by Nancy Christofferson
In last week’s issue: Just south of Walsenburg, a group of masked men ambushed a wagon transporting Italians accused of murder. The guard was disarmed and sent walking back to town as shots rang out.
The wagon driver, young Joseph Wellsby, was unable to control his team in the barrage of shots and jumped into the road. As he fell, he was hit by two bullets and died in the arms of a deputy sheriff who was sitting beside him on the wagon seat, evidently unarmed. Three Italians scattered into the night, though one of them was found the following day, shot dead. One, Roccetto, stayed in the wagon.
While a search was mounted for the fugitive Italians, Danino was joined in the jailhouse by Roccetto. The city jail was then located just north of the courthouse on Fourth Street. Another man already was incarcerated there.
At about 1 am, the two guards on duty in the jail had their card game interrupted by rapping at the door. When asked for an identity, the knocker replied it was “Walt” so the guards assumed the boss had arrived. The door was opened but instead of finding O’Malley, the guards were confronted with four (or up to seven, depending on which account is read) masked men who forced their way in and began shooting. Both Danino and Roccetto were killed. The man jailed earlier was not wounded.
Off ran the intruders, with the guards behind them somewhere, shooting into the darkness, around homes, businesses and railroad cars.
Even in 1895, gunfire in the middle of the night drew attention, and citizens began rushing from their homes. Four of them were respected businessmen, including a doctor. They found the two dead Italians in their cell and respectfully laid them out. The next day the three dead were laid to rest in St. Mary Cemetery’s “Italian Row.” A large number of people were present for the funeral, but most sympathy went out to young Wellsby’s widowed mother Mary, who had relied on his financial assistance and was left bereft. Wellsby had been, after all, an innocent bystander whose only role in the drama was as driver of a wagon. And, he was young.
Word of the killing of the three unarmed Italian citizens spread quickly, and major newspapers picked up the atrocity and demanded justice. The acting Italian consul in Denver, Dr. Guiseppe (Joseph) Cuneo, who had only taken his position in January, was ordered to Walsenburg by the Italian ambassador in Washington, DC. While all but one of the Italians involved had taken out papers to apply for American citizenship, their native country was there to assure their families recourse, possibly of a financial settlement but more probably to clear their names of murder.
Dr. Cuneo duly arrived in town and checked into the old Twin Lakes Hotel, practically next door to the dreaded jail, and began interviewing everyone involved. He was baffled by the conflicting reports and told his superiors of his lack of progress, so was ordered back to Denver.
Meanwhile, the two Italians who had escaped from the wagon were the center of a search that lasted four days. One, Giaccobino, suffered with frozen feet and ears, and had to have the former amputated. The other, Gobetto, was never found.
And still the populace clamored for answers – where was the sheriff? Why did the jail guards not shoot at the intruders while in the jail, or follow them more quickly? Who were those intruders? How did they find the Italians in the dark of the jail, and miss the other inmate? Who really killed Hixon? Why did the guards of the wagon take a shortcut? Why didn’t they return when they heard the gunshots near the bridge? These questions remain today. (continued next week)