Monday, January 10, 2011

Brutal Histories

Murder? Even attempted murder? Not out here! With only a few thousand souls, surely it's not an something that happens very frequently out here on the rural western slope. I believe the last murder in Crawford was over water rights in an irrigation ditch at the turn of the century. But with an attempted murder last week in Hotchkiss and a homicide this week in Paonia, things are looking downright ugly. Perhaps it's just cabin fever. Being as entwined in history as I am, it brings to mind the most famous murders in this part of the territory...

A single father became enraged with his child, and gave him a good beating to set him straight. Sometime in the night, the boy died of his injuries. The man woke the boy's grandmother, who they were living with, and forced her at gunpoint to start a kettle boiling. Hot water, lye, everyone in those days knew how to render soap out of hog fat. Why should human fat be so different? The man chopped up his little boy into pieces, and the woman boiled all night to turn him into soap. Exhausted from his efforts, the man fell asleep. Enraged by her grandson's murder, the grandmother took up an axe and killed him while he slept. Since the pot was already boiling, she proceeded to chop him up and drop him into the soap kettle as well! Being of lesser strength than the man, the body wasn't chopped quite finely enough, I'm afraid. Sheriffs looking for the missing man discovered bits of bone in grandmother's hand soap... which eventually lead to the truth coming out. In a very early instance of a jury taking mental illness into account, the woman was institutionalized, rather than jailed, for her part in the murders, at least according to Muriel Marshall, historian and author of Where Rivers Meet. Although this recent Montrose newspaper article says she was jailed:

Soap murder... I was once traveling through Washington as a young teenager, and we stopped at a beautiful state park with a large, terribly deep lake and mountains on all sides. I remember sitting at a lovely picture window looking out at the deep lake, enjoying a steak at an old dinner club dating back to the turn of the century (I remember it was steak because I was a vegetarian at the time, but was absolutely ravenous from hiking all day and decided I could make an exception). While dining with my family, I read a story printed on the menu about a young woman who worked as a waitress at the lodge many years before. A story like this one tends to stay with an impressionable teenager with a love of history: A young wife disappeared in the 1930s, and while her husband claimed she'd run off with another man, her family was suspicious because she never again contacted them. Years later, a body wrapped in blankets and tied up with ropes was found floating in the middle of this enormous lake. The body was floating not in a state of decomposition, but completely saponified-- turned to soap! The cold depths of the water had acted on the fats in her skin to slowly turn her entire body in an Ivory bar, and as we all know, Ivory floats. Matching dental records identified the woman as the missing waitress, and her husband was tried and found guilty. I thought that was true justice-- she was just waiting for the ropes and weights holding her to the bottom to decay, so she could float to the top and point one pretty white finger at her abusive husband. Here's the whole story:

It occurs to me that both of these crimes, as well as the two this past week, were domestic abuse. Both this past week involved estranged husbands committing violence on their wives. I don't know that the pioneers really had it any better than we do today-- surely, alcoholism was rampant, near-poverty conditions caused incredible stress on marriages and families alike, and the extreme work load would've caused such exhaustion that a lack of judgment was likely. Yet, nothing makes it easier to accept when it happens so close to home.