Seeing them as public nuisances that bred sin, enraged citizens burned down several saloons and dance halls in Denver during the 1860s. One of the first and most significant of these attacks was the burning of the River House Saloon on Ferry Street on November 1, 1862. The River House fire was unique not only because the punishments for those who started the blaze were uncharacteristically forgiving, but also because the fire ignited citizen protests against future incendiary attacks.
“Forked Tongues of Lurid Flame”
Originally built in 1859, soon after Denver was founded, the River House started as a low-class boardinghouse. As with many of the city’s early boardinghouses, the residents of the River House were often single miners or fugitives fleeing the law back East. Soon the River House developed into a saloon where gambling, drinking, and prostitution were prevalent. As Denver’s growth drew more self-consciously respectable and affluent residents to the city, saloons such as the River House became targets of Christian moral reform.
Around half-past seven on the evening of November 1, 1862, four or five men entered the River House and ordered the occupants to leave, saying they were going to set the building on fire. Most inside the building were prostitutes, but there were also a few male customers. It is unclear whether the incendiaries waited until they evacuated before starting the fire inside the building, or if they set the blaze outside the building first and warned occupants after the fire was under way. Witnesses reported seeing “forked tongues of lurid flame” spread throughout the building. The volunteer fire department was alerted and managed to save all the furniture and everyone in the River House, though the building itself was completely destroyed.
A few thousand spectators gathered on Ferry Street (today’s South Eleventh Street) to watch the blaze. Despite conflicting information about exactly how and when the blaze started, multiple River House regulars claimed that soldiers of Denver’s First Regiment of Colorado Volunteer Infantry were responsible. Newspapers reported that some soldiers were among the spectators and became agitated when word spread that members of their regiment started the fire.
Some people seemed glad to see the River House gone. One witness told the Rocky Mountain News Weekly that the fire could “easily have been put out” but that “no effort was made to do so.” Given that fire posed such a risk to early frontier towns, the fact that no citizens attempted to help extinguish the blaze was suspicious to investigators. It seemed to suggest that citizens were glad to be rid of such an establishment, with the Rocky Mountain News Weekly going so far as to say that “the abatement of a nuisance is a benefit to the city.”
Despite such claims, responses to the River House arson were mixed throughout Denver. On the one hand, some citizens did believe that destroying businesses of ill repute was good for public morality. Newspapers reported rumors of a plot to burn all the saloons and boardinghouses like the River House in the city. The Rocky Mountain News Weekly even claimed to know that the next fire would be set “threateningly near the heart of the city.” No proof of such a plot was ever found, but even the possibility of it prompted several journalists and civilians to rebuke anyone who would resort to arson to rid the city of public nuisances. Any fire started in a seedy boardinghouse or saloon could easily spread to the rest of the city, especially given Denver’s dry and windy climate. Indeed, this fear would become reality when Denver’s so-called Great Fire of 1863 struck the heart of the city’s business district the following April. Others worried that taking incendiary action against people they saw as undesirables would lead to retaliatory attacks by the reputedly lawless lower classes.
Witnesses inside the River House at the time of the fire identified two of the arsonists, J. B. Ross and Daniel McCleary, who were in fact soldiers of the First Regiment of Colorado Volunteer Infantry. The other perpetrators were never identified. City Marshal David J. Cook arrested Ross and McCleary for arson within days of the fire, and the two men were brought before the district court on November 10, 1862.
Ross was indicted as an accessory to arson, but the infamous reputation of the primary witness against him, who was a River House regular, caused Chief Justice Benjamin F. Hall to grant him a new trial. At Ross’s second trial, he was acquitted, with the blame for his actions placed on his liquor consumption on the night of the fire. Only days after being set free, Ross was arrested again, this time for murder. Meanwhile, McCleary received only one year in prison after Hall learned that McCleary’s mother had died a year earlier and his father had left town, abandoning McCleary and his sister. Hall decided that McCleary’s poor parentage and his youth (he was nineteen) merited him as much mercy as the law allowed so that he could reform his criminal behavior.
Denver citizens were shocked by the lenient sentences that Chief Justice Hall handed down at a time when the typical punishment for arson was death by hanging. Many people protested such leniency, arguing that arson attacks such as the River House fire put the entire town at risk of burning and therefore required harsh punishment to deter any future arsonists from burning Denver’s buildings.
On the other hand, many lawmen and middle-class Christian moral reformers, Catholic as well as Protestant, supported Hall’s light sentences because they brought attention to the need to stop corruption and vice. Supporters of Hall’s sentences also believed they would encourage a shift from mob vigilante justice in Denver to a more forgiving system that allowed individuals to pay penance for crimes.
The debate over what constituted proper justice would continue into the early twentieth century as Denver worked to establish a professional police force.