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Colorado's earliest form of capital punishment like many states was public hanging. It became a spectacle attended by the whole community. Reformists began to call for a change in the system declaring this practice inhuman. In the late 1800s as Colorado citizens began to look optimistically at the beginning of the new century, the state government began to recognize the need to move away from public hangings. Governor Alva Adams, in his 1887 inaugural address, called for an end to the practice and supported the beliefs of the prison reformist.

In 1890 the state legislature passed a law moving all hangings out of the view of the public and to the penitentiary in Cañon City. Wardens and other prison administrators objected to this move citing that they did not want the prison to become a death house. The outcry by prison officials encouraged death penalty abolitionists to become more vocal about the abolishment of the death penalty in Colorado. In 1893 the abolitionists won the support of Governor Davis Waite. His support led to passage of legislation that eliminated the death penalty in Colorado in 1897.

(1) Warden C.P. Hoyt

While abolitionists saw this as a major victory, the public was not entirely supportive. The media, with the support of some of the clergy, began to campaign in favor of the death penalty.

The attitude of some of the Cañon City community was evident as two men were lynched on Main Street during this period. Both lynchings occurred during C.P. Hoyt's terms as warden, one in his second term in 1888 and one in his third term in 1900. Local newspapers recounted these events and their articles reflected public attitude.

(2) George Witherell #29

"Witherell Wind-Up" appeared in The Canon City Record on December 8, 1888. This article told the story of the lynching of George R. Witherell. Witherell was convicted of killing Mr. Wahl in 1871; he left Wahl's body in a ravine, and took his mule team and wagon to sell. Witherell served nine years in prison for the crime before receiving a pardon from Governor Alva Adams in April of 1881. It was rumored that following his release he also killed a woman by the name of Hand and her grandson but nothing was ever proven and their bodies were not found. In 1888 he went to Beaver Creek with Charles McCain, a well-known businessman from Pueblo, driving one of his two mule drawn wagons. (3) George Witherell Lynching Mr. McCain's body was found two days later. Witherell was arrested in Denver trying to sell the mules and wagons. He was taken to the county jail in Cañon City for safekeeping. Witherell was taken from the county jail by a group of angry citizens to a telephone pole on First and Main Street where a wire was put around his neck and he was hung.

The newspaper's description of the lynching made up in eloquence for that which it lacked in objectivity. "George R. Witherell the foulest murderer that ever went unhung as long as he did; and the twinkling stars assent as o’head seemed to twink assent as they looked down from celestial spheres above, and the murderer of the unsuspecting and confiding Charles L. McCain was fully avenged.... At an early hour Tuesday the whole population of Canon City congregated to review the remains and the unanimous verdict was "tis well".... While we (the newspaper) deplore the existence of the state of affairs that would warrant such little expression we cannot come right out and condemn the exercise that happened for if ever a man deserved summary justice dealt to him it was George Witherell."

The second lynching occurred as a result of an escape during Hoyt's third term in office. On January 22, 1900, four prisoners escaped from the penitentiary after killing guard William C. Rooney. (4) Thomas Reynolds #3883 The four men worked together on the night shift in the boiler room and ate supper in the kitchen while under the supervision of Rooney. Thomas Reynolds and C.E. Wagoner planned the escape and later brought Kid Wallace into the plan. The fourth prisoner, Anton Woode, was not told about the plan until it was under way because the men did not trust him to keep the secret from the warden. Reynolds and Wagoner killed Rooney by inflicting several stab wounds into his chest as he tried to stop the escape. (5) Kid Wallace #3855 One man held him down as the other stabbed him. The men escaped over the wall by shutting down the electricity in the prison and using a makeshift ladder to scale the wall. Kid Wallace and Anton Woode were recaptured in Cripple Creek; Reynolds and Wagoner had left the two and made their way to Florence. The Florence sheriff recaptured Reynolds after getting a tip from a citizen. The prison sent the deputy warden and three armed guards to take him back to the prison. (6) Anton Woode #3199 When they arrived at the prison gate with Reynolds in the back of the wagon, a mob of about a hundred citizens met them, disarmed the guards, and forced the release of the prisoner. Reynolds was taken to the same telephone pole where Witherell was lynched twelve years earlier. According to an article, "Murder At The Penitentiary: The Night Captain Killed and Four Prisoners Make Their Escape" in the Canon City Times on January 25, 1900, before the execution someone asked Reynolds if he had anything to say. He said, "Give a cigarette so I can smoke." The answer according to the article was, "You can smoke in Hell." The Times said it was "a typical western lynching, with all its disgusting details, and followed by a night of drunken revelry at the saloons around town." The newspaper reported that many people who were not involved in the lynching saw it as a good message to other prisoners who felt that nothing would happen to them if they killed a guard because there was no death penalty.

(7) Reward Poster

While neither Governor C. Thomas or Warden C.P. Hoyt supported the lynching, they both offered rewards for the return of the prisoners, dead or alive. Hoyt offered $125.00 per man and the governor offered an additional $500.00.

Governor Thomas visited the prison after the lynching to see if he could learn additional information. He did not find any new information but made a public statement concerning the event. "Violence is never justifiable. The law should have been allowed to take its course. (8) Governor Thomas The effect upon the inmates of the penitentiary will be only temporary. When the opportunity comes to escape it will be forgotten. It will not influence the legislature in favor of capital punishment. That is a thing of the past. It will not lessen crime. This is demonstrated almost daily in the South. Negroes are hung there for arson and other crimes, but repetition of these crimes goes right along. Negroes are hung there right along. Seemingly they are increasing. Frequently, at least, it seems to me Negroes are hanged, burned at the stake and mutilated more frequently than was the case a few years ago. If the people think the lynching of Reynolds will have a lasting affect on them they have overlooked a part of their prison history. It is not in the nature of things that it should have."

When Governor Thomas pardoned "the man eater" Alfred Packer in 1901, the pressure on the legislature to reinstate the death penalty was too strong. The death penalty was reinstated in Colorado in 1902 after only five years.

The Do It Yourself Hanging Machine

An unknown prisoner designed the "Do It Yourself Hanging Machine." The concept behind it was that it allowed the prisoner to trigger the device himself by stepping onto a platform, eliminating the need for an execution. The machine worked through a series of pulleys that put three hundred pounds of pressure on the rope throwing the body of the prisoner upward and instantly breaking his neck rather than causing him to strangle slowly while hanging on a rope.

(9) Death House Interior; (10) Hanging Room; (11-12) Death House Exterior

The prison built a death house to house the machine and to incarcerate the prisoners who were waiting execution. On the day of the execution, the warden read the death warrant to the prisoner, two guards escorted the prisoner into the hanging room where they bound his hands and feet, and they put a black hood over his head. When the prisoner stepped forward, he put the machine in motion and the execution was completed in a few minutes. Witnesses to the execution sat in chairs located by the outside wall of the room and were required to sign a document confirming execution had taken place.

The Do It Yourself Hanging Machine was good in concept but it was not always successful. One reporter from the Denver Post was allowed to watch a double hanging in 1896. (13) Walter Jones, #17220 Thomas Jordan, #3268, the first prisoner executed took seven minutes to die as he hung from the rope and was slowly strangled. The other Peter Augusta, #3085, died within seconds from a broken neck. The Post described the death of Thomas Jordan during which the machine did not function correctly, "Suddenly there was a noise and the body shot into the air with tremendous force. Almost to the ceiling it went and then it fell back until the slack of the rope tightened and the neck was given an awful wrench. Three times his body convulsed and his legs were drawn up. Two doctors held his wrists and it was seven minutes after his body shot into the air before the heart ceased to beat and the limbs grew stiff. The corpse swung a few minutes more; then it was carried from the room."

Between 1890 and 1933 forty-five people were hung at the penitentiary. Walter Jones, #17220, was the last man executed by hanging on December 1, 1933.

Roy's Penthouse

Roy Best received legislative approval to build a gas chamber at the Cañon City Penitentiary in 1934, and after its completion, it was often referred to as "Roy’s Penthouse." (14) Roy Best; (15) Gas Chamber Building; (16) Gas Chamber Interior; (17) Gas Chamber Best's research on the humane and effective use of the gas chamber as a tool for execution began in Nevada. Nevada installed the first gas chamber in the United States in 1921. Nevada's chamber was built and designed by the Eaton Metal Company in Denver. Eaton manufactured smelters although the company also built eight out of the ten gas chambers used in the United States.

The Twenty-Ninth General Assembly approved Colorado's gas chamber. With the approval of the legislature, Best designed Colorado's chamber with three chairs and had it built by the Eaton Company. The three-chair design made it unique, but it is unclear why Best made the decision to add the extra chair. (18) William Cody Kelly, #17956 Cari Stiff suggests in her article in Empire Magazine that it may have been because Best thought he could get three executions for the price of one, because he wanted to out do Nevada, or simply because he was driven by showmanship. This gas chamber was used in Colorado until 1988, although a new chamber replaced the original chamber designed by Best in 1955.

The first man executed in the gas chamber was William Cody Kelly, #17956. His execution on July 22, 1934, was the first of many, each with its own story of living and dying on death row.

(19) Menu requested by John Pacheco

The first double execution on death row was that of the Pacheco brothers, who were convicted of killing a farmer in Larimer County. They were executed on May 31, 1935. At the time of the execution, Louis was 35 and his brother John was 22. When asked what they wanted for their last meal, John sent a note entitled, "By Special Request for Fridays Dooms Day." It is reported that Louis asked Warden Best before his execution, "What kind of Harp Players do you think we will make?"

(20) Louis Pacheco, #18013; Leonard Lee Belongia, #18545; John Pacheco, #18012

The Pacheco brothers shared death row with a man named Leonard Lee Belongia, #18545. Belongia was scheduled to be executed three weeks later, but when the time came to execute the Pacheco brothers, Belongia decided he would rather die with his friends. Belongia wrote a note to Best, "There is no use wasting that extra chair. I want to die with my buddies. Some of my happiest days have been in here with the Pachecos, and it will be hard to wait and go later." Best contacted Governor Edward Johnson and requested his permission to honor Belongia's request. The governor answered: "I have no authority to change an execution date set by the court. Even if I had such authority I would not intercede." Belongia was executed on June 21, 1935.

Harry Leopold was schedule to be executed on December 8, 1939. He made a last request to Warden Best asking him to postpone his execution until his radio serial was over on Friday night. His note to Best read:

Dear Warden,
I would consider it a personal favor if you could put off the doings tonight for a little while. There's a radio serial I want to hear.
Sincerely,
Harry Leopold

Best honored Leopold's request to listen to his program. Leopold talked about his serial to Best on the way to the gas chamber, "I wonder how that's going to end. That's the trouble with serials you know."

"Roy's Penthouse" was retired in 1955 and replaced with a new gas chamber. The penitentiary in Canon City used the Gas Chamber for executions until 1988 when Colorado changed its method of execution to lethal injection.

Legal Executions by Hanging in Colorado

1890-1933

After legislation was passed to move all executions to the state penitentiary, there were a total of 47 hangings. The following chart shows the number of hangings that took place during each year.

1890 ........................................ 1
1891 ........................................ 3
1892 ........................................ 1
1893 ........................................ 3
1895 ........................................ 3
1896 ........................................ 4
1905 ........................................ 4
1907 ........................................ 1
1908 ........................................ 2
1912 ........................................ 1
1915 ........................................ 1
1916 ........................................ 2
1920 ........................................ 1
1922 ........................................ 1
1924 ........................................ 1
1926 ........................................ 2
1928 ........................................ 2
1930 ........................................ 6
1931 ........................................ 4
1932 ........................................ 2
1933 ........................................ 2




Legal Execution in the Gas Chamber in Colorado

1934-1951

Warden Roy Best

1934 ........................................ 1
1935 ........................................ 3
1936 ........................................ 1
1937 ........................................ 1
1939 ........................................ 4
1941 ........................................ 2
1942 ........................................ 2
1943 ........................................ 2
1945 ........................................ 3
1947 ........................................ 2
1949 ........................................ 2
1951 ........................................ 1




Summary of Escapes for the Two-Year Period Ending

November 30, 1932

Warden Roy Best

Biennial Report

Number of Escapes 119
Number of Attempted Escapes  13
Total Number of Escapes and Attempted Escapes 132

Number of Recaptured Escapes 101
Number of Attempted Escapes Frustrated 13
Number of Escapes Returned with New Sentences 2
Number of Escapes Located in Other Prisons  18
Total Number Recaptured, Returned or Located in Other Prisons 134

Number of Escapes Recaptured, Returned or Located in Other Prisons in Excess of Number Escaped 2




Summary of Escapes Since the Penitentiary was Established

Total Number of Escapes from Date of Establishment of the Penitentiary to November 30, 1930 822
Total Number of Escapes for the Two-year Period Ending November 30, 1932 119
Total Number of Escapes from the Date of Establishment of the Penitentiary to November 30, 1932 941

Total Number of Escapes Recaptured or Returned on New Sentences from Date of Establishment to November 30, 1930 495
Total Number of Escapes Recaptured for the Two-year Period Ending November 30, 1932 101
Total Number of Escapes Returned with New Sentences for the Two-year Period Ending November 30, 1932   2
Total Number of Escapes Recaptured or Returned with New Sentences from date of Establishment to November 30, 1932 598

Total Number of Escapes Outstanding on November 30, 1932 343
Less Escapes Located in Other Prisons  29
Total Number of Escapes at Large on November 30, 1932 314


Bibliography

Books

Athearn, Robert. The Coloradans. Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1976.

Whitmore, Julie. A History of Colorado State Penitentiary, 1871-1940. Canon City, CO: Printing Plus Press, July, 1983.

Newspapers

"Whitherell Wind-Up." Canon City Record 8 December 1889: 1.

"Murder At The Penitentiary: The Night Captain Killed And Four Prisoners Escape." Canon City Times 25 January 1900: 2.

Stiff, Cari. "Looking Back: The Do It Yourself Hanging Machine." The Denver Post: Empire Magazine June 13, 1971: 46-47.

Stiff, Cari. "Looking Back: The Death House By The Side Of The Road." The Denver Post: Empire Magazine 16 May 1971: 17-22.

Interview

Paterson, Wayne K. Warden Colorado State Prison (1965-1972). Interview. 15 August 2000.

Photographs and Images

CSA = Colorado State Archives, Denver, Colorado

LHC = Local History Center, Cañon City Public Library

MCP = Museum of Colorado Prisons, Cañon City Public Library

1 LHC: Portrait of C.P. Hoyt, 1882-1884.

2 MCP: Photograph of George Witherell #29.

3 LHC: Photograph of the Lynching of George Witherell, 1888.

4 MCP: Photograph of Thomas Reynolds #3833.

5 and 6 LHC: Photographs of Kid Wallace #3855 and Anton Woode #3199.

7 LHC: Photograph of a Reward Poster issued by Warden Hoyt similar to the one used for Reynolds, Wagoner, Wallace and Woode.

8 CSA: Photograph of Governor Charles Thomas.

9 LHC: Photograph of the interior of the death house, 1930.

10 LHC: Photograph of the hanging room.

11-12 MCP: Photograph of the exterior of the death house, Roy Best Album, September 9, 1932.

13 MCP: Photograph of Walter Jones #17220.

14 MCP: Photograph of Roy Best standing next to gas chamber building, Roy Best Album.

15 MCP: Photograph of gas chamber building, Roy Best Album.

16 MCP: Photograph of the interior of the gas chamber, Roy Best Album.

17 MCP: Photograph of the gas chamber, Roy Best Album.

18 MCP: Photograph of William Cody Kelly #17956, Execution Photograph Album.

18 MCP: Photograph of the menu requested by John Pacheco, Execution Photograph Album.

20 MCP: Photograph of Louis Pacheco #18013, Leonard Lee Belongia #18545, and John Pacheco #18012, Execution Photograph Album.



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