December 29, 1888
Near one o’clock, Saturday morning, Sheriff Jacob Wolaver awoke to the ringing of his doorbell. Crawling out of his bed he made his way to the door in his night shirt—woefully inadequate this cold December night. His beefy hand pulled back the lace curtain covering the door’s window. Seeing three masked men standing on his stoop, a few others in close proximity he asks, “Who’s there?”
One of the late-night callers inquired if he is the sheriff of Weld County. Wolaver, having yet to open the door, answered that he was.
“I demand of you the jail keys! There are one hundred armed men here, and we demand the body of French and we are going to have him!”
“You can’t have my keys gentlemen. I haven’t got them here anyway. Those keys won’t do you any good as there’s a combination lock on the cage, and I don’t know it. You must know it—and get the jailer’s keys before you can get in.”
The sheriff’s accommodating and polite response would have seemed appropriate for the consummate politician addressing constituents, but this mob had a conspicuous murderous intent.
“Where does the jailer live?”
Without hesitation, the sheriff described the house on Tenth Street, just a few blocks east. With the information they needed, they ordered the sheriff to stay in his house and a detachment of men headed off to find the jailer’s house.
Having seen a portion of the mob leave, the sheriff went to the kitchen windows to size up the number left behind. He counted a dozen men about his property, their identities concealed by cloth hoods. The effects of being awakened from a deep sleep having been dispatched by the urgency to act, he went to his bedroom and quickly dressed. Not fully sure of a plan but knowing the danger that awaited him, he grabbed his pistol and loaded it. Having the loaded gun in his hands provided a measure of confidence.
Two weeks prior, he had been notified of the murder of Harry Woodbury in Evans. He had marshaled a posse and rode to W. D. French’s Beebe Draw ranch and arrested French and his “gang” for the murder of Woodbury. Wilbur Maynard French, the 12-year-old son of W. D., had also been drug out of the ranch house and arrested along with the three men. Juny, as the boy was called, was released once the frenzied exuberance of the posse was overcome by reason.
Concealing his pistol, the sheriff went out onto the porch, the sounds of men destroying the jail reverberating through the winter’s night air. The demolition already in progress suggested the mob’s late-night visit to the sheriff’s home was a recently arrived at decision. The mob, seeking a more expeditious means to their intended victim, had decided to get the keys from the sheriff. While men continued stripping away the brick and mortar, several had proceeded to Sheriff Wolaver’s house.
The men who greeted the sheriff as he stepped out on to the porch immediately closed ranks prepared to prevent the sheriff from interfering with their mission.
The sheriff attempted to reason with the vigilantes, his pleas turning into a monotonous monologue. The masked men became disinterested and began to let their guard down, no longer concerned by the sheriff’s presence.
A large man wearing a cap and short jacket was the obvious leader—the other men referred to him as “Colonel.” The man, who spoke with a slight Irish brogue, which the sheriff believed to be feigned, grew tired of the sheriff’s appeals, “You might as well go in the house. We mean business and mean you no harm.”
Suddenly, the overweight sheriff bolted from the porch, running past the flat-footed intruders—racing toward the jail. He pulled the pistol from its place of concealment, filling his hand with the only means available to thwart the destruction of the jail and planned lynching of French.
Within a short distance the lumbering sheriff was overtaken by his pursuers. Several hands grabbed at him, restraining his arms and knocking the pistol to the ground. The sheriff’s legs and hands were quickly bound with rope. A cloth was pulled down over his head and a handkerchief, retrieved from his pocket, was stuffed into his mouth.
Several of the pursuers lifted the sheriff and carried him two blocks to the west and set him down near a barn. Helpless, the sheriff could do nothing but listen to the sounds of the demolition of his jail.
Samuel O. Luther, the jailer of the Weld County jail, was awakened by a rap at his door. Luther would later testify the knock occurred just as the clock struck two.
Making his way to the door he heard an unfamiliar voice from just outside the door.
“Hello, who’s there?” answered Luther.
“We are one hundred determined men and we want the keys of the jail.”
Luther yelled back, “You can’t have them.”
One of the “determined” men yelled back, “Is that your answer?”
“Yes!” came the reply.
“We don’t want to destroy the jail, and you had better give us the keys!” yelled a man in an attempt to convince the stubborn jailer.
Not swayed, Luther again refused to give up the keys.
The unexpected stalemate had befuddled the late-night visitors. Stymied, they decided to return to the Colonel for guidance. Luther was ordered to stay in his house and two of the men scurried off in search of their leader.
Luther pulled the curtain back and saw that two or three men had remained to ensure he complied with the order. He was a man who possessed nerves of steel forged on the battlefields of Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. He had fought many battles while serving with the First Rhode Island Cavalry from December 14, 1861 to the end of the war. The resulting battle wounds had exacted a heavy toll. Excruciating pain coursed through his body from which Luther sought relief as he returned to bed—sleep offering a fitful respite from the pain.
Luther was not a well man; in 1887, his health failing him, the 47-year-old veteran had been forced to sell his 360-acre ranch along the St. Vrain Creek. No longer able to meet the physical demands of ranching, he and his expectant wife, Martha, packed up and moved their brood of six children, ranging in age from 2 to 16 years, to Greeley. It was a move made possible by his appointment as jailer and court house janitor. His appointment was likely owing to his influence with members of the county commissioners.
The discouraged men arrived back at the barn where the Colonel and others stood watch over the sheriff. The men recounted the difficulties they had just been through at the jailer’s residence. Sheriff Wolaver, overhearing the messengers, offered to reason with the jailer. The Colonel, unable to come up with any other option, agreed to give the sheriff a chance.
The Colonel ordered the rope removed from around the sheriff’s legs. Wolaver was assisted to his feet and escorted by six men, two in front, two to the rear, and one at each of his arms as they made their way to Luther’s house.
Luther once again was drawn from his bed by a knock at the door and a voice yelling, “Sam, get up!”
“Who’s there?” asked Luther as he arrived once again at the front door.
“It’s me.” answered the sheriff.
“Is that you Jake?”
“Yes. I want you to come down and open the jail.”
Luther protested, “I don’t want to.”
“You better give up the keys and the combination as it will save lots of property.”
Luther answered from behind the door, “I cannot give up the keys as I haven’t them; they are in the vault of the Treasurer’s office.”
Wolaver turned to the Colonel, “He can’t get the keys then.”
Unconvinced, the Colonel hollered back at the jailer, “Will you say on your honor as a man that they are in the vault?”
“No!” answered the jailer apparently abandoning his attempt at deceiving the mob lest it jeopardize his good word.
“Then will you give up the keys?”
Luther simply responded, “No sir, I will not.”
The mob’s continued attempts to persuade Luther were met with further refusals. The lynch mob had been stalemated by the recalcitrant jailer. Luther was a man of integrity and was not about to have any part in a lynching, regardless of the mob and sheriff’s demands. Luther’s responses were in stark contrast to the accommodating Sheriff Wolaver. As the vigilante’s voices fell silent in resignation, Luther looked out the window to see the sheriff in the company of a dozen or so men departing en masse.
Once again Luther returned to his bed his meager pay as jailer, supplemented by a paltry Civil War pension of thirteen dollars, hardly a fitting compensation for such a dedicated servant. As he drifted toward sleep he escaped to the mines of Central City, Blackhawk, and Leadville in search of the treasure that had eluded him as a young man.
An hour had passed since Herbert “Bertie” Wolaver had heard his father leave the house. His sleep was once again disturbed by the incessant sounds coming from the jail. Bertie crawled from beneath his covers and went to the kitchen door. Looking out the window he saw a man posted just outside. Bertie opened the door to inquire.
“The sheriff is alright, you needn’t worry.” he was told.
Bertie, unmoved by the words of reassurance from a masked man, closed the door muffling the relentless pounding that was responsible for the interruption of his sleep and a concern for his father.
The Colonel and his band of men escorted Sheriff Wolaver back to the barn after the failed attempt to obtain the keys from Luther. Four men were assigned to guard Wolaver who was once again bound and laid down on the frozen ground. The Colonel and the rest of the men ran toward the jail.
The persistent sounds of the dismantling of the jail were accompanied by hollering from the terrified men incarcerated within the cages of the jail. The sheriff noted nothing was being said by the men engaged in getting to their intended victim, just the incessant cacophony of determination to breach the Weld County jail.
After a little over an hour, it ended. The tools were silenced and the pleadings from within the jail were no longer heard. For the next fifteen minutes, the sheriff laid on the cold ground straining to translate the silence.