Saturday, September 1, 2018

Benjamin Ratcliff -- More Than Just A Colorado Killer

Every once in a while, I'll get a note from a reader telling me how the mass shootings that we see on the news these days would have never taken place back in the Old West. Fact is, while one might think school shootings are strictly something unique to our times, though rhyme or reason can't truly be explained in any such situation, sadly they're not.

One such shooting that can't really be explained has to do with a man by the name of Benjamin Ratcliff. What took place in Park County, Colorado, on May 6th, 1895, has been called "the most brutal and unprovoked murder ever known in Park County."

As you can see by his 1895 Colorado State Penitentiary mug shot, he looked harmless enough. But don't let his grandfatherly looks deceive you, he was in reality a very dangerous man.

Benjamin Ratcliff was born on October 21st, 1841, to an Ohio family where he was the sixth of 10 children. By 1844, his parents Elias and Elizabeth Ratcliff moved their family to central Missouri. By 1851, his father died leaving he and his other siblings to work to support their family.

In 1861, just before he turned 20 years of age, he enlisted in the Missouri Home Guard at the outbreak of Civil War. He  As a private in the Infantry, he was part of the 43rd Regiment Enrolled Missouri Militia. Benjamin Ratcliff was actually part of Company "A" when his unit fought in the Battle of Shiloh in April of 1862.

The Battle of Shiloh was a Union victory. It was truly horrific when looking at what that victory cost in lives. Union General Ulysses S. Grant and General Don Carlos Buell took a combined force of approximately 62,000 Union troops into that battle. Of that, their victory cost them more than 13,000 casualties. On the other side, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston and General P. G. T. Beauregard brought 45,000 Confederates troops to the fight. Of those, more than 10,000 casualties were suffered.

What some folks might not grasp is that the entire Battle of Shiloh took place on April 6th and 7th, 1862. For the Union Army, 1,754 of their troops were killed, 8,408 were wounded, and 2,885 troops were either captured or went missing. For the Confederate Army, besides the 1,728 who were killed, they suffered 8,012 troops who were wounded, and had 959 troops who were either captured or went missing in action. That's in just 2 days of fighting, almost 24,000 men were were killed, wounded, captured or missing on both sides.

Three weeks later, Ratcliff was riding a supply horse during another engagement when it was shot out from under him. When the horse fell, the horse rolled on top of him. As a result of that happening to him, he had hip and leg injuries that were said to have plagued him for the rest of his life. Of course, one would think having a hip and leg screwed up from having a horse roll on you would mean being discharged from the Army, but that wasn't the case at all. In fact, by July of 1862, he left the 43rd Regiment Enrolled Missouri Militia and actually enlisted in the Union Army. The "Regular Army."

In 1864, Benjamin Ratcliff fought at the Second Battle of Lexington in Missouri and was taken prisoner after the Confederates defeated the Union Army there. Not wanting to die in a Confederate prisoner of war camp, he somehow escaped just two days later. While making his way back to Union lines, he hid in ruts, bogs, in muddy marshes and along a stream. He was wet and hungry and soon a fever overtook him while trying to avoid Confederate troops as he made it back to Union lines. When he did, it's said no one knew how he did it considering he was seen as partially crippled from his horse fall and since he was sick with a fever.

Ratcliff recovered and an Army Quartermaster assigned him to a "light-duty" job of federal hay inspector because he was ill. Some at the time thought that he may have contracted tuberculosis, what was called "consumption" at the time.

Some folks might not realize that tuberculosis killed about 14,000 soldiers during the Civil War. Another 30,000 soldiers wearing blue and gray died from gangrene. Typhoid is believed to have killed at least 35,000 Union troops and at least 30,000 Confederates. Pneumonia is said to have killed over 30,000 Union and Confederate troops combined. And while malaria was the most prevalent disease going around during the Civil War with millions infected, it's said only 30,000 soldiers actually died from malaria.

Of course when it comes to diseases, the biggest killer of troops on both sides during the Civil War was dysentery. Dysentery, or diarrhea, killed over 57,000 Union soldiers. Confederates records show that roughly 50,000 of their troops died from dysentery.

In 1865, it's said a Union surgeon had treated Ratcliff for his hip and leg problems. Army doctors actually sent him to the Rush Medical College in Chicago for surgeries to correct his hip and leg since neither are said to not have mended correctly. He was there for a year and half and endured multiple surgeries. Many of his surgeries were believed to be experimental at best.

Because he was suspected of having tuberculosis, and was seen as getting worse after his last surgery, doctors urged him to relocate to Colorado where the elevation and clean air were believed to have healing properties for those suffering from TB. Believe it or not, the Army is said to had found him employment with the newly created Internal Revenue Service office in Denver. Ratcliff took the job and as urged. He relocated to Colorado and actually worked for the IRS as an Assessor while in rehabilitation. He did that from 1869 to late 1871.

On June 10th, 1871, while on a trip home in Missouri, he married Elizabeth McNair. They talked about starting a ranch, and later that year, he and his new bride left for Colorado. Their getting there was not unusual for the times. They had to take a train to Denver, where they transferred to a stagecoach headed for Colorado Springs. From there they were on their own as they took buckboard to the Tarryall Creek area of Park County. That's where they established a homestead which they would work together in an attempt to establish a cattle ranch.

Ten years later in 1881, to add to his on-going health problems, he was stomped by a horse and suffered a dislocated shoulder during a cattle roundup. A few years later, by way of an 1885 Colorado State Census, we get a glimpse into what assets the Ratcliff's accrued over their first years of their homestead. They are seen as owning 4 horses, 44 beef cattle, 32 dairy cows, 68 calves, and stated that his homestead had produced almost 600 pounds of butter which was sold.

Over the years, they had three children together. Of course, today the descendants of Colorado's pre-statehood pioneers Benjamin and Elizabeth McNair Ratcliff can be found living in 13 states and a Canadian Province. But sadly in October of 1882, Elizabeth Ratcliff died during childbirth with her fourth child. The child also died.

With her death after 11 years of marriage, Benjamin Ratcliff was a widower responsible for bringing up their son, Howell, and their two daughters, Lizzie and Lavina.  Just two years later by 1884, because raising three children on his own became to tough, he sent his daughters back to Missouri to live with his relatives. He and his 10 year old son Howell worked the ranch as well as they could. Ten years later, by 1894, both of his daughters had returned home to their homestead in Park County, Colorado.

In 1895, Benjamin Ratcliff wrote to the Superintendent of the Michigan Creek School Board. Because his daughter Lizzie had suffered a crippling injury while growing up in Missouri, the result of no medical attention after she supposedly endured a fall as a child, she was left with one of her legs being anywhere from 4 to 6 inches shorter than the other. Her father was asked for help since Lizzie wasn't able to walk the 7 miles to school in Bordenville.

The town of Bordenville is about 11 and half miles from the town of Jefferson and about 27 miles from Fairplay. It was named Bordenville in 1865 when Timothy and Olney Borden established a 2,000 acre ranch, general store, and post office there. All toll, Bordenville is said to have had a population of about 50 people if folks counted blacksmith shop, a stage stop, the school house, and a mining surveyor. It was considered a thoroughfare for folks headed somewhere else. Bordenville is now just a ghost town with a few log stuctures and the old graveyard. Of course one of the old log structures there is a small building used by as a school house and held the meeting of the school board in that area.

There is a lot of speculation as to what Radcliff wanted from the school board. But frankly, it sounds as though no one really knows what was in his letter. Some say Ratcliff's letter requested some sort of accommodations for his crippled daughter. It's speculated that he suggested a traveling teacher could assist him in educating his children by going to his homestead instead of making her walk the 7 miles from his place to the school house.

Some folks say he simply wanted textbooks and educational materials so that he could home school his daughter. Back in the day, one of the reasons for folks having a lot of children is that children were needed to do chores to help make a homestead a success. Because of that, many families home schooled their children. So no, that was't an outlandish request for the times. Bottom line, it seems Ratcliff wanted help of some sort to help educate his children.

The school board turned down all of his requests without helping him in his dilemma. He resubmitted his requests and is said to have asked for their suggestions in regards to a remedy. He was again turned down and was not given any help. Sadly, Ratcliff's frustration would come to a head in a bad way.

Things went down hill when Ratcliff got a letter from a neighbor by the name of  Susan Crockett on August 22nd, 1894. The letter claimed that Lincoln Fremont McCurdy, the 32-year-old school board president, was spreading lies about Ratcliff's 18-year-old daughter.

The horrible lie was that Ratcliff had an incestuous relationship with 18-year old daughter Lizzie, and that she was pregnant by him. He flew into a rage and wouldn't accept that anyone was going to get away with slandering his good name. To spread such a lie that he was the father of a child carried by one of his daughters was totally unacceptable and it angered him in ways that most in that area had no idea was possible.

While that was an out and out lie, and that neither of his daughters were pregnant, that didn't matter at the time. Benjamin Ratcliff knew that all he had was his good name and now that was under attack by a young man, the president of the school board. Yes, a young man by the name of McCurdy who Radcliff saw as a worthless lying individual.

Armed with two Colt 1851 .36-caliber Navy Revolvers and his 1873 Winchester rifle in his scabbard, Benjamin Ratcliff arrived at the school board meeting which was being held on May 6th, 1895. It was the same day local elections were being held.

He immediately took things up with McCurdy regarding the lies that McCurdy had been spreading pertaining to some sort of sick relationship with his 18-year-old crippled daughter Lizzie. He demanded an immediate apology and a public retraction of the sick rumors spread by the school board president. 

Later, during his hearing, he said that he fired the first shot over their heads as a warning. No on knows what set him off after that. Some say one of the those he had confronted laughed or chuckled at his demands. It's said that Ratcliff may have thought they were adding insult to injury by laughing at him. He said later that he lost his life to the Civil War, his good name was all he had left.

Either way, something unknown to all triggered his outrage during their confrontation. He shot 32-year-old school board president Lincoln McCurdy in the chest twice. He shot 56-year-old board secretary Samuel Taylor in the face. He then shot 35-year-old board treasurer George Douglas Wyatt in the back as he tried to run away. McCurdy and Taylor were killed instantly. Wyatt died four hours later.

Benjamin Ratcliff walked over and mounted his horse. He didn't run into the hills and make some sort of stand. He didn't take on posses and killed lawmen in the process. Instead, he slowly rode his horse all the way to the town of Como where he knew he could find Deputy Sheriff James A. Link. Once there, he turned himself in, told the deputy what he had just done, and was arrested.

At his trial, his attorneys asked for a change of venue since tensions there in Fairplay were running high and many wanted to skip the trial and simply get a rope. Because of that, he was tried for the 1st degree murders of Lincoln McCurdy, Samuel Taylor, and George Wyatt, in Buena Vista in Chaffee County.

All in all, a dozen witnesses for the defense was called to testify on behalf of Benjamin Ratcliff. Among those testifying for him was his son Howell. I've been informed that he was asked "to measure the position of desks, bullet holes, blood spots and bodies in the schoolhouse and testified only to that." He was not asked about his father’s frustration and turmoil which his father may or may bot have been going through over the lies in their small community.

Most all of the witnesses testified how all he wanted was a little help regarding schooling for his handicapped daughter. Most agreed that he was ignored, refused help, and then to add insult to injury had lies spread about him impregnating one of his own daughter. All agreed that it was too much and he snapped, that he went insane.

Then there was the question about shooting Samuel Taylor, who Ratcliff knew personally, and board treasurer George Douglas Wyatt? Witnesses tried to say that Taylor was pulled a pistol on Ratcliff when he saw him shoot Lincoln McCurdy. In fact, a couple of witnesses said that McCurdy himself drew a pistol on Ratcliff seconds before being shot.

But frankly, none of what was said mattered as a jury quickly found Benjamin Ratcliff guilty of premeditated murder. They sentenced him to hang. And he was scheduled to hang in August of 1895, but his attorney Vinton Garrett Holliday sought a re-trial on the grounds that the judge gave the jury the wrong instructions before deliberating. A few months later in January of 1896, that became a mute point as a second trial also found him guilty and ordered him to hang.

Ratcliff's attorney Holliday appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court, but they upheld the sentence. Holliday also petitioned Governor Albert McIntire on the grounds that his client was insane at the time of the act. That was also rejected.

On February 7th, 1896, Benjamin Ratcliff was hanged to death at the Colorado State Penitentiary at Canon City. It's reported that he was hanged by a weight-and-pulley system that jerked him upwards to instantly break his neck. It was used so that the convicted would not strangle slowly while hanging on a rope as was the case in most hangings.

As for where Benjamin Ratcliff is buried? It was believed that Benjamin Ratcliff was buried at the Bordenville Cemetery near his wife and infant child. It's said that his body sort of just laid in his prison coffin for a few days there in Canon City before it was claimed. It's believed that his son claimed his father's body. and then returned to their homestead.

As for the Ratcliff children, because none were 21 years of age yet, his son being short of 21 by a few months, all were evicted when the homestead was auctioned off. From there, the three moved north to the Steamboat Springs area. It's siad they were respected citizens and assets to the community there. As for Lizzie, I've learned that she never married or had children.

While it's really unknown who erected a two-foot granite obelisk on the former Ratcliff property, folks don't think that's where Benjamin Ratcliff is buried. Fact is while he is believed to be buried somewhere on that property, no one really knows where the actual location of Ratcliff's grave is located.

The old former Ratcliff homestead is now part of the Pike National Forest. What remains of the old Ratcliff place is just what's barely left of a two-room structure they called home. It's said to have pretty much returned to nature.

While the whole story is sad in that no one knows what prompted McCurdy to start such hateful rumors, or what motivated him to attack Ratcliff in the first place, it's a matter of fact that no one knows what finally triggered Ratcliff to make him kill 3 men that day. It will be a mystery that no one will ever solve because looking into this tragedy opens the door to more questions than finding answers.

Researching this story, I found where some say Bejamin Ratcliff was an unpredictable eccentric who turned out to be a "cold-blooded" killer. They say he was just a murderer who died at the age of 54 after taking the lives of three innocent men. But seriously, there appears to be a great deal more to this story. And frankly, Benjamin Ratcliff appears to have been more than just a Colorado killer who lost his mind one day.

I'm not trying to defend such a horrible act on the part of Benjamin Ratcliff, but what if McCurdy really did spread those horrific lies about Ratcliff impregnating his crippled daughter? Would that still make McCurdy an innocent man in this story?

What if McCurdy was in fact attacking Ratcliff's good name in a community of less than 60 people? Was that enough to be considered provocation in 1895? So was Ratcliff really "unprovoked" as some have said?

Also there's the question, did the school board really threaten Ratcliff with taking his daughters away from him. The taking of his children away from him would have been based on those false incest insinuations. Another local story that I've become aware of says most of the local school board were former Confederates or Confederate sympathizers. As with other states both before and after the Civil War, Colorado was settled by people from both sides of the war. Could that have been part of the problems that were taking place? 

Frankly, looking at all of this, there may have been much more to this story than we know. Maybe his rage was built up over time and the lies being spread about he and his daughter was just the last straw? Yes, just the straw that broke the camel's back?

And forget about some testifying that McCurdy did in fact try to pull a pistol just before Ratcliff shot him, and ask yourself if Ratcliff sounds like an emotionless killer? That's what a "cold-blooded" killer is. To me, knowing of his rage, it sounds to me that Ratcliff was anything but "cold-blooded" that day. For me, I don't know if calling him a "cold-blooded" killer is very accurate in this case.

He was "blowing fire" and "spitting mad!" That's how witnesses described Ratcliff when he showed up to confront McCurdy that day. Keep in mind, it was election day for local offices and there were people there who witnessed what took place. Does that sound like he was emotionless and cold? It sounds like his blood was boiling when he did what he did. No, not "cold blooded" at all.

And before someone writes me to say that I probably think that he shouldn't have been hanged, please understand that that's not true. He got what was coming to him for taking the law into his own hands. Besides, even if McCurdy and Taylor did pull guns on him and it was self-defense in those cases, Ratcliff did shoot board treasurer George Douglas Wyatt in the back as he tried to run away.

No matter how anyone wants to cut it, shooting a person in the back is never seen as self-defense. One will hang for that. 

Tom Correa

1 comment:

  1. Great story. Life in those days was hard..I'm surprised more of this didn't happen.It is just sad to think of him being pushed to the limit like that...and his kids having to suffer the loss of their father and their home.


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