Lynching, a form of vigilante punishment involving mob execution, has an active history in Colorado. Between 1859 and 1919, Coloradans carried out 175 lynchings. Lynching is usually associated with the Reconstruction Era in the American South, but before Colorado’s statehood in 1876, lynching was the main form of punishment for criminals in many mining towns across the Colorado Territory. Mining towns that condoned vigilante justice considered lynching an aspect of “frontier justice,” a necessity in upholding law and order.
The small frontier mining towns that sprouted up throughout Colorado in the nineteenth century attracted residents before the elements of proper legal systems, such as police or courts, could be established. In addition, the first wave of settlers in these towns typically consisted of young men in fervent search of wealth. In this context, community leaders feared the erosion of civility in favor of lawlessness. Hence, they arranged “people’s courts” to try alleged criminals. Such was the case in one of Denver’s earliest recorded lynchings in 1859, when Arthur Binegraff murdered prospector John Stuffle. In an effort to have a legitimate trial, Binegraff was given an attorney and a popularly elected—though not officially recognized—judge oversaw the proceedings. However, lacking a jail to house the accused, the “court” quickly sentenced him to death and he was hanged in public.
As the Colorado Gold Rush continued, lynching was used in many towns on account of its efficiency and low cost. Outraged citizens could sentence criminals quickly and did not have to worry about acquittals. No jails or police were necessary, as alleged criminals were tried and hanged on the spot. Many larger cities, such as Denver and Colorado Springs, made lynching illegal in order to attract new residents and investors. In small towns, however, the culture of lynching thrived.
Because of their remote locations and small populations, lynching in smaller towns was not given much attention by newspapers, so it is difficult to determine exactly how frequently mob justice was used. However, it is known that mining towns, rife with criminals—especially thieves—at least occasionally resorted to lynching. Unlike the orderly “people’s courts” common in Denver during the 1860s, lynchings were usually carried out by small groups of masked vigilantes in secret or by large mobs in public. Vigilantes bypassed the law, frequently breaking suspected criminals out of custody to hang them.
Such extralegal persecution did not always meet with unanimous community approval. While Coloradans generally tolerated lynchings as a form of protection from criminals, the citizens themselves often felt that civil rights were violated in the process. In 1884, for example, a pregnant woman and her husband were hanged in Ouray on suspicion of death allegedly caused by child abuse, causing a national uproar. Reporters condemned the lynching as barbarous, and the townspeople argued the atrocity of the crime demanded an equally brutal punishment.
Although Coloradans sought to distinguish their mob justice from the widely condemned racial persecution of the Southern states, they also took part in racially motivated lynching. Only five recorded lynchings are explicitly tied to race, but many more took place, particularly in the early twentieth century. The facts surrounding the lynching of a sixteen-year-old African American, Preston Porter, Jr., indicate a racist component to Colorado’s lynching history. In 1900, Porter was burned at the stake in front of a cheering mob of almost 300 people in Limon after being accused of the rape and murder of twelve-year-old Louise Frost. Little concrete evidence existed to link Porter to the crime, yet the mob cruelly executed the young man. Other victims of lynching included Catholics (namely Irish and Italians), Native Americans, and Chinese residents. In order to distance themselves from the atrocious practice of racially motivated lynching, commonly considered a Southern vice, participants in Colorado lynchings downplayed the importance of race in many vigilante killings.
After 1919, lynch mobs only occasionally flared up to dole out publicly rendered justice. As more people moved to the state, Coloradans increasingly relied on conventional avenues of justice instead of taking matters into their own hands. Many Coloradans also believed that some of the 175 lynching had gone too far, considering punishment cruel and unusual. For sixty years, the population used lynching to save time and money, and, although few people would admit to it, to satisfy their desire for immediate vengeance. As the main form of “frontier justice” in many towns and cities in the state, lynching was a major, if bleak, part of the Colorado experience during the nineteenth century and early twentieth.