Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
June 18, 2010
We don’t think about it much in today’s world, but jail breaks used to be a rather common occurrence, a true part of the old West and over the years, Pitkin County and its jail have had their share.
It’s hard to say exactly when these dashes from confinement actually began, as the Pitkin County Courthouse, jail included, was only completed as recently as 1891, but there is an 1881 account of an ugly act committed by a man named Harrington against another fellow, Jackson. Following an argument, Harrington fired two pistol shots at Jackson, merely whistling them through his hat, which was enough to charge Harrington with attempted murder. Poor marksmanship should have been the accusation.
Harrington, being escorted to the Canon City jail (there wasn’t one stout enough in Aspen) escaped near Buena Vista. The chagrined sheriff, embarrassed by his predicament, appointed a “dead-eyed” James Van Pelt as deputy with instructions to bring in Harrington, “dead or alive.” Riding the slower horse, Harrington turned and drew first on Van Pelt, but Van Pelt, clearly the better shot, deftly put two slugs into Harrington, saving further expense to Pitkin County.
One of the most famous escape artists of all-time, a man who put “jail” and “break” into the same sentence more often than most killers, was a man named Harry Tracy. For a time he was part of Butch Cassidy’s gang and hung out at Brown’s Park in northwestern Colorado, a popular hideout. He’s also the one who infamously put Pitkin County on the map by virtue of escaping from our jail, the one in the basement of the courthouse.
Details are sketchy, but it all started with Tracy’s 1897 break from a Utah penitentiary and his arrival in Brown’s Park, headquarters of the Powder Springs gang, an organized band of crooks and murderers who operated their nefarious schemes throughout New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Utah. Clearly a fraternity of like-minded men.
In 1898, Tracy and his buddy, David Lant (traveling with two other miscreants named Johnstone and Bennett, also wanted by the law) drew the attention of the Routt County sheriff, mostly by just acting suspicious. In a bizarre and exciting two-week chase, Tracy and Lant were finally captured in Brown’s Park, but not until Tracy had killed Valentine S. Hoy, a popular rancher and member of the pursuing posse.
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Housed in the Routt County jail, they soon escaped, but Sheriff Charles Neiman, who knew every short cut around, caught them before they could get out of the county. As an upshot of that dastardly behavior, it was ordered that Tracy and Lant be sent to Pitkin County, “the nearest county in the district having a sufficient jail in which to confine said prisoners.”
A couple of weeks later, Tracy and Lant, apparently bored with their Aspen stay, broke out of the Pitkin County jail, beating the jailer senseless on their exit.
David Lant, a Mormon, was never heard from again, and maybe he went straight. Harry Tracy, a cold-blooded killer, ended up in the Pacific Northwest, where he was soon incarcerated in the Oregon State Penitentiary for robbery. Soon enough, he escaped that prison, only to go on a 58-day, murderous rampage that left eight men dead. It finally ended on August 5, 1902.
Surrounded by lawmen and irate wheat farmers, his left leg shattered by a bullet, Harry Tracy put a .30-.30 rifle slug through his own head rather than face judgment for his crimes. He was 27.
The last Pitkin County jail escapee of any note, as far as a well-known criminal element goes, was the serial killer, Ted Bundy, who jumped out of the second-floor district courtroom on June 7, 1977. But unlike other western outlaws, Bundy was a modern creep who killed women.