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Chasing the Bad Guys in Breckenridge, Colorado

Flying bullets? Gun fights? Robberies? Horse stealing? Claim jumping? Ax murder? Death in the burning crib of a “lady of the night?” In Breckenridge? Yes, and more! Bill Fountain and Sandie Mather’s newest book, Chasing the Bad Guys, Town Marshals 1881-1923, Enforcing the Law in Breckenridge, Colorado, tells the story of the marshals who faced a variety of situations keeping the streets safe for the growing town and its residents.

When prospectors arrived to the area in 1859, no system of laws existed to handle these problems. The men adopted a system developed in California—the mining district. The laws in each district differed, causing the instability that led to lawlessness and in some cases vigilantism. In Breckenridge? Yup; back when it truly was the Wild West. The growing number of incidents reported in the newspapers and the anticipated arrival of the railroad inspired the Breckenridge Board of Trustees to hire Samuel Blair in 1881 as the first town marshal. Blair and his successors faced a wide variety of situations—some terrible, some humorous, some baffling, some sad.

The marshals were human. Readers will enjoy learning why Marshal Blair decided fishing was more important than a court date. They will be surprised about the reason behind a “not guilty” verdict rendered by a jury when many saw the defendant murder the victim “in cold blood” on Lincoln Avenue; or the way Pug Ryan tried to fool his defense attorneys; or how Carl Fulton hoped to escape serving on the jury for the Pug Ryan trial—and failed.

Some stories are shocking: the violent death of Marshal John McClelland in the Cañon City penitentiary uprising of 1929; the brutal beating death of Addison Hartsock, a member of the town’s Board of Trustees, in the middle of Main Street in front of the Denver Hotel; or the death of William Keogh, the highly respected Summit County assessor in a house of ill repute on the “outskirts” of Breckenridge. But the local newspapers often didn’t tell the entire story or included only the sensational parts—not the rest of the story. What happened to Elizabeth Cassidy and her children after the judge sentenced her husband to life in prison for a murder? What were the details of the Condon/Dewers murder case that the local papers didn’t include? What was Dr. Condon’s fate and how did it affect the town?

The marshals faced humorous situations too: the sleepwalker arrested by Marshal King; thawing frozen water pipes with the exhaust from an automobile so that a sausage stuffer would function in a local restaurant; or the scare caused by Speed Fry’s pet hoot owl.

The story of the marshals ends though with the sad tale of Thomas McKenna, a local who became marshal in 1923, resigning his position due to illness and death exactly one year later.

Usually the Town Trustees faced a slate of multiple candidates at election times. Candidates placed their names in consideration repeatedly—election after election. The fact that candidates applied so often testified to the support the marshals felt from the community and the value placed on their service. But in the end, politics often determined who would serve as marshal. A Democratic Board of Trustees normally chose a Democratic marshal; a Republican Board selected a Republican sheriff. When that didn’t happen, residents expressed disbelief. If the vote by the Trustees ended in a tie, the mayor cast the deciding vote—usually along party lines—except in one election. Rather than cast the deciding vote in April, 1905, Mayor William Harrison Briggle called a recess. Political shenanigans on the part of the Democrats on the Board of Trustees kept the election unresolved for months.

Many of the marshals and candidates knew each other through their social, family, and business connections. They and their families worked together; they hunted and fished together, they were related by marriage. The wives interacted: Mrs. Azealia McClelland sold the Elite Cafe to Mrs. Jennie Mitchell and Mrs. Maggie McKenna. Mrs. Martha Whitney operated her husband’s saloon after his death during the Pug Ryan affair.

Breakout sections scattered throughout the book provide information about important events that happened during a marshal’s term in office. The events might not have impacted the marshal fulfilling his duties, but drew the attention of town residents. The many photographs, some not previously published, show Breckenridge as the marshals would have seen it walking the streets, doing their daily duties.

The book is available for purchase at the Breckenridge Welcome Center Museum and coming soon to the BHA website!

written by Dr. Sandra Mather

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