By Nancy Christofferson
HUERFANO- A shameful event occurred 115 years ago this month in Huerfano County, so shameful that the case of the murder of the five men was investigated right up to the US House of Representatives.
It was 1895, and the coal mines were just coming to the forefront as Huerfano’s biggest industry. A miners’ strike had taken place the previous year, but the companies ignored all demands and kept shipping in European immigrants who were so relieved to have steady work they were willing to work long hours in dark and dangerous caverns beneath the earth. They were in America where opportunities abounded – it was just a matter of time.
“The land of the free” was at the time anything but for some nationalities. The 1890s fell in a period when Help Wanted ads often read “Chinese and Italians need not apply.” The bias many Americans felt toward Italians is hard to fathom these days but was very real back then.
Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, the largest coal producer in southern Colorado, owned the old Rouse mine about seven miles south of Walsenburg, which was one of the company’s best producing properties and employed hundreds of men from all over the globe.
One March evening a group of Italians was playing cards in a Rouse saloon when a man named Abner Hixon joined them. Hixon was said to be a mild-mannered man but had served as a guard during the 1894 miners’ strike. Soon Hixon left the building but, according to his fellow carousers, returned and produced a gun. The Italians rushed over, seized him and began striking him with a table leg. No gun was found and the attackers dragged him to a nearby house (or near a house) and left the scene.
Hixon was found badly beaten the next morning, and the county sheriff, Walter O’Malley, Dr. D.W. Mathews, physician and county coroner, and the deputy district attorney were summoned. Hixon soon died.
The sheriff summoned the only bloodhound in the area, which belonged to the mine superintendent, and it followed a scent to discover the bloody table leg. It followed its nose to several locations until nine (or 11) Italians were found, and arrested, all on a dog’s say-so.
A coroner’s jury was assembled and found five of the Italians were directly responsible for Hixon’s death. One was Lorenzo Danino (or Audinino) who was charged with wielding the deadly table leg. He was sent straight to Walsenburg and was housed in the city jail – this was the year before the county jail was built.
The other four men, the spelling of whose names vary, were Antonio Gobetto or Zapetto, Francisco Roccetto or Ronchietto, Pete Jacobino or Giaccobinno and Stanislavo Bittoni or Vittone. These four were loaded into a wagon for the trip to jail. A young man named Joseph Wellsby, who was 18, 19 or maybe 22, was in the driver’s seat. Armed guards rode alongside.
Sheriff O’Malley did not accompany the prisoners, having been “detained.” Several of the guards soon “took a shortcut” and disappeared.
After proceeding a ways, the wagon reached the old Bear Creek bridge south of Walsenburg (it was torn down and replaced several years later). It was about dusk, and getting dark. Suddenly, from the gloom, “six or seven men whose faces were masked or covered rode up from behind,” a witness stated. The lone armed guard remaining with the wagon was disarmed and sent walking to town while the intruders ordered the Italians to get out of the wagon. The retreating guard then heard gunfire break out. (continued next week)