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Ask Gen. Palmer: Colorado Springs the site of 1881 execution

October 24, 2013 Updated: October 24, 2013 at 1:45 pm
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Editor's Note: This column about local history appears in Sunday's print editions of The Gazette, on the "Who We Are" page. Send questions to dave.philipps@gazette.com; 636-0238.

Question: Have there ever been any executions in Colorado Springs?

Answer: Yes. As far as I am aware, there has only been one - in the early days before the state took over such affairs, but I assure you, the town took great pains not to let it devolve into the sort of frontier spectacle you read about in dime novels. We were civilized people who regretted the grim decrees of the law forced upon us and were determined to conduct them in proper fashion.

The case was that of William Canty, aka William Salisbury, a ne'er-do-well gambler and bully who was loafing around in Buena Vista in 1880 with a number of ruffians - scoundrels with names like Johnny the Ham and Curly Frank - when a sheriff arrived and began hauling one of the gentlemen, Dutch Bill, to jail. Canty drew his pistol on the sheriff and fired. He hit the sheriff in the arm. The sheriff drew his pistol, but before he could use it, Canty shot him in the hand, then walked up and put a ball through his chest.

The trial took place in Colorado Springs in April 1881. Canty professed innocence but over four days, 30 witnesses said he had acted in cold blood. It took the jury four hours to find him guilty. A judge sentenced him to death.

On June 17, 1881, the sentence was carried out on a gallows built in the square where the Pioneers Museum now stands. The sheriff constructed 20-foot walls around the platform to ensure that, as my paper, The Gazette, opined "There will be no satisfaction afforded to an idle crowd and the city will be spared the humiliation of offering a lynch spectacle."

Despite these measures, a mob of over 1,000 gathered. Keep in mind, the town had only 4,000 at the time. A ring of guards had to hold them back; still they scurried to and fro trying to catch a glimpse of the condemned. There had been rumors that the man would get a last-minute reprieve, and other rumors that desperate men were prowling around town waiting for an opportunity to rescue the prisoner. Neither happened.

At 2:30, Canty was taken from the jail and a stout hemp rope was placed around his neck. Weeping, he gave a speech, which lasted 19 minutes, repeatedly proclaiming his innocence. He knelt to pray, then a black hood was placed over his head.

A sheriff's deputy pulled the lever and Canty fell through the trap.

The rope broke.

It is thought that testing the gallows repeatedly with weights had weakened the cords. The body hit the ground with a thud. With some difficulty it was retied and hauled up to hang again until, eight minutes later, Canty's heart ceased to beat and he was pronounced dead.

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As told by staff writer Dave Philipps in Gen. Palmer's voice.

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