Albany, Colorado, Judge Lynch, and the Fiendish Murder of little John Johnson

Before Baca County Colorado became a county in 1889, the territory which now comprises Baca County was the east end of Las Animas County Colorado. Because of their geographical location, the citizens which settled there became known as the East Enders. The Persons Stories and incidents of the Early Day East Enders series is one that runs occasionally in the Plainsman Herald. This wild tale of SE Colorado/SW Kansas ran in the May 27th, June 3rd and June 10th, 2022 issue of the Plainsman Herald. We have compiled these stories to assist in quenching your historical curiosity. Click Here to Subscribe to the Plainsman Herald. Enjoy

Note: We have a couple of reasons we are republishing these pieces. 1) We have a few more pieces of info which weren’t published in the the original and, 2) While peddling our books at the College National Finals Rodeo (CNFR) we had a customer perusing our books who said: “I wish you had something written about Wild Horse Johnson” to which I replied: “I did!” It turned out they are some relation to Wild Horse Johnson and were very interested in what we have written here. We attend another event at the end of June in Glenrock Wyoming where one of our customers (different from the one above) persuing our book said, “Have you heard of Wild Horse Johnson?” Well my eyes bugged out and I said: “I think I have.” It turned out they are some relation to Wild Horse Johnson and were very interested in what we have written here.

In the late 1880s there was a homesteader in SE Colorado named August Johnson, who is part of the story of this piece. There is person from that era, August “Wild Horse” Johnson, who I had always assumed was one and the same. I still THINK they are most likely one in the same, however, because of a few conflicting pieces of news from that era, I am back on the chase to confirm they are one in the same. I would love to hear anything anyone knows. For now – Enjoy.

Part I – Albany Colorado Est. 1887

Plainsman Herald (Springfield, Colorado), May, 27, 2020

Town builders in the American West often named towns after places where they had grown up back east or at least with which they were familiar.  The 1886 – 1887 town building boom in Southeast Colorado is a prime example. The town names were a Who’s Who list of major and minor cities from the east including Boston, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, & Springfield. Baca County was not the original name choice for the new county, which was to be broken off from the original Las Animas County in the 1889 Colorado legislature. The original name for the new county in the legislation was Tioga, in reference to Tioga New York, which was a carrot for the Democrats to gain the favor of a Republican storekeeper in Old Boston. As a result of political wrangling of the era, Baca County was the final choice. Albany, Colorado was another of those towns staked out on the Southeast Colorado prairie in 1887. 

  Albany was founded just north of present day Baca County, in what at the time was Bent County, by the Ashland (KS) Town Company. The area would later become Prowers County, as shown in the 1889 maps below:

Albany was one of the towns that Frontier Newspaperman Sam Konkel lists as he describes the Southeast Colorado town building fever of 1886 -1887.  Konkel says:

“It is a cold day when some new town doesn’t start up in southeastern Colorado.  In the short space of four months there have been seventeen towns laid out south of the railroad and east of Trinidad.  They are in the order of their ages –Boston, Albany, Vilas, Carrizo, Springfield, Minneapolis, Humbar, York, Farmington, Wilde, Holmes, Indianapolis, Athens, Bloomington, Brookfield, Plymouth and Randal — Western World, April 21, 1887.”

He continues:  “The object of Boston was to make counties about the size of those in Kansas — about thirty miles square, hence Boston, Carrizo and Indianapolis were to be county seats of three counties carved out of Las Animas, and Albany and Brookfield of two counties carved out of Las Animas, Prowers and Bent counties. – June 14, 1918 Springfield Democrat Herald. 

A multitude of references show us that like the other boomtowns Albany brought in people with the lure of free land.  

Quite a party headed by T. M. Davis, went to Colorado this week to secure timber claims.  They will locate near the new town of Albany.   – The Leader-Democrat (Richfield, Kansas) · 12 Feb 1887, Sat · Page 3

H. E. Drennan is in from Albany Col. and reports his town booming, and himself doing a good business as well. He says that Butte City has; moved to Minneapolis that they whoop things up generally out there in regular Kansas style.  The Leader-Democrat (Richfield, Kansas) · 04 Jun 1887, Sat · Page 3

Sam Worill, of Albany, Col., came Thursday to look after his interest Morton county. Sam says Albany is booming. Morton County Democrat (Frisco, Kansas) · 04 Jun 1887, Sat · Page 3

Probably because of the connection to Boston and the Boston Town Company, Albany was more closely affiliated with with Old Las Animas County than Old Bent County as shown below:

Geo. W. Sellers, of Elm Mills township, returned last week from Colorado. He got a homestead near Albany, Las Animas county, and will go back in short time to settle permanently.  A. Blake who went out with George got a homestead and timber claim and returned a couple of weeks ahead. – Medicine Lodge Cresset (Medicine Lodge, Kansas) Thu, Sep 8, 1887

In my book Old Boston: As Wild as they Come you learn of the President of the Boston Town Company, Albert Hughes.  The goal of Albert Hughes, the President of the Boston Town Company and the reported financier of the Albany, Brookfield, and Carrizo Town companies was to build Kansas sized counties approximately 36 miles by 36 miles square and establish each of the towns they built as county seats in those counties.   

The Leader-Democrat (Richfield, Kansas) · 26 Feb 1887

Albany, Colorado – Part II

Plainsman Herald (Springfield, Colorado), June, 3, 2020

The map Above shows the location of Albany to be due east of Two Buttes Mountain or Twin Buttes as it was usually referred to  in those days.

There is evidence Hughes did have some connection to Albany:  Messrs A. Hughes and family, S. W. Brandon and family, and Milton Baily and family, leave this week for Boston and Albany, Colo. We are sorry to lose such good citizens, but wish them God-speed  in their adopted state.   Ashland Clipper (Ashland, Kansas) · 31 Mar 1887, Thu · Page 1

You also see connections between the Boston Town Company towns such as the following:  Frank Cummins, of Albany, Dr. Parks, of Boston, and Harry Kruge. of Carriso. all in Colo., came in for the Fourth but returning this week. They are all well pleased out there and report their respective towns doing nicely, yet they will come back to see their many friends here. NOTE: Dr. Parks is not one of the Doctors Sam Konkel mentions when writing about Boston. Ashland Clipper (Ashland, Kansas) 07 Jul 1887, Thu · Page 1

Albany is also mentioned with one of the women homesteaders of the boomtown era.  Miss Flora Foreman left on Monday’s stage for Albany, Colo., where she will prove up a claim. Her only brother whom she had not seen since childhood, was to meet her at Granada. Miss Flora’s many friends here wish her much pleasure in her new home.   Ashland Clipper (Ashland, Kansas) · 18 Aug 1887, Thu · Page 8

Like all towns of that era, they had at least one newspaper promoting the town, and like every other town of those days, there were high hopes.  

Clark Republican (Minneola, Kansas) · 20 Oct 1887
Cash City Cashier (Cash, Kansas) 21 Oct 1887

Judge Lynch

Wikipedia tells us that Charles Lynch (1736-1796) was a Virginia planter, politician, and American revolutionary, who headed an irregular court in Virginia to punish Loyalist supporters of the British during the American Revolutionary War. Most believe the terms “lynching” and “lynch law” are derived from his name.

“Lynch’s Law,” referring to organized but unauthorized punishment of criminals, became a common phrase, as it was used by Lynch to describe his actions as early as 1782. The Oxford English Dictionary, however, notes: “The origin of the expression has not been determined.”

Variations of the term, such as “lynch law,” “judge lynch,” and “lynching”, were standard entries in American and British English dictionaries by the 1850s.

One Garden City, Kansas newspaper report below indicates Boston was known as the “Noted Burying Ground” with 18 graves, 17 of their occupants having been shot, and 1 lynched… Not a reputation any town wanting to entice settlers would want.  

Finney County Democrat (Garden City, Kansas) · 15 Dec 1888

The lynching (left) is documented in Old Boston: Wild As They Come. Frontier newspaperman Sam Konkel was the primary source for the discussion of that event in a 1918 Springfield Herald article entitled “Judge Lynch.”  Konkel provides great detail about the hanging, concluding with:

 “When laid in his coffin the markings of the rope plainly visible on his neck. He was laid to rest in the Boston cemetery, and there’s an unmarked grave, he will peacefully sleep until called to the presence of a higher court.”  

There certainly were other similar events in S.E. Colorado, but the next tale is from a different chapter. 

The Fiendish Murder of Little Oscar John Johnson  

Previously we became familiar with the location of Albany, Colorado. As a reminder it was a few miles due east of what today is referred to as Two Buttes Mountain.

While here are many forgotten stories connected to those early towns that will likely remain a mystery forever, today we bring you this sad tale of one of the early settlers.

It is not unusual that a rancher would have a brand directory in the local paper in the early 1900s. From the June 14, 1907 through January 24, 1908 in the Springfield Herald there were nearly 50 other brand listings from Baca and Prowers County in those papers.   Among those there was a brand listing for a rancher named August Johnson who is from Albany, Colorado. 

  At first glance this ad blends into the listings as just another bygone rancher, just another relic, but sometimes there is an old time tale connected- as is the case with this one.  We reported last week that Albany was staked out in 1887.  By 1888 many homesteaders had settled in and reports such as the following were coming out of Southeast Colorado.  

Ashland Clipper (Ashland, Kansas) · 26 Apr 1888

In the summer of 1888 an incident occurred just over the state line in Kansas, which shook up Albany and certainly changed the lives of the August Johnson clan. 

Syracuse News (Syracuse, Kansas) · 8 Jun 1888

Syracuse, Kan., June 7. A most brutal murder occurred here last night. August Johnson and his son, 12 or 14 years old, were found to-day noon on the prairie in a horrible condition, the boy being dead, with his face and head pounded to a jelly with an axe. His father had one eye knocked out and several bruises on his head. From the position they were found in it would seem as if the murderers had come upon them while sleeping. Mr. Johnson’s wounds are probably fatal. He was traveling through the country selling horses with his brother Oscar, who has not been seen since. Suspicion points to him as money was not the object, for Johnson had on his person $80. His wife lives at Albany, Colorado, and has been notified. – The Sumner County Standard (Wellington, Kansas) 14 Jun 1888.

It may be time for a clarification. The names are one of the most confusing parts of many old time news reports, so for clarification, it is my observation that the boy who was murdered was John Johnson, the son of August Johnson. The brother of August Johnson is actually Oscar Johnson, although many sources reported that Oscar was the name of the little boy. The following was reported in the June 13 edition of the Topeka Daily Capital:

At noon Wednesday, Mr. J. S. Weiss on going home to dinner, in the eastern part of the City, and near the railroad, noticed that a campers wagon had pulled in during the night before still stood in its place, and that the parties with it had not arisen from their bed on the Prairie. Not understanding why they should sleep so long, he went to the spot and found a man and a boy, the latter about 12 years old, lying there with the boy his head crushed in and the brains oozing from the wounds. The man was unconscious and badly cut about the head upon investigation the parties were found to be a mister August Johnson and his son of Albany, Bent County Colorado. Who’s the fiend is did the bloody deed or what his motive was, is as yet unknown. Different parties are suspected and we hope to be able to say next week what the guilty wretch, whoever he is, has been found and brought to Justice.

Blame initially pointed toward Johnson’s brother, but that changed quickly. It appears that sometime in the middle of June 1888, after the murder, a man named Wallace Mitchell met up with an old acquaintance in a cow camp somewhere on the Colorado-Kansas border. Mitchell must have told of the incident, as it was reported in multiple outlets that when Mitchell confessed he provided the following:

I then went to the (Syracuse) depot, and as the morning: passenger came through, jumped on the “blind baggage” and rode to Coolidge: crossed the river from there, and started south on the old cattle trail; that day I got into a cow camp where I met Sam Brown, an old friend of my bother Joe; staid there until the next night, when I took one of their horses, rode to Minneapolis, and from there to Stonington, here I was overtaken by Brown, who took me back to Minneapolis and gave me into the custody of the sheriff.

Sheriff Huffman of Las Animas county then took the prisoner from Minneapolis to Syracuse, KS.

Plainsman Herald (Springfield, Colorado), June, 10, 2020

The Daily Times (Clay Center, Kansas) · 28 Jun 1888
ABOVE: The header of the article says the boy’s name was Oscar, however, the boy’s name was John. Oscar Johnson was the brother of August Johnson.

SYRACUSE, KAN., June 27. “Wallace Mitchell had his preliminary trial before Justice Wagoner yesterday. He pleaded guilty of the murder of Oscar Johnson and the attempted murder of August Johnson. He repeated the story of his crime with the utmost sang froid, and at the conclusion of the testimony was remanded to jail until the September term of court. The cold-blooded recital of his fiendish deed by the prisoner had an exciting effect on the people, and everywhere on the street knots of men were gathered, with him as the theme of conversation. It was easy to see that a storm was brewing, and that summary justice was likely to he visited on the guilty man. After dark matters came more to a focus, and about midnight a body of men numbering 100 or more gathered around the water tank, and under the lead of a captain. proceeded to the vicinity of the jail and demanded admittance of the sheriff. This he refused, and declared his intention to protect his prisoner at all hazards.

The citizens seemed loth to make any assault on the sheriff, but were nonetheless determined to have their man. Two men were again sent to demand the keys, but the sheriff was gone. A party of assistants started in hot pursuit, while others went for a I railroad iron to batter in the doors. The sheriff, however, was soon overhauled, but another delay occurred, as he had thrown the keys away. After a short search they were found. The doors were then unlocked and the culprit brought out. He was taken directly to the place where the murder was committed, and given all the time he desired for praying and confession He entirely exonerated Oscar Johnson from complicity in the murder, and said the sheriff of Las Animas county Colo., helped him to make up the story. He then made his last prayer, and at about the hour he killed the boy, 1:30 a. m., he hung a lifeless corpse on the cross-piece of a telegraph pole.

DETAILED ACCOUNT OF THE AFFAIR. The murder of little Oscar Johnson, and the attempted murder of his father, on the morning of June 6th, in this city, has gone on the calendar of crime as one of the most fiendish acts recorded. Our citizens will long remember the sickening spectacle of the father lying in his bed, on the prairie, senseless from the murderous blows on his head; the innocent child beside him, his face upturned and his eyes closed as if in peaceful slumber, dead from the same cruel blows; his brains oozing out from the ghastly gashes.  It was enough to move the stoniest heart, and cause the tears to flow from eyes unused to weep.  Who could be the perpetrator of so terrible a crime?  It must be some hardened wretch, debauched by years of crime, until the going out of a human life was but as the snuffing of a candlewick. The sequel proved it otherwise. For when Sheriff Huffman returned from Trinidad, Colo., Tuesday morning, with the confessed criminal in charge, we found him to be a boy not yet nineteen years of age. It did not seem possible it could be true. Yet this is his story as he told it to us in the corridor of the jail:

My name is Wallace Mitchell; I was born in Denton county, Texas, December 6th, 1869; I do not remember my father; he was killed with Gen. Custer in the Big Horn massacre; have been in Kansas about six years; mother is still living and is married to W. W. Fane, who owns a farm aud horse ranch near the town of Hazleton; I came west through No Man’s land in search of work, and reached Coolidge, near the state line, about the 20th of May; sometime between then and the 25th met Oscar Johnson, brother of August, there with a band of ponies, and asked him to give me work; he told me that he needed help but could not afford to pay wages, but that he would give me my board if I was hard up and wanted to work for that, and this I agreed to do; soon after that we drove to Syracuse, where we met his brother and his little nephew, Oscar; I slept in the same bed with Oscar, the brother, and one night in Syracuse he advanced the idea of killing August and taking his money; said he was tired of working for wages, and wanted me to do the work and divide the spoils; no conclusion was reached then, but after we had arrived at Hartland, twenty miles east of Syracuse, where we had all gone, he spoke of it again, and I agreed to do it. The plan was that I should go back to Syracuse with August and the boy; Oscar was to start for Leoti, as directed by his brother, but would go into camp a little way out that he might be within easy distance of Syracuse, which place August would reach Tuesday night. lie told me his brother had about 2,000 in money, and I was to look for it in his left vest pocket and left pants pocket; he was to meet me there that night, either coming on horseback or by rail; we would then divide the money; he would return to camp, and I go to Coolidge, and from there south to the Pan-Handle. August, his son and myself reached Syracuse as expected, Tuesday, the 5th of June, and went into camp near the railroad, about half past six in the evening; Johnson and his son made their bed on the ground, and slept in the wagon; went to bed early and slept for about an hour, after that I laid awake waiting for Johnson to come, and as he did not make his appearance, I got up about one o’clock in the morning, took the ax and went to where Johnson was sleeping and struck the old man a blow on the head with the ax, and as I did so the boy raised partly up and I hit him a lick; I thought I had killed them both; I searched the two pockets where I supposed the money was, and in one found drafts and checks amounting to $900, and in the other $4.10 in currency; I then went to the depot, and as the morning: passenger came through, jumped on the”blind baggage” and rode to Coolidge: crossed the river from there, and started south on the old cattle trail; that day I got into a cow camp where I met Sam Brown, an old friend of my bother Joe; staid there until the next  night, when I took one of their horses, rode to Minneapolis, and from there to Stonington, here I was overtaken by Brown, who took me back to Minneapolis and gave me into the custody of the sheriff.

 This is the substance of our interview with Mitchell, and very nearly his language. As the sequel will show, his story of Oscar Johnson’s complicity in the murder, is a fabrication. Tuesday afternoon Mitchell was brought before Justice Wagoner for examination. He plead guilty to the charge of murder, and repeated almost word for word the story he told to us. The court room was crowded, and his cold blooded and passionless recital evidently created a bad feeling in the hearts of his hearers, and after the adjournment it was plain enough to see that the prisoner’s life hung on a thread, and that only a little thing was needed to incite the people to take the law in their own hands and summarily vindicate its power. It was a murder as cruel and unprovoked as man ever committed, and while we nowise uphold lynch law, it is not very much to be wondered at that the finale came in the way it did, as told in the press dispatches…”

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