Weld County's Past

Explore the fascinating history of Weld County's rustlers, killers, outlaws and lawmen.

THE LYNCHING OF WD FRENCH PART I

The 1888 lynching of WD French is an indelible part of Weld County’s past. The local fascination of the lynching has been kept alive by ghost stories, mock trials and the occasional re-publishing of articles pulled from newspaper archives.

French’s hanging is frequently recounted during walking tours of Greeley’s Linn Grove Cemetery. A tour guide leads groups on a circuitous route to the graves of the famous and infamous from Weld County’s Past. French’s grave is a popular feature of the tour where the visitors gather around the grave to be entertained by the guide’s dramatic recitation of the lynching; emphasizing for effect, the prospect of French’s ghost making his presence known. The French family plot is marked by an impressive eight-foot obelisk of carved rose granite—the conspicuous tombstone haunting Linn Grove funerals until the last of the vigilantes and those charged with seeking (but miserably failing) justice for French’s lynching were interred.

Mike Peters, a retired reporter and local celebrity from The Greeley Tribune, must be accorded due credit for keeping the legend of WD French alive. Over his lengthy career, he has published several articles on French. His articles can be found referenced on blogs and local government websites concerning either the legend of French’s ghost or the lynching. Peters also tells ghost tales of WD French during his Halloween presentations of “Haunted Greeley.”

Visitors to the Greeley Museum will find, prominently displayed in a glass case, a portion of the rope cut from French’s neck by the mortician, Captain Thomas G. Macy. The rope was donated by ancestors of Captain Macy who continue to operate the Greeley funeral home started by the family’s patriarch.

A creative remembrance of the lynching was the production of two mock trials of French’s alleged crime; the murder of Harry Woodbury. The play was written and produced by one of the community’s WD French enthusiasts, Shairan Whitman. The mock trials took place in a courtroom of the Weld County Courthouse with the actors dressed in period appropriate costumes. Whitman, using her impressive research to carefully craft the characters’ lines to ensure authenticity. Concluding each mock trial, the jury was asked to deliberate and render a verdict. In both instances WD French was acquitted. These verdicts were of course arrived at without influence of his character or concern for the consequences of their findings.

French’s reputation was that of a “surly and quarrelsome man,” always armed with a pistol holstered on his hip. The gun a constant reminder of the widely-circulated rumor he had shot a man in Missouri, the intended victim saved by the bullet glancing off a button of his coat. Physically he was an imposing man, tall of stature measuring well over six feet. He had strikingly broad shoulders supported by a barrel of a chest tapering into a slender waist.

WD was a rancher who had amassed a sizable fortune in land, livestock, farming and real estate; following a formula his father successfully employed to accumulate wealth and influence in Lancaster, Missouri. Neither his fortune nor his family’s considerable influence could prevent the sequence of events that left the children of WD French orphaned by a masked mob of hangmen.

This is the first post of many which provides the reader eyewitness testimony surrounding the murder of Woodbury and subsequent lynching of WD French.

Ft. Morgan Times December 21, 1888
“Cold Blooded Murder”

…The Coroner had assembled a jury to hear testimony regarding the murder of Harry Woodbury. In keeping with the protocol of the time the hearing was conducted at the home of Harry Woodbury, whose undisturbed body remained in full display of the jurors and witnesses brought forth to give testimony as to the cause of death.

The Coroner’s Inquest
December 15, 1888

Edward P. House, the Weld County Coroner, arrived at the wood framed house in Evans. A crowd had gathered outside the rented residence of Harry Woodbury, many having been summoned to give testimony before the coroner’s inquest—others there to offer support to the widow, Mary Agness Woodbury.

As the coroner entered the gate he was greeted by members of the jury who had assembled at the coroner’s request. As he walked to the front door of the residence, members of the jury fell in line behind him. Together they entered the residence where the body of Harry Woodbury had remained since he was gunned down the previous evening.

The contingent squeezed their way down the hallway that separated the living quarters of WD French from the rented living quarters of the Woodbury family. Two bullet holes in the plaster walls of the hallway were pointed out to members of the jury before continuing to the Woodbury’s rented portion.
The coroner opened the door at the end of the hallway—the same door WD French had reportedly forced his way through—touching off the exchange of gunfire that ended the life of Woodbury. The men entered the dining room—in single file stepping around the victim’s body as they sought a spot in the cramped quarters to settle in for the anticipated testimony.

As each of the six members of the jury found a place to sit, or wall to lean against, their attention was drawn to Woodbury’s lifeless body. The sight of a body brought to a violent end was not a novel sight to juror Charles H. Welch. He had seen plenty of dead bodies at the Little Bighorn.

On June 25th and 26th, 1876 Sergeant Charles H. Welch would play a role in the historic battle of the Little Bighorn. On June 25th, Colonel George Armstrong Custer, commander of the vaunted 7th Cavalry, had split his command into three battalions for the upcoming battle. Three companies had been placed under command of Major Marcus Reno and three companies under Captain Fredrick Benteen, to include Sergeant Charles H. Welch’s Company D.

On that fateful day Custer rode into the valley with five companies while Benteen’s and Reno’s battalions prepared to carry out Custer’s orders for the planned attack.

It would not be long before Reno and Benteen’s commands were under attack from the Indians’ superior forces, cut off from Custer’s doomed command. Welch fought gallantly during the pitched battle as 58 of his fellow troopers were killed and scores of others severely wounded. The endless pleading for water from the wounded and dying drove Benteen to call for volunteers to run a gauntlet of death to retrieve river water. Welch was one of the volunteers who stepped forward to make up the water brigade. Welch and the other volunteers would later be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

At the conclusion of the battle, Welch and the other survivors of Reno’s and Benteen’s commands rode upon the carnage history would memorialize as Custer’s last stand. Roughly 210 bodies, to include that of Colonel George Armstrong Custer, lay scattered across the battlefield adding to the 58 casualties suffered by Reno’s and Benteen’s battalions.

Jury foreman, George H. Young had also witnessed death of such unimaginable magnitude. Few men could claim the level of exposure Young had experienced. He had served with the Union army’s 95th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. In 1862, he had been shot in the left arm during the battle of Richmond, Kentucky. In 1864, he was captured at the battle of Brice’s Crossroads, Mississippi and subsequently imprisoned at the notorious Andersonville Prison. The horrible conditions at Andersonville contributed to the daily death toll of 100 Union soldiers; 3000 soldiers a month.

On April 24, 1865, Young, along with 2,300 other Union soldiers, was released from Andersonville in a negotiated prisoner exchange following General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and President Lincoln’s assassination five days later. At Vicksburg, Mississippi Young and his comrades were herded onto the S. S. Sultana a side-wheel steamboat for transport north along the Mississippi River to Cairo, Illinois.

At 2 a.m. on April 27th seven miles north of Memphis, three boilers of the S. S. Sultana exploded, sending 1,700 of the recently freed Union prisoners to their deaths. Young had once again witnessed death and dying of historic proportions—an event still considered to be the single worst United States maritime disaster.

The corpse was lying face up, a body of medium height, a pair of suspenders attached to pants too large to fit the rail thin frame. A large carmine stain, framed by the straps of the suspenders, expanded outward from a bullet hole that had found its mark just below the breast pocket of the shirt. The bloodless face formed the backdrop to eyes opened—yet not seeing. The eyes were fixed upon the ceiling as if intent on avoiding the stares from the men who had crowded into the dining room.

It was no secret to the men who gathered around the body that life had been a constant struggle for the man and his family.

The young Woodbury, barely able to support himself, learned Mary Agness Conley, the woman he had been courting, was pregnant. Harry took Mary as his wife, a woman thirteen years his senior. They appeared before the Justice of the Peace on September 15, 1883. Harry was now responsible for his expectant wife and her son George from a previous relationship. What Mary lacked in youthfulness, she made up in fertility. Jennie’s birth five months after the wedding was followed by Robert’s in February of 1886 and Charles’ in April of 1888.

Woodbury was a shoe cobbler who occupied a small shop in Evans. The building was a ramshackle wood framed building, lap-sided with wide unpainted planks. A half-story false storefront along the top of the building was plastered with signs advertising “STAR TOBACCO IS THE BEST.” Handbills from theatrical performances long past adorned the sides of the structure. A four-foot slab of rough sawn timber, running perpendicular to the entrance, served as a make-do porch.

He would sit in the doorway of his shop repairing shoes, a cast iron cobbler’s pedestal wedged between his knees. The Spartan condition of the building bemoaned Harry’s inability to provide for a young and expanding family. Intent on finding something which would provide for his family, Harry agreed to a business proposition offered by W. D. French. It was an agreement ultimately ending in his death and now left to the coroner’s jury to determine how that decision ended his life.

Edward P. House asked the assembled jurors to rise and raise their right hands, “You do solemnly swear that you will diligently inquire, and true presentment make, when, how, and by what means the person whose body lies here dead came to his death, according to your knowledge and the evidence given you, so help you God.”
“I do,” answered Christian Wille in unison with the rest of the jurors. Wille’s thick German accent had not been dulled by the immigrant’s 23 years in America. Like Woodbury, Wille was a shoe cobbler, having learned the trade in his native Germany. In 1865, Wille and his wife Louisa immigrated to America. At the age of 29, Wille enlisted in the Union Army serving with the 15th and 24th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiments. In 1868, he mustered out of the Army eventually moving his family to the fledgling town of Evans.

Wille stood at five feet three and one-half inches. His florid complexion belied his chronic illness. He had suffered for years with diabetes, an illness that had gone undiagnosed and would eventually claim his short life.

The coroner, taking on the added responsibility of stenographer, seated himself at the dining room table and arranged his notepad and pencils in preparation for transcribing the witness testimony. The newly elected District Attorney, James E. Garrigues, in anticipation of a criminal trial, had requested the coroner transcribe the testimony of the inquisition.

House had taught himself Morse code at eleven years old which was of such proficiency he was able to land his first job as a railroad station agent at the age of fifteen. Intrigued with the art of communication, House studied stenography adding to a resume that served him well during the Civil War. He obtained employment in Washington D.C. as a clerk in the War Department and moonlighted as a correspondent for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune.

As a correspondent, House was assigned to meet with President Lincoln regularly for briefings—similar to what today would be a member of the White House press corps. House would later comment about the presidential briefings, “These interviews came to be the most pleasant happenings in my young life and a friendship grew up between the great emancipator and me because of them.”

After the war, House’s skills as a stenographer and telegraph operator brought him to Colorado.

On October 15, 1869, House stepped off the stagecoach at the unintended terminus for the Denver Pacific Railway. The Denver Pacific Railroad & Telegraph Company was originally planned to run from Cheyenne to Denver. With the Transcontinental railway bypassing Colorado to the north in Wyoming, Governor Evans and the citizens of Denver recognized Denver and Colorado’s future depended on a link to the transcontinental railway. The Denver Pacific Railroad & Telegraph Company was created to facilitate Denver’s 106-mile link to the railway. By agreement with the Union Pacific, the Denver Pacific was to build the road for the tracks and Union Pacific would lay the iron rails and provide the train and equipment. But construction was halted forty-five miles short of Denver due to financial difficulties that seemed insurmountable. The railroad had been completed to the Cache la Poudre River, a point two miles west of the confluence with the South Platte River.

House had arrived with several men seeking to exploit Denver’s misfortune believing the area would now become the commercial center of Colorado. Among those arriving on the stagecoach with House were General John Pierce, surveyor general of the territory, Joseph E. Bates and Richard Sopris, both eventually becoming mayors of Denver. House had been hired to be the railroad station agent, express agent, and telegraph operator at $100 a month. Accepting the position, he became the first railroad station agent in Colorado. His first official act was to shimmy up a telegraph pole and connect wires to his telegraph equipment. Using a nail keg as a desk he prepared to send the first telegram from Evans.

The men gathered around the makeshift telegraph office and General Pierce declared “Here is to be the town of Evans.” The group of men held an impromptu election filling the necessary positions. General Pierce then had House transmit the following telegram to William M. Clayton, Denver’s mayor;

The Queen City of the Platte to the Queen City of the Plains, greeting: We have this day organized our city of Evans by the election of John Pierce for mayor, Joseph E. Bates, H. Pierce, and Bob Spottswood for alderman; Ed. P. House, town clerk, and treasurer; and Richard Sopris, marshal.
Signed John Pierce, Mayor.

Evans immediately attracted businessmen seeking to turn opportunity into profit at the new hub of activity. Construction commenced on a saloon, general store, and railroad station. The town quickly filled with new inhabitants purchasing lots and setting up tents turning the fledgling town into a tent city with few amenities. Many of the new arrivals were gamblers, “lewd women”, and men of nefarious intent. The town of Evans filed the town plat on November 22, 1869 and shortly thereafter became the county seat. Weld County’s borders encompassed 10,494 square miles, stretching north to the Wyoming border and east to Nebraska. It was an impossible task for the lone lawman of the county, Sheriff Hugh T. Manson, to establish any semblance of law and order.

But the dreams of prosperity and growth were dashed as quickly as they had been envisioned. The laying of rails to Denver renewed in the spring of 1870 when a partnership with the Kansas Pacific Railway provided the needed funding to complete the route. The first train to reach Denver pulled out of the station in Evans on June 22, 1870 taking with it the hopes and anticipated fortunes of the town of Evans.

It was during those nascent and lawless days in Evans that House had been first called upon to employ his skills as a stenographer in a “judicial” proceeding. It was justice meted out by the tenets of frontier justice—Judge Lynch presiding.

John Steele’s ranch house was the only structure near the terminus of the Denver Pacific Railroad. It was his land that was eventually purchased and then platted for the town of Evans. Steele’s makeshift hotel provided rooms and fresh meals for the burgeoning town and became the stage stop for stagecoaches arriving each day at noon from Cheyenne and Denver. On a cold November day in 1869, Joel Carr stepped into the hotel seeking a meal. Told he would have to wait until noon, Carr tossed a half dollar down stating he would return at that time. Carr reportedly occupied his time by visiting the saloon tents. Shortly after noon he returned to Steele’s demanding to be served. With the dining hall already filled he was advised he would have to wait for the next available seat. His angry mood fueled by liquor, he gunned down John Steele in front of the packed room of midday diners. Carr was immediately set upon by a group of men outraged at Carr’s senseless act and anxious to string the stranger up.

Marshall Sopris arrived at the scene. Having been the previous sheriff of Arapahoe County, Sopris demanded justice be done in a lawful and dignified manner. Sopris appointed himself judge and appointed six of the enraged mob as jurors. Edward House was directed by Sopris to record the proceedings. The tribunal was quick and within thirty minutes Carr had been found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.

Carr was escorted to a nearby tree and a knotted rope placed around his neck. Sopris then ordered all present to grab hold of the rope stating all should be responsible for the execution. Carr became the sixth man to be lynched in the territory that year, the first such occurrence in Evans.

After the lynching of Carr, Marshall Sopris called a town meeting in which all “law and order” men were compelled to attend. In a speech before the gathering Sopris declared that lawlessness must cease. To accomplish that end a vigilance committee was organized in which all male citizens over the age of eighteen must join. Those not willing to join would be forced to leave the town.

Word travelled quickly throughout the town of the establishment of the vigilantes. The hanging of Carr underscored the newly constituted committee’s sincerity— “toughs, tinhorns and bagnio dwellers” made a quick exodus. House would later recount for a newspaper reporter, “But one character, a gambler, gave it out cold that he was not going to join the vigilantes. Neither would he leave town. This was a flagrant and unwarrantable breach of good manners; it was not good form; and it was looked upon as showing rank contempt for the public court. So, they got themselves together with a pot of tar and a lot of feathers and an application of the mixture on the bare hide of the gambler convinced him that he was wrong in his defiance and he left the town without waiting for a bath or a leave taking with friends.”

House had left Evans shortly after to move to the newly formed temperance settlement of Union Colony—a move which released him from his obligation to the vigilante committee.

Nineteen years had passed since House recorded Carr’s proceedings. Putting pencil to paper he called the first witness in the Harry Woodbury inquest.

GEORGE BRIGGS

George C. Briggs was proprietor of Union Mercantile Company. A store that proudly offered, “Gent’s furnishing goods, groceries, Queensware, glassware, furniture and also fresh and salt meats—hides, grain and produce taken in exchange for merchandise.” At 29 years old, he had already earned the respect of the town’s people evidenced by his recent election as the Mayor; a position he would hold for four consecutive terms. Briggs arrived in Evans in 1880 with plenty of retail experience gained from working in his father’s general store in Pennsylvania. H.C. Sherman, the previous owner of the Union Mercantile Company, had hired the young man, appreciating his business acumen. It proved fortuitous for the young Briggs who eventually convinced Sherman to sell him the general store.

Now, the 29-year-old proprietor found himself a key witness to a crime that would become an enduring event weaved into the historical fabric of Weld County.

Briggs raised his right hand, facing the coroner who administered the oath. With an “I do,” Briggs provided a firsthand account of the feud that precipitated the killing of Harry Woodbury and Brigg’s actions upon learning of the shooting.

“Last night about ten o’clock, Will Matlock and Ella Ware came after me to go to Mr. Woodbury’s house, saying that Mr. Woodbury had been shot. I came down with them and on entering the house met Mrs. Woodbury at the front door, and she said Harry was shot.”

“I proceeded through the hall into the living room and found the body of Harry Woodbury lying on the floor just as he is now.”

Looking down at the body, Briggs continued, “I don’t think he has been moved—his feet towards the hall door and his hands by his side, lying upon his back. I spoke to him but he did not answer. I felt of his pulse, but there was none perceptible, and I discovered that he was dead.”

“I sent Ward and Matlock after the sheriff and remained in the house with several others who had come in.”
Briggs then testified about the events that led up to the deadly confrontation.
“I have known the deceased for about eight years. He has been in partnership with W. D. French for a year past in ranching in the Beebe Draw. About six weeks ago deceased moved into town and moved into this house, which belongs to French. Deceased rented it till next spring.”

“They had made a settlement of the partnership affairs and there was some 600 pounds of flour in the house which the deceased claimed to be his. French also claimed it and took it away to the ranch.”
“Deceased came to me, as the acting Justice of the Peace, and replevined the flour. I then ordered the flour to be brought back to Evans and placed it in charge of the constable until after the suit.”

“The replevin suit was taken before L. B. Willard after French had successfully moved for a change of venue. Judge Willard dismissed the case having found the plaintiff, Woodbury, had failed to establish sufficient cause.”

“Woodbury filed yet another suit, this time before Justice Tregoning, and the flour was once again replevined and left in my charge as custodian.”

Briggs continued, “French’s attorney was successful in his motion for change of venue and the new suit was scheduled to be tried before Judge L. B. Willard on the 13th of December. French’s having failed to appear resulted in Judge Willard finding in favor of the deceased by default. I received notice to that effect and deceased came and got the flour and brought it to the house.”

Briggs stated, “French came into Evans about four o’clock yesterday afternoon in company with John Samples and John Hogan and his son Juny French. In about half an hour, French and these parties came to my store and made some purchases and I asked French why he didn’t attend that trial. He said, ‘what trial?’ That he didn’t know anything about any trial.”

Briggs recalled how, at that moment, French reached in his pocket and pulled out several pieces of mail he had seemingly just retrieved from the post office. Sorting through the stack of mail French found a letter from his attorney, H.M. Look. He opened the sealed envelope and silently read the notification of the trial scheduled for December13th—yesterday!

French handed the letter to Samples and barked with disdain, “I want you to see that.” Samples read the letter, nodded his head in understanding, and handed it back to French.

French then passed the letter to Briggs, seeking further confirmation that he had just then received notice of the trial. Briggs, after reading the letter, explained to French that the judge had awarded the flour to Woodbury by default.

Briggs testified, “I told French that deceased had got the flour and taken it away. Then French said, ‘I will get that flour tonight if you don’t tell Woodbury.’ Then they left the store and went to Greeley and returned an hour and a half later. French came into the store again and said he was going to appeal the case.”
Briggs said, “Woodbury, the deceased, came in the store at the time and French passed him going out, and I think said, ‘How do?’ to him,” Briggs stated it was about 7 o’clock when French had left the store with his son and cowhands.

Briggs continued, “I did not see French again until I started up to the house—about 10 o’clock. I then saw him and three others in a wagon driving up from Dr. Leavenworth’s office towards this house. The wagon stopped in front of this house about a minute and then went on towards the ranch.”

“Then I came up and went into the house. This was about fifteen or twenty minutes after the shooting. There was no person in the house when I entered. Concluding his testimony Briggs stated, “There were several parties at the front gate and in the road when I came to the house; Ed Matlock, Will Beebush, Al Leavenworth and Pete Hughes, who followed me in.”

Up next… Part II, Harry Woodbury’s widow testifies!

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