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The law and demon drink

by Nancy Christofferson
HUERFANO — Back in ye olden days, say from about 1870 to 1950, which is the basic time frame of this ongoing series, law officers had very different crimes to deal with than they do today, and very different ways to tackle them.
Huerfano’s first law enforcement officers were spread incredibly thin, with no fast transportation or communication. Crimes were probably dealt with dispatch, anyway, with the citizens doing the apprehending and the precinct justice of the peace doling out the punishment. Only serious law breakers would ever see the inside of the county jail.
There were several instances of frontier justice in the first two decades of Huerfano’s official life as a county, with the accused being strung up on a handy tree or telegraph pole. The first manhunt of note was in 1881 when a man known as McGin murdered Sheriff Juan Dolores Esquibel. The county commissioners of the time set the first reward to be offered for a criminal in the county, $500, for his apprehension. He was duly captured and went to trial, where he was, yes, acquitted.
Horse thieves were usually recognized, and the injured party, the one now on foot, could attract a posse in no time. Stealing horses was serious business, and no resident would put up with it. The same happened, and still does, with other livestock because this was an agricultural area, and citizens relied on the animals’ selling price and food value to support his family.
By 1877, the Walsen coal mine was in operation, and the agricultural climate began changing toward industrial. A new kind of citizen appeared, one that did not speak Spanish or English. The early miners were mostly Scots and Welsh, and they spoke English, though it was often unrecognizable to Huerfanos. As the 1890s passed and the 20th century began, more of the miners were European, Asian, and Mexican. Misunderstandings due to poor translation, or more often, alcohol, led to disagreements that ended in bloodshed. It was at this time that the sheriff’s office instituted the practice of placing deputies in the various coal camps and communities. There were nationalities fighting other nationalities, internal fights among nationalities (like when a gang of “Arabs”, as the newspaper referred to them, came up from Aguilar and killed some local “Arabs” on Seventh Street, in broad daylight), fights between families and amongst families, brawls at weddings, dances, wakes, card games, wherever alcohol was consumed.
The use of liquor was obviously a big problem (as the newspaper editor succinctly put it, “Trouble doesn’t drive people to drink – until after drink has driven them to trouble”), and it was international. The anti-saloon league was formed, and then superseded by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (which was in no way limited to females). In 1910 these dedicated teetotalers toured every saloon in Walsenburg and found all but one violating gambling laws. Taking their cause to the authorities, police arrested 24 saloon keepers.
As opinion mushroomed against the use of alcohol, any offense occurring in a place selling it became more serious. Gambling came in different forms, but card games were definitely taboo and prosecutable, even in private buildings. Slot machines were allowed. And, since slot machines and alcohol were taxable, the city fathers were loath to lose those funds.
But the sheriff’s department was determined to close down gambling places. When Colorado went dry on June 1, 1917, the city mayor made the comment that drinking, prostitution and gambling were necessary evils and he would not order their places of business closed. So, the sheriff and his deputies then swooped into pool halls and saloons, the red light district and known gambling dens, and closed down the whole kit and caboodle, right “under the nose of the city police force”, according to the newspaper.
So not only did the city force have the county to deal with, but when national prohibition was enforced in 1919, state and federal officers. At first, enforcement was by local officers, and one of the first acts was the confiscation by the county of a car found to be carrying alcohol. The impounded vehicle was sold for $325 by the sheriff’s office, and the money “put toward the school fund.”
But in time, state and federal officers began prowling the city and county for offenders. They found plenty, and one wonders the amount of cooperation they received from local officers who may have felt their jurisdiction had been violated, and the school fund cheated out of easy financing. In 1923 some of those arrested by federal agents went so far as to claim the mayor and police chief were accepting money to look the other way while saloons and pool halls dispensed hard liquor and not soft drinks. In the mid ‘20s, federal agents estimated that Huerfano bootleggers were collecting between $4,000 and $5,000 for “Christmas cheer” alone. And those officers were reaping the glory and the confiscated product, while the city lost taxes and the county went without relief to the school fund.
Local officers were more lenient toward some liquor offenders, such as one widow operating a still to earn money for her children. She was arrested, but the judge showed mercy. State and federal agents did not know the people nor care about their circumstances, which caused no end of grief among the Mediterranean populace for whom wine was an integral part of the day.
Prohibition ended in 1933, and slot machines were pulled out of storage at the same time as 3.2 beer hit the shelves. The city levied a $2.50 annual tax on the slots. Later this was reduced to $2. It was up to the police force to collect the money, or, if the tax was not paid, to collect the machines. Several hundred dollars swelled city coffers. The mayor in 1943 banned slot machines and 160 were confiscated by city police, ending that particular source of taxable income, and the headaches that came along with them.