“Every society gets the kind of criminal it deserves. What is equally true is that every community gets the kind of law enforcement it insists on.” __ Robert F. Kennedy
Law enforcement has always a delicate balancing act, but explosive population growth and the rough-and-tumble attitude of a transient work force in the Cripple Creek Gold District at the turn of the century created its own particular challenges.
By 1901, the City of Cripple Creek itself, had at least a dozen officers on its paid force and surrounding ‘cities’ of Victor, Altman, Goldfield, Gillette Flats and others offered their own compliments. Until 1899, when it was part of El Paso County, the services of officers for larger metropolitan areas like Colorado Springs were available to come to the rescue. With police work, the obvious dangers lurked behind every barstool. But not so obvious perils proliferated as well.
Take for example the August 9, 1901, death of Cripple Creek patrolman E.T. Clark. Clark was electrocuted when he attempted to pull a fire alarm on a town street. Wires had crossed resulting in his electrocution.
Also consider the unenviable task of El Paso County Sheriff Frank Bowers when he had to serve papers on 101 members of the Free Coinage Union No. 19 in the early 1890s.
“Well-meaning Frank was just like the harried cops in the old keystone comedies, handlebar mustache and all,” wrote Marshall Sprague in “Money Mountain.”
“He had a big heart and he yearned be loved by everybody, which is why it almost killed him to have to be a key figure in the strike conflict.” And his situation continued to spiral out of control resulting with the rather uncomfortable results of Gov. Davis H. “Bloody Bridles” Waite sending in the Colorado Militia, eventually martial law being declared, and calls to President Grover Cleveland to send in the U.S. Army, but that was another story.
Officers were not the only one in danger in those relatively more dangerous times. Criminals, and even spirited ‘rowdies’ could suffer at the hands of fate and accidental violence.
“Three Prisoners in the Victor City Jail Cremated,” offered the headlines reported from Denver to Summit County on Feb. 12, 1898.
“Harry Haley, Thomas Quinn and James Connor lost their lives this morning in a fire which partially consumed the city jail here, and Patrick M. McAuliffe lies in a precarious condition at the Iowa house as a result of the same cause,” read the Summit County Journal at the time.
“All of the men were graders in the employ of Contractor Dumphy of the Florence and Cripple Creek Railway. The catastrophe was the most horrible ever occurring in Victor, with the single exception of the Anna Lee mine disaster of some two years ago.”
According to the paper, “The firing of the jail was the frenzied act of James Connor while crazed by drink. About 6 o'clock this morning the jail building was discovered to be on fire, and shortly afterward flames were bursting through the pitch pine structure. The fire department reached the scene promptly and two streams of water were at once directed upon the flames, which were soon under control.”
According to the account, “When it was stated that four prisoners were confined in the building, the assembled crowd was filled with horror, and citizens, police and firemen worked like Trojans to rescue the unfortunate from the horrible fate which threatened them. It seemed like an almost hopeless task from the first, so fierce were the flames and dense the smoke. Yet the rescuers worked on, and at last groped through the blinding smoke to the large room in the rear of the jail, where three men were stretched apparently lifeless on the floor, and laying hold of them dragged them out into the air. Two were dead, having succumbed to the suffocating smoke, and the third, P. M. McAuliffe, was gasping and struggling for breath. He was moved to the Iowa house and Doctors McKenzie and George summoned. After a prolonged effort they succeeded in restoring McAuliffe to consciousness, and he is now thought to be out of danger.
As soon as the flames had been subdued, an examination of the jail was made, and in a cell at the rear of the building was found the blackened, charred and almost unrecognizable body of James Connors, whose rash act was the cause of the terrible catastrophe.”
Ah, these were dangerous times, indeed. It reminds me of a reference in “Pirates of Penzance,” by W.S. Gilbert from 1879. “When the constabulary duty’s to be done, the policeman’s lot is not a happy one!”