Murder in Victorian Aspen

 

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story ran in the midwinter/spring 2016 edition of Aspen Sojourner magazine and can be viewed at www.aspensojo.com/articles/2016/2/1/tumult-in-tin-can-alley. 

On the crisp pre-dawn morning of  August 27, 1895, James “the Icicle” Hannum, the tough proprietor of Aspen’s Brick Saloon (now the Red Onion), burst through the front door of Mrs. Lou Fuller’s three-room house of questionable repute on Deane Street. Her trackside dwelling was in the bawdy district of town known as Tin Can Alley, between Mill and Galena streets. Hannum, with a .41 Colt revolver, was looking for his wife, Ida, said by others to be inside with another man.   

Following him from the Brick were his poker-playing associate Fred “The Mysterious Kid” Gillette, who had cautioned Hannum not to go, and known “fallen women” Grace Mullins and Gertie Mason, who’d egged him on. Inside the house were Mrs. Fuller, Mrs. Kitty Holmes, and Mrs. Hannum, along with Fred “the Swede” Johnson, who occupied a bed in the middle room. During the ensuing melee, two shots were fired.  

Johnson, described in newspaper accounts as a young burly man, took a slug to the left of his breastbone yet managed to stagger out the front door clad only in a shirt, leaving a trail of blood along the street. James Hannum, the other occupants of the house, and assorted witnesses fled the scene.  

Deputy Marshal William Welch heard the shots from Cooper Street — east-west downtown roadways would not be renamed “avenues” until later — and rushed toward the sounds. Along the way, he encountered Mason on Durant Street, who pointed and told him, “I’ll tell you who done the killing, it was Icicle Jim.” He found Swede Johnson, moments before death, along the Midland railroad tracks on Deane Street (opposite where the Hyatt Grand Aspen now stands). He lit a match to see the face of the victim, who struggled but could not utter any last words. Welch sent for a doctor and the coroner.

Police captain J.M. Williamson arrived on scene, and Welch went to the Brick and arrested Hannum, who had returned there and was coolly tending bar. Soon after, Williamson, in a kind of Wild West dragnet of the times, arrested Mullins, Mason, Holmes, Fuller, and Gillette, as possible accomplices and/or witnesses who might flee.

Man becomes corpse

The hardscrabble nightlife of 1890s Aspen carried different hardships than the downtown carousing of today. Imagine coal-smoked clothes, calloused hands on soft skin, drafty clapboard shacks with no running water, stale biscuits dipped in bear-neck stew, muddy manure-strewn streets, and plentiful stray dogs. Add in a lack of regulation and recourse for complaint, plus an abundance of whiskey, morphine, and prostitution, and you have Aspen’s historic “infected district,” where this tragic love story took place.  

The blunt Aspen Tribune headlined the next day, August 28, “Fred Johnson Meets Death in a Deane Street Dive,” recounting that “in a few minutes the unfortunate man was a corpse ... lying almost nude upon the ground.” On August 31, the Rocky Mountain Sun scooped that Mrs. Hannum had a wound in one of her breasts from gunfire at the scene.

Before Ida married Icicle Jim, according to testimony, the couple lived together on Deane Street, where she had formerly worked as a prostitute. Their troubled love — evidenced by their continuing relationship throughout the ordeal — along with the piquant details of the murder tantalized all of Aspen. In today’s parlance, their bond might be characterized as a destructive enabling relationship.

Much like Aspen’s periodic scandals of today, the ensuing two trials, and whether Hannum acted in self-defense or justifiable rage, fueled gossip all over town. Between August 1895 and February 1896 the Tribune, Sun, Aspen Times, and Aspen Chronicle recounted the events in full.

Toehold for family values

In the early 1880s, Deane Street, named after Judge J.W. Deane, served as Aspen’s main thoroughfare, and development rippled out from there. Because single women had few employment options as silver mining accelerated between 1880 and 1893, many “tabernacles of corrupt morality” and “cribs” flourished on Deane and Durant streets.

The Sun reported in February 1886 that the designated containment zone for “frail sisterhood” stretched from Hunter Street west to Galena. By July 1886, city ordinances posted in the Times made prostitution a finable misdemeanor. At the time of the murder, city hall, the jail, and fire station were—according to an 1893 Aspen map—between Durant and Deane on the corner of Mill. Mrs. Fuller’s house stood several doors east. Even if single, “working” women in frontier towns often added Mrs. to their names for respectability.

With some 2,500 miners and assorted opportunists arriving by the early 1890s, when total Aspen population neared 14,000, the neighborhood at the bottom of Aspen Mountain was the logical place for prostitution. Men getting off work passed the locale on their way home, where “unblushing women overtly advertise,” the Times wrote on November 11, 1888.  These women built a successful economic force lasting through the 1890s that the city couldn’t quash. At the same time, one block away on Cooper Street, plentiful saloons and vaudeville theatres added more temptation.   

But the arrival of the Colorado Midland Railway in 1888 brought a lot of new people with different ideas to town, setting the stage for conflict between freewheeling frontier morality and family values. Moral indignation grew as “respectable people” had to run the gauntlet of Tin Can Alley to and from the railroad depot (located just east of today’s Gondola Plaza) to reach the upscale Clarendon Hotel on the corner of Mill Street.

The Times complained that “The first thing people see when arriving by train in the city is the sign of prostitution, the half-clad women standing in the windows and doors of the houses.”

This clash of original Aspen and an emerging new Aspen led to more arrests under the largely overlooked statutes against prostitution. Systematic fining of offenders created a turnstile effect that produced city revenue without stopping the problem. Arrestees clogged the court and jail — dubbed the “Hotel Bastille” by the papers, in reference to the infamous Parisian prison. Yet the neighborhood flourished because prominent citizens owned the real estate and knowingly rented to prostitutes.

In one case, the Times on February 5, 1888, printed a letter from Aspen resident and future Colorado governor Davis Waite, accusing the town’s mayor of renting a property to “colored prostitutes from Leadville,” opposite Waite’s rental house near Galena and Durant. He also insinuated that the mayor had influenced the police to leave them be.

In a Times letter on April 22, 1894, anonymously signed by “An Outcast,” a woman wrote that “It is our society men — the father, the husband, that keep up the sporting houses. The gamblers and young men do not keep up such places. The women more often keep them.”

And so it was that the railway’s arrival on the south side of town and into the “sporting district” created the first Aspen neighborhood ripe for upscaling, while savvy landlords and real estate agents garnered high rents and looked the other way.

Not enough sand

After the demonetization of silver in 1893, the wild prosperity of Aspen diminished abruptly. By 1895 outrage over the still-flourishing bordello district found more traction. As the lurid facts of the Hannum murder came to light, those profiting from prostitution became more conspicuous and the town’s reputable faction pressed for reform. That struggle played out in the divided opinion of the populace as well as in the courtroom.   

Aspen’s coroner, M. O’R. Hughes, convened an inquest and impaneled a jury the same day as the killing. The prosecutor subsequently charged James Hannum with murder and he underwent a preliminary hearing and two trials in the Pitkin County Courthouse — the same courthouse where Claudine Longet, Ted Bundy, and Charlie Sheen would be tried decades later.

The fact that Hannum fired the second, fatal shot at Johnson was undisputed. The courtroom drama centered on whether Johnson or Hannum fired the first shot and which woman (or women) actually shared the bed with Johnson at the time.

Though accounts conflicted, public sympathy ran in favor of Hannum because of his wife’s tainted conduct. Still, Ida ended up being a supportive witness for her husband, even as the prosecution highlighted her past as a prostitute “troubled by a whiskey mania.”

Taking a liberty that would never happen in today’s legal system, a Times reporter conducted a jailhouse interview of Hannum two days after the murder, on August 29, 1895. In the cell opposite Hannum and Gillette, Grace Mullins, Gertie Mason, and Kitty Holmes talked freely with the press as well. The reporter wrote that Lou Fuller, who was also in jail, “had been taken with a fit, caused by her forced abstinence from whiskey-drinking. She saw snakes and Sheriff Hays removed her to her home on Deane Street.”

Hannum told the reporter that he’d hired attorneys, hoped for fair treatment, and didn’t wish to make a statement. Mason told the reporter that she’d never told Officer Welch that Icicle Jim killed Johnson, because at the time she didn’t even know Johnson was dead.

According to the Tribune’s September 12, 1895, report on testimony at Hannum’s arraignment, Mullins, Mason, Gillette, and James Hannum were partying prior to the murder in the upstairs wine room at the Brick. Gillette testified that Mullins incited Hannum to go to Fuller’s house, saying Ida was there with Mullins’ former lover. She goaded Hannum for “not having the sand” to address the situation.

Wrong man shot?

Town wondered why Mrs. Hannum had not been detained, nor given her account of events, since she was the magnet that drew the crowd to Fuller’s house that fateful morning. While authorities were trying to locate her downvalley, the prosecutor said she couldn’t be interviewed without her husband’s consent.

A hearsay story in the Times a week earlier, on September 5, said Gertie Mullins hoped Hannum would “pummel her derelict Adonis,” alleged to be with his wife. With that, she then supposed, “her truant individual” might return to her and then she would “give him the laugh in true half-world fashion.”

Instead, the plan backfired, as she and her friends were arrested as possible accomplices to a sordid murder. Moreover, Fred Johnson was not even her one-time lover; that mystery man was elsewhere on that night, testimony would later reveal. Thus, Hannum shot a potentially blameless man.

Yet the legal question remained: Was Hannum guilty of murder, manslaughter, or justifiable homicide? Did he shoot at his wife or at Fred Johnson? Were his actions legitimized by his rage at seeing his wife scramble for her clothes when he entered?

Courtroom drama

The coroner’s report in the Times on August 28, 1895, said that Johnson’s body lay in the morgue for several days and “the remains were viewed by many, including some women drawn by morbid curiosity.” On September 12, a spillover crowd filled the Pitkin County courthouse for Hannum’s preliminary hearing and arraignment, the Tribune reported.

Local attorney E.C. Stimson and top-notch Denver attorneys H.L. McNair, and G.E. Johnstone represented Hannum against Prosecutor W.B. Wiley, with Judge James H. Leahy presiding.

Lou Fuller testified that she had rented Johnson a room, that “he was a miner but seldom labored,” and that he “made a living tinhorning” (a portable saloon game in which three dice are dropped through a small tin chute and land on a fold-out betting board). Johnson’s wife was said to be sick in Glenwood, where he’d taken her some time ago. The Times also reported, on August 27, that Johnson recently returned from Cripple Creek, where he’d been fined and briefly imprisoned for beating a laundry woman he lived with there.

The Fuller house occupants at the time of the murder — Ida, Holmes, and Fuller — and Hannum’s followers — Mason, Mullins, and Gillette — told self-exculpating stories, though Ida’s testimony didn’t occur until the actual trial weeks later. The prosecution asserted that Hannum fired both shots. The defense said Johnson fired the first shot, while underscoring the witnesses’ inconsistencies during cross-examination.

Because the middle room where Johnson slept was completely dark, it couldn’t be ruled out that he shot first. Yet only a gun belonging to Hannum was found. Holmes and Fuller said that Ida had not been in bed with Johnson, but that they’d all shared whiskey with him before the women went to bed in the front room. The defense pushed for acquittal, claiming that the women’s prior court histories negated their credibility.

The Tribune reported that Hannum looked “decidedly haggard and confinement was having a telling effect on his health.” He pleaded not guilty and his bond was set at $25,250 ($684,000 today), which he somehow produced in several days. Mason, Mullins, and Gillette, pending their involvement, remained in jail, unable to raise bail. The trial was set for October 25 with another judge.

United sisterhood

Witness testimonies at the trial remained inconsistent, though consensus established that conviviality took place upstairs at the Brick. The Tribune wrote that “the women wrought Hannum into a jealous frenzy.” Mason was playing the piano while Mullins told Hannum, who was playing poker with Gillette, “If you knew where your ‘mama’ was you’d have reason to kick.” She told him his wife had been trying to sell his diamond stud. They’d had “three or four drinks,” Hannum would later testify.

The Tribune detailed how Fuller, the first witness for the prosecution, said she, Holmes, and Ida were sleeping together in the same bed in the front room and that Johnson was sleeping in the middle room when the Hannum posse arrived at 2:30 a.m. Holmes and Ida ran out and “Jimmie Hannum shot at them, saying to Johnson, ‘I’ll give you a dose, too, you’ve been sleeping with my wife’... and then he shot him.” Moreover, said Fuller, Johnson had had nothing to do with Ida.

Holmes took the stand next, saying that she and Ida had come to Fuller’s house together earlier in the evening. “Had a racket at home so I went to Fuller’s,” she said. “Johnson was in the middle room, while I slept in the front room.” She testified that she didn’t see who fired the first shot, and that she and Ida ran out the back door.

Holmes’ young son William testified that he was at home alone, next door to Fuller’s. He heard two shots fired and saw a man come falling out the door onto Deane Street. Fuller and his mother were in that house, said William. He didn’t go outside to the shot man but “heard [him] groan.”  

Dr. S. P. Green, who accompanied the coroner at the scene, told the court how he’d found the man lying near the railroad track and that the fatal bullet had entered the left side of his chest. Since Johnson fired the first shot, the defense countered, then a second shot fired by Hannum would have logically entered Johnson’s left side as he rose up from the bed.

Mullins testified next that she was drunk when they left the Brick for Fuller’s. In the Times’ October 26 account of the trial, Mullins said she told Hannum that Ida was at Fuller’s house not with Swede Johnson but with her ex, Frank Bruin, a miner and noted young fighter about town whom Mullins called “her papa.” The defense drove home that she, not Hannum, had proposed going to the house.

Mason, who had been in the paper previously for stealing a trunk of clothes belonging to another prostitute and overturning a fast carriage in the West End, came up next. She recounted not seeing who fired the shots, but “noticed” a woman in the middle room, adding, “She had on a chemise, but I didn’t see her face.”

For the most part, Fuller, Mullins, and Mason gave chary testimony, reflecting the strength of their unspoken sisterhood. None would place Ida with Johnson, nor commit exactly to what happened in the middle room.

The Mysterious Kid Gillette testified that Mullins told Hannum at the Brick that “his ‘mama’ was out, also her ‘papa.’” The prosecution asked, “Was that not her papa, Frank Bruin?” Gillette responded that he didn’t know, only that he heard two shots but didn’t see what happened, and that Johnson then ran by him after the second shot. He added that Hannum said, “‘Come on, let’s go downtown; I guess I got myself in trouble.’ Then we passed the wounded man, but didn’t stop to see if he was hurt.”

Ida takes the stand

After Gillette the prosecution rested and the defense presented its case. Hannum’s lawyers maintained that Johnson fired the first shot, and they called Ida to the stand. The Tribune reported that she had a “nervous, hunted look,” while James Hannum “kept his head bowed, at times looking at the jury.” Under some sort of rapprochement, Ida had been living in their home at 130 W. Hyman since the shooting. She told the court that they’d married in Denver in 1891 and that the last time she saw her husband before the shooting was two days prior.

She allowed that some nights she didn’t go home because she suffered from “whiskey mania.” She stayed at Lou Fuller’s house that night. Earlier, the afternoon before the murder, she and Holmes went to Fuller’s house and found Fuller in bed with Johnson. That evening she drank whiskey in the middle room with Fuller, Holmes, and Johnson, then went to bed in the front room. With her husband’s abrupt arrival early Tuesday morning she’d only retreated to the middle room to put on her clothes.

She then recounted that Johnson sat up in bed and said, “If anyone comes into this room they’ll be killed.” She heard a shot, which she thought came from the bed, and saw her husband stagger as if he were hit. Frightened, she ran out the back door to taxidermist “Rocky Mountain Billy’s” house. The prosecution asked if Frank Bruin (her rumored boyfriend) was at Rocky Mountain Billy’s house too, but the defense objected and was sustained.

The prosecution then discredited Ida by recounting a recent arrest for drunkenness at Breigar’s Saloon on Cooper Street, a dustup at Sander’s Brewery over the Fourth of July, and an incident wherein her husband kicked in the door of Victor Little’s downtown cabin where she was drinking. Nonetheless, she testified, “no other man has ever figured in our troubles.”

Evidence showed that a bullet (presumably the first) was lodged in Fuller’s backyard fence, 13.5 inches off the ground. This was the trajectory from Johnson’s bed in the middle room said defense; it angled from where Hannum was standing said prosecution. No gun was found in Fuller’s cabin or in Johnson’s clothes, while the defense noted that “many had passed in and out of the place” that day.

Who fired first?

Hannum came to the stand in his own defense. He’d lived in Aspen since 1881, furnishing money for mine leasing and going into the saloon business. Besides leasing the Brick, he owned a saloon in Tourtelotte Park. He said he didn’t know Johnson.

During drinks at the Brick before going to Fuller’s, he told Mullens that he had his diamond stud and that he doubted his wife was with another man. He said Mullens agitated him to go to Fuller’s house. At this point in the courtroom, Ida and her mother, who was up from Denver, “both became hysterical with sobs.”

Hannum continued, saying Mason knocked on Fuller’s front door while identifying herself to her friends within. After entering behind Mason, Hannum heard his wife call his name and he followed her voice into the dimly lit middle room. Upon seeing his wife there getting dressed, he said, “Damn, I ought to kill you.” He then claimed that Johnson rose up and fired at him from the bed. “I saw a big man bounding toward me and shot him in self-defense,” he said.

In summation, Hannum’s lawyers said the shooting took place both in self-defense and to defend the honor of Hannum’s family. The prosecution maintained that Hannum fired both shots, and with Hannum’s knowledge of his wife’s wastrel history there was no honor to defend.

Upscale defense attorney Johnstone concluded eloquently: “Mind cannot fathom the depths of the human heart. Men have united their lives with women of social outcast and have loved them as devotedly as other men loved the most pure and spotless wife.…We have evidence of a ball in the fence to show a shot was fired at the defendant.” He then asked the jury to recognize that fact rather than the questionable testimony of women who had arrest histories for prostitution.

The prosecution countered that the bullet in the fence came from Hannum’s first shot. But per the era’s rudimentary forensics, only the weights of the two bullets — the one in the fence and the one found in Johnson — could be compared to see if they were from the same gun. Possibly fearing a difference in weight, the prosecution objected to admitting this new evidence, while defense did not insist.

After 36 hours and 50 ballots, the jury came back with a six-to-six verdict, resulting in a hung jury and a mistrial. Three months later, a second trial took place that featured a surprise witness.

A sordid finale

But between trials Ida Hannum managed to get into more trouble. The Times headlined “Women Buncoed Him.” The November 11, 1895, story reported how Ida schemed with accomplices to find a wife for her friend Rocky Mountain Billy. The wife Ida found for Billy, “divorcée” Mrs. Emma Stitzman from Denver, turned out to be Ida’s polygamous sister.  

After a grand wedding party some weeks before the second trial, at Billy’s “castle on the hill” (just above today’s Residences at The Little Nell), Stitzman conspired with Ida and their mother. She convinced her new husband to give her his cash savings and plated silverware for safekeeping in Denver. He never saw his treasure again. Despite this, Billy escorted Ida’s mother to the second Hannum trial in February 1896.

At the second go-round, Hannum’s attorneys hammered the self-defense argument, presenting the scenario of a man whose honor was wronged. Ida, who’d been living with her husband since the first trial, testified with self-possession, the Tribune reported on February 5, 1896. This time she was sure that the first shot came from the bed, while admitting that her poor conduct was caused by liquor and that her husband had not suspected her of wrongdoing.

A surprise witness found by the defense, Mrs. A. I. “Gussie” Gardner, a known associate of the other women, attested that after the first trial Mrs. Holmes told her how both she and Fuller had lied in their testimony. Holmes also told Gardner that she, not Ida, had been the one in bed with Johnson when Hannum burst in, blatantly contradicting Holmes’ testimony at the first trial.

Dr. F. L. Mollin then testified that he had examined Hannum’s hand in jail several days after the shooting and found a powder burn, supporting the defense claim that Johnson fired first from the bed, just nicking Hannum’s hand before the bullet lodged in the outside fence.

The Tribune reported on February 8 that after 24 hours of nonstop deliberation, the jury came back with a verdict of involuntary manslaughter, which carried a sentence of one day to one year in prison. The defense called for a retrial, but at sentencing, Judge Thomas Rucker imposed only one day in the county jail for Hannum and $900 in court costs.

Tragedy compounds

Though the particulars had been many through two trials, a yesteryear jury nullification prevailed twice, and the judge’s leniency reflected the popular sentiment that Hannum had been set up.

After the trial, Hannum continued running the Brick, and later moved to Woody Creek, while also taking an interest in a gold mine in Elko, Nevada.

Soon after, Fred “The Mysterious Kid” Gillette was arrested for vagrancy and put on Aspen’s chain gang because he couldn’t pay the fine, according to the Tribune in May 1896. In June 1898 the Times wrote that Gillette and his brother had eloped to Utah with “two unblushing damsels of the half-world,” who later ditched them and took their money. In January 1902, the Aspen Democrat reported that Gillette had been shot dead in New Orleans, and that he had had an unsavory reputation.

Meanwhile, Ida fell deeper into her troubled ways. The Times reported on May 2, 1897, that the “notorious Ida Hannum” attempted suicide by taking “a large dose of morphine,” just one week after separating from her husband and moving back to Deane Street. After stomach pumping and seven hours of antidotes administered by a doctor, “she will probably recover.” No further accounts of Ida’s and Icicle Jim’s lives could be found.

Their rocky love story reminds us how misdirected motives can drive events into a tangled web of unintended consequences. Change the settings, the names, and the dates, and we have not only an Aspen story, but a universal one.

Tim Cooney is a veteran Aspen Mountain ski patroller and student of local history. Aspen Journalism and Aspen Daily News are collaborating with Cooney stories highlighting Aspen history, more at www.AspenJournalism.org.