Vagneur: The curious (and costly) case of Marion Cook

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Imagine, if you will, a typical December morning in 1889 Aspen — Christmas on the horizon; stamp mills pounding out a steady, cacophonous beat; steam boilers hissing and popping; the scream of a sawmill blade against solid, green wood; dynamite sporadically going off in various mining endeavors; and incredibly, in that din of noise and half-sanity, someone noticed that the city clerk, Marion Cook, had wandered off with $1,846 of the public’s money.

Ah, such a condition, this embezzlement stuff, which seems to follow success. It seems like at least once a month there’s another story in the local papers about some trusted person walking off with money that isn’t theirs. Most recently, I believe, is the Garfield County Clerk’s Office, in which a person helping to target one embezzler was caught with her own hand in the till. Familiarity breeds contempt, or so say the sages. It’s easy to steal but a little harder to get away with it.

Or, to make the point, if you’re dumb enough to steal, you’ll eventually get caught. Unlike today’s so-called Ponzi schemes, which use the same schemes we learned as children — “robbing Peter to pay Paul” — and slick-fingered bookkeepers, public or private, who think inside knowledge will cover their actions, Cook did what a lot of people might think stupid. He put the contents of the till in his pocket and disappeared.

In today’s money, Cook walked away with approximately $47,148, enough of a tidy sum to make the angry citizenry demand his arrest. But to where did the fleeing felon fly? In an age when the Pinkerton detective agency (like today’s National Security Agency, it was possible the Pinkertons knew more about you than you did) and the telegraph were about as sophisticated as law enforcement got, the odds of capture didn’t look good from the start, but as is generally the case, shoe leather prevailed, and like a sullen rat, Cook was arrested in Cleveland and returned to Aspen.

On Jan. 18, 1890, Cook was indicted for his crimes against the public trust, and the town sat back, a trial away from justice. What could possibly go wrong? Apparently, a lot, beginning with the recalcitrance of one D.R.C. Brown Sr., a leading Aspen resident who was arrested and sent to jail for his failure to present certain documents requested by the court pertaining to the embezzlement case. The disposition of that dust-up remains unclear at this point.

In the absence of further shenanigans, the jury in the Cook trial failed to reach a verdict — could that really be true? Cook must have been a well-liked man — and Cook was re-indicted May 31, 1890, for his thievery (although at this point it looks as though we should say “alleged” thievery), and once again the public waited with bated breath for the outcome.

On the night of July 4, 1890, Cook escaped from jail (did Ted Bundy, representing himself on a murder charge, read about this case during his sojourns to the Pitkin County law library?) and disappeared into thin air. The Wild West beckons. On the 26th of July, the issue appeared closed for certain when a body was found snagged on a rock in the Roaring Fork River. But wait — although difficult to identify, it wasn’t Cook. How long can this go on? we wonder.

In December 1891, Cook was finally returned to Aspen from his hideout in San Bernardino, California, to once again meet his fate. Stepping down from the train, Cook looked as healthy and fit as anyone might after a long, warm California vacation and professed that he was eager to get on with the proceedings and the rest of his life.

It was a sham, really, if you think about it, not only for the money Cook stole but for the money wasted on his capture, his re-capture and other legal proceedings. Originally charged with 12 offenses, including forgery and embezzlement, it finally became apparent to town wags that the evidence against Cook had become “so corroded and moldy” that a jury conviction was unlikely.

Sure enough, the district attorney announced to the court that since the main prosecution witness, the mayor of the city of Aspen, had died in the interim, circumstances seemed to indicate that proceeding with the trial would be a waste of time and money.

And thus, on Dec. 10, 1892, Cook slunk out of the courthouse, not innocent but no longer charged in the eyes of the law but verifiably guilty by the rules of common sense and public opinion. With little but a shattered reputation to show for his life’s work, we wonder how grim his future must have been. Justice may be blind, but it surely isn’t cheap for either party.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at


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