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Rich People Behaving Badly
By Dick Kreck
Fulcrum PublishingCopyright © 2016 Dick Kreck
All rights reserved.
THE GREAT SCANDAL
WILLIAM NEWTON BYERS
A pistol-waving woman scorned is not to be trifled with.
On April 5, 1876, less than a week after a spring snowstorm buried Denver under a foot of snow, things heated up for William Newton Byers, a pioneer pillar of the community and owner/publisher of the Rocky Mountain News.
Robert Perkin in his book The First Hundred Years, the entertaining and informative history of the News, reasoned, "The scandal had nothing but the highest-quality ingredients. A pioneer and civic dignitary, strictly top of the heap, respected, envied by many, probably maliciously and privately disliked by some for his prominence and many honors. A beautiful young woman, a divorcee (practically scandalous in itself), and the rumors were that she was 'pretty fast.'"
Byers, who had hopes of becoming the soon-to-be state's first governor, found himself in the arms of a scandal that involved an ardent divorcée bent on his destruction, a series of passionate letters, an outraged wife, and a newspaper war.
Byers was a native of Ohio, and he spent the early 1850s as a surveyor in Iowa, on the West Coast, and in Omaha, Nebraska. He had a sudden revelation that it was time to move on to the wide-open spaces of Colorado and start a newspaper — a trade he knew nothing about. But he knew that a newspaper could be a driving force in the success of any new town.
He arrived in Denver at age twenty-eight on April 17, 1859, when the settlement at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek was barely a year old. It was little more than a collection of shacks and teepees, with a population — liberally counted — of four hundred. Those who hit town were usually passing through on their way to the gold diggings in the Rockies. Within a year, more substantial structures were rising, and ten years after that, Denver became a rail hub and the major city in the Rocky Mountain region.
Byers had hauled an antiquated press and a few trays of type overland by wagon and he published the first issue of the News on April 23. It was his wife, Elizabeth — whom he married in Muscatine, Iowa, in 1854, and brought with him to Denver in '59 — who suggested the paper's masthead. The paper immediately became a megaphone through which Byers, who saw a bright future where dirt and sagebrush reigned, bellowed the hopes and dreams of the fledgling village.
Byers, an upright and powerful citizen in his town, became involved in one of the more tawdry episodes in the city's history — what came to be known in the local prints as "The Great Scandal" — when he and Mrs. Hattie Sancomb became acquainted, and much more. She was a divorcée from Lawrence, Kansas, who possessed, observed one admirer, coal-gray eyes, auburn hair, and "a voice soft and her manner caressing." Unfortunately, no photograph of the apparently fetching Hattie is known to exist.
As a young milliner, Hattie was considering a move to Denver and wrote to Byers. He was then head of the Board of Immigration, and it was his mission to paint a rosy picture for all comers. As he did with all such inquiries, he encouraged her to relocate. After a brief stop in Denver to thank Byers, she continued on to Golden — then vying with Denver to become the region's leading town — where she reestablished her millinery business. It wasn't long before she began to suggest to Byers, now in his forties, that she would like to continue their relationship. Little wonder that she chose him from among her several admirers. He was handsome, with piercing eyes and a close-cropped beard in the style of Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant. It was a leap year and Mrs. Sancomb took full advantage in her pursuit of Byers.
Byers conceded that what had been a business correspondence in the summer of 1871 became something more. In the latter part of 1872 they began a "closer acquaintance," he said. "During the winter of 1874–75 we met each other but three or four times, and nothing unusual took place until the spring of 1875 when Hattie took offense at some fancied neglect and began to write" after he tried to break off the relationship.
Did she write! She poison-penned a series of letters, perhaps as many as a hundred, in which she threatened Byers with mayhem: "You've made me hate you again with all the deadly hatred a woman can have for a man ..."; "I will kill you. ... Wouldn't it be fun to put a few bullets, four, just four, through your heart"; and "All I ask is a glimpse of you, and my bullet will be well aimed. I will not miss." (See a sampling of her letters later in the chapter.)
She began to stalk him, on the street, at his home, and at the News offices. Byers recalled later, "Her second visit to my office was on Friday, March 31, the day of the recent heavy snowstorm, when she sat there all day, alternately threatening, crying, and coaxing the employees to get to me. She finally left in the evening but returned again on Saturday morning when the business manager was compelled to put her out as she again threatened to shoot, and drew her pistol." It was what famed journalist William Allen White found out as a young reporter in Eldorado, Kansas, when an angry young businesswoman took umbrage with something he had written and spent her days stalking him, "laying for me with 'patient and vigil long,' which controls a woman scorned." If Hattie's hate-filled letters threatened harm and death, Byers's correspondence promised only love and affection. In 1875, when their affair was in full bloom, he wrote to her with salutations that read, "My Dear, Darling Hattie" and "Darling Hattie," and concluded, "With warm kisses, ever truly yours."
In a story in the News on April 18, Byers claimed his letters were penned only "as nearly as possible to please her and keep her quiet." Their tone said otherwise. Even the pending showdown between Hattie and Byers didn't cool his ardor for her. In June 1876, three months after a dustup at the front door of his home, he wrote to her from Rollinsville, Colorado: "I received first word from my wife since I left home, and to the effect that she was so ill the second and third days after my departure that her recovery was despaired of. I am so glad that it is not my little Hattie."
In the same letter, he tried to reassure a suspicious Hattie that she was his only love interest. "I have not seen or heard from K. W. [not otherwise identified] since the note of which I wrote you, about the manuscript. I never have given her one particle of love. All my love belongs to Hattie." He closed with, "I want to be permitted to love you" and "God bless you, W."
The inevitable, and potentially fatal, showdown between the lovers unfolded in midday on April 5, 1876, practically on the doorstep of Byers's home at Colfax Avenue and Sherman Street, where the state office annex stands today.
In Byers's account, printed in the Rocky Mountain Herald only three days later, he took a horse-drawn streetcar from the News office near Fifteenth and Larimer Streets home for lunch, as he often did.
I took the streetcars at 12:20 o'clock, and occupied a seat near the entrance. When near opposite Courthouse Square, this woman made two or three attempts to get on the car while it was in motion but without success. The driver was apprised of her efforts and when he had partly stopped the car she stepped in and tumbled into my lap. I pushed her one side to a seat, without attracting much attention from the other three or four passengers.
In the meantime, she repeatedly asked me to get out and walk with her, as she had something she wanted to talk over. I refused her request, and told her that if she wished to settle this matter she could see me at my house, and that I would walk with her there. When the car was about two blocks from my residence, I got out and she did the same. She again requested me to walk with her. When some three hundred feet from the railroad track, and near the corner of a vacant lot, she halted and demanded to know what I proposed to do with her proposition, meaning the one she made about the time of my visit to Golden. I refused to talk on the subject and started towards home, when she drew her pistol and attempted to shoot.
I held both her arms firmly for a time, until my wife, seeing the struggle from a window of the house, jumped into her buggy — which was standing near the door — and drove rapidly to where we were. I let go her hands and jumped into the buggy, when she fired a shot that passed behind the seat and lodged near the residence of E. W. Keyes, whose little boy narrowly escaped being hurt.
In the excitement the driving lines got caught in the singletree so that the horse made a complete circle where this woman was standing, pistol in hand. When within a few feet of me she attempted to fire the second time but the pistol did not go off. We drove to the house and she followed, but my son, taking in the situation, stopped her at the gate. She put her pistol in his face but as he happened to have a revolver with him she concluded not to shoot.
I drove the horse to the stable and my wife went through the house and opened the front door, where [Elizabeth's] pistol got tangled in the sleeve of her dress and went off merely by accident. This is the only shot that was fired at the house. A messenger was sent on horseback to call an officer, and she, noticing him depart, walked away from the gate, and had gone two or three blocks before Officer Sanders arrested her.
No one was injured by the gunplay.
Hattie Sancomb's version, retold in the April 15 Golden Weekly Globe, charted a different course. She, the story said, claimed that the two of them were "sauntering along the street in confidential conversation in the direction of Mr. Byers's house, he having his arm within hers, when Mrs. Byers, seeing them, drove up in a carriage and, calling upon Mr. B to get into the carriage, threatened him with injury if he did not obey." Hattie claimed it was Mrs. Byers who fired the shot that narrowly missed the neighbor boy. In her version, they were all packing guns. Mrs. Byers, according to Hattie, said at the house, "Throw down your pistol and you may come in." She declined and the police soon arrived to take her to jail.
Byers's fellow publishers and editors remained silent on the confrontation until his friend and former employee George West let it all out, printing some of the letters in his Golden Transcript. It was open season on William and Hattie. Their letters began turning up in the Transcript and its rival Golden Globe. It wasn't until April 16 that the News felt compelled to jump into the fray with a stirring defense of its editor. In an editorial probably dictated and certainly approved by Byers, the News said, "It had become necessary to make the matter public in order to clear up the 'distorted and false' statements of the Golden Transcript. Mrs. Sancomb, divorced in Lawrence on a charge of adultery with one Colonel Burns, had for nearly a year past kept up a series of attacks and a round of persecution upon Mr. Byers."
Never completely cordial, things between the area's newspapers grew more heated. Papers in Golden hinted that Hattie was not Byers's first dalliance outside his marriage. The News's editors countered with dark hints that West was "closely intimate" with Mrs. Sancomb.
The city's other newspapers tried to keep their distance but defended Byers and his tarnished image. The Herald, owned and edited by Owen Goldrick, a former employee at the News and founder of Denver's first school, suggested it was nothing but a scheme to squeeze money from Byers: "We consider that Mr. Byers was a big fool to allow himself to become attached, intrigued or inveigled into any such enlarging alliances with any such divorced woman, who he knew that she knew he wasn't a single man, but was, on the contrary, 'just the oyster' for baiting and beating into blackmail or blacker misfortune."
Mrs. Sancomb's behavior and the whole incident went before a grand jury, but Byers's lawyers, wary of dragging out the scandal any longer, withdrew their complaint.
The historical record on Hattie after the court case is scanty. In March, only two weeks before the shooting, a brief item in the Golden Weekly Globe reported that "Mrs. Sancomb is disposing of her stock of millinery and fancy goods and will remove to Denver," but the following December a small advertisement appeared in the paper for her shop on Washington Avenue in Golden.
Byers survived the shooting and scandal but it destroyed his hopes of becoming governor. He had to stand aside when John L. Routt was elected the new state's first governor on October 3, 1876. He sold the News in 1878 and became Denver's postmaster in March 1879. Later he became vice president of the Denver Tramway Company, and tried and failed to make the mountain town of Hot Sulphur Springs a resort for well-to-do tourists.
The blackest mark on his career of boosting and building took place in 1864, when Byers and his close friend Governor John Evans precipitated one of the darkest chapters in Colorado. As governor of Colorado Territory, Evans was in charge of Indian affairs, a task for which he was woefully unprepared. With the help of Byers and his Rocky Mountain News, Evans whipped Denver citizens into a frenzy, warning that bands of Cheyenne and Arapaho were planning an attack on Denver.
All the war talk led to the establishment of the Third Colorado Regiment, led by Colonel John Chivington, and his troops swept down on a Cheyenne and Arapaho village on November 29, 1864, killing as many as two hundred Indians, mostly women, children, and old men.
Byers's role in the tragedy at Sand Creek is overshadowed by his legacy as a builder of the region he loved. There are streets and schools named for him in Denver, and a mountain peak near Fraser, which he summited when he was seventy years old, bears his name.
He was part of a small coterie of business leaders and friends — one that would come to include David Moffat, John Evans, and Robert Speer — that ruled the political and economic life of the city well into the twentieth century. The tramway company, the water department, and the city hall were their fiefdom. Jerome Smiley, whose History of Denver is the quintessential work on the city's early days, said of the energetic Byers, "The life history of Mr. Byers since he became a citizen of Denver at that time forms a large part of the history of the city."
It was Byers and his friends and associates who brought the telegraph and the first railroad to Denver. He was a tireless champion of statehood for Colorado and helped found the University of Denver, the Colorado Historical Society, the Natural History Society, and the city's first library. In a retrospective of Byers's life in the News in 1999, historian David F. Halaas raved, "It was almost as though Denver was his personal creation. He was out to promote Denver, to help make it a permanent thing."
Byers died in Denver on March 25, 1903, one month after his seventy-second birthday, and is buried at Fairmount Cemetery.
Hattie Sancomb, the scorned lover, did not take the breakup gracefully. Beginning in 1875, she wrote a series of scathing and threatening letters to William Byers and to his wife, Elizabeth. Here are excerpts of some of them:
June 1, 1875
I'll not fawn on you till you kick me. That is the mettle you are made of, but you shall not kick me; but, by all that is black, bad, and terrible, I'll do some kicking one day.
June 3, 1875
I have dedicated the rest of my life to your misery, and be assured, though I cease to speak of this, I shall hang about you like an incubus, and blasted shall you be. I simply warn you that you have a desperate enemy upon your track. You are only dear to me as an object of revenge.
Oh, infernal villain, if I had you here I'd plant my fingers in your eyes and tear them from their sockets.
Oh, how I hate you. You shall not long exist. I'll blot out your existence before you shall ever know who dealt the blow to you.
July 3, 1875
Great God, I have now nothing but the most blasphemous curses for you. You can do nothing now to save you or your family.
Ah, my friend, such letters as the one this morning will not do for me. A letter without kisses quiets me in a measure. Without them all is lost to me but my thirst for revenge; the blackest, damning revenge which I will have so help me God.
Golden, Sept. 1875
Receiving no word from you, I have thought it best to inform you I would be down to see [you] to-morrow. You were too cowardly to write me, so as not to give me a reply in time to go down. Now look here. You've made me hate you again with all the deadly hatred a woman can have for a man, and you have always lied like hell to me, expecting to "put me off," and that won't answer.
Excerpted from Rich People Behaving Badly by Dick Kreck. Copyright © 2016 Dick Kreck. Excerpted by permission of Fulcrum Publishing.
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