The Murder of Preston Porter Jr. and Colorado's Grim History of Lynchings
Updated: Jun 12, 2020
ALAN PRENDERGAST | NOVEMBER 6, 2018 | 8:59AM
Artwork by Andrew Nilsen
A few weeks ago, a search party assembled in Limon, ninety miles southeast of Denver, and followed the railroad tracks on the south side of town. The group included a local accountant active in Lincoln County politics, a retired couple from Greenwood Village, and a Denver social-justice activist.
They had a general idea of where they were going. The spot they were looking for was supposed to be halfway between Limon and Lake Station, a long-vanished stop three miles down the line. They came across traces of an old wagon trail, a place where a weathered bridge crossed over Big Sandy Creek, and other clues. The exact site had no marker and was said to be on private land, but they knew they were in the immediate vicinity. Finally, when they figured they were as close as they were going to get, they used a hand trowel to scoop up a mound of soil from this desolate, windswept and lonely place, all but lost in the immensity of the prairie.
They were unearthing more than just a few pounds of dirt. They were collecting bits of the only remaining physical link to what happened outside of Limon 118 years ago, mementos of an atrocity.
Last spring, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama, to somber but enthusiastic reviews. A project of the Equal Justice Initiative, the civil-rights group started by crusading Just Mercy author Bryan Stevenson, the memorial is a powerful exploration of America’s history of racial violence. One of the striking features of the project’s museum is a display of glass jars filled with soil taken from sites where lynchings occurred in several states. The organizers have also put out a call to community groups across the country to retrieve soil from other unmarked sites.
Last month’s journey to Limon was undertaken with the blessing of the EJI, and with the support of Colorado church leaders and civil-rights groups. It’s part of an ongoing effort to bring renewed attention to the state’s long-buried history of lynchings — and to confront one particularly shocking and grotesque episode.
Most people associate lynching with the Deep South. But Colorado had a profusion of extrajudicial killings, from its pioneer days until the administration of Woodrow Wilson. Only a few involved some rogue posse hanging horse thieves from a tree. According to the tally put together by Metropolitan State University of Denver history professor Stephen Leonard in his book Lynching in Colorado 1859-1919, at least 175 people were executed without benefit of trial, a practice so common that press wags made frequent allusions to “the court of Judge Lynch.” Although the state’s African-American population was relatively small, race or ethnicity was a factor in a surprising number of those killings, several of which targeted Hispanic, Italian or Asian victims. And in many cases the perpetrators weren’t acting alone, but with the aid and prodding of the media, law enforcement, government officials and the public at large.
Such complicity was particularly evident in the Limon case. The site by the railroad tracks has the distinction of being the scene of two horrible deaths, eight days apart.
The murder of twelve-year-old Louise Frost outside Limon launched a manhunt that soon led to Preston Porter Jr. / Denver Public Library Wester History
On the evening of November 8, 1900, Louise Frost, the twelve-year-old daughter of a prominent rancher, was found dying in the tall grass. She had been stabbed, beaten and raped. With its customary hack hyperbole, the Denver Post proclaimed the murder “the most fiendish crime ever perpetrated in Colorado” — an appraisal that neatly overlooked, among other outrages, the slaughter and mutilation of hundreds of women and children a generation earlier at another spot along the Big Sandy, an event known as the Sand Creek Massacre.
As it turned out, Frost’s murder wasn’t even the most fiendish crime to be perpetrated that month. For pure sadism, for cold-blooded, premeditated, murderous intent, her death was easily overshadowed by the vengeance that followed. On November 16, Preston Porter Jr., a sixteen-year-old African-American railroad worker, was led by a rope around his neck to the spot where Frost had been found. Chained to an iron rail, with kerosene-soaked wood piled around him, he was burned alive while hundreds of people watched. Some of the crowd had come by train from Denver and Colorado Springs to attend the spectacle.
This was not Spain under the Inquisition, Salem during the witch trials, or even antebellum Georgia. This was Colorado at the dawn of the twentieth century. Burning a teenager at the stake drew national attention, from San Francisco to the New York Times, and a range of editorial comments, from mild disapproval to deep revulsion. And then the whole episode was quickly, studiously forgotten.
Yet the story of Preston Porter and his fiery death is worth remembering — not only to acknowledge the cruelty of what was done to him, but to better understand the kind of place where this could happen, a very different Colorado from the one portrayed in most history books. Those involved in the soil collection will hold a public commemoration ceremony in Limon on November 17, an effort to spark dialogue about race and justice and how an act of racial terror committed more than a century ago can still resonate today.
NAACP state conference president Rosemary Lytle says that public discussion of Porter's fate is about more than history: "This is how you bring forward movement."/ Anthony Camera
Rosemary Lytle, president of the Colorado-Montana-Wyoming state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, notes that the NAACP was initially founded to fight lynchings. Yet she had never heard of the Porter case until she became involved in the EJI project.
“I knew there were race-related lynchings in Colorado,” she says. “But I didn’t know about this particular lynching of this young boy. I was at first outraged by it, and then I was deeply, deeply saddened by it. It really hit me in a place and in a way that I didn’t expect. More people need to know about it, because this is how you bring forward movement — it’s not just about history.”
“We can’t change what happened,” adds Anthony Suggs, advocacy and social-justice coordinator for the Episcopal Church in Colorado, who was part of the soil-collection team. “I don’t know if we can even change people’s minds. But we can create opportunities for people to take ownership of their history. People need to connect how the past affects the present.”
The lynching of Preston Porter, he suggests, wasn’t simply the work of an enraged mob on the eastern plains. It was a death foretold, one that had tacit approval in high places, from the offices of the major newspapers in the state to the governor’s mansion. “We’re not trying to demonize a particular group of people or a town,” Suggs says. “It wasn’t just Limon. All this could have been prevented if people had been involved in the way they should have been. People in Denver and Colorado Springs are just as accountable as the people who lit the match.”
Preston Porter Jr., 16, a railroad section hand from Kansas, was burned to death at the same spot where a local rancher's daughter had been attacked eight days earlier. / Denver Public Library Western History
In the hours after the attack on Louise Frost, several competing theories emerged about who had killed her and why. But there was one point upon which locals could agree: Whoever did it, or at least whoever could plausibly be blamed for it, did not have long to live. One Lincoln County deputy sheriff assured a reporter that the culprit, who almost certainly had fled the area, “wouldn’t last ten minutes after being taken back to Limon.”
Newspaper accounts describe Frost as “fleshy” and “extremely well developed for her age.” She drove her own horse and buggy between school and her parents’ ranch, three miles outside of town. On the last day of her life, she’d stopped to pick up the mail at the post office, then vanished over the ridge, headed for home.
The horse trotted to its stall door just before dusk. Louise’s father, Robert W. Frost, checked the buggy, thinking she might have fallen asleep. Failing to find her, he went into town to inquire about her and then gathered men to help search along her route home.
A deputy found the mail that Louise had picked up earlier in the day, scattered in a ravine. The searchers followed a blood trail and faint groans to where the girl lay on the ground, surrounded by sunflowers, weeds and prickly pear. She’d been stabbed more than a dozen times, in the breast, face, neck, thigh. There were indications of a “fearful struggle,” signs that she’d been kicked in the head and “criminally assaulted” — a family newspaper’s code words for rape. She could not say who had dragged her from her buggy and done this to her. She died that night without saying a word.
The story landed on the front pages of the Denver newspapers and stayed there throughout the manhunt that followed. R.W. Frost was well known in Limon — not only for his vast sheep herds, but for managing a hotel and livery stable when he first arrived from Indiana years before — and some initially suspected a personal vendetta of some kind. Frost had been a member of the posse that had tracked down and shot it out with a couple of train robbers a few months earlier; maybe one of the desperado’s relatives was out for payback?
When that notion led nowhere, the deputies began to focus on strangers in town and hobos. Louise’s coin purse was missing, pointing to robbery as a possible motive in addition to rape, but anyone who knew the family would know the girl never carried more than about fifty cents in that purse. What kind of man would kill a child for four bits?
“It defies belief that someone could do this. But it happened right here.”
A vagabond named William Thompson, said to be “slightly deranged,” was arrested — but soon cleared as a suspect and dismissed as a “meek tramp.” Bloodhounds taken to the scene of the crime couldn’t pick up a scent, but the community had other instincts to guide them. Increasingly, their attention turned to Limon’s scarce supply of people of color. To be non-white in rural Colorado was to be suspected of all kinds of crimes, and it was only a short leap from being suspected to being deemed guilty.
John Harris, a black man who’d once worked on Frost’s ranch, was questioned for hours, then released. Two Hispanics who just happened to be in town were also interrogated, with no success. There was no end of possible suspects, it seems. But by Monday, four days after the murder, Lincoln County Sheriff John Freeman was convinced that he had his man — or rather, that the Denver police had him.
It’s not clear what first cast suspicion on Preston Porter and his two sons; the color of their skin and the fact that they’d left Limon in a hurry on Saturday may have been enough. The Porters had come from Lawrence, Kansas, to work in the railyards as section hands — Limon was a hub town, at the junction of the Rock Island and Union Pacific lines — and lived in a bunkhouse nearby. But they’d abruptly departed in the wake of the Frost murder, only to be picked up by police shortly after they arrived in Denver.
At first the authorities seemed deeply interested in Preston Senior, who’d burned some trash before the family’s departure. He insisted it was mostly old bedding, no good to anybody. It looked more like clothing to the deputies. Yet Preston Senior and his oldest son, eighteen-year-old Arthur, seemed to have better alibis than Preston Junior, who was also called “John,” to avoid being confused with his dad. After a few hours of additional questioning and sleuthing, Sheriff Freeman told reporters he was “absolutely sure that John Porter, the youngest of the three men who were arrested, is the man who murdered Louise Frost.”
Freeman had found a pair of shoes in the Porters’ cabin that left distinctive heel and sole impressions, marks that he believed were an exact match for the prints left at the scene. Preston Junior identified those shoes as his own. Questioned further, he had difficulty proving his whereabouts at the time of the crime. He’d quit work that morning, he said, because his hands were cold and he had no gloves. He claimed to have been washing laundry at the bunkhouse most of the afternoon, but nobody had seen him around 4:30 p.m., the time Louise Frost was being attacked less than two miles away.
On top of all that, Freeman soon learned that the youth had a record in Kansas. At the age of ten he’d stolen a buggy off a street in Lawrence. At thirteen, he was sent to the state reformatory for attempted sexual assault on a white female minor. (His brother Arthur also did time for the same offense.) “Porter was always an incorrigible tough and was never out of trouble,” the Post announced.
But there were also signs that, while he could read and write, Preston Junior didn’t seem to quite comprehend everything that was happening to him. One Denver Times article describes him as struggling to answer questions; he was “either obtuse in his understanding or most clever at shamming.” Press accounts located by Monica Davis of the Watkins Museum of History in Lawrence indicate that he was found not responsible for at least one charge he’d faced years earlier in Kansas because he was deemed to be mentally impaired from a head injury.
For days after his arrest, Porter repeatedly denied any involvement in Frost’s murder. The case against him was more ambiguous than most of the reports on it would admit. The shoes Freeman had seized didn’t appear to have been worn for some time; Porter denied he’d worn them for the past three weeks. The youth was slight of stature and barely weighed a hundred pounds; it was hard to imagine him subduing a 135-pound female without, as the papers put it, a fearful struggle. Yet his body bore no signs of such a struggle, no obvious cuts or scratches. (A Denver police surgeon who examined him declared that he’d been “slightly injured” recently, but no specifics were provided.)
Stains on his hat, initially reported to be blood, turned out not to be blood at all. Much was made of a bloodstained handkerchief found near the Porters’ cabin, but the generic hankie could have been tossed there by a train passenger with a nosebleed. Preston Senior was found to be in possession of a bloody knife, but the family was known to catch and butcher rabbits to supplement their meager table. There were bloodstains, too, on some clothing the Porters had shipped back to Kansas right before leaving Limon, but what did that prove, exactly?
Sheriff Freeman was eager to take the prisoner to his jail in Hugo. But Denver authorities resisted that move. The evidence against him was far from overwhelming, and it seemed likely that Porter would not survive the trip from Denver to Lincoln County. “It is certain that he will be lynched, probably be burned, on his arrival there,” one reporter noted.
Then, over the course of a few hours, all the reluctance melted away. Young Porter confessed to the murder, and suddenly there seemed to be no reason for further delay. A Post editorial declared that the evidence of his guilt was “absolute.”
“Whether he goes sooner or later will make little difference,” the editorial continued, “because in the end his fate will be precisely the same.”
Porter's statements admitting to the crime, including these notes to a police surgeon, were prominently featured in the Denver newspapers — which considered the evidence of his guilt as "absolute." / Denver Public Library Western History
Porter’s confession came after four days of marathon sessions in an interrogation room — the Denver police “sweatbox,” in the parlance of the day — during which he was bombarded with questions by city police officials, Freeman and his men, the victim’s father, and even reporters and a hypnotist.
Toward the end of a long afternoon, he reportedly astonished everyone in the room by abruptly admitting his guilt. He’d waited for the girl in the ravine, he said, and dragged her into the weeds. She screamed, so he stabbed her. He took her pocketbook and threw it down an outhouse at the train station, he said.
Porter repeated the story to reporters and even wrote a note of apology for his crime to the police surgeon, Samuel Miller, who’d apparently been kind to him. Freeman grabbed the next train to Limon and retrieved the pocketbook from the outhouse in the wee hours of the night. Still, damning as the circumstances might seem, confessions can be coerced, evidence planted. And the circumstances of Porter’s admission couldn’t have been more coercive; he’d been told that he needed to confess to the murder in order to save his father and brother from being lynched. (After his confession, both men were released — and quickly fled the state.) His account contradicted the physical evidence in some respects, and it’s impossible to know what a fair and impartial jury would have made of it.
But Porter would have no jury, no trial, no due process of law. Once news of the confession hit the streets, any vestigial nonsense about due process and the presumption of innocence dribbled away. The papers proclaimed his guilt in banner headlines. They referred to him as a brute, a fiend, a creature, something less than human and too dangerous to live.
“Porter is only one remove from an animal,” an editorial in the Rocky Mountain News announced. “His parents were slaves. He is devoid of moral instincts, because he was born without them. He may be classified with the tiger or the rattlesnake, both of which men destroy without compunction.”
“Whether he goes sooner or later will make little difference, because in the end his fate will be precisely the same.”
A crowd began to gather outside the Denver jail, eager to catch a glimpse of the fiend and possibly take him off the cops’ hands. As a precaution, Porter was moved to the Arapahoe County jail. Word soon got out he was there, and the mob followed. The ploy had bought the prisoner a few hours at most. Freeman insisted on transporting Porter to his county, and now no one stood in his way.
Governor Charles Spalding Thomas, a veteran of the Confederacy, took the position that his office couldn’t interfere unless invited to do so by local authorities. No invitation was forthcoming.
Freeman would later claim that he’d received assurances from “a delegation of prominent and law-abiding citizens of Lincoln County” that he would be allowed to escort Porter to the jail in Hugo without incident. But Freeman surely knew those assurances were worthless. A vigilance committee had already met in Limon to discuss Porter’s fate and resolved that “no atrocities would be perpetrated before or after the lynching.” (The atrocities under discussion were apparently castration and mutilation, not the lynching itself.) Reporters attended the meeting, agreeing not to publish the names of the participants. A big-shot rancher named Clifford was apparently one of the instigators, and Robert Frost made no secret of his desire to light the fire that would incinerate his daughter’s killer.
The sheriff seemed to think he could smuggle Porter from Denver to Hugo without anyone noticing. Around noon on Friday, November 16, the prisoner was taken by carriage to an out-of-the-way train stop a few miles east of Denver, where Freeman escorted him, shackled and clutching a Bible, onto a specially secured Union Pacific car. But the maneuver fooled no one: Reporters and the girl’s father were already on the train. When it reached Limon, sixteen members of the vigilance committee boarded the train, broke the locks on the car and swarmed in. They pinned Freeman down, slipped a hangman’s noose around Porter’s neck, and took him off the train at Lake Station, leading him like a leashed animal.
They took him to the place where Louise Frost had been found. There was no urgency; they had to give folks from Hugo and the big cities time to get there. Porter was asked to pose for photos, the rope still around his neck. He was asked to sign pages torn from his Bible as souvenirs. He obliged both requests but said little; possibly he was too terrified or resigned to beg for his life. But the reporters would describe him as “sullen” and unfeeling, reinforcing their portrait of him as some kind of inferior, largely insensate life form — someone who couldn’t possibly comprehend the more refined sensibilities of the white people who surrounded him, the defenders of morality and civilization who had come to watch a sixteen-year-old boy roasted alive.
An enterprising telegrapher climbed a pole and tapped into the line, setting up an al fresco press box where reporters could file their dispatches. The Denver Times had sent three writers, two sketch artists and two photographers, determined to capture every grisly detail.
The crowd swelled to 300. Wagons brought wood and kerosene. The atmosphere became very sober and businesslike, almost ritualistic. (The only saloon in Limon had closed two days earlier and stayed closed, in order to minimize any unseemly conduct at the lynching.) Porter was chained and roped to an upright piece of rail, the fuel piled around him. Then Robert Frost approached the pyre, and the crowd went quiet.
“Gentlemen,” Frost said, “I touch off this pile without a tremor of my hand.”
The first match went out. Frost lit another. The flames began to rise.
What happened over the next twelve minutes or so was described in excruciating detail in the next day’s papers, complete with cartoons, garish headlines (DEATH IN FLAMES, roared the Denver Times) and pious tsk-tsking. Porter’s screams, his pleas to make it end quickly, were greeted with taunts and jeers. The crowd continued to stoke the fire long after he was dead, until there was nothing left but bones and debris. Frost accepted congratulations and made a speech about the need for swift vengeance in such matters.
The bones were removed and buried in a secret location. The vigilance committee planned to leave the rail in place as a kind of memorial, a warning to brutes everywhere that the price of transgression was an agonizing death. But just a few weeks later the rail was gone, the Post reported. It was taken down at the request of Louise Frost’s mother, who “asked that it be removed so the event could be forgotten.”
Porter's lynching attracted a crowd of hundreds and was featured in graphic newspaper illustrations. / Denver Public Library Western History
In 1969 an account of the Porter case appeared in Empire, the Post’s Sunday magazine. It was the first time Limon’s auto-da-fé had received more than passing mention in any Colorado media outlet in more than half a century, and it caught the attention of Steve Leonard, a young history prof at what was then Metro State College.
“I always had this feeling that Colorado history is way too sugarcoated,” Leonard says. “All the bad parts are left out of the textbooks. People want to romanticize the past.”
Leonard spent years researching the hidden history of Colorado lynchings, a quest that led to his 2002 book on the subject. The work never drew the kind of mass audience that yet another biography of Doc Holliday might, but it became a connection point for those who believed that Preston Porter and other victims of racially motivated lynchings shouldn’t be forgotten.
Judy Ollman found Leonard’s book in the course of doing her own research into Colorado lynchings. An avid reader of Just Mercy, supporter of the Equal Justice Initiative and a volunteer who has visited several Colorado prisons, Ollman had heard about the EJI’s soil-collection project and wondered if anyone had applied to include Colorado. She contacted Leonard about the Porter case, and he introduced her to Suggs, the Episcopal Church advocacy director, who was also doing research about, as he puts it, “this not-often-talked-about lynching in Limon.” Soon Suggs, Ollman, the NAACP’s Lytle and others had banded together to form the Colorado Community Remembrance Project, under the auspices of the EJI.
Activist Judy Ollman hopes to see a memorial established in Porter's memory. / Anthony Camera
“I realized that I needed to build a coalition,” Ollman says. “This isn’t just about remembering something that happened. It’s about how to address what we’re dealing with in the present, with the justice system and voting rights — the New Jim Crow. This is what our present situation is grounded in.”
In the immediate aftermath of Porter’s lynching, there was considerably less moral outcry than one might expect. The general tenor of the editorials and public comment around Colorado was to deplore the method of killing while clucking sympathetically about the “natural emotions” that must have driven the community to such an act. Even members of the clergy who denounced the lynching seemed to be condoning it, too. (“Such brutes deserve to be put out of the way for the protection of society, but one crime does not justify another,” said one.) Outside of the state’s African-American community, there was little genuine protest.
The editorials back east were more scathing, lamenting that the barbarity of the West was even worse than that of the South. In an essay written a few months after Porter’s death, “The United States of Lyncherdom,” Mark Twain pondered why racial violence seemed to be on the increase across the country: “Lynching has reached Colorado, it has reached California, it has reached Indiana — and now Missouri! I may live to see a negro burned in Union Square, New York, with fifty thousand people present, and not a sheriff visible, not a governor, not a constable, not a colonel, not a clergyman, not a law-and-order representative of any sort.”
Colorado’s sheriffs and governors did their best to put the Porter affair behind them. Asked his view on the barbarism that had occurred on his watch, Governor Thomas famously replied, “My opinion is that there is one less negro in the world.” He blamed Sheriff Freeman for letting things get out of hand and made noises about forcing the sheriff to arrest those responsible for the lynching. Freeman shot back that he wasn’t going to be part of any costly and “fruitless” prosecution of the lynchers when no jury would ever convict them. It was a pissing match between a gutless wonder and a moral coward, and it went nowhere. No prosecution ever resulted from Porter’s death, and officially it was listed as caused by persons unknown.
“People in Denver and Colorado Springs are just as accountable as the people who lit the match.”
One excuse offered by Freeman and others for Porter’s lynching was the absence of capital punishment in Colorado; state lawmakers had repealed the death penalty in 1897. The legislature took that argument seriously and reinstated executions a few months after Porter’s death, supposedly to discourage an outraged citizenry from taking the law into their own hands. But there are reasons to be skeptical of that line of reasoning. Plenty of lynchings had been staged when the death penalty was in effect, and Leonard, for one, suspects Porter would have been lynched regardless.
“He was sixteen,” Leonard notes. “Even if they’d had a capital punishment law, it probably wouldn’t have applied to him.”
Yet the Porter lynching represented a turning point of sorts. “Because it got national publicity,” Leonard says, “it began to dawn on people that even if they favored lynching, it was bad for settlement, bad for business.”
Eight years after Thomas left office, former congressman John F. Shafroth became Colorado’s governor — and took a strong stand against lynching, even foiling one planned killing in La Junta by threatening to call out the National Guard. A handful of race-related lynchings occurred up until 1906, then the practice stopped altogether — with the exception of a single incident in 1919, when masked vigilantes broke into the Pueblo jail and hanged two Mexican nationals suspected of killing a police officer.
But the end of the court of Judge Lynch was not, of course, the end of racial animus and violence. Colorado proved to be a rich breeding ground for the Ku Klux Klan after the First World War; in the 1920s, Klansmen and their supporters, promising to keep God’s country safe from blacks, papists, Jews, immigrants and other “undesirables,” took control of Denver’s city administration, the judiciary and the governor’s office.
Most of the city’s recent arrivals probably have never heard of Denver’s white-robed past, just as many residents of Lincoln County have never heard of Preston Porter. Cleta Hiner-Felzien moved to Limon in 1990; by local standards, that makes her a newcomer. She was unfamiliar with the Porter case until Ollman reached out to her a few months ago, seeking local support for the soil collection.
“To me, a lynching was a hanging,” Hiner-Felzien says. “Burning him alive — that’s worse than nasty. Still, one of our neighbors will tell you proudly that his grandfather was in on it.”
Anthony Suggs, advocacy coordinator for the Episcopal Church in Colorado, helped collect soil near where Porter was killed. / Anthony Camera
Hiner-Felzien went with Ollman and Suggs to collect soil at the site. She felt oddly uplifted by the experience. “We can’t right a wrong, but we can do this,” she says. “Whether he was guilty or not, it wasn’t handled correctly, and we’re just bringing this to light.”
The remembrance committee is hopeful that this month’s ceremony will be the first step in bringing the wrong out of the shadows, a journey that could eventually lead to a permanent memorial in Porter’s memory. With the backing of some Denver City Council members, they also hope to gather soil at the site of the old city jail, just off Larimer Square, and erect a memorial in Denver as well.
The NAACP’s Lytle is looking forward to the kind of discussions a proposed memorial would generate: “You have to ask, What is a reparation for this? Is it acknowledgment? Is it a community uniting around higher ideals than this? I think the conversations are critically important. More people need to own the fact that there is an apology owed, some penance owed.”
She recognizes that many people would rather not own such a history. But attention, she insists, must be paid.
“It defies belief that someone could do this,” she says. “But it happened right here. Not in the so-called ignorant South, but in the ignorant West.”