Pick and Sledge

Curious Stories from the American West

100 Years Ago Today: Woman Kills Son With Axe, Boils Body in Lye

Herald Democrat, April 9, 1919
Nancy Jane Bush
From Montrose Daily Press, February 1, 1919

The Soap Kettle Murders, as this double homicide was dubbed by the Montrose Daily Press, took place on December 15, 1917, at the home of Nancy Jane Bush and her son, John O. Bush, a few miles west of Olathe, CO. On that day, John Bush killed his 11-year-old son, chopped up his body, and rendered him into soap, and later that night, John’s 70-year-old mother did the same exact thing to him. And it all started because of a stolen $1.35.

John O. Bush, who killed his 11-year-old son and melted the body in his backyard

The murders were considered the most gruesome deeds in Colorado history, and they captured the attention of people across the state. Every day of the trial of the People vs. Nancy Jane Bush, the courtroom was completely packed to hear the grizzly details from the grandmother herself.

However, despite the front page, daily coverage of this terrible act, the facts of the case remain somewhat a mystery because Nancy Jane Bush contradicted herself so many times between when the murders took place in December 1917 and the trial in April 1919. What really happened that day, in all its details, will never be known, but at least we have newspaper reports to capture some version of the truth.

At 10 pm on the night of December 15, 1917, John O. Bush (34), was punishing his son, Otis Bush (11), for stealing $1.35 from Otis’ grandmother, Nancy Jane Bush (70). The father and boy went to bed, but later that night the father started beating the boy a second time in the backyard near the chicken coop, and apparently he beat his son too hard and accidentally killed him. Realizing his terrible crime, he decided he needed to dispose of the body, and for some reason, he thought he needed to involve his elderly mother in the act.

Nancy Jane Bush told police that her son forced her at gunpoint to heat up more than a dozen gallons of lye in the rendering vat in their backyard, which they used for making soap. Meanwhile, John Bush took an axe to the body of his son and chopped him to pieces before throwing the dismembered body into the vat. Once the body had been rendered into soap, he took the bones and burned them in the stove in the house.

Caption reads: “Rendering Vat, where boy’s body was rendered into soap.”

Mrs. Bush also told police and testified in court that after helping prepare the lye vat, her son had taken a wooden board and cracked it across her skull, knocking her out. When she awoke in her bedroom, he was in tears over what he had done. She called him, “my darling boy” and they made a verbal agreement. John said, “I’ll agree to go away if you will promise to tell the officers that you killed me and disposed of me the same as I did of Otis.” She promised, and he came back to the room one more time to pour what she thought was a pile of bones into the stove.

What happened next is unclear because Nancy Jane Bush changed her story several times and at some point said she didn’t remember anything because she was in a kind of fugue state, which she says happened often to her.

That said, it seems from the evidence police found that Mrs. Bush took the axe that John used to chop up Otis and killed her son with it. She then dismembered his body and made soap of him as well.

When police were first alerted to foul play at the Bush home the Tuesday after the murders, Nancy at first said she didn’t know where John or Otis went, and then she broke down, recounted what John did to her grandson, and said John disappeared after the murder.

Police found blood around the homestead: on the fence and “sprinkled and splashed” across the walls of the Bush’s room, with other signs of struggle such as pictures and furniture lying askew. The sheriff found a rib bone, human teeth, and skull bones. They also found blood on a stone and an axe in the yard. Suspender buttons were pulled out of the vat, and bones supposedly belonging to young Otis were in the yard.

Nancy Jane Bush was taken into custody and charged with second degree murder. She pleaded not guilty. There was also speculation that she killed her young grandson, but that was later dismissed. A Coroner’s Inquest showed that both murders had indeed taken place, so she was held on $5,000 bond, which she couldn’t make, so she was moved to the Mesa County Jail while awaiting trial.

“That is what a woman gets for having boys who marry bad women. They marry bad women and then bring the trash home on their parents.” She later referred to the first wife and the boy as trash. 

Nancy Jane Bush, at the Coroner’s Inquest

She waited in jail for a year and three months before being tried, and her infamy grew every month she was locked up. Wild claims were made during her stay. There were rumors that she punched the sheriff and broke his nose, and that she made numerous attempts to escape from jail. None of these were true. Some people complained to the papers about the cost to the county for keeping her locked up — about $375.

Finally, on April 4, 1919, Nancy Jane Bush was put on trial for the murder of her son. District Attorney Lee W. Burgess was the prosecution, and Judge J. C. Bell was her counsel. The Montrose Daily Press reported, “People are coming to the court house long before the doors open to get a good seat.” Gruesome evidence was trotted out before the jury and spectators alike, and the newspapers reported on every detail and quote from witnesses and the defendant alike.

Newspapers reported that she was very nervous during the trial and paced up and down, occasionally jumping in when she disagreed with any “trivial detail.” Another article says the trial was very hard on her and she had stimulants with her which she smelled of frequently. An expert was called to determine whether she was insane, but he said she had senile dementia, not insanity.

The case went to jury on April 8, 1919, with the jury being instructed that if they decide the defendant felt threatened at all by her son, even if that threat wasn’t real, they must come back with a ‘not guilty’ verdict.

The jury came back at midnight, after 2 hours and 15 minutes of deliberation with a ‘guilty’ verdict for second degree murder. She was sentenced to 11 years in prison. Before being taken off to Canon City Penitentiary, Nancy Jane Bush said, “God will take vengeance for this awful charge that has been brought against me and of which I am innocent.” Her sons, Walter and Abe were with her when the verdict was reached.

According to a Montrose Press article from February 2, 1920, Mrs. Bush was happier in prison than she had ever been in her previous life, enjoying relative luxuries in prison due to her advanced age. The article says that she had her living assured, everything comfortable and clean, and pretty much her own way of doing things during her prison stay. She has been a “contented woman with more harmony in her life than every before and less worry.”

Mrs. Bush was released from prison in 1924 and returned to nearby Delta to live out her remaining days.

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