Weld County's Past

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

Part VI: Hanged by a Weld County lynch mob!

W. D. French and his two accused accomplices, John Sample and John Hogan, had been jolted awake by the pounding of heavy iron against the stone and steel structure of the jail.

The prisoners were housed in a cage manufactured by the Pauley Jail Building Company of St. Louis, Missouri. The cage was built with doubled ribbed bars made from “chilled” steel, advertised as “tool resistant.” The company’s claims would be tested in Greeley this night, a man’s life hanging in the balance.

John McCormick and John Tedrow, housed in a separate cage, had also awakened to the disturbance; a death knell. They were literally a captive audience, secure in the knowledge their misdemeanor crimes of theft and threats would be of little interest to the mob. James Morgan and Gottlieb Miller, destined to be known as prisoners 951 and 952 at the Colorado Territorial Prison, were housed in the same cage—less certain of the lynch mob’s willingness to overlook their felonious crimes.

A reporter for the State Herald, having found a member of the lynch mob willing to describe the events of the night, published a firsthand account in the January 4, 1889 edition.

The mob then began a vigorous and systematic attack upon the front entrance to the building. Sledges and cold chisels were produced and strong and willing hands wielded them effectively. The jail was one of the most substantial brick and stone structures in the West of this character, and is provided with the well-known Pauley chilled steel cages. Three heavy iron and one wooden door had to be forced before the cages could be reached. This occupied about an hour’s time, when the corridor surrounding the cages was finally gained. There were still two heavy steel doors to pass.

At this point, French appeared to realize for the first time that the effort was certain to prove successful and alternately begged piteously for his life and called upon Sheriff Wolaver to protect him. There was no pity in the grim visages of the sturdy workers, however, and the only response he received was the blows of hammers and the rattling of chisels. The first door of the cage swung open and now only the cell door in which he was confined separated him from the hands of the avengers. Slowly but surely the fastenings yielded and wilder and more fearful became the murderer’s terror. Shrieks and prayers and cries for mercy filled the building, but still the work went on. The moment the door gave way scores of hands grasped the trembling wretch and he was rapidly dragged outside the building. Here he braced himself to meet the ordeal and walked to his doom like a man.

John Samples would later describe those last moments; “French gathered a pocket book and some letters and handed them to me and asked that I give them to his lawyer. As entry was made French turned and then quietly walked from the cage with his executioners. I was compelled to place the rope about the neck of French, yet the thought of it so terrible; I could not say if it truly happened.”

With his arms restrained, French was quickly led at the end of a rope out the door—immediately surrounded by dozens of men anxious to exact a just punishment they felt the courts and lawyers were not willing to carry out.
French was pulled 40 paces east of the jail passing the first three of four trees lining the path from the jail to the court house, each equally sufficient for a hanging but the fourth being optimal for sending the message to the court—justice would not be denied.

The tree had upper branches that reached upward, able to touch the eaves of the courthouse; the very courthouse that had been packed the previous day with spectators, perhaps many of them in attendance this night. At the conclusion of the prior day’s testimony, many felt certain French would be set free and escape punishment for his heinous crime, instigating the call for “Judge Lynch.” French’s hands were tightly bound behind his back. Two men bound his legs; one course above the knees and a second course cinching his ankles. The trailing end of the noose was tossed over an upper limb—falling into the outstretched hands of the willing.

Without delay the order was given, those tending the rope heaved in unison—ending the life of WD French. Suspended, “…between heaven and earth as deserving neither.” The Howitzer January 8th, 1889.

The rope was wrapped around a nearby electric pole, completing the vigilantes’ final act—the flaunting of their deed in the shadow of the very institution they felt had forsaken them. It would be a shocking display to greet the awakening town.

On January 4, 1889, the sentiments of the mob were expressed by The Howitzer, one of two weekly Greeley newspapers.

                                           HUNG AT LAST

that a strong feeling existed that justice would not be done by the lawyers who so generally manage the courts and juries. Such views and feelings were prominent everywhere.

Now, then, why has it come to pass that our laws and lawyers are held in such contempt by the mass of the people? What has induced such an utter want of confidence in these manufacturers and dispensers of government?
Had there been a feeling in the community that justice would be done in this case, there would have been no hanging in such a summary and illegal manner, or we are very greatly mistaken; and if this a correct view, who is most to blame for the violence done?

We have heard the remark has been made that the hanging of French is a very severe stigma—a terrible blot upon the character of Greeley and its neighborhood. We think the opinion is correct, but not in the sense designed by its promulgator. It is a stigma upon any town to be governed and controlled by laws and lawyers to the utter destruction of all hope for the reign of justice and equal rights. Let the stigma rest where it rightfully belongs and the people of Greeley and of Evans too, will be at least partially exonerated.

Up Next: American Newspapers react to the lynching!

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