Gunfight at the Polls: The James Warford Murder Trials, 1220 COBJ, Vol. 49, No. 11 Pg. 20

PositionVol. 49, 11 [Page 20]

49 Colo.Law. 20

Gunfight at the Polls: The James Warford Murder Trials

Vol. 49, No. 11 [Page 20]

Colorado Lawyer

December, 2020

Historical Perspectives


On November 8, 1904, residents of Teller County, Colorado went to the polls. They cast their votes against a backdrop of violence and fear. For the past two years, the Cripple Creek mining district and other mining regions in Colorado had been torn apart by a series of bloody labor disturbances. Striking miners and mill workers, strikebreakers, vigilante groups, and the Colorado National Guard had engaged in shootings, beatings, threats, arbitrary arrests, and sabotage. Things got so bad that Colorado's governor had imposed martial law. The labor war culminated in an explosion at the Independence Depot on lune 6, 1904 that killed 13 strikebreakers.

Five months later, on election day, things were still tense. "Every man in almost the entire camp [was] a walking arsenal" and "excitement and tension [were] at the highest pitch."[1] It was clear to Teller County's officials and citizens that extraordinary measures would be needed to keep thepeace. "[T]o this end the sheriff of the county, the board of county commissioners, and the central committees of the different parties entered into an agreement that on election day there should be at each polling place one deputy sheriff and one constable only to preserve order and see to the enforcement of the law."2

This admirably nonpartisan plan attempted to ensure electoral calm. But its effective enforcement could only be assured if the sheriffs and constables could cooperate with each other. And that depended to some degree on the character of the men involved.

At Teller County Precinct No. 48, located in the boomtown of Goldfield, lames War-ford was one of the deputies chosen to watch the polls. One could hardly have picked a worse man for the job. Warford and his fellow poll-watcher, Thomas C. Brown, were duly and legally appointed acting Teller County deputy sheriffs. But Warford was not the sort of impartial peace keeper the task required.

Warford had previously been employed by one of the major combatants in the labor war, the Mine Owners' Association. He had pursued his employer's interests with vigor, and his enemies had learned to fear him.3 His exploits included helping to wreck a local newspaper office, during which it was reported that he literally killed time by firing a bullet through a clock face.4 His conduct on election day 1904 would prove to be no less extreme.

The constables chosen to man Precinct No. 48 were not much better. Despite the agreement that only one constable and one deputy sheriff would be assigned to each polling place, election judges directed three constables to show up at the precinct. Two of the three were Isaac T. Leabo and Chris Miller.5 Both Leabo and Miller w ere members of the Western Federation of Miners, sworn opponents of the Mine Owners' Association. Things went about as well as one might expect.

The Shooting

Brown later testified that on the day of the election, Warford approached Miller and Leabo, who were sitting on a fence in front of the polling place, and said, "You gentiemen will have to move outside of the 100-foot limit."[6] Brown claimed Miller and Leabo responded by drawing their guns. But Warford was the faster gunman. He shot and killed them both.

Warford's First Murder Trial

Warford was charged with Leabo's murder. His first trial took place in March 1905. After deliberating for 67 hours, the jury ended up hopelessly deadlocked, reportedly 6 to 6.7 Warford remained in jail for a couple more months while the prosecutor decided whether to retry him. On May 13, 1905, the prosecutor dismissed the case, and Warford was released from jail.

Warford Holds Up the Sheriff

Warford wasted no time getting into more serious trouble. Less than a week later, in an exploit that made headlines across Colorado, he held up the Teller County sheriff, Edward Bell.

The bizarre events began when Warford and an associate, Walter Kenly, who had also recently been discharged from the Teller County jail, went to the Cripple Creek sheriff's office to get their revolvers back.8When they showed up Sheriff Bell told Warford, "All right, lim; I will go up and get them for you."9For whatever reason, Warford stepped out of the office, leaving Kenly alone with the sheriff. Unfortunately for Kenly, the sheriff noticed that he had a revolver on his person. The sheriff seized the gun and placed Kenly under arrest for carrying a concealed weapon.

Warford returned to find that his friend had been arrested and was on his way back to jail. Warford's...

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