Thursday, January 31, 2008

At Last The Coroner's Inquest!

Criminal investigation in 1911 was certainly not what it is today. The use of fingerprints for identification of criminals had only been introduced five years before and the practice was very slowly making its way West. For most police forces, the Bertillon method (anthropometry) was still in use. Criminal apprehension at the time was clumsy and often involved “deputized” vigilante committees who tore off into the area searching for hobos, vagabonds, lunatics, and quite often, “coloreds.” IMHO the fact that crimes were ever solved is amazing. Typically a suspect would be captured, jailed and interrogated until he finally confessed and if he didn’t confess there usually wasn’t anything else the police could do unless the case had, sometimes literally, a smoking gun.

The Coroner’s Inquest, although not as important, is still used today in many counties and municipalities around the country. It is basically a forum used to assist the county coroner in the determination of a person’s death. It usually consists of six jurors who are sworn in to hear under-oath testimony from witnesses, be presented with evidence and given a tour of the crime scene. Inquests are usually held within twenty-four hours of the victim’s discovery in order to get the freshest recollections possible. A jury was sworn in “over the bodies” of the Waynes on the night of September 21st but it was almost 240 hours later by the time El Paso County Coroner Jackson convened the Burnham-Wayne inquest. By ten ‘o clock in the morning, Saturday September 30, 1911, the Burnhams had been buried eight days and the Waynes had been shipped to Indiana. The crime scenes had been so scoured over by souvenir hunters that they were worthless and numerous “theories” had been printed for public reading in the newspapers. To say the Springs inquest was unproductive would be an understatement. Witness’ recollections began to evolve until, a full ten days after the actual murders(!), they began to “remember” hearing screams on the night of the crime. It also didn’t help that a second axe was found under the front porch of a vacant house.

After the release of Arthur Burnham and Tony Donatel, the police began to question anyone even remotely associated with the Burnhams. Hardly anybody knew the Waynes but it was believed Henry was Blanch’s second husband (not true) so they were busy looking for him. Anna Merritt’s brother, John, became a suspect after
[the police] asked him four questions and found that he was inclined to be evasive in his replies, and [they] thought [they] would put him back in jail until he would be willing to talk.
Joseph R. Evans, the one whom Blanch Wayne had borrowed the axe from, was placed under arrest after it was determined he talked too much. With the arrest of those two men it could easily be reasoned that both Mrs. Evans and Anna Merritt would be much more guarded with their testimony to the jury.  Further cause for consternation was Denver Police Chief Hamilton Armstrong's belief the crime scene indicated a female killer(!?).

To date, I have been unable to locate either the coroner’s summery or a listing of evidence presented to the jury. It is likely these documents are crumbling away in an unsorted storage box somewhere but if anybody has any idea where they might be found, it could be a warm breath on a very cold case.

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