Thursday, September 19, 2013

South Park Perils

Today I'd like to welcome author Christie Wright to Colorado Reflections! Christie has a new book out, South Park Perils, published by Filter Press. I've known Christie for several years after meeting through Women Writing the West and we've enjoyed sharing our Park County interests. In fact, she mentions Ernest Christison on page 55, it seems he attempted to break out of the Fairplay jail several months before breaking out of the Buena Vista Jail. A murderer later found his small saw and finished sawing through the bars of the Fairplay jail.

Leave a comment on this blog post and Christie will give away one book to a lucky reader!

Tell us a little about the type of stories a reader will find in South Park Perils?

Readers will find all true murder stories set in the 1800's and early 1900's in Park County, CO. Although I found many other crimes that were committed during my research for the book, I was surprised at the number of murders and decided to make that the focus of “South Park Perils.” The west was definitely wild there!

Many of the stories involve shootings and many in saloons, which was typical of the time. There are three ranchers who committed almost identical crimes but at different times; they all shot their neighbors over livestock boundary disputes and all three times, their victims had picked up rocks to throw when they were shot and killed.

Park County actually had four sets of serial killers: the Espinosa brothers in the early 1860's; Benjamin Ratcliff in 1895 who shot and killed three school board members, and a con artist in the Guffey area in 1897. Sadly, another serial murder happened in 2003 near Guffey when three teenage boys shot and killed an acquaintance and his grandparents. This latter case is not mentioned in my book but the other three are.

How did you become interested in South Park?
In the 1980s, our family had a second home over on the Summit County side of Hoosier Pass and we would frequently explore the Park County side of Hoosier, including Buckskin and Mosquito Gulches. I became fascinated with the mines and the mining history there and my interest gradually expanded to the County’s history in general. Several years ago I began volunteering with the Park County Local History Archives, a non-profit organization, and was elected President in 2010. Park County’s history is very alive and real to me!

You worked for the State of Colorado as a probation officer. How did your experience help you in researching and writing this book?
My work experience helped me understand both the court proceedings that I learned about on each case as well as the court language itself. I found it fascinating that most of the legal language we use in the courtroom today was in use in the 1800s. To me, this showed the strength of our legal system in general and that there has been a thread of continuity throughout our justice system, albeit with its faults.

Regarding the ‘legalese,” terms such as preliminary examination, stay of execution (which can refer to a court action other than an actual execution!) return on a warrant and the process of posting bond are all familiar terms to those of us who work in the system. This was very helpful in deciphering the court practices in the 1800's.

Two interesting differences are that in the 19th century, circuit judges only held court twice a year in each judicial district and that the weeks for this were actually set by the Colorado legislature. If a suspect committed a crime right after court adjourned for that session, he could possibly have been confined for six months until the judge rode back into town. Nowadays, judges control their own courtrooms and dockets.

The other difference is the number of trials that were held in the 19th century. Almost every murder case went to trial (other than those who absconded) whereas today, plea bargains are frequently offered in order to avoid the time and expense of a trial.

Did you run into any surprises when you researched the stories?
Yes, there were a number of them. One was the ever-present threat of lynching, even shortly after the turn of the century. I have a number of cases where a defendant immediately rode into the nearest town to turn himself in to “the law” after killing his victim. At first I thought their moral conscience kicked in albeit late, and they wanted to “do the right thing” by ‘fessing up to their crime. I later realized they did this to avoid being lynched and often took the back roads so as to avoid detection.

Another surprise was that there were no women convicted of murder in Park County in the 1800's that I could find. Two were suspects and charged as Accessories to Murder in 1894 but both were acquitted at trial. A third woman, a rancher’s wife, faced the same charge in 1902 but she was also acquitted. The reasons for no female convictions is interesting but requires an in-depth sociological analysis that I have not delved into.

How does your book contribute to the history of the area?
I think “South Park Perils” contributes to the county’s history by adding a new dimension to its settlement – that of the criminal behavior that was integral to its founding. Although not pleasant, it was part and parcel of Colorado’s early years. Several other Park County authors have written locally about some of the more sensational murders, to my knowledge, this is the first time those and the many lesser known murders have been brought forth.

Christie Wright is a Colorado "semi-native," who moved to the state after graduating from college in Illinois. After many adventures exploring the high country, she became fascinated with Park County mining camps and later expanded her interest to the county's overall history. Christie worked as a state probation officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado for more than twenty-two years.She currently serves as president of the Park County Local History Archives and is a member of Women Writing the West and Wild West History Association. Click here to visit her South Park Perils website, where you may purchase her book.