WD French Inquest
Word of WD French hanging from the old cottonwood quickly reached the ears of Edward P. House, the Weld County Coroner. Upon his arrival at the morbid scene, he found a crowd of men and boys gathered about the makeshift gallows—the presence of women understandably absent. The Coroner dispatched several of the onlookers to fetch members of the coroner’s jury.
This was not the coroner’s first experience with a lynching; indeed in 1869 House’s hands had joined other willing hands in lynching a man in Evans. Immediately after, he had taken an oath to be a part of the Evans vigilante committee or face banishment from the community. Ironically, the man charged by state statute to investigate the lynching of WD French was himself a former member of a vigilante committee, his hands stained from the very lawlessness he was now obligated under his oath to diligently examine by way of inquisition.
House’s mind wondered back to that day in 1869; the doomed man, a hangman’s noose loosely about his neck asked him for a chaw from his plug tobacco which House obliged. “Will you promise to write my family back east?” asked the condemned man. House nodded in affirmation then took his place among the vigilantes along the trailing end of the rope.
Standing beneath the suspended French, House tried to recall; had he followed up on writing the letter? He quickly dismissed the mental exercise; better to occupy his mind otherwise—preferring not to dwell on such unpleasant thoughts.
As the coroner waited to impanel his jury, local photographer B. F. Marsh busied himself setting up the tripod to his format camera. Positioning the camera to the east of the hanging tree, Marsh motioned and exhorted the crowd to part so the damage to the jail could provide the backdrop. Marsh crawled under the dark hood with the shutter cable clinched in his left hand. With his right hand, he drew the bellows back and forth until satisfied the inverted image on the ground glass plate was in sharp focus. With a plunge of the shutter cable, Marsh captured the indelible image.
The albumen silver photographs were populated by the faces that had gathered that morning. Most were turned toward the camera, faces whose identities failed to survive the life of the photograph—except for two conspicuous individuals. A star pinned to the breast of a heavy wool coat immediately catches a discerning eye. Could it be the man wearing the badge is Sheriff Wolaver?
The man whose coat is adorned with the badge has a rotund face sporting an impressive bushy mustache. A ten-gallon hat perched high atop his head. A boy stands abreast of the man’s left shoulder—close enough to imply familiarity. His youthfulness made more prominent by the cap he wears in the photograph. An examination of a known state archival photograph of Jacob Wolaver, taken while serving as a Colorado State Representative in later years, confirms the man with the badge is indeed Sheriff Wolaver. There can be little doubt the boy standing next to him is his son, Herbert “Bertie” Wolaver who shared a significant role in the event captured in Marsh’s photograph.
The sepia toned photograph was produced into cabinet cards made of albumen paper affixed to card stock measuring four by five inches, the words B.F. Marsh Greeley, Colorado printed along the border. The enterprising photographer would offer his work to the public for one dollar.
In the past, an enlarged reproduction of that photograph hung in the Weld County court house until a presiding chief judge, finding it distasteful, had it removed.
Not so for the current Weld County District Attorney, Michael Rourke. Visitors to the first-floor conference room of District Attorney’s Office are greeted by the framed photograph of the lynching. The photograph is tacked to a wall within yards of the very ground previously occupied by the hanging tree.
Having been summoned to the scene, the undertaker, Captain Thomas G. Macy arrived with his buckboard. The old sea Captain maneuvered the buckboard directly alongside the tree reining in his horse as the dangling feet of the lifeless body centered over the bed of the wagon. The rope was untied from the electric pole and French was lowered into the wagon. A knife was used to cut the trailing end of the rope, leaving a stub dangling from the hangman’s noose still tightly cinched around French’s neck.
With the body aboard, Captain Macy gave his horse a start to begin the short trip to the mortuary in the 700 block of 8th Street followed by a procession of jury members and witnesses.
Captain Macy guided the buckboard to the front of his business. “TG Macy Undertaker” read the hand painted sign greeting those seeking the inevitable services of the mortician. Several men grabbed onto the body as it was slid and then lifted from the wagon. Following the undertaker into the mortuary the bearers placed the body onto the wooden cooling table that Macy then wheeled into the largest room to accommodate the proceedings.
The coroner’s jury seated themselves in the hastily arranged row of chairs. One by one the witnesses provided their testimony in accordance with state statutes; “upon the body of WD French, lying there dead.”
Max Clark was the foreman of the jury. One of Greeley’s pioneers, he was a highly-respected member of the community, wholly qualified to ensure such lawlessness would not go unpunished. But Clark, like the coroner, was no stranger to vigilante justice. In his book “Colonial Days,” published in 1902, Clark revealed he too had been a willing participant of a vigilante committee prior to the lynching of WD French.
To protect the interests of the early settlers along the Platte River, below Denver, at the time, we had perfected an organization styled and known as a “Claim League.” An outsider had jumped a claim belonging to one of our members, and, with the redoubtable Mr. Mallory in command of our forces as “marshal,” we proceeded in total disregard of the laws in such cases made and provided, to eject the intruder from the disputed premises. We did more; we piled the gentleman’s wardrobe and bed clothes just outside his door, and, setting fire to his domicile, gave him timely warning that if he again visited the place, or so much as set his foot over the line of the land, we would hang him to the nearest cottonwood on the river.
Looking at the lifeless form, Clark thought to himself, he had last seen French in August. Clark a dealer in “Agricultural Implements and Machinery,” recalled French coming into the store to purchase a mower casting on credit. Clark would wait until May 2, of the following year to receive the one dollar owed for the casting when a check was issued from the W.D. French estate.
Like so many of Weld County’s prominent male citizens, Clark was a member of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), US Grant Post No. 13, in Greeley. His service with the First Wisconsin Cavalry of the Union Army satisfied the fraternal organization’s strict eligibility requirement of being a “veteran of the late unpleasantness.” Holding an elected local or state office generally required membership in G.A.R., or at the very least, the lodge’s coveted endorsement.
Jury members John F. Iron and A.M. Nixon were also members of US Grant Post No. 13, Iron having served with the Union Army’s 36th Massachusetts and Nixon with the 8th Indiana. It seemed no coincidence half the members of the jury were associated with G.A.R.
Iron was in partnership with Captain Macy, his skills as a cabinet maker put to use in building the necessary caskets for the mortuary. Indeed, at the end of the inquest Iron set to work crafting the wooden casket for French’s burial.
The coroner, once satisfied the inquest could begin, summoned the first witness, Bertie Wolaver.