On November 16, 1900, a white mob in Limon chained Preston Porter, Jr., a fifteen-year-old Black railroad worker, to a vertical steel rail, slung a rope around his neck, and burned him alive. Porter was accused of raping and murdering a local white girl; he had previously confessed to the crime under extreme coercion from Denver investigators, who told the young man that his father and brother would likely be lynched if he did not confess instead. No evidence directly connected Porter to the crime.
Porter’s burning occurred amid widespread lynching of Black people across the nation, especially in the South. In 1900 alone, more than 100 Black people were murdered by lynch mobs. Colorado had a relatively small Black population compared to southern states. Still, the events that led to Porter’s lynching and the fervor of the mob confirm that anti-Black racism was coursing through Colorado in 1900.
Founded in 1888 by John Limon, a railroad construction foreman, the town of Limon had by 1900 become a minor rail hub that supported a small community of farmers and ranchers. Itinerant workers were drawn to the town’s railyards, ranches, and fields. Preston Porter, Sr., and his two sons, Arthur and Preston, Jr.—who also went by “John” to avoid confusion with his father—were part of a railroad maintenance crew laboring near Lake Station, a rail stop a couple of miles east of Limon. The Porters were temporary residents, with their permanent home in Lawrence, Kansas.
On November 8, 1900, a search party found twelve-year-old Louise Frost, the daughter of prominent local rancher R. W. Frost, dying in a ravine of beating and stab wounds. She had also apparently been raped. She had driven a horse and buggy alone that day to the post office to pick up mail, then began the three-mile return trip to her family’s ranch. Upon its return, her father found the buggy empty and organized the search party. The girl died without saying anything.
“His Guilt Is Still in Doubt”
The murder provoked instant outrage across Colorado. The Aspen Democrat called it “the most fiendish assault ever perpetrated.” The case immediately drew the attention of Denver investigators and Lincoln County Sheriff John Freeman. A range of suspects was considered and interrogated, many of them selected from Limon’s small nonwhite population. Eventually, authorities homed in on the Porters, who had suspiciously left town after the murder.
On November 12, after speaking with all three Porters, Freeman announced that he was “absolutely sure” that John Porter was guilty. Freeman’s primary evidence was boot tracks at the crime scene that matched a set of shoes belonging to Porter. The sheriff claimed that when he interviewed Porter, the young man struggled to answer questions and establish his whereabouts at the time of the crime. The sheriff also said a chemist had Porter’s hat and, in his words, “will prove” there was blood on it from the struggle with Frost.
Freeman’s evidence was circumstantial at best. Porter said he had not worn the shoes in question for weeks, and they did not appear to have been worn recently. Porter did have a criminal record back in Lawrence, but authorities there had also found him mentally incompetent—he had suffered a head injury as a child. The slight-framed teenager didn’t have any injuries consistent with a struggle, and the chemist found no blood on Porter’s hat. Unconvinced of the case against him, authorities in Denver refused to turn Porter over to Freeman on November 13.
Denver Police weren’t the only ones skeptical of Porter’s guilt. On November 16—the day Porter would be lynched—a headline in the Collbran Oracle from Mesa County proclaimed the evidence against Porter to be “very conflicting.” The article quoted Denver detectives pointing to the state of Louise Frost’s buggy when it returned empty; the story was that Porter had dragged Louise out of it, but the buggy was in excellent condition with no signs of a struggle. “It is my opinion,” a detective told the paper, “that [Frost] was coaxed away by some one whom she knew, and I believe the guilty party is among those who are crying the loudest for vengeance.” After quoting the detective, the reporter opined, “It would be criminal on the part of authorities to permit Porter to be placed in danger of lynching when his guilt is still in doubt.”
None of this helped the young man, who on November 14 was forced into confessing the crime during a series of intense interrogations in Denver. Still, Denver authorities refused to give him up, acknowledging that Porter may have been “driven crazy by his troubles.” But when police confirmed that Frost’s pocketbook was in a vault at the Limon depot—right where Porter said it would be—the young man was turned over to Freeman. Although he was certain “Porter will never live in Limon county more than 24 hours,” Freeman said he would deliver the young man to the Lincoln County jail in Hugo.
Newspapers across Colorado jumped to confirm Porter’s guilt and speculate enthusiastically about a possible lynching. On November 15, Limon-area residents met to decide how to go about the lynching. They agreed that Porter was to be hanged but that there should be “no torture” beforehand. Still in Denver, Preston Porter read the Bible in his cell as Freeman delayed his departure, hoping the mob would “cool down.” At 1:10 pm on November 16, Freeman and Porter boarded a Union Pacific train for Hugo.
The train was not supposed to stop at Limon, but a group of revolver-toting men there halted and boarded the train. Over the protests of Freeman, the men removed Porter and delivered him to a waiting crowd of more than 500 men, women, and children. When the crowd “saw the face and cowering form of the black demon,” as the Aspen Daily Times put it, a rage swept over them. Abandoning their plan to hang Porter, they took him to the place where Frost’s body was found, tied him to a stake, and burned him alive. As the flames neared his body, Porter begged to be shot. Of Porter’s final moments, the Aspen Daily Times wrote, “There was a moment of silence broken only by the hissing and crackling of the fire. Then an indefinable, hideous, awful shriek, such as will ring in the ears of the listeners for many a day.”
Newspaper accounts of Porter’s lynching reveled in its brutality while depicting the barbaric incident as one of orderly vengeance. One Associated Press report insisted the crowd was “orderly and deliberate” and “not like a mob.” “No official execution of any enemy to society was ever conducted with better organization,” crowed Trinidad’s Chronicle-News. Before the execution, Governor Charles Thomas, who had fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, implicitly endorsed torture (“hanging was too good for Porter”); when asked his opinion after the lynching, Thomas replied, “There is one less negro in the world.”
These reports reflect a cruel indifference toward Black humanity, as the emotional trigger of Frost’s murder led many white Coloradans to ignore facts and act out their deepest prejudices.
Still, some Coloradans spoke out against Porter’s murder. On November 19, 1900, a large group met in Denver to denounce the lynching, adopting a resolution that declared in part, “no such crime can justify recourse to barbaric methods of punishment.” The group did not contest Porter’s guilt, only the manner of his punishment.
Similarly, a widely circulated column written by a “woman in the Denver News” accepted Porter’s guilt but noted that whites who committed such crimes never saw the same punishment. Meanwhile, the lynching began to attract attention and condemnation from the national press, which helped inspire attempts to bring the mob to justice.
On November 22, in an apparent response to public pressure, Governor Thomas moved to have Sheriff Freeman “arrest the members of the mob who took [Porter] from him.” In a mix of defiance and realism, Freeman refused to arrest anyone involved in the lynching, claiming that a local jury would never convict them. He blamed the lynching on Colorado’s lack of a death penalty.
Authorities never determined who actually killed Louise Frost.
In the decades after the atrocity happened, historians and journalists occasionally reminded Coloradans of Porter’s lynching. Most people, however, were generally unaware of it until the second decade of the twenty-first century, when ongoing murder of Black citizens by police conjured memories of high-profile lynchings. Many recent police murders, such as the case of Elijah McClain in 2019, reflect the same assumption of Black guilt that killed Porter more than a century earlier.
In 2018 the Denver City Council issued an official apology for Porter’s lynching. That year a group of some ninety Coloradans, with the support of local and national civil rights organizations, trekked to the site of Porter’s lynching and collected soil for two glass jars. One jar is slated for placement in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. At the memorial, jars of soil from lynching sites all over the nation are displayed along with narratives of the victims. The second jar of soil is intended for display in Denver.
Rekindled awareness of the incident inspired the creation of the Colorado Lynching Memorial Project. On November 21, 2020, the project unveiled a historical marker in downtown Denver memorializing Porter’s murder. There is no memorial in Limon, and even though it hosted the group that collected the soil, the Limon Heritage Museum does not mention Porter on its website or in exhibits.