Weld County's Past

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

Part IX: Testimony at WD French Coroner’s Inquest

The coroner, once satisfied the inquest could begin, summoned the first witness.

Bertie Wolaver was the first to present his testimony. He recalled how at about 2:30 a.m. two men came to his house and asked that he go to the jail, so the prisoners did not escape. As he arrived at the jail, he saw about twenty men, “All masked with cloth over their faces, with eyeholes. The front iron door had been torn off. It was middling dark, no light in or about the jail. I noticed a crowd of about fifty or sixty men out by the tree on the corner.”

Bertie Wolaver described the very moment the mob’s sentence of French was carried out, “…stood by the front door of the jail; while there heard a voice near the tree say, ‘Pull him up.’ Shortly after, the crowd gathered up the tools from outside the jail, such as crowbars, chisels, and sledge hammers. There was a piece of railroad iron, about six feet long, that they left in the jail.

“They brought Father back a little after three. The crowd was still outside the jail. They had forced me into the corner between the brick part and stone work on the south side. Father came from down the alley from the west. He was accompanied by two masked men, both of them taller and larger than he. They then took Father and me and put us in the jail office.”

“Father remarked after a little that it was pretty cold. He didn’t know me and thought I was guarding him; it was very dark in the jail.”
“Did you know who he was?” asked the coroner.

“I knew him. We went to the window and he recognized me. We went to the door, found the crowd had disappeared; I then cut him loose.”

Bertie testified about the moment he and Luther first discovered French had been lynched, “After Luther came down, and Father went home at about five o’clock. Luther and I stayed at the jail until daylight; when we stepped to the door and saw French hanging there.”

The coroner asked if he had recognized any of the men involved.
“Don’t know any of the parties I saw in the crowd that night.”

The Coroner thanked Bertie for his testimony and advised him he was free to go. The young Wolaver hurried from the room, anxious to put distance between him and the dead body. He stopped briefly in the parlor where his father waited to testify. The father could sense his son’s uneasiness and fondly gave him a reassuring pat on the back. Bertie bounded out the door; silently vowing never to return to the creepy place.

But in a little over a year Bertie Wolaver would return to Macy’s Mortuary. While a student at the Greeley Business College, Bertie became sick with pneumonia. Despite medical treatment over the course of a month his young life ended on February 17, 1890.

Sheriff Wolaver described for the jury having been awakened by the mob and his attempt to get to the jail, only to be captured and tied up. His recollection of the night’s events held the jury’s attention. As his testimony continued it turned to what had transpired once the mob had gained entry to the jail.

“About ten or fifteen minutes after the pounding ceased one of my guards started down toward the jail, and met a man coming up; he came back and told my guards, ‘It’s all right, they’ve got him.’ Then they took the cloth from over my head and the handkerchief in my mouth again and brought me to the jail.”

The sheriff said he and his guards were met at the jail by the Colonel who ordered him to, “Go inside and watch your jail.”

The sheriff walked past the formerly impenetrable iron door, now lying atop the brick and mortar that had been stripped away. He entered the dark confines of the jail, welcoming the opportunity to warm up. But the jail was cold—made even colder by the invading winter air that had accompanied the vigilantes across the breached threshold.

“I went into the bedroom of the jail, with my hands still tied and still gagged; found my son Bert in the same room, who said the crowd had called for him to come over and watch the prisoners. Bertie untied the handkerchief, released my hands, and I turned on the light and sent Bertie for Luther. In about half an hour, he came, got some coal and we warmed up.”

The Sheriff said, “I then went home, think it was about five o’clock; went to bed again, and slept until breakfast was ready—a little before seven o’clock. Luther and Bertie remained at the jail until breakfast was ready. When they came over to breakfast they told me French was hanging on a tree near the corner. I came out and saw him hanging there surrounded by quite a number of citizens.”
Coroner House had a single question for the sheriff “You had no suspicion of their coming last night?”

The tenor of the coroner’s question, did not escape the sheriff. “No sir, the thing had died down, so I had no idea they would come. The jail is just in the condition it was left by the crowd.” His response attempted to deflect suspicion generated by his suspending jail security—on the very night of the lynching. The fimble-famble attempt to use the damage to the jail as proof of his ignorance of any risk to French was less than convincing. The damage to the jail was only proof of his and the mob’s inability to persuade Luther to surrender the jail keys.

Jailer Samuel O. Luther was called before the jury. Luther, noticeably bothered by the previous night’s intermittent sleep, settled in to the chair in close proximity to the body of French.

The Coroner asked Luther to tell the jury of the events leading up to the lynching of W. D. French.

Luther testified about the mob showing up at his house demanding the keys to the jail, which he had not provided. He detailed how he had been drawn from his bed on two separate occasions during the mob’s attempt to get the keys, the second time in the company of Sheriff Wolaver.

Luther continued, recounting the third time his futile attempt at sleep had been interrupted, “At four o’clock Bert Wolaver came to my house and asked me to get up. I asked him if he was alone. He said yes, I got up and let him in. Then he said, ‘Father wants you to come down and look after the prisoners.’ I dressed myself and went down to the jail, found it broken open and in charge of the sheriff.”

“Bert told me they had taken French out. We sat in jail from that time until seven o’clock with Bertie. About 6:30, Bertie and I went over to the sheriff’s home and had some coffee. The sheriff was at home then. I had no notice or intimation that this thing was to occur.”

John Samples, along with John Hogan, had been released from jail that morning when their attorneys, James W. McCreery and Harry N. Haynes had hastily sought a hearing before Judge Willard. Having presided over the testimony given during the preliminary hearing, Judge Willard quickly ruled there was insufficient evidence to prove Samples and Hogan were culpable in the murder of Harry Woodbury and ordered their release.

Shaken by the events, Samples and Hogan wanted nothing more than to distance themselves from their experience—and Greeley, as rapidly as possible. But their planned departure was interrupted by the Coroner’s demand they appear before the inquest.

Accompanied by their attorneys, the two men reluctantly testified, the sight of their friend before them evoking anger and disgust. Concealing any discernible outrage out of fear of retaliation, the two men testified about being awakened at two o’clock by loud pounding outside the jail. The pounding continued for forty-five minutes while the mob of masked men worked feverishly at breaking an entrance to the jail.

The coroner’s question about their recognizing any of the masked men had the same effect as the menacing rattle of a diamondback. Neither man was able, or perhaps more likely, unwilling to identify any of the members of the mob. The body of their boss displayed before them, accentuating the danger of such folly.

Their testimony was brief and guarded brought about by a distrust of the assembled jurors—pulled from the inhabitants of the very county that spawned the masked mob responsible for the terror they had endured. Excused from the inquisition, the two bitter cowboys wanted nothing more than to return to the rangelands of the Lost Creek Cattle Pool—where threats from coiled “snakes” were easily dealt with by a well-aimed shot from a revolver.

The concluding witness, Captain Macy, was asked to present what he had witnessed in the early morning hours. He stated, “About 3 o’clock this morning I was awakened by the noise of wagons near the house. I got out of bed and looked outside. I saw several wagons with several persons in each, moving away. By the noise it sounded as if they were going southward toward Evans. Other wagons followed soon afterward going in the same direction.

At the conclusion of the testimony Edward P. House published the verdict of the Coroner’s Inquest.

As no further facts were obtainable, the jury after due deliberation gave the following verdict:
Greeley, Dec. 29, 1888, An inquisition holden at Greeley, in Weld County, on the 29th day of December, A.D. 1888, before Edward D. House, coroner of said county, upon the dead body of WD French, lying there dead, by the jurors whose names are hereunto subscribed; the said jurors, upon their oaths so say that the said WD French came to this death about three o’clock this morning by being hanged to a tree near the jail; that said hanging was done by parties to the jurors unknown, and that said act was felonious.

J. Max Clark, foreman; A. M. Nixon, John F. Iron, H. P. Heath, J. E. Billings, W. E. Daniels, jurors.

Up Next: An examination of Sheriff Wolaver’s testimony; Was he complicit?

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1 Comment

  1. Trena Thurman March 13, 2018

    Excellent story! Harry Woodbury is my Great Great Great Grandfather. I’m so happy nobody has forgotten him!

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