When Arthur Burnham left Michigan for Colorado Springs his health was poor and his prospects for marriage were slim. Shortly after his arrival in 1895, he became stronger and his breathing became easier. He worked various jobs as a cook and clerk in a candy store but still love evaded him. Then he met Alice May Hill and the possibility of passing on his family name, a name which went back to the Revolution, seemed closer to reality. He only needed to win her heart with a little competition from an Italian named Tony Donatel, a childhood friend of May’s and the Hill family.
Donatel was around forty years old when the murders occurred and worked as a laborer. His wife had left him eighteen years before and he had secured a divorce from her. He was said to have an eighteen year old son. He lived alone in a little, one-room cottage and frequently visited with a couple who lived nearby. Neighbors found him a bit peculiar and he reportedly owned a number of properties he rented out. He was frequently seen scrubbing the outside of his home in order to wash away “marks left by witches.” May had told Arthur that Donatel had been a suitor of hers before Arthur’s arrival in Colorado. She insisted he no longer held any affection for her outside of friendship. May’s sister, Nettie, told investigators Donatel still had feelings for her sister and overheard him saying “May had no business to marry Burnham.” By his own admission he was friendly with May, even after her marriage, although he said he hadn’t seen her “in a long time” and didn’t know where the Burnham’s lived. The week before the murders, Donatel was working digging a sewer line within a half a block of the Burnham and Wayne homes but claimed he only knew Burnham’s house was in the vicinity. Further throwing suspicion on Donatel was an unnamed incident that happened the year before which gave cause for a judgment of sanity to be called. He was ruled sane and released.
Arthur Burnham expressed surprise that Donatel had been arrested even though it was him who had given Sheriff Birdsall the name. During his own interrogation Burnham must have been asked about any men May might have “entertained” during his frequent absences. In light of the defense of Donatel that Arthur would give in the newspaper later, it seems particularly odd he would even have mentioned this incident. Apparently one day when Burnham returned home early and unannounced, he found his wife and Tony “in a questionable attitude.” May had hurt her chest while climbing through a wire fence near the house and Tony was helping to relieve the pain. Later Burnham would say he thought nothing of the incident and accepted that Tony was trying to help since was “a sort of a doctor.”
Donatel could not sufficiently account for his whereabouts on the night of the murders. He ate dinner with his neighbors and stayed until around 9:30 p.m. He then went home and went to bed where he stayed until morning. He visited his neighbors on Monday and Tuesday and was said to be acting normally and he never mentioned the Burnhams once.
Donatel was released after a Bertillon expert cleared him.
There was a lot of circumstantial evidence here to point the police at Donatel and there may even be some people who rightfully do not trust the Bertillon method that may think he is a good suspect. I admit his relationship with Mrs. Burnham seems a bit seedier than the explanations given but there isn't much more to go on than that. The whole scrubbing the witch symbols thing indicates some paranoia and the judgment of sanity is tantalizing but there's nothing to indicate he was a psychotic axe murderer. His post offense behavior doesn't mesh up with a man who just murdered three adults and three children in a particularly grizzly manner. My guess is he would have practically set fire to his house in order to remove the perceived symbols of witchcraft if he had been the perp. Eccentric and a bit wishful of the family he couldn't have is a possibility but he certainly wasn't capable of this. I continue to dig for more on Tony Donatel and appreciate any comments.