by Nancy Christofferson
In last week’s issue: masked gunmen entered the jail in the middle of the night, shot two Italians in their cells, and escaped. Questions were raised about who was responsible for such vigilante style justice…
Because not much justice was being sought in Huerfano County, Mrs. Wellsby began a letter-writing campaign. She wrote to state and federal officials and soon, the state and federal officials were writing to each other. She got Colorado Governor McIntire involved, and he wrote letters and telegrams. The Denver newspapers went all out to cover, generally inaccurately, the full spectrum of the dastardly deeds. A few state newspapers actually condoned the killing of Hixon by the Italians, while some others condoned the vigilante justice that so violently claimed the lives of three Italians. New York papers picked up the story and inflated it a bit more, but put it all down to the actions of western ruffians. It is because of all these papers, and their adjusting the “facts,” that today exact names, numbers and events are so ambiguous.
The yellow journalists had put Walsenburg on the map, and for all the wrong reasons. Suddenly, the people of Huerfano County were considered to be murderers, liars and bigots.
Several writers exalted the Italians as labor organizers and heroes of the underdogs, both Italians and coal miners, but this does not seem to be the case. If anything, it is a perfect example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Italian miners’ lack of English no doubt did not help them either.
The matter of the murders of the Italians came to district court in October, but, because of the furor and the question of whether the men were American citizens, the district attorney called for a grand jury to convene. It seems there never was a trial for the murderer or murderers of Hixon.
The grand jury was eventually convened in Walsenburg, after several delays caused by a demand for a change of venue, in February 1896. The guards escorting the Italians to jail and who should have been present at the killings at the bridge had conveniently forgotten salient facts, or simply claimed not to have heard gunshots. One decided he’d never been involved at all, and several had left the county and could not be located. Not all the witnesses were even questioned. The grand jury was unable to bring indictments, based on the testimony given.
But the affair was not over. The Italian embassy had taken up the affair and recommended to President Cleveland that indemnity was necessary.
There had been other, similar, murders in other states, and several former presidents had addressed the question of payments to compensate for the loss of lives. Cleveland was in contact with the governor, and this correspondence is in the state archives.
With the state supreme court and the Italian government involved, the whole dirty affair went to the US House of Representatives for review.
It’s hard to imagine how the House received the mishmash of information that followed this case around the country, and how it had been handled in Huerfano County. Much of it was blamed on the “incompetence or inexperience” as well as “callousness of Walsenburg’s citizens and sheriff.” If ignorance is an excuse, it was accepted. The House voted to award a $10,000 indemnity to the families of the three murdered Italians, more than any previous judgment in this type of case in the United States. And, the “Walsenburg case” would be cited as a precedent in future considerations of this nature.
As for those involved in Huerfano County, Sheriff O’Malley, who had famously stated that if he had any idea of what would have happened in the city jail, he would have been there to protect the Italians’ lives with his own, not surprisingly was not re-elected.
It is unknown but improbable that poor Mrs. Wellsby received any type of compensation for her young son, but it is possible the county paid for his funeral since he was in its employ the day he was murdered.