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The Italian death song: La Veta massacre

“The mournful chant of the Italian death song…,” filled the room when Major C.C. Townsend, provost marshal of the Colorado National Guard in Huerfano County, took the confession of a man involved in killing four mine guards. So the newspaper reporter wrote in the Nov. 11, 1913, Pueblo Chieftain. The incessant chant continued as three more men confessed. It was Frank Krupa who chanted and gave his confession in broken English; the other three were brothers, Ed, Dan and Charles Richards. They implicated Peter Rich, Charles Shepard, a DeSanti, Peter Bioni and Tom Santarilli. Charles and Santarilli were brothers-in-law. The Nov. 8, 1913, La Veta massacre, as it came to be known, revolved around William Gamblin, a non-union miner, or scab, who came to La Veta one day from Oakview where he worked. His stump of a tooth was bothering him. Hassled on the way in by strikers, he decided to phone to Oakview for a car and company mine guards to escort him back home. The word about the mine guards coming to town got around La Veta. Six men were accused of waylaying the vehicle just outside of town. In fact, the word got around town so well, people climbed on roofs and looked out the windows of the Kincaid opera house just to watch what would happen. Three-quarters of a mile west of La Veta the road went up a hill. There, on the Loughead (or Loughheed) Ranch, was a reservoir with an earth embankment. The union men took positions behind the bank. When the open-top car carrying Gamblin and the four guards came up the hill, the strikers’ first shot hit the radiator. The car slowed. Ed Richardson, a striker, had a Remington automatic; later 25 shells from the Remington were picked up there. Three guards in the auto got out and tried to fight back, but the shooting was too strong for them and they were killed. The fourth died at the wheel. The miner, William Gamblin, survived but was injured. The automobile was photographed later showing how it was riddled with bullets (the photo is on view in the Walsenburg Mining Museum). The bullets from the dead men’s bodies may be on view at Francisco Fort Museum in La Veta. When all was over, the shooters slipped up along the river and went to Charles Richard’s house to hide the guns and to make up a story. Later, Major Townsend took the seven-year-old son of Charles Richard to his jail cell, to identify three of the men. The boy’s father, with tears running down his cheeks, told his son, “For God sake tell the truth if you wish to save your papa’s life.” The boy looked at Pete Rich. “Yes, Major he is the big man who told me to take the guns to papa.” The guns were hidden by having cleats put under a table and the rifles placed in the cleats. All six shooters were arrested, three of them at the railroad depot preparing to leave by train. First, they were held in the La Veta Hotel under heavy guard then were turned over to Sheriff Jeff Farr and lodged in the county jail (now the Walsenburg Mining Museum). Col. Edward Verdeckberg ordered out Company C of the First Infantry of the Colorado National Guard, commanded by Captain Swope, and they reached La Veta by train at 6:45 pm. Patrols were immediately put in the principal streets of the town. The militia was met by a crowd of people who followed them up town singing the union song. The dead mine guards were all from out of the area – and may have been resented by the locals. There were Walter Whitten of Denver, Harry Bryan of Denver, Luke Terry of Colorado Springs, and R.G. Adams of Arriba, Colorado, and Pueblo. Adams lived long enough in Dr. Julian Lamme’s office to describe the horrific scene. “I felt like they had hit me with one of the Spanish Peaks and went head first into the weeds at the side of the road.” Colorado Elias Ammons and National Guard Gen. John Chase both believed the militia would be justified in arresting, courtmartialing and executing murderers. In reality, in February 1915, at a jury trial held in Pueblo, all were found not guilty of murder by reason of self defense. Impartial witnesses testified, according to Nancy Christofferson’s account in a 2008 Huerfano World, a mine guard fired the first shot. The jury debated only 20 minutes. The photo is of an underground coal miner courtesy of the Bessemer Historical Society. Information is from the Nov. 9, 10 and 11, 1913, Pueblo Chieftain; and the Nov. 7, 2008, Huerfano World.