, the other via what is now 19th Street. The horsemen were followed by a double-team wagon full of men, and not a noise could be heard except for the hoofs and squeaking of the wagon springs.  The men were masked or had faces blackened with burnt cork.  Without noise or confusion the horsemen surrounded the jail with picket lines, while those on foot cut the telegraph wires, and sledgehammers, cold chisels, crowbars, and other tools were brought to bear.

The men easily subdued the two guards, splintered the outer wood door and the inner iron door.  Jailer Edgar Cox quickly awakened to the sight of jail windows full of faces with rifles aimed straight at him.  He could hear 25 pairs of boots enter and was told not to move while they pounded on the south Scandanavian locks on the door of Cell 1.  This awakened Undersheriff Joseph T. Boyd who found the front room filled with masked armed men holding burning pieces of paper for light.  He appealed that justice could not be served by this, but revolvers held at his head cut short his speech and he was seized and taken out, but promised not to have his keys taken away.

The prisoners were forced out, bound and taken down to the railroad trestle crossing Kinney Run at what is now 16th Street. Woodruff remained stoic while Seminole screamed and pleaded heartrendingly. Woodruff for his last words said “Gentlemen, you are hanging an innocent man, but I trust God will forgive you as I do.”  He prayed for a minute and asked to jump and not be pushed to his death.  His request was not granted.

As he watched his partner hanging below being restrung, re-hung and yanked downward to hasten death, Seminole made a full confession.  He said a prayer stirring enough to make the men of the mob take off their hats and bow their heads. Trembling like an aspen leaf, Seminole was pushed to his death, his neck snapping instantly.  After the nervous crowd, taken by the awfulness of the scene, waited for some time, their leader finally gave them permission to leave.  They rode down to Haywards’ Golden home at today’s 2318 Ford Street, and with one simultaneous blast of their rifles in the air, shouted as one “HAYWARD IS AVENGED!” and rode off into the night.  Dr. Joseph Anderson was summoned to check the bodies after an hour and cut them down, and a lone horseman returned, asking if they were dead, to which he replied “Yes, deader than hell,” to which the rider replied “All right.  Hayward is avenged.  Good night.” and rode away.

Afterward the bodies were displayed on the floor of the courthouse for all to see.  Upon visiting Golden after this event, the Denver Tribune reporter on December 30, 1879 noted:

“In wandering through the town of Golden, yesterday, and conversing with business men of all grades of social and intellectual standing, the reporter failed to find a solitary person who condemned this recent lynching.  One every side the popular verdict seemed to be that the hanging was not only well merited, but a positive gain to the county, saving it at least five or six thousand dollars.”

Woodruff was taken to be buried in Big Grove, Iowa.  Seminole was buried at Golden Cemetery.

Alex McCurdy 

At 4 a.m. on November 26, 1893 Mr. and Mrs. John McCurdy, hearing pitiful moans from an adjoining room but unable to raise the attention of the sufferer in their home, gained entrance and made a ghastly discovery.  Her son, Arthur Berry, lay unconscious in bed, nearly dead from extreme loss of blood, having been emasculated by a knife.  Dr. Kassler carefully dressed the wounds and barely saved him, and upon regaining consciousness Berry identified his assailant, stepbrother Alex McCurdy, who had sandbagged him and perpetrated the mayhem.  Constable William C. Hendricks and Sheriff Samuel Sidney Poe immediately set out in pursuit of McCurdy as community outrage grew extreme, for the citizens knew the maximum penalty for the crime was only 1-3 years in prison.

Berry was 18-19 years old and worked as a cow puncher as well as at the Church Bros. brick works.  According to the Martinsville Sentinel in Indiana Berry had been away all summer upon the range some distance from Golden until the latter part of August.  Then, “…McCurdy’s wife came to him one day and told him that people were talking about them and that she was willing to give them something to talk about.  He says that she finally persuaded him, though against his sober judgment, to consent to her proposals, but instead of carrying out her apparent object she drew a knife from the folds of her dress and gave him two vicious slashes, from which he came near bleeding to death.  This he kept from all except a physician who dressed the cuts.”  Shortly thereafter Mrs. McCurdy left for Indiana and Berry thought nothing more of it until Alexander McCurdy showed up in his bedroom on the fateful night.

A citizens mob of several hundred first came to the Jefferson County Jail, now in its own building in the mature city, on November 28th, but upon hearing McCurdy was not there dispersed peacefully. McCurdy was at last intercepted at Martinsville, Indiana in February 1894 and returned to Golden for trial. After several days testimony the jury found McCurdy guilty of mayhem and he received the maximum sentence of three years.  This did not mollify the community and some resolved to act.  At an early hour on June 2, 1894, according to the Transcript, “McCurdy was taken from jail by a strong band of men, and after being accorded the same treatment which he had inflicted upon his victim, was lynched from a bridge across Clear Creek.”

The location was where the Denver, Lakewood & Golden railway crossed the river, where East Street would cross Clear Creek.  Jailer Alexander Kerr, who had been tied up with his young son by the assailants when they took McCurdy, broke free and quickly warned the sheriff.  Sheriff George Kelly did not reach the bridge in time to save McCurdy but did arrest two men who had been posted as guards:  John Reichwein and John Koch.  They were quickly persuaded to divulge the names of all their companions, who Kerr was unable to recognize as they were wearing masks.  The next morning the Jefferson County Coroner empaneled a grand jury to investigate and hand down indictments.  On November 17, 1894 the grand jury indicted four men for the lynching of McCurdy:  Reichwein, Koch, Richard Shepard and George Vogel.

McCurdy was likely buried at Golden Cemetery.  Vogel was formally tried for the lynching, upon which the jury returned a verdict of Not Guilty.  At that time the other prisoners were freed.  The bridge from which McCurdy was hung would be destroyed in the Great Flood less than two years later and the event passed into history.  However, the Golden Globe that June wrote “And now it is claimed that the trestle bridge where McCurdy was hung is haunted.  A belated traveler passing near the spot one evening this week declares he both saw the ghost of McCurdy and heard moans.  He was terribly frightened, and requests that his name be withheld until he proves by good witnesses that the spectre of McCurdy haunts that spot.”