Suspicious death prompts county to appoint coroner
May 5, 2014
The coroner shall hold an inquest upon the dead bodies of such persons only as are supposed to have died within his county by unlawful means or the cause of death is unknown.
— General Statutes of the State of Colorado, 1883
Joseph Elam was dying, and knew he was dying due to the deeds of his mining partner, Lewis Robinson. On a day in late August 1883, the two argued at their camp on the Flat Tops near Carbonate. After drinking some milk from the camp’s provisions, Elam quickly fell ill, and was convinced he was a victim of strychnine poisoning. He managed to find help, and told his story before he died. It was now the responsibility of the county coroner to discover the facts of the case.
Established by state statute, the county coroner was an elected official. Among the position’s many duties was the requirement to hold inquests in cases where the deceased died through unattended, unlawful or unknown means, and to appoint jurors to hold inquests. He could subpoena witnesses, was required to administer oaths, could enlist medical professionals to assist in scientific discovery, and issued an official report of the inquest’s findings. He had the power to order arrests based upon the inquest. He was responsible for the delivery of the body to the proper parties, or issue a decent burial using the resources found upon the body, or, if indigent, to provide a burial at the county expense. Additionally, if there were no county sheriff, or if the county sheriff became unavailable, imprisoned or was a party to a case, it became the duty of county coroner to perform the duties of sheriff until the position of sheriff was filled.
When Garfield County was established in February 1883, the coroner was not among the appointed officials. Without an official coroner, Elam’s suspicious death prompted the Garfield County commissioners to appoint John C. Pierce as acting coroner. Voters in the county’s first election in November 1883 chose New Castle resident Patrick Tompkins as coroner. However, Tompkins was replaced by John H. Bowland in February 1884 when Tompkins was unable to provide to the county his required $5,000 bond.
As Garfield County grew economically, the coroner investigated an increasing number of homicides and suicides, as well as and mining, railroad and agricultural accidents. Within the 1880s, two other men would fill the coroner position. Having had experience with the Elam case, Pierce was elected coroner in 1886. In 1888, John C. Johnsen became coroner. Johnsen, who was partner with Glenwood Springs’ Louis Schwarz in undertaking, also was contracted with Garfield County to “furnish coffins, dig graves and complete the burial of county paupers.” When Johnsen moved to Aspen in the 1890s, he was elected Pitkin County coroner.
Dr. Leman G. Clark was elected coroner in 1891. His election ushered in the new era of physicians holding the office. Distinguished physicians Marshall H. Dean, Theodore Hottop and Granville A. Hopkins all held the office, often alternating from election to election. In the 1960s, mortician Jack Farnum was coroner.
In the autumn of 1883, Elam’s story was transmitted from Carbonate to Glenwood Springs, and law enforcement ordered the detainment of Elam’s partner, Robinson. Robinson had traveled to Glenwood Springs, where, when he could not pay the toll at the Cooper Avenue Toll Bridge, sold the toll keeper Elam’s horses and saddle. Robinson was arrested, and a preliminary hearing held. Attorney Rhone represented the people, while Robinson’s defense team was Downing and King of Aspen. Robinson’s attorneys argued their client should not be detained based on circumstantial evidence, and that Elam, to their knowledge at the time, was not dead. The defense lost their argument, and Robinson was jailed in Pitkin County pending a hearing in District Court in September.
With word of Elam’s death, Coroner Pierce assembled F.W. Bennett, S. Spurgeon, J.F. Robar, James Little, J.A. McLean and W.B. Middleton to conduct a coroner’s inquest. Dr. R.R. Teller autopsied the body, and employed W.B. Middleton to analyze the stomach contents using mining assay techniques. The contents revealed traces of strychnine, but more samples were sent to Denver for further analysis.
Lack of evidence prompted Judge Luther Goddard to dismiss the charges against Robinson in Carbonate at District Court in mid-September. In October 1883, the county commissioners approved payment of those involved in the coroner’s inquest and for Elam’s autopsy.
Days after receiving his freedom, Robinson borrowed horses from his attorneys for a hunting trip. Robinson and the horses were never again seen.
Willa Kane is former archivist of and a current volunteer with the Frontier Historical Society and Museum. “Frontier Diary,” which appears the first Tuesday of every month, is provided to the Post Independent by the museum, 1001 Colorado Ave., Glenwood Springs. Summer hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information, call 945-4448.