April 17, 2010
CRIPPLE CREEK • Poor Mr. Roberts.
Gold miner James Roberts was pistol-whipped to death a century ago, but he can’t rest in peace.
He’s resting in pieces.
His body is buried in an unmarked grave, and his cranium is in a box formerly used to hold raffle tickets in a saloon. Such has been the long, crazy odyssey for the top of Mr. Roberts’ head. It started in 1901 when a coroner cut off the cranium for a slick lawyer to use in the alleged killer’s defense. In the decades since, the bone has gathered dust in a storeroom at Teller County Courthouse, dodged a judge who wanted it for an ashtray, escaped a pub that wanted it as a trophy and survived two years as a conversation piece in someone’s home.
Now, the cranium that once topped Mr. Roberts has come to rest at the Cripple Creek District Museum. You can look, but not touch. Not that you’d want to ...
The museum got the cranium last month. Director Jan Collins said plans are to house it there until it can be reunited with the dead man’s body, which, according to documents, is buried somewhere in the town’s Mount Pisgah Cemetery. Nobody knows exactly where.
In other words, Roberts’ skull isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Which is fine with Collins: She thinks it fits in just fine with the mojo in this museum of ghosts and artifacts from the Wild West.
“He’s an example of frontier justice,” she said, “and the kind of town this was. It was very gritty at that time. Death came often and swiftly.”
James Roberts’ death came on Christmas night of 1901, Collins said. He stopped for a drink at the Dawson Club on bawdy Myers Avenue. After his friends left, he exchanged heated words with bar owner William Brooks.
As Roberts turned away, Brooks came up behind him and whacked the side of his head with a Colt .45 revolver. Roberts fell, hitting his head on the heating stove and again when he hit the floor.
And there he lay for an hour, the entertainment while the party went on at the bar.
“From all accounts, his head was oozing blood,” Collins said. “When all those patrons were sitting at the bar, teasing him and telling him to get up and have a drink, he was lying there with his poor head scrambled.”
Eventually, someone thought to call a doctor, but it was too late. Roberts was dead.
Bar owner Brooks and several witnesses were arrested.
Enter J. Maurice Finn, the illustrious attorney who defended notable outlaws and Cripple Creek’s millionaires. He was known by all as the “Oratorical Whirlwind of the West.”
Finn’s defense: Roberts had an abnormally thin skull. Therefore, his client did not intend to kill Roberts by hitting him with a gun butt.
Not only that, Finn convinced the coroner to saw off the top of Roberts’ skull so he could use it in the defense. Roberts’ body was buried while the top of his skull stayed behind to become Exhibit A.
The ploy worked.
Brooks was acquitted. After being nearly mobbed by those who liked Roberts, he got out of town on the next train.
Not Roberts’ skull. It stayed at Teller County Courthouse. For decades.
“I first found it in 1974 or ’75,” said modern-day attorney P.J, Anderson, a former county attorney who now practices law in Cascade.
It was sitting next to a bag of gold. Everyone got excited about the gold and news stories were written. Anderson was interested in the skull, researching its history back to the trial.
Mr. Roberts’ skull was back in the limelight. People came forward claiming to be related to the skull, trying to get the gold. Interest died when the gold dust was valued at only $18.
But a Springs bar named after Finn, the famous defense attorney, wanted the skull so patrons could drink to Roberts’ memory.
“The courthouse wouldn’t release it because the judge at the time wanted to use it as an ashtray,” Anderson said.
That didn’t happen, either. The skull ended up in the evidence room in the courthouse. “It was somewhere on the floor, in the corner out of everyone’s way,” Anderson said.
And that’s where it stayed until it went on display in a courthouse office.
Fast forward to September 2009.
“I had this flat screen TV my wife said I needed to sell,” Anderson said.
He put it on Craigslist and a Teller County Courthouse employee bought it. During the TV transaction, Anderson told the story of James Roberts and his fractured skull.
“I’ve been telling the story for 35 years,” Anderson said.
The employee went in to work and repeated the story of the TV and the skull. Lisa Wheatcraft, a court reporter, knew of the skull and went to look for it and discovered it was gone.
Wheatcraft tracked down the skull to a former courthouse worker who’d taken it home — and who willingly returned it.
Wheatcraft locked the skull in a drawer and after a few months of digging, offered the skull to the museum. Collins took it and went to work confirming Anderson’s history.
Finally, Roberts’ skull was recognized as a historic artifact, not a circus sideshow.
“I said: ‘Poor Mr. Roberts, we’ll take care of him,’” Collins said.
Oddly enough, at the museum, it has been reunited with Finn, the celebrated defense attorney responsible for the partial decapitation. A framed picture of Finn hangs in the museum, not far from the skull portion.
And after decades of indignities, the skull finally is being treated with respect.
“We say, ‘Good morning, Mr. Roberts,’ when we come in and ‘Good night, Mr. Roberts’ when we leave,” Collins said.
“It is important that nobody feels badly for him or that we’re exploiting his story. We empathize with what happened to him. We aren’t going to make fun of him or anything like that, although it is kind of funny.”
Call the writer at 636-0253.