The Trials of Marie Lafitte, 0321 COBJ, Vol. 50, No. 3 Pg. 18

PositionVol. 50, 3 [Page 18]

50 Colo.Law. 18

The Trials of Marie Lafitte

Vol. 50, No. 3 [Page 18]

Colorado Lawyer

March, 2021



No fewer than 10 Colorado Supreme Court or Court of Appeals decisions issued between 1905 and 1914 bear the name of Marie Lafitte.1 And these are but the tip of the iceberg. Madam Lafitte, as she was known, was a party to many other legal proceedings, both civil and criminal, that never made it to the appellate courts.

How did this Fort Collins businesswoman end up involved in so many legal matters during the final decade of her life? Much of the litigation can be attributed to her bootleg liquor and prostitution business. But those proceedings seem like just a warmup for a series of cases that consumed her life: a protracted and convoluted dispute over the validity and enforcement of a Pueblo County judgment.

Her opponent in this dispute was George Salisbury, a prominent attorney and judge. Lafitte's battle with Salisbury over the judgment and his attempts to enforce it against her cast a dark shadow over the last years of her life. The Lafitte/Salisbury dispute generated seven Colorado appellate decisions sprinkled with arcane Latin phrases. But there was also a darker, rawer side to the controversy that descended into shocking acts of violence. These violent events predictably spawned even more litigation that also found its way into Colorado's appellate courts.

In the end, her battle with Salisbury left Lafitte injured, exhausted, and penniless. Still, she fought on. The facts recited in the appellate decisions that bear her name and establish her legacy only dimly reflect the colorful life of a woman who has recently gained recognition as an unbowed Fort Collins original.

Life of Marie Lafitte

Little information is available about Marie Lafitte's life before she arrived in Fort Collins. She was born in France on July 30,1844. Some sources place her birthplace somewhere in Brittany, a relatively impoverished region inhabited by a Celtic people who possessed their own language and culture. During this period, Brittany had a reputation for exporting its daughters to Paris to work as domestic servants.2 Marie Lafitte chose a different path; she emigrated to Colorado.

Before settling in Fort Collins, she lived in various other parts of the state. Court decisions indicate she was a Pueblo resident as early as 1881. A Durango newspaper mentions her as a former resident of that city. Around the turn of the century, she moved from Idaho Springs to Fort Collins. By then, she was already in her mid-50s. Her move to the city spawned one of her first recorded Colorado appellate cases.

The Vanderwark Case

On February 14, 1899, lames Vanderwark shipped Lafitte's household goods from Idaho Springs to Fort Collins.3 The freight charges totaled $268.03.4 Vanderwark sued her for nonpayment and obtained a judgment from a justice of the peace against her for $83, representing unpaid court costs.5She appealed to the county court and received a trial de novo. The county court judge granted her motion for judgment on the pleadings.6 Vanderwark appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court, arguing there could be no "judgment on the pleadings" in an action of that kind because no written pleadings are required in a proceeding before a justice of the peace. But the Court treated his attorney's opening statement as a "pleading" and determined that the county court had properly dismissed the case due to a prior adjudication admitted during that statement. Lafitte had won an early victory in her battle against a creditor. There would be many more such battles to come.

The Moonshine Madam

At first, Lafitte experienced a good deal of success in Fort Collins. She operated a legitimate business and acquired a number of parcels of real estate and other assets. The 1902 Fort Collins directory indicates she maintained a candy store called the Candy Kitchen at 257 Linden Street. Not long after her arrival, however, she ran afoul of the law when she was accused of distributing whiskey from a back room of the store.7 In fact, she became a significant provider of moonshine whiskey in the "dry" community of Fort Collins. Her activities made her a worthy rival to the quasi-legal medicinal alcohol business conducted by local drugstores.

Over the following years, the authorities repeatedly punished Lafitte for violating the liquor laws. In 1899, she was charged with selling liquor without a license. The jury in her case deliberated all night, eventually convicting her of one of the charges against her but acquitting her of another.8 She was fined $500, plus costs. When she failed to pay, she was sent to jail.

In 1903, Lafitte was charged in federal court with "moon shining."9 She reportedly offered several frivolous excuses, such as claiming that she only sold tobacco and then threw in a bottle of whiskey for free to her tobacco customers.10 She was convicted, fined, and received a sentence to be served in the county jail. Afterward, she announced her intention to request a presidential pardon from the federal jail sentence.11

In 1904, a jury convicted her in county court of illegally storing and keeping liquor on her premises. She was fined $100, plus costs.12

In another 1904 case, Lafitte was charged with keeping 45 gallons of whiskey, 27 dozen quart bottles of beer, and 35 quart-sized bottles of red claret wine at her home.13 The jury did not accept her defense that the alcohol was for her personal consumption. She was fined $200, plus costs.

In a 1903 case for selling malt liquor, Lafitte presented a strange affidavit in which she described her home-brewed recipe for what she called "hop beer or malt tea... commonly called an English ale."14 She seemed to be asserting that the ingredients she used were harmless. But the local paper opined that "when combined and imbibed ab libitum, they produce a peculiar kind of drunk, which has subjected the victim to the suspicion that he is a candidate for the insane asylum in more than one instance."15

In addition to providing home-brewed libations, Lafitte seems to have provided other illicit pleasures enjoyed by Fort Collins residents. In 1902, she was convicted of keeping a disorderly house. Most sources agree that Lafitte was running a brothel.

On another occasion, Lafitte was convicted of violating two Fort Collins ordinances by keeping and using rooms to store intoxicating liquors with intent to distribute them, and by keeping a disorderly house. In her appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court, she argued that the liquor ordinance was ultra vires and void because it was not expressly limited to liquor sales within the city. But the Court stated that in the absence of language concerning the scope of the ordinance, it could presume it applied only within the territorial limits of the city's jurisdiction.16 She also argued that the county court had improperly permitted testimony about the character of her house before the time alleged in the information and about the house and the people who frequented it. But the Court refused to rule on these issues because Lafitte's attorney had failed to supply it with a copy of the ordinance. Her convictions were affirmed.[17]

Around this time, the City of Fort Collins also sued her in police magistrate's court for violating three local ordinances. The police court ruled in favor of the city, and she appealed to county court, which affirmed the judgment against her for $200 in each of the three cases. She then appealed again to the Colorado Supreme Court. But the Court ruled that her trial and appellate attorneys had forfeited most of her issues by failing to raise them at trial or effectively preserving them for appeal.18 The only issue she had preserved concerned the validity of an 1899 Fort Collins city ordinance, and the Court ruled against her on that issue.19

Over the years, Lafitte was also involved in litigation over her mounting debts, an ominous precursor of her ultimate downfall. Around 1905 she sued a bondsman who had turned over money she believed was hers to one of her creditors.20 That litigation ended in a nonsuit. Soon, however, her greatest debt-related challenge arose: the Lafitte/Salisbury litigation.

Origins of the Lafitte/ Salisbury Litigation

The seeds of the Lafitte/Salisbury litigation were sown on December 21,1881, when Henry Rups obtained a judgment for $2,065 against Lafitte in Pueblo County District Court.21 The basis f or the judgment is unclear, but it apparently remained dormant for over a decade. Then, on January8,1894, George Salisbury, claiming to have acquired ownership of the judgment from Rups, successfully revived it in his own name in Pueblo County District Court.22 By that time, the judgment had grown to S3,130, plus costs.23

George Salisbury was at the opposite end of the social scale from Lafitte. He was a prominent attorney who later became a judge. She was a small businesswoman whose enterprises were tainted with illegality. The divergent social status of the combatants is reflected in the newspaper accounts, which generally refer to Salisbury as "Judge Salisbury" but to Lafitte as simply "the Madam."

A local newspaper made its opinion about the litigation clear early on. After dismissing Lafitte's attempts to avoid the Rups judgment as frivolous obstruction, it printed a strong defense of Judge Salisbury, whom it indignantly insisted "has been a resident of this state for about thirty years and his reputation as a man, citizen and a lawyer, have theretofore been unchallenged."24 But subsequent events cast doubt on whether Judge Salisbury was the gentlemanly figure portrayed in the papers.

Salisbury pursued a vigorous campaign of executing on the...

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