Saturday, August 9, 2008

Gottlieb Fluhmann's Ghost

The little man and his mongrel dog’s skeletons were found more than 50 years later by a hunter in the fall of 1944.

By Rob Carrigan,

Ghosts are particularly restless if left to wander in the shroud of mystery — and when an acutely wicked deed goes without answer, explanation or justice — for years upon years.
Such was the case of the tiny immigrant from Switzerland, Gottlieb Fluhmann, murdered in the Puma Hills above Lake George in 1892.
“Fluhmann was a small stocky man scarcely 5’4” tall and was subjected to much ridicule because of his height and broken English,” writes author Midge Harbour in her 1982 book “The Tarryall Mountains and the Puma Hills: A History.”
“In 1890, on one of his infrequent trips to town, he stopped off at a bar,” according to Harbour. “While sitting at the end of bar, he became the subject of Ben Ratcliff’s attention. Ratcliff had long been suspected of stealing some of Fluhmann’s cattle and now taunted Gottlieb with the prospect that he was eating a juicy steak from one of his missing cows. Since Gottlieb Fluhmann had each of his cattle named, and had made each a special pet, this was indeed a humiliation.”
Later , two of Ratcliff’s sons extended the insulting behavior as they rode near Fluhmann’s home. “Gottlieb’s anger had become an obsession and he awakened at night hating the name Ratcliff. When he saw the two boys, he ordered them off his land. The younger lad taunted him as he had previously seen his father do. ‘You can’t make us do anything!’ Gotlieb waved his pistol, which he always carried with him. ‘You can’t shoot us. We’re only kids.’ … The older boy rode up to the corral rode and spit tobacco juice in the face of Fluhmann’s horse. This triggered Fluhmann’ temper and he began firing over the heads of the boys and they rode rapidly away,” writes Harbour.
“When Ben Ratcliff heard of the incident, he sent his daughter to warn Gottlieb that he would be the target of her father’ bullet when he came hunting in October.”
According to another account of the exchange in Celinda Kaelin’s 1999 book “Pikes Peak Backcountry: The Historic Saga of the Peak’s West Slope,” Ratcliff’s reputation insured the danger of actually carrying out such a threat, so the little Swiss man decided to create and emergency plan.
“He would relocate to a cave he had found in the rocky cliff about a mile above his home. He secretly made a new home within this five- by fifteen foot cavity, installing a strong door at the entrance for added protection and a glass window for surveillance,” says Kaelin’s book.
“When Fluhmann first disappeared, everyone, including the local sheriff assumed he had returned to Switzerland. But not Rattcliff. He knew his prey would never leave his beloved animals unattended. When they still appeared well-cared-for after several months, he began a systematic search for the little foreigner.”
He eventually discovered the cave one evening after months of searching.
“Ratcliff waited on the ledge above the cave until early the next morning. As Fluhmann cautiously opened the heavy door to greet the new day,Ratcliff fired sending a fatal bullet through the stock of Fluhmann’s gun and into his chest. He then climbed down to his victim and dragged him back into the cave,” writes Kaelin.
The little man and his mongrel dog’s skeletons were found more than 50 years later by a hunter in the fall of 1944.
But as noted historian Jan MacKell Collins discovered, there was much more to the story than the various versions circulating.
"Gottlieb Fluhmann, vanished into thin air. Fluhmann had immigrated from Switzerland in 1866. A skilled surveyor and gunsmith, he had taken up ranching by 1876 in the Puma Hills some three miles north of Lake George. But Fluhmann appeared 'peculiar' to his neighbors. For starters, he was only 5 feet, 4 inches and spoke broken English with an odd accent. He also coddled his cattle and even named them. His modest cabin and outbuildings were well kept, but Fluhmann’s ranch was located off the beaten path. Few seemed to visit him, an exception being a young boy named Dan Denny.
The outcast Fluhmann mysteriously disappeared in late 1892, shortly after hinting that he might kill himself or hide where he would never be found. The Fairplay Flume first reported on Fluhmann’s vanishing act in December. Search parties turned up nothing and in February Henry Krebill, who had been looking after Fluhmann’s cattle, was appointed executor of his estate. His 200-acre ranch was auctioned off in May and included around 156 cattle, a horse and saddle, tools and household furnishings. Fluhmann’s nephew in Crested Butte heard about the auction in the papers and traveled to Lake George to join another search. But all searches had been exhausted by March of 1894 and Gottlieb Fluhmann was officially declared dead," wrote MacKell Collins.
"Fluhmann’s name was next brought to the surface in 1895, when fellow rancher Benjamin Ratcliff killed three members of the local school board. Ratcliff and his family first came to the Lake George area in about 1876, settling some 30 miles from Fluhmann. The Ratcliffs had three children, but a fourth child and Ben’s wife, Elizabeth, died during childbirth in 1882. Shortly afterward, Ratcliff’s five-year-old daughter, Lizzie, broke her hip and developed a severe limp.
The closest school was several miles away. Ratcliff wrote a letter to the school board requesting that either the school be moved closer to his ranch or that he receive a tutor or schoolbooks on loan to teach his children at home. When the board denied these requests, a frustrated Ratcliff sent Lizzie and his other daughter, Lavina, to be schooled by Elizabeth’s relatives in Missouri. His son, Howell, remained at the ranch," she said.
"Lizzie and Lavina returned home in 1893. The following year, one Lincoln F. McCurdy was appointed to the school board at nearby Bordenville. Soon afterward, Ratcliff received a letter from his neighbor, Susan Crocket. The note claimed that McCurdy was spreading a ghastly rumor that Lizzie, now a teenager, walked funny because she was pregnant by her own father.
Ratcliff waited until the annual school board meeting on May 6, 1895 to unleash his fury. As board members McCurdy, Samuel Taylor and George Wyatt met at the school, a heavily armed Ratcliff stormed the building and shot each man. McCurdy and Taylor died instantly, but Wyatt lived long enough to describe what happened. Meanwhile, Ratcliff turned himself in at Como," wrote Collins.
Ratcliff’s attitude during his trial only furthered his reputation for having “a very quarrelsome disposition.” He stubbornly told the Silver Cliff Rustler that “he did just right, and if he was younger he would get some more of the people that had helped to ruin his name … He does not seem to fear the results of his deeds.” The Colorado Democrat next reported that Gottlieb Fluhmann had argued with Ratcliff over a cattle deal a short time before he disappeared. “It is now suspected that Benjamin Ratcliffe [sic], the Park County murderer, is responsible for the disappearance of a well-to-do ranchman named Fluman [sic] some three years ago,” the Democrat confirmed, adding that since Fluhmann’s disappearance Ratcliff “has appeared to be uneasy and has always been heavily armed.” The Rocky Mountain News followed the Democrat’s lead, claiming that Ratcliff “was the last man seen with Fluhmann and the last man who saw Fluhmann.”
“Master Sargent Francis Brahler of Peterson Field discovered the old cave while he was hunting,” reported the Nov. 1, 1944 Gazette Telegraph. “He spotted the old window frame on the ledge and upon investigating, found the cave entrance. The big dishpan was still suspended with the letters, pipes, and other items including two gold inlaid flintlocks. He took many of the items back with him to his campsite and returned the next day. This time he found a human skull and the bones of what appeared to be the skull of a dog.”
Kaelin notes that Ratcliff never did pay for this particular diabolical transgression but was called to account for other misdeeds.
“…Fate did collect him from killing three school board members on May, 6, 1895. His children were again the catalyst for his dangerous temper, and he unleashed his fury when he learned they were having a special meeting to discuss them. He rode up to school house, dismounted, and walked in, shooting Samuel Taylor, Lincoln McCurdy, and George Wyatt… He later turned himself in to the sheriff at Como, was tried, convicted, and later hanged at the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City,” wrote Kaelin.
In regard to previous posts of mine regarding the Ghost of Gottleib Fluhmann, I was sent the following communication from a descendant of Benjamin Ratcliff.
"Several Colorado residing descendants of Benjamin Ratcliff report that they have never heard the tale of Gottleib Fluhmann. The references cited seem to be based on exaggerated local commentary and contain inaccurate facts. So without proof, they feel that Benjamin has been unfairly accused of the serious charge of being Gottleib's killer."
"However, in the matter of the Bordenville school board, this is the account from Benjamin's oldest child - and Only son - as told to his grandson: Some time around 1875 Benjamin and his wife moved from Missouri to Park County, Colorado, and established a farm about seven miles from Bordenville. Their son and two daughters were born there. His wife died there in 1882 while the children were still very young. Benjamin raised the kids there until 1895. He had a running battle with the local school board in 1894. He wanted them to provide a summer school program, allow the school books to be loaned out, or set up a school closer to his ranch. He taught his children at home, and wanted some help with that. Winter weather was too bad to make the trip to school. Late in 1894 unsupported gossip spread that incest involving Benjamin and his older daughter spread around the local area. He became enraged. The man most responsible for spreading the gossip was on the school board. Benjamin's temper escalated and he ended up shooting all three members of the board as they met together at the school May 6, 1895. He turned himself in the same day as the shooting. Eight months later, on the evening of February 7, 1896, he became the ninth execution by hanging (out of 45 in the history of the state) at the prison in Canon City. "
The descendant, a Colorado native now living in Westminster, also provided this prison photo of Benjamin Ratcliff.

As for Gottlieb Fluhmann, however, perhaps, the ghost of a sawed-off Swiss immigrant, befriended by his own livestock and his loyal mongrel dog, still wanders in the hills and hides in the caves in the Puma Hills above Lake George.
Top photo appeared in Colorado Central Magazine with a 2014 story by Jan MacKell Collins. According to the report, it was taken at Gottlieb Fluhmann’s cabin near Lake George soon after his remains were found in a hidden cave. Left to right are Fairplay Flume writer Everett Bair holding Fluhmann’s skull, Dan Denny with Fluhmann’s flintlock rifles, and Sheriff Law holding the bullet-damaged rifle. Collins was provided the photo by Randy and Brenda Myers of Mule Creek Outfitters, Lake George, Co.

1 comment:

___ Restless Native said...

Please see new information regarding Fluhmann and Ratcliff in October, 2008, post.