by Joy Jackson
Salida Regional Library
In January 1891, Hollis D. Spencer got a job as a police officer for the city of Salida, with a starting salary of $90 per month. Less than two months later, Hollis witnessed one of the worst instances of mob justice in Salida.
In Salida’s early days, the Denver & Rio Grande was a major employer in town. The railroad made up the fabric of Salida, and everyone either worked for the railroad or catered to it.
Back then, the Denver & Rio Grande steam trains were powered by coal, and occasionally D&RG firemen who were hasty in their work would accidentally shovel coal over the side of the engines.
In a charitable act, the Denver & Rio Grande gave the poorer citizens of Salida the opportunity to pick up any dropped coal in the Salida railyards. Many of these less fortunate citizens were of Italian descent. The local paper referred to them as “dagos,” a slur meaning “Diego,” directed toward people of Italian or Spanish descent.
On a Saturday afternoon in February 1891, D&RG employee Oliver Briley was working at the coal chutes in the railyards when he got into an altercation with a group of Salida’s Italian citizens who were taking refuse coal from the railyard.
The Italians overtook Briley in the brawl, and from that point on Briley carried a gun. One week later, another Italian was gathering refuse coal in the yards when he elicited the ire of Briley. Briley drew his gun and ordered the man to drop the coal.
P.J. Sullivan, a popular D&RG conductor, witnessed the incident. The Salida Mail picks up the story:
“Sullivan had witnessed Briley’s affair with the dago, and … told Briley in a very kindly way that he ought not to draw a gun on a dago and prevent him from taking the coal, as the dagos had always been permitted to take the waste coal; that they had done so before Briley came and probably would long after Briley was gone.
“Briley took offense at this and said, ‘Perhaps you would like to take it up. Perhaps you want something of me.’ Sullivan replied that he guessed he could take anything Briley could give him, at which he got up and took off his overcoat. At the same time, Briley took off his overcoat and started down from the engine.
“As Sullivan advanced he picked up a piece of fence board about two feet long with which he made a pass at Briley. The latter warded the blow off with his left hand and with his right he reached for his revolver, which he carried … under his right vest pocket. As soon as Briley drew his revolver, he held it to Sullivan’s abdomen and fired.”
P.J. Sullivan was mortally wounded and died a short time later at the Denver & Rio Grande Hospital. Salida’s marshal placed Briley under arrest in front of the Saddle Rock Restaurant, at 131 Lower F.
Earlier in the year the town jail had burned to the ground, so prisoners were being kept temporarily in a back room at the New England Dining Parlor, which was at 117 W. Second, about where Natural Grocers is today.
Oliver Briley was leg-chained to the floor in the back of the restaurant and sat in wait. Meanwhile, news spread like wildfire through town of the deed he had committed, and “whispers of lynching were heard.”
As a precaution, Marshal McKelvey swore in six more deputies to reinforce his roster of three (Hollis Spencer included), and they took up their position, well armed, at the makeshift jail. Briley’s brother secured a Winchester rifle and joined the deputies.
At about 9 p.m., a mob gathered in the streets of Salida. Masked men carrying rope proceeded toward the jail and lay siege to it. The mob broke the door in, but when the deputies fired shots at them, they dispersed.
Later that evening, another attack was made on the jail. This time multiple shots were fired on both sides. The mob moved to the rear of the jail, continuing to volley bullets at the officers. Several people were injured, including Hollis Spencer, who was standing in the front door with a revolver in each hand. The bullet that struck him “creased his head” and he staggered back.
With bullets flying and the crowd seething with rage, the officers were finally overpowered, and the mob broke through into the jail where Briley stood chained. The following is from the Salida Mail:
“The mob placed a rope around the prisoner’s neck and dragged him out of the building. They made an attempt to hang him to the cross-beam of an electric light pole nearby, but the rope was not long enough. The prisoner’s neck was broken and he was dead at the time. (Oliver Briley’s) brother came up and asked for the corpse. Some of the crowd were disposed to let him have it; others said no, and (Briley) was accordingly taken to the railroad crossing sign at the point where First Street crosses the railroad and there he was strung up and left.”
It was mob justice doled out in the streets of Salida.
Later that evening Sheriff Crymble (who had been in BV at the time) organized a coroner’s jury, and they cut Briley’s body down at around 1 a.m.
Hollis Spencer had stayed with the body until the sheriff assembled his men, and his night was later recalled:
“A group of lynchers, 15 in number, (were) very angry because of (Spencer) protecting the dead boy, and instructed him ‘to wade the Arkansas,’ an expression used then meaning to leave town and never return, or else. Undaunted, he took a position behind the old ‘iron mike’ (possibly the fire hydrant) at the corner of First and (G) Streets, unlimbered two 45s; and dared his enemies, across the street, to come and get him. The lynchers, sensing the apparent disastrous result of such a venture, wisely left the vicinity.”
Some of the vigilantes were later identified and arrested, but every case against them was dismissed.
The Salida Mail wrote a retrospective in later years: “Most of those closely associated with the tragedy and its victims have moved away or are dead. The memory is all that is left and the curse it left for so long seems to have faded away.”
Joy Jackson is desk clerk and archivist at Salida Regional Library. Follow twitter.com/SalidaArchive to see historic images of Salida.