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Frontier Diary: Glenwood narrowly avoided its only hanging

Willa Kane
Glenwood Springs Historical Society
Glenwood Springs Historical Society

“I have never denied killing this man, but I believe, and always shall, that if I had not, I should have lost my own life.”

— Herman C. Babcock, The Daily Ute Chief, Oct. 17, 1888

Herman Charles Babcock was a man of few words and possessed even less regret. Confined to his cell in the Garfield County Jail, he had time to recount the events of Aug. 24, 1888. Yes, he had killed James M. Riland on that fateful day. But Babcock, being a man of conviction, believed deeply his actions were just.



Living his life on his property at Sweetwater east of Glenwood Springs was uneasy. Riland, his neighbor, was a 63-year-old Civil War veteran. Babcock himself never stepped down from a fight. He was 38 years old, and had experienced the rough responsibilities of running a saloon and hotel in Frisco.

The two men disliked one another. That dislike escalated in August 1888 over a dispute involving some mules. Babcock took the dispute further by disparaging Riland’s Civil War service. Both parties, in the presence of witnesses, hurled death threats toward each other. Both armed themselves for self-defense.



Earlier in the day of Aug. 24, 1888, words again were exchanged, but both parted company. It was later in the day when Babcock crossed Riland’s path. Babcock claimed he felt his life threatened and in response shot Riland once. Riland would not recover from his injury.

Babcock went immediately to Glenwood Springs and presented himself to the authorities. He was promptly jailed and knew he would need legal help. He quickly hired H.T. Sale for his defense.

Opinion regarding Babcock’s innocence divided Glenwood Springs, Garfield County and the state of Colorado. Those loyal to Riland decried this seemingly senseless murder and screamed for justice. Those in Babcock’s camp proclaimed his innocence, and would take up arms if Babcock was found guilty of murder.

The trial of The People of the State of Colorado versus Herman C. Babcock began Oct. 8, 1888. To a courtroom filled to capacity with interested parties and onlookers from across the state, District Attorney Edward T. Taylor presented the case against Babcock. Witnesses took the stand for both the prosecution and defense. By Oct. 15, 1888, Attorney Sale petitioned for a new trial with a change of venue. Sale argued his client could not receive a fair trial in Glenwood Springs. Part of his argument hinged on media reporting by the Ute Chief Newspaper, of which the editor was James L. Riland, son of the murder victim. Judge Thomas Rucker denied the new trial.

On Oct. 16, 1888, the jury returned its verdict. Babcock was guilty of murder in the first degree; however, the jury asked for the mercy of the court. No mercy could be granted. Colorado’s death penalty law stated the punishment for first degree murder was death by hanging. Judge Rucker had no option but to sentence Babcock to death, with the execution date set for Nov. 9, 1888.

Babcock’s attorney immediately petitioned the Colorado Supreme Court for a stay of execution and a retrial. The petition alleged in part that Judge Rucker had been biased against Babcock, and media coverage did not allow for a fair and impartial hearing. While the matter was taken up by the Supreme Court, Babcock was placed on death watch. Preparations for Glenwood Springs’s first hanging began in earnest, with scaffolding and ball weight ordered from the state penitentiary in Canon City.

Good news came to Babcock on Nov. 8, 1888. The Colorado Supreme Court ordered a stay of execution and a retrial. Two years later, in October 1890, Babcock was retried and was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to eight years in the state penitentiary in Canon City. Again, there was outrage across the state that justice had not been served.

Babcock’s light blue eyes focused confidently on the camera as he posed for his prison mug shot. His hair was shaved nearly as close as the beard stubble on his round shaped face. He wore a dark colored dress suit jacket, buttoned, but the horizontal stripes of his prison uniform could be seen under the jacket. Babcock then settled into the life of a model prisoner.

Good behavior paid off. On Dec. 30, 1892, Babcock was pardoned by Colorado Gov. Routt. A free man, Babcock was never again seen in Glenwood Springs.

The gallows were never used in Glenwood Springs, in part due a change in the death penalty law in 1890 that required executions to be conducted exclusively within the walls of the state penitentiary. The ball weight, a grim reminder of the near execution of Herman Babcock, remained stored in Glenwood Springs until World War II, when it was scrapped to help with the war effort.

Willa Kane is former archivist of and a current volunteer with the Glenwood Springs Historical Society and Frontier Historical 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. Fall, winter and spring hours are 1-4 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. For more information, call 945-4448.


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