FORT LYON (C-SJ) -- "The sun shown brightly and the air was as balmy as spring." R. M. Stevenson, a reporter for the Pueblo Chieftain, wrote of Friday, Feb. 2, 1877.
The ground may have been rather muddy but that hadn't prevented a large crowd of spectators from coming by horseback, carriage and on foot for the occasion. There were so many of them that Sheriff John Spiers had to appoint 25 special guards to keep them in line.
Neither the kind of day nor the crowd could have much concerned James Miller, recently a solder in Co. "L," Ninth U. S. Cavalry. He was in Bent County's spanking new jail.
Jimmy, a native of Philadelphia, Pa., had enlisted in the Army at 18 and had been in service five years. He had gotten into serious trouble with the law, had been tried before the Honorable John Wesley Henry, district judge, and they were going to hand Jimmy that Friday.
Other soldiers over the years had received death sentences in either military or civil courts but Jimmy was to have the dubious distinction of being the principal at the first legal execution in Colorado after its formal admission into the Union as a state. In recognition of the importance of the occasion the Pueblo Chieftain carried eight banks of headlines over Stevenson's Story.
A grim reminder of that day may be seen now just across the road from the old county jail which has become a part of the Kt Carson Museum compound. It is a gallows erected according to specifications of the original.
James Miller was stationed here at Fort Lyon when on the night of Aug. 26, 1876, he went across the river to the first Las Animas, often called Old Town. About 11 p.m. he entered a dance hall owned by Charles Barr and Robert H. Martin. No dance was in progress but John Sutherland and James Greer were at the bar.
According to reports of the affair, Greer voiced an insult at the soldier and grabbed a revolver from Sutherland's belt. Jimmy left, and Sutherland then told Greer he shouldn't have acted as he did.
A few minutes later Jimmy was said to have returned to the dance hall with Benjamin Smith, another soldier, and they had carbines. They stepped up on the porch and fired into the building. One bullet struck and killed Sutherland.
Since the killing had not been done in line of military duty Col. C. H. Smith, a brevet general and commander at Fort Lyon, turned the two soldiers over to the civil authorities. They were tried in district court at West Las Animas, found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to death.
Smith Fared Better
Smith's sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. Jimmy's lawyer, D. P. Wilson, unsuccessfully appealed his case to the higher court in Denver and the date for the execution was set for Jan. 19, 1877. Upon the insistence of the Rev. J. M. Lo Tourette, chaplain at Fort Lyon, the date, however, was set back two weeks "for religious purposes." During those two weeks Jimmy was allowed to marry a woman residing at Fort Lyon. He was also confirmed by the Rt. J. F. Spalding, bishop of Colorado, and given communion.
In the meantime a hemp rope was sent to St. Louis, Mo., to have a noose fashioned by professional hands.
Jimmy had plenty of visitors that last day of his, among them General Smith. Two sergeants of his old company went to see him, and when one said, "Miller, I don't think I'll stay to see you hanged," the condemned man replied, "Do as you choose. It can't hurt me."
All the fine protocol of such a solemn occasion was strictly observed. Jimmy didn't lack for spiritual consolation. Besides Chaplain La Tourette, who would have considered it his duty to be with Jimmy in his last hour, there were also the Rev. J. H. Merritt, a Presbyterian minister, and the Rev. T. R. Pierce, a Methodist.
About 1p.m. the crowd, "In considerable number," according to Stevenson, began to assemble in the mud. Sheriff Spiers and a Deputy Davis went to the newly erected gallows, at the side of which was a plain pine coffin, to adjust the rope. At 1:30 some men entered the jail and called on Jimmy to prepare for death. His handcuffs were removed, and after brushing his hair and putting on some socks and slippers Jimmy proceeded to bid good-by to the officials connected with the jail. Stevenson wrote, "He spoke with a steady voice, and his nerves seemed as steady as iron."
At 1:45 the procession started from the jail for the gallows a few yards away. Jimmy had been in the Army so long, he had no civilian clothes and none had been given him. He wore a cavalry blouse and pants, a woolen shirt, a black slouch hat, and instead of his cavalry boots he had on slippers.
Nerves Never Failed
And he went to his death like a true soldier. Stevenson , who must have been busy with his pencil and pad, noted, "He moved with firm elastic step to the gallows, taking his place upon the drop without a quiver of a muscle."
Chaplain La Tourette accompanied him up the eight steps. After the chaplain offered a prayer Sheriff Spiers, meticulously observing all the traditions, read the death warrant. Then the chaplain said another prayer.
"Goodby, Miller" Sheriff Spiers said, "I hope you will go to heaven," and Jimmy answered, "Goodby, Spiers. Take care of yourself."
It was the first legal handing in the new state of Colorado, and apparently it wasn't neat. The trap was sprung at 1:55 p.m., and because of the stretching of the rope Jimmy's feet touched the drop which had to be removed by one of the guards.
After a few minutes, a Dr. Robbins, possibly an Army surgeon, felt the pulse and reported Jimmy still alive. Another 20 minutes passed, and then the body was cut down and given to Jimmy's soldier friends who brought it to Fort Lyon for burial