Denver's Chronicler of Crime

One cop's passion became a historian's goldmine.

Sam Howe loved being a Denver cop. He also loved to clip stories about crime and police work from the newspapers.

Fortunately, he worked at both jobs for a long, long time.

Howe began his law-enforcement career as a deputy city marshal in 1873 and became a member of Denver's first organized police force the following year. He retired in 1921, at the age of 81. In between, he chased crooks and kept busy with scissors and paste, scanning up to five newspapers a day and assembling scrapbooks dealing with virtually every crime that was written about in the city, great or small.

"He wasn't much of a cop," says Clark Secrest, Howe's biographer. "He was obsessed with his scrapbooks. It was his life's labor."

Howe's obsession resulted in one of the most astonishing chronicles of crime ever produced. The 59 surviving scrapbooks, including some volumes that are almost a foot thick, chart in garish detail Denver's evolving struggles with social ills and lawlessness over half a century, from the city's frontier days to the Roaring Twenties. "There's nothing like them anywhere," Secrest says. "They're a state treasure."

The relentless focus on vice, violence and catastrophic events puts the Howe collection in a class apart from standard newspaper archives. Howe painstakingly indexed and cross-referenced entries to make it easier to follow the outcome of a particular case or track criminals from one offense to the next. On occasion he threw in mug shots, crime-scene photos or other police documents, sometimes with notations in his own handwriting, indicating whether someone was a "notorious yegg" or was said to have died in a bar fight in San Francisco. The scrapbooks were famous during Howe's lifetime; other lawmen and reporters made frequent use of the books, one of the earliest and most far-reaching attempts by a police force to systematically catalogue press accounts of crime.

Yet over the past sixty years, few people have seen the scrapbooks. Donated to the Colorado Historical Society in 1939, the Sam Howe material is one of the lesser-known jewels among the society's 2,500 manuscript collections. Because of their fragile nature, the scrapbooks have been mostly unavailable to the public since 1980, although a few historians and researchers have had limited access.

A small portion of the collection is available on microfilm, but budget constraints have prevented CHS curators from completing the task. "We think it would be of perpetual interest because of the subject matter," says Keith Schrum, associate curator of manuscripts. "This is the kind of collection we would definitely like to have microfilmed."

Secrest, a former Denver Post television critic, has spent more time with the collection than anyone. In the course of researching his book Hell's Belles: Prostitution, Vice and Crime in Early Denver, which includes a biography of Howe, he decided to read every page of every Howe scrapbook. It took him three years.

"Aside from the access being restricted, [the collection] is so intimidating that even qualified historians haven't wanted to tackle it," Secrest says. "But if you spend time with these books, you get a feeling for how the town changed, along with the kind of crime."

The scrapbooks are rich in tales of Denver's famous misbehavers, from Mattie Silks to Bat Masterson, from Buffalo Bill to Baby Doe. They contain contemporary accounts of the Henwood murder case, a sensational 1911 scandal that rocked Denver high society (the subject of a recent book by Postcolumnist Dick Kreck). But they are also a mother lode of more obscure crimes and criminals, cases that would otherwise be completely forgotten, captured in the purplish prose of the times.

Here are doctors charged with performing "illegal operations" on young women (the word "abortion" is almost never mentioned). Here's a 1925 triple murder in a country lane "at the edge of the city" -- Yale Avenue between Federal and Sheridan.

Here's Caroline Rossi, wife of Mike, a "police character" who ran the infamous Moonlight Ranch club on Morrison Road. In 1921 Mrs. Rossi used a baseball bat to beat an intruder to death. She said the punk showed her a police badge, but she knew it was phony because "I know all the cops." Never mind that the bludgeoning took place in the basement and the body was found in the kitchen.

The sequel to her story came five years later, when Mr. Rossi gunned down Mrs. Rossi while the two were in a lawyer's office discussing divorce and division of property. Mike Rossi claimed that his soon-to-be-ex was reaching for her own gun: "She shot me in a quarrel in 1916, and I wasn't going to give her a chance to repeat it."

Following Howe's retirement, other police officers tried to keep up the scrapbooks, but the system began to fall apart in the late 1920s, around the time of the Farice King case. Fingerprinting and other crime-fighting techniques had made the books obsolete.

Howe died in 1930 at age ninety. According to Secrest, he spent much of his last years on the force working on his scrapbooks and entertaining visitors to police headquarters; by the end, even those cops who'd scoffed at his books were beginning to appreciate them. "The longer this went on, the more important these records became," Secrest says. "In a way, he was vindicated."

Howe predicted as much in a 1901 interview. "The older these [books] get, the more valuable they grow," he said. "In a hundred years from now, they will be worth a great deal."

And how.

 
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