100 Years Ago Today: Lunatic Threatens to Cut Off Police Chief’s Head

Herald Democrat, February 14, 1919

Governor Oliver H. Shoup (shoop ba-doop) was elected the 22nd governor of Colorado in November, 1918, and he was already receiving death threats by February, 1919. “Lunatics” weren’t wasting any time. Granted, Shoup’s own head was not under threat but that of a proxy, Hamilton Armstrong, long-serving Denver Chief of Police. Neither Shoup nor Armstrong were harmed by the unknown letter writer. Both men died years later of heart attacks.

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Governor Oliver H. Shoup
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Chief of Police, Hamilton Armstrong, with head firmly attached to shoulders

The letter this “lunatic” sent was oddly signed. The writer drew a person’s left hand and wrote “one hundred and fifty White Caps” on the hand. Originating in the mid-1800s, “whitecapping” was the crime of threatening a person with violence in order to influence their behavior. White Cap societies were anonymous groups that used whitecapping to intimidate people. This letter writer supposedly had a group of 150 people behind their threat. In the 1920s, the KKK, wearing literal white caps, became the most notorious and influential of these groups in Colorado.

An article from Montrose Daily Press from the same day describes the letter as a “black hand threat.” The phrase “black hand threat” has its roots in Italian-American extortion rackets, for gangsters and mafia members would send letters threatening their target, often signing it at the end with a drawing of a hand. A film about the origins of the Mafia, called The Black Hand, starring Leo DiCaprio, is currently in the works.

Montrose Daily Press, February 14, 1919

Another interesting piece of the whitecapping letter: the writer disavows themselves from the I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World), but claims, “there is some power behind us.” Newspapers at this time often lumped together the I.W.W., Bolsheviks, and Anarchists together as violent, dangerous, anti-American organizations, despite the fact that none of these groups agreed with each other, and most members of these groups detested violence. Regardless, I’d love to know why the writer wanted his target to know the I.W.W. had nothing to do with the threat.

A bit more about Governor Shoup: he served as governor for two terms, from 1919 – 1923, but he declined to run for a third term. He is best known for opening the 6.2 mile Moffat Tunnel, which runs beneath James Peak (13,301′ high). Moffat Tunnel opened the Middle Park area up to a more reliable Denver supply line, and it provided Denver residents with a faster way to get to Winter Park and Steamboat Springs. Shoup helped create the Moffat Tunnel Improvement District that sold bonds backed by real estate taxes, which funded the tunnel.

Gov. Shoup at the Moffat Tunnel East Portal Opening Day
Denver Public Library, Western History Dept

Before being elected governor, Shoup attended Colorado College in Colorado Springs. He left college to pursue business ventures in banking as well as oil, and he was the first president of the Midwest Oil Company and the Midwest Refining Company. During his political career as governor, he oversaw the creation of the State Highway Department and a restructuring of the Colorado National Guard. He is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Colorado Springs.

Denver Police and Fire Chiefs. Chief of Police Armstrong circled.
Gov. Shoup signs ratification of 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote
President Wilson with Gov. Shoup leaving Brown Palace in Denver

100 Years Ago Today: Bolshevism and Breckenridge

Summit County Journal, February 1, 1919

Naively, I thought I could brush up on Bolshevism, the Russian Revolution, Communism, the Red Army, Anarchism, and the I.W.W. circa 1919 in a couple of hours in order to write up some context for today’s article. This, despite the fact that the last time I learned about any of these topics I was spending my free time listening to Korn and skateboarding through mall parking lots in JNCOs. Nope nope nope.

What I do know is that anti-Bolshevism op-ed and news articles pop up nearly every day in 1919 newspapers, so the anxiety on display in today’s article is not surprising.

What is Bolshevism and why are there so many articles opposed to it?

The Bolsheviks were a group started in Russia by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky in order to bring Marxism to Russia and beyond. Bolshevism was later known as Communism, an attempt to create a classless society where everyone is equal.

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Vladimir Lenin
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Leon Trotsky

Frank Engels, coauthor of the Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx, lays out the aims of Communism as such:

“Finally, when all capital, all production, all exchange have been brought together in the hands of the nation, private property will disappear of its own accord, money will become superfluous, and production will so expand and man so change that society will be able to slough off whatever of its old economic habits may remain.”

The Communist Manifesto (1847)

Why did Bolshevism have so much opposition in the U.S.?

Communism/Bolshevism and Capitalism are, of course, at odds with one another, and the two political/economic systems have not played well with one another over the last 100 years.

There has always been, and probably always will be, people who have been crushed by Capitalism and would like to try a different system. Bolshevism is a promise to the lowest wage earners, the most overlooked, the least powerful people in a Capitalist system that they will have just as much as their former employers under a new system.

Today’s article posits that Bolshevism falsely promises that the “ordinary man would remain safe.” But what if you’re not safe at all in a Capitalist country? What if you’re an immigrant working the Ludlow, CO coal mines? What if you’re a woman with limited work opportunities? What if you’re a soldier returning from war to an impoverished small town? These are people who might decide that Capitalism isn’t keeping them safe, and maybe their country should give Bolshevism a try.

In the U.S. in 1919, the workforce was in transition. World War I ended with the armistice on November 11, 1918, and young soldiers were coming home, not knowing what kinds of jobs were available, nor if they were qualified for them. In many instances, women had taken jobs that men had done before they went overseas, and in Colorado, immigrants had taken work in the mines because these very dangerous positions were some of the only jobs people would actually hire them for. Would this transitional period make people more likely to ask for a different economic system? Maybe one with more parity?

Bolshevism was on everyone’s tongue. Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky were masters of propaganda, and they capably spread their idea of overthrowing the ruling class in order to bring “peace, land, and bread” back to the starving working class in Russia and throughout the entire world. Bolshevism was one of the hottest buzz words in the entire world in 1919, and that scared the hell out of people who were safe and secure and powerful because it could mean losing everything they’d worked for.

News reports of Bolshevist uprisings in Europe were covered daily in newspapers. Many articles conflated Anarchism with Bolshevism and lumping those two incongruous movements together. The Bolshevik uprisings in countries were sometimes violent, and newspapers played that aspect up as well, likely because fear sells papers.

Indeed, Anarchism would be a cause for very real fear later in April 1919, when Anarchists called Galleanists (followers of Luigi Galleani) mailed 36 dynamite filled bombs to prominent political figures and other people with power throughout the U.S.. Then in June 1919, eight larger bombs were detonated simultaneously outside homes and offices of other prominent figures.

100 years ago today, Bolshevism was the dangerous buzzword around the globe, even in the small mining town of Breckenridge, CO. Fear of this new economic/political system was all over the news, and the post-war transitional instability in the workforce made Bolshevism seem like it could be coming to a city, town, or government near you.