New book chronicles infamous Colorado criminals, including those on the Western Slope
Notable outlaws in Northwest Colorado history:
“Bad Bob” Meldrum:
• Born in 1866, date of death unknown.
• While serving as marshal of the Baggs, Wyo., community in 1912, Meldrum fatally shot area cowboy Chick Bowen. Meldrum was later imprisoned for the killing.
• Meldrum disappeared in 1926 after a fire destroyed his saddle shop near Saratoga, Wyo. His fate is unknown.
“Kid” Pierce, George Law, Jim Shirley:
• The trio attempted to rob the Bank of Meeker in 1896, but they were foiled when Meeker residents surrounded the bank with guns in hand and shot the would-be robbers.
• The White River Museum in Meeker includes a Meeker Hotel guest register Shirley signed before the attempted robbery.
Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Longabaugh, aka Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:
• The gang occasionally sought refuge in the Browns Park area in Northwest Colorado.
• The Wild Bunch’s crimes included robbing two trains in the same year with the same clerk, E. C. Woodcock, a witness to both.
• Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were reportedly shot and killed in Bolivia, but are rumored to have survived. Butch’s sister, Lula Parker Betenson, believed Sundance died in 1957 and was buried in Casper, Wyo.
Imagine a place bound by isolation, where an unforgiving landscape surrounds you at all points of the compass, and sometimes the only thing between you and death is how fast you can draw your gun.
Imagine that, and you’ve got a picture of what life may have been like in the Old West that Ron Franscell chronicles in “The Crime Buff’s Guide to the Outlaw Rockies,” a collection of historical vignettes published this year by Globe Pequot Press documenting a darker, seamier side of Colorado and Wyoming history.
Among the serial killers, vigilante lawmen and other shady characters included in the 230-page book are names familiar to area history buffs.
They include “Bad Bob” Meldrum, “Kid” Pierce, and Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Longabaugh — more commonly known as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, respectively.
“I think that in Northwest Colorado in particular, you have a very rich outlaw history, and part of that is because it’s just remote enough for bad guys to feel safe,” said Franscell, who has authored eight books and lives in San Antonio.
A former senior writer for The Denver Post, Franscell has long been interested in true crime stories.
A previous book, “The Darkest Night,” tells the story of a crime that shook his hometown of Casper, Wyo., and he plans to put out another book about Washington, D.C., in a similar format to “Outlaw Rockies.”
“In crime and war both, we see humans in their most vulnerable, we see humans at their best, and we see humans at their worst,” Franscell said. “We see heroes, we see terrible, terrible villains.”
“Bad Bob” Meldrum doesn’t fit neatly into any of those categories. He had stints as a Pinkerton agent, marshal, union strikebreaker and range detective, but he was a better outlaw than keeper of the peace, according to “Outlaw Rockies.”
“He was said to be more ruthless than Tom Horn and to have killed more people,” Franscell wrote.
Among the body count was Chick Bowen, an area cowboy whom Meldrum shot and killed while serving as marshal in the Baggs, Wyo., area, according to information provided by the Museum of Northwest Colorado. He was later imprisoned for the crime.
But the most compelling part of Meldrum’s history is what historians don’t know about him. Meldrum disappeared in 1926 after a fire destroyed his saddle shop near Saratoga, Wyo. His fate is unknown.
George Law, Jim Shirley and Pierce, three former members of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch, also made a mark in Northwest Colorado when they attempted to rob the Bank of Meeker in 1896.
But, the trio made a fatal mistake — they didn’t count on local townspeople fighting back.
Law fired two warning shots during the heist, which alerted Meeker residents, “who quickly surrounded the bank with their own guns,” Franscell writes. “The robbers emerged from the bank with some human shields, but the frightened hostages ran, and the robbers were quickly mowed down.”
Not everyone associated with the area’s outlaw history was on the wrong side of the law.
In early 1900s Meeker, Aggie Watkins Henry was thrust into the spotlight when she became a key witness in the murder trial of Henry Goodell. The reason: She saw Goodell wearing a shirt belonging to Gil Wesson, the man he was accused of murdering.
“She had mended the shirt just before Wesson’s death with a small patch of material from one of her old dresses — which she still owned,” according to the book.
Goodell was convicted but escaped while en route to prison, and no one knows what happened to him, Franscell writes.
And then, there are outlaws more notorious than them all — Butch and Sundance.
Despite their reputations as seasoned and dangerous criminals, locals in the area tolerated their presence provided they minded their manners, Franscell said.
The two outlaws eventually joined Elvis, John Wilkes Booth, JFK and others who, according to myth, continued to live after their reported deaths.
The two men “exist in our American outlaw mythosphere as something more than men, yet something less than immortals, like affable ghosts who can never be freed from our attics,” Franscell writes.
And, he doesn’t expect their allure to wear off anytime soon.
“I think we’ll still be talking about these guys 100 years from now,” he said.