Past Episodes

E3: LYNCHED! The Vicious Public Murder of Oliver Briley

In 1891, Salida, Colorado, is one of the most modern cities in the west. There is electricity, numerous multi-story buildings, a thriving economy, and the town is the center of the statewide railroad activity.  Salida is the epitome of bootstrapping American success.

But under the surface is a not-so-secret truth—the people are among the most brutal in the mining region. The majority are rough-and-tumble railroad men who regularly settle differences with fists and knives and guns. And ropes.

 

Oliver Briley is a newcomer, working in the rail yard. Not understanding the difference between Salida’s surface beauty and the underlying violence leads to him pay the ultimate price.

SHOW NOTES

The Mountain Mail newspaper article on the lynching, February 24, 1891

Photograph of policeman Hollis Spencer

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LYNCHED! The Vicious Public Murder of Oliver BrileySteve Chapman
00:00 / 01:04
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EPISODE 3

LYNCHED! The Vicious Public Murder of Oliver Briley

In 1891, Salida, Colorado, is one of the most modern cities in the west. There is electricity, numerous multi-story buildings, a thriving economy, and the town is the center of the statewide railroad activity.  Salida is the epitome of bootstrapping American success.

 

But under the surface is a not-so-secret truth—the people are among the most brutal in the mining region. The majority are rough-and-tumble railroad men who regularly settle differences with fists and knives and guns. And ropes.

 

Oliver Briley is a newcomer, working in the rail yard. Not understanding the difference between Salida’s surface beauty and the underlying violence leads to him pay the ultimate price.

 

Sit back, turn up the volume, and let’s explore the vicious public murder of Oliver Briley.

Welcome to History Does Rhyme. I’m your host, Steve Chapman. You can find every episode right here and for free on HeartOfTheRockiesRadio.com and HistoryDoesRhyme.com. You can contact me on Facebook at History Does Rhyme.

Each week, we’re going to chat about the past, diving deep into stories you only thought you knew, and exploring a few tales you’ve never heard.

Like many young men of his time, 22-year-old Oliver Briley leaves his mother in the East and travels with his younger brother, Louis, to Colorado's mountains. The brothers are certain that steady work and the possibility of riches exist in the mining country.

 

Briley quickly finds a job in the railroad yard with Mr. Smith, a coal contractor for the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. Mr. Smith likes Oliver Briley and considers him a pleasant, hardworking young man. Smith is so fond of the newcomer that he promotes Oliver Briley to temporarily oversee work at the coal chutes when a foreman becomes ill.

 

On the other end of the spectrum is a long-time employee of the railroad named Pat Sullivan. A married, sober man of 34, he started working for the railroads as a teenager. Sullivan is exceptionally popular with the tough, mostly Irish, men of the rail yard.

 

Until two months earlier, Pat Sullivan never was based in his home city. For two decades, work forced him to live in other towns, and only periodically did he return to see his wife and children. But now, he works out of Salida, and Sullivan is thrilled to be home every night.

 

Since the arrival of the railroads in Salida in 1880, the company always allowed poor locals to carry off waste coal—chunks that fall off the train engines. Coal is expensive, particularly if you are impoverished, and anyway, the railroad throws the excess into the river if those in need don’t take it.

 

Among the poorest in the boomtown are the Italians, mostly uneducated hardworking men from the old country.

 

Perhaps unaware of the unwritten permission, Oliver Briley sees the taking of coal as theft. As the new man in charge of the coal chutes, a young worker probably eager to make his mark, Oliver feels it is his job to protect all railroad property, including waste coal.

 

In early February of 1891, Briley sees a few Italian men carrying off coal. He does what he sees as his duty and confronts the men, demanding they drop the railroad property and leave. The Italians have a different opinion and proceed to beat the snot out of Oliver. After the fight, Oliver Briley starts carrying a .41 caliber revolver whenever he is on the job.

 

On Saturday, February 21, at ten minutes before six in the evening, Oliver Briley is working inside the cab of a hog-back engine on the track between the coal chutes and the Arkansas River.

 

Sitting on some tiebacks, staying warm next to a fire, is railroad conductor Pat Sullivan and his brakeman, J.D. Woodruff.

Mike Costello, a local Italian, is walking along the train tracks doing what he's always done and looking for large chunks of coal to take home and use in his furnace.

 

When Oliver Briley spots Costello walking away with some coal, he jumps from the engine, pulls that 41-caliber gun, and approaches Costello, telling him to drop what he’s carrying. Costello does as he’s told…after all, it’s a big gun in his face.

 

Sullivan and Woodruff watch the incident and quickly call out to Briley, saying he shouldn't have pulled a gun on the man as the Italians are always allowed to take the waste coal. Sullivan explains to Briley, in harsh railroad terms, I'm sure, that Italian men had taken the coal in the past and would certainly take it in the future.

 

Briley later tells the Marshall he had been abused at the rail yard and could take no more. That is most likely the truth, based on the job's rugged environment and those who work along the tracks.

 

Rail work in 1891 is incredibly dangerous. Men regularly lose fingers and limbs and lives in unsafe conditions. As a result, a military-type toughness and reliance on fellow workers is essential. In such a climate, newcomers are always put to the test to see if they 'have what it takes.'

 

Oliver Briley sees Pat Sullivan's words as a challenge and responds as a man in 1891 typically does, especially a young man. "Perhaps you would like to take it up," Briley says. "Perhaps you want something of me."

 

Sullivan responds that he guesses he can take anything Briley can give him.

 

The challenge is issued and accepted.

 

Pat Sullivan stands and removes his overcoat.

 

Climbing down from the engine cab, Briley starts taking off his coat.

 

What the movies call a fair fight rarely happens in the old west. This is the real world, and Pat Sullivan doesn’t wait for Oliver Briley to remove his coat altogether. Instead, Sullivan picks up a two-foot section of fence board and rapidly approaches the young man, swinging the board with all his strength.

 

Pat Sullivan comes up so quickly that he doesn’t notice the gun Oliver Briley is carrying in his right vest pocket. Briley's overcoat is still on his right arm, unintentionally concealing the weapon.

 

Most certainly remembering his earlier beating, Oliver Briley determines to never again be at a disadvantage in a fight. As Oliver blocks Pat Sullivan's blow with his left hand, he grabs the revolver with his right hand, holds the gun against Sullivan's stomach, and pulls the trigger.

While the echo of the shot bounces through the rail yard, Pat Sullivan turns toward his brakeman, J.D. Woodruff, who is watching in shock, about twelve feet away.

 

Woodruff trots toward the two men to help his friend, and Oliver Briley turns the gun on him and tells J.D. Woodruff to stand still.

 

Woodruff ignores the command and goes to Sullivan, asking if he is hurt.

 

"Yes," Sullivan says. “I am hurt bad. Run for the doctor."

Pat Sullivan was shot on his right side, upward through the liver. The bullet lodged in his chest.

 

J.D. Woodruff sprints to the hospital for help.

 

After hearing the gunshot, Ed Easterly, the fireman for engineer Sam Brown, arrives. Easterly removes his overcoat and lays Sullivan on the garment.

 

Sam Brown is right behind Easterly. As Brown approaches the scene, Oliver Briley panics, points the gun at all the men, and tells Brown to keep away. Oliver Briley then races toward town.

 

Doctors are fast on the scene, as the shooting happened less than a half-mile from the railroad hospital. They transport Pat Sullivan to the hospital, but the medical staff can do nothing.

 

At 6:33 p.m., less than 40 minutes from the beginning of the episode, Pat Sullivan is dead.

 

Sam Brown follows Briley into downtown and points him out to the Marshal, T.S. McKelvy.

McKelvy confronts Oliver Briley in front of a restaurant and arrests the young man without incident. Oliver admits to the killing.

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If the story of Oliver Briley ended here, there would be nothing remarkable. An argument resulting in a shooting death is typical in the old west.

 

But the rest of our tale is anything but normal. The next few hours in Oliver Briley's life redefines barbarism and exposes the savage animal lurking within.

 

Keep listening.

 

Marshal McKelvy walks Oliver Briley to a temporary jail, located between F Street and G Street, on Second Street in downtown Salida. The location is a former restaurant, set in the rear of a pharmacy.

 

The jailhouse burned a few months earlier when a prisoner set his mattress on fire hoping to escape during the chaos. That prisoner died of smoke inhalation, leaving the jail useless, necessitating a temporary setup in the old restaurant.

 

 The two-story brick building is almost entirely glass on the front, not an ideal location for housing criminals.

 

But law enforcement never considers anyone breaking 'in' to the jail, so their solution to keeping prisoners from breaking 'out' is to chain them to the floor in the main room, which is what the Marshal does with Oliver Briley.

 

In frontier towns, whispers of lynching are common after a man is arrested for murder. The murmurs almost always faded away without incident.

 

But this murder involved a popular rail worker and an Irishman to boot.  Migrants take care of their own in 1891, and rail workers do the same. Salida's citizens typically cater to their needs and desires.

 

At a minimum, ignoring the threats of such a large, rough group is unwise.

 

After hearing growing whispers of lynching Oliver Briley, Marshal McKelvy decides to err on the side of caution, and he swears in six citizens as additional deputies. The Marshal has three full-time police officers but feels extra guns are a wise precaution.

 

The Marshal positions the deputies outside the temporary jail as a show of force. He wants it clear to all that the law intends to protect Oliver Briley.

 

Oliver's younger brother, Louis, arrives with a Winchester rifle and joins the line.

 

With his guards in place, the Marshal walks with the mayor to the stable to get a wagon to transport Briley to Buena Vista, the county jail location.

 

When the Marshal and the mayor return, they see a large crowd has already gathered. In their opinion, the group is far too large to remove Briley and escort him from town safely, so they return to the stable

to replace the rig.

 

In the short time between leaving and coming back, the restless crowd has turned into an angry mob, one demanding the surrender of Oliver Briley for what is called 'a necktie party.' A lynching, in other words.

 

The mayor stands in front of the angry men, now numbering over 100, nearly all railroad workers. He shouts to the group, stating the law will prosecute anyone taking part in a lynching.

 

It is 8:30 p.m., and the mob quiets for the moment.

 

The mayor senses real danger in the situation and finds guns for the volunteer deputies.

 

But after seeing the size and increasing rage of the railroad mob, the six citizen officers refuse to stand at the front of the building as requested. Instead, they go inside the makeshift jail.

 

Less than 60 minutes later, a group of men appears, all wearing red masks. They hold a rope and immediately attack the jail, breaking the front door. 

 

The paid police officers respond by firing several shots, and the mob runs away in panic.

 

During a later court trial, one man claims a railroad engineer named John McIvor rallied the mob in the middle of the street after they fled from the police the first time. The witness testifies that McIvor yells, "Fall in line boys and march in on him."

 

John McIvor has a reputation as a brutal man who doesn’t hesitate to kill.

 

McIvor is from Virginia, where he served in the Army during the war between the states.

 

After the war, while serving as an engineer on a southern rail line, a group of black men jumps on his train, and McIvor can’t get them to leap back off. During the resulting fight, one member of the attacking group tries to shove McIvor's hand in the firebox, causing a severe burn. 

 

As the fighting escalates, one of the black men tries to take over as the train engineer. McIvor shoots and kills him, and two others, with a revolver. He repeatedly fires at the rest of the group, and a half dozen of the mob limp into the woods, wounded.

 

According to rumors, McIvor hunts down the injured men, killing four of them, before returning to the north and eventually relocating to Salida.

 

The Salida mob responds to McIvor's encouragement, and some go to the rear of the makeshift jail and again attack. 

 

A gunshot blasts through the rear window, missing the Marshal's head by inches.

 

By this time, chaos and bloodlust explode, and the gang turns enraged beyond control, reason, or rational thought. 

 

Gunshots ring from every side of the building, peppering the inner walls and barely missing the guards.

Repeatedly, members of the vengeful crowd scream that Oliver Briley won’t make it out alive.

 

This cycle repeats for over an hour—a wave of men attacks, shooting and screaming, and deputies repel them, only to see the army of over 100 drunken rail workers return to try again at lynching Oliver Briley.

 

Policeman Hollis Spencer stands out for bravery during the riot.

 

At one point, he stands in the front doorway, a gun in each hand, firing and holding back the crowd. But overwhelmed by the numbers, he retreats inside the building. Spencer is near the front when the glass wall shatters. Simultaneously, a bullet shot from the rear of the building, creasing Policeman Spencer's head and slicing a furrow above his brow. Spencer staggers and falls to the ground.

 

An unnamed attacker who knows Spencer comes to his aid, asking if he is hurt, and helps the police officer stand up and lean against the building.

 

As the fighting expands, Policeman E.B. Pennington receives a gunshot wound to the wrist.

 

Jack Sexton, the assistant yardmaster, has two fingers shot off his left hand.

 

During the mob's final attempt to enter the jail building, Louis Briley, Oliver Briley's brother, fires his Winchester rifle while attempting to move the crazed men back.

 

Charles Hallock, a brakeman, watching the action across the street, is shot by the Winchester in his right leg, between the knee and thigh.

 

Marshal McKelvy tells Louis Briley he should leave as he'd just shot a man. Louis refuses and remains to protect his brother.

 

The police officers fight with courage and determination, but ten guns cannot defeat over 100 furious, determined rioters. The group eventually gains entry through a side door. The police lose the battle.

 

Once the gang is inside, shooting is nonstop, and the fighting animalistic. Shots ring out furiously.

 

When Marshal McKelvy gives his men orders to escape outside, Louis Briley stays behind and fights beside his brother, Oliver. Witnesses say the two men battle like demons. But two against 100 only ends happily in the films.

From the street, the Marshal shouts an order for his men not to shoot no matter what.

 

Louis Briley and several others say it was John McIvor who leads what happened next.

 

One of the guards testifies McIvor shouts that Oliver Briley has killed one of their best men. He screams, "We will hang the son-of-a-bitch."

 

When the mob makes it to the prisoner, their rage inflamed, over a dozen men grab Oliver Briley. One puts a rope over his neck, and the rest try to drag him outside for a lynching, unaware or unconcerned about the chains holding Oliver to the ground. 

 

Several versions exist of what happens to Oliver Briley in his final moments.

 

One report says that after placing a rope on his neck, the men pulled so hard that Oliver's neck breaks, and he is dead before being dragged outside.

 

Another says five gunshots kill him before the mob pulls his body into the streets.

 

The most gruesome statement is that dozens of the mob pull and pull at Oliver, attempting to yank him from his shackles, but the chains hold, nearly tearing Oliver Briley in two.

 

What seems clear is that Oliver Briley is dead before being removed from the jail, making what happens afterward fall into the category of madness and barbarism, and mob-induced psychosis.

 

In the court trial, Marshal McKelvy says he didn't recognize any of the attackers even though he was standing in the middle of the street when the mob emerges with the body of Oliver Briley.

 

Screaming and shooting, the crowd carries Oliver Briley's corpse a block away and tries to hang it from an electric pole, but the rope is too short, and Oliver's body falls to the ground. The gang beats and kicks the corpse before dragging it a few blocks away near the corner of First Street and G Street, beside the railroad crossing. Next to the intersection is a telegraph pole holding a warning sign, reading, 'Lookout. Locomotive.'

 

The enraged group of rail workers finally succeed in lynching Oliver Briley and end their furious assault.

 

Well, they end it after John McIvor shouts that he is going to shoot Oliver's body for luck.

 

At this same time, a passenger train is pulling in to Salida. According to those on the train, about 400 shots accompany McIvor's, riddling the young man's dead body with bullet holes.

 

Those on the Durango & Silverton train say the fevered crowd shouts and fires their revolvers over and over. The train engineer pulls the throttle wide and dashes past the scene at an alarming rate of speed. Passengers duck under their seats, thinking a robbery is occurring.

 

Another train, arriving after the lynching is over, results in passengers telling a story typical in the wild west.

 

One traveler asks a seatmate what tragedy led to a body dangling from a telegraph pole. A rough, burly cowboy, accustomed to the brutal ways of the west, let out a whoop and shouts, "Oh, just hanging a man—that's all!"

 

The Sheriff arrives from Buena Vista at one in the morning and cuts Oliver Briley's body down from the telegraph pole.

 

There is one story stating that Policeman Spencer protected Oliver's body until the Sheriff's arrival, taking cover behind a train engine while holding two guns and daring the rioters to cross the street. As this tale only appeared in Spencer's obituary and was never recorded by any reporter or observer, I don't put a lot of weight in it. It's possible, but a story that heroic would be legendary and most certainly would have made the newspapers, not to mention local folklore. It did not.

 

What is certain is that Louis Briley asks for his brother's body. Some of the murderous crowd say yes, most say no, and Oliver's corpse hangs in public for several hours, until the arrival of the Sheriff.

To this point, the ending of the life of Oliver Briley is horrific and tragic and sad and beyond comprehension. The rest of the story, however, is where things get especially interesting. Don't go away.

 

Over 100 witnesses testify before the coroner's jury and 45 in the grand jury, which results in the arrest of Marshal McKelvy for conspiracy, a charge made by Louis Briley. The court also files murder charges against John McIvor and several other men.

 

Each defendant receives a $5,000 bond, around $100,000 in modern money. While the names aren't recorded, several of Salida's leading citizens guarantee John McIvor's bond.

 

The prosecution calls over two dozen witnesses, but nearly all refuse to implicate anyone. Even the Marshal claims not to have recognized a single attacker.

 

The prosecution drops the charge against Marshal McKelvy for lack of evidence.

 

The rest of the men are acquitted of all charges.

 

Pat Sullivan's funeral services are held in the Catholic church, attended by many family and friends. Two of his brothers arrive in Salida from Grand Junction, and two from Clear Creek, Utah. His sister comes with her husband from Pueblo. Pat Sullivan is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Salida.

 

Oliver Briley is also buried at Woodlawn Cemetery, but he is interred without the benefit of a minister, and no church service is held. Mr. Smith, the railroad coal contractor, pays for Oliver's burial.

 

I leave you with a few final thoughts on the vicious public murder of Oliver Briley.

 

Pat Sullivan's wife, Mary, dies in 1909 of stomach troubles at the age of 56. Like their father, Pat's four sons all become railroad workers.

 

The town council publicly condemns the Salida Mayor and Marshal McKelvy for not doing more to stop the lynching but take no other action against the men.

 

Marshal T.S. McKelvy resigns from his office six weeks after the trial. He has been on the job for only ten months. After leaving, he becomes a detective for the railroad, working beside the very men who lynched Oliver Briley. One year later, citizens elect McKelvy as the Salida delegate to the Republican state convention.

Town council members nominate Policeman Hollis Spencer for Salida Marshal following the resignation of McKelvy, but another man gets the job. Spencer resigns from the police force and enters the real estate business. He dies in 1938 at the age of 75.

 

John McIvor, the man all witnesses testified as having led the lynch mob, appears to have been well connected. A high-ranking Mason friend is credited with protecting McIvor in court and seems to be the one who guaranteed the bond. No name is found in the records or newspapers.

 

McIvor never seemed concerned about being convicted and openly boasted he'd never serve a day in jail. One substantial rumor is that McIvor wasn't worried because it was another man, one who also had a strong Southern accent, who led the charge. This gossip says McIvor allowed himself to take the heat to give the real criminal time to escape Colorado.

 

McIvor falls ill a few years later with several spinal issues, a common ailment among railroad workers. Until then, he remained a leader among railroad workers.

 

The Saturday Evening Post mentioned John McIvor in 1899 when writing a story about the railroads. McClure's Magazine wrote an extensive article following his death, emphasizing the good deeds he accomplished while alive.

 

When John McIvor dies in 1897 at the age of 49, the Knights of Pythias write this in his obituary: "Brother John J. McIvor, who during his lifetime was ever ready by word or act to alleviate the sufferings and needs of a brother and friend, and whose many kind and generous deeds gained for him enduring remembrance of the hearts of all who knew him."

 

There is not a single word written about McIvor's role in Oliver Briley's death.

Finally, we come to Louis Briley, Oliver's brother.

 

Following the trial of Oliver Briley's assailants, Louis travels to Iowa, where his mother is living. Communications are slow and unreliable in 1891, and Louis chose not to write. He wants to share the tragic story in person.

 

In June of 1891, several unclaimed letters remain for Louis at the Salida post office, but by January 1892, he is back in town. The poor farm pays him a few dollars for threshing work that year. The trail of the story of Louis Briley goes cold after he arrives in Buena Vista from Cripple Creek in 1894.

 

To comprehend a tale as vicious as the public murder of Oliver Briley, you need to understand the mindset of the times. I read word for word from the Salida News article that ends the story of Oliver Briley's murder.

 

"The impression has gone abroad that Salida is at the mercy of an uncontrollable element, that law is unknown and life and property insecure. We who live here know better than this. We know that it is inhabited by as peaceable and law-abiding people as any in the State, and that life and property are as safe here as anywhere on the continent. We also know that the two cold-blooded murders of recent date at Mundelein's ranch and Howard have largely been the causes that led to the ghastly scenes of Saturday night. The actions of mobs are nearly always inexcusable. At the same time, it must be remembered that if the officers and the courts of justice fail to enforce the law the people after a time will revolt, and mob law is the result. There are too many red-handed murderers going scot-free. Let the lesson be heeded.

That wraps up this episode of History Does Rhyme. Thank you for listening. Next week, I'll be

back with another story from the fascinating past of Colorado.

 

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If you enjoyed this episode, you'd probably like the 'Salida Sam' historical book series. Each book covers two years in Salida history, and there are now four volumes on local bookshelves. You can purchase the books online by visiting HistoryDoesRhyme.com and clicking Shop on the menu. Until next week, remember the words attributed to famed writer Mark Twain, "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme."

 

History Does Rhyme is a copyright production of Salida Walking Tours, LLC. No part of this podcast can be copied, shared, or transmitted without the expressed written consent of the owner. History Does Rhyme is written and produced by me, Steve Chapman, Caleb Burgraff is co-producer and technical advisor, Alex Johnstone performed the original music, and the entire episode was recorded and mixed at the studios of Heart of the Rockies Radio in Salida, Colorado.

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Welcome!

History Does Rhyme is a weekly podcast exploring the fascinating past of Colorado. 

Together, we'll do a deep dive into the stories you only thought you knew, uncovering the amazing true tales of the men, women, and battles that shaped the Centennial State.

I'm your host, Steve Chapman, historian/founder for Salida Walking Tours and Buena Vista Walking Tours. I also write the best-selling 'Salida Sam' historical book series and write/produce the award-winning A Salida Moment in History radio program and A Buena Vista History Flashback.

So, yeah, I'm a history nerd--with a passion for engaging storytelling.  Join me every week and learn why famed writer Mark Twain is attributed with this quote: "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme." 

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