One hundred years ago, on August 22, 1901, the sound of gunfire shattered the cool morning air of Cripple Creek, Colorado. The Newport Saloon fell silent. Its roulette wheel ceased to click, and the clang of the slot machines stopped. Behind the cigar case stood Grant Crumley, part owner of the saloon. In his hand, he gripped a smoking sawed-off shotgun. Millionaire mine owner Sam Strong lay at his feet.
Blood pooled where Strong fell. The right side of his scalp and skull torn loose by the shotgun pellets, he lay unconscious and mortally wounded. His father-in-law, John Neville, rushed across the street to a phone and called Dr. F.J. Crane, who was also the mayor. Strong was taken to his in-laws’ house, and Marshal Bruce Brass took Crumley to jail. From his cell, Crumley requested a cigar, some whiskey and his attorney, J. Reid Crowell. He said little else.
Sam Strong died two hours later. In the August 23 issue of the Colorado Springs Evening Mail, Mayor Crane ran a decree on the front page. He publicly denounced Strong and all other gamblers for the common practice of carrying concealed weapons, saying: ‘I believe that in a community so well governed as Cripple Creek, where warrants are worth 100 cents on the dollar, any person who carries a gun or other dangerous weapon concealed on his person is either a coward, a bully or an outlaw.’ Crane ordered that all gambling houses in Cripple Creek be closed and that ‘all persons carrying concealed weapons quit said practice.’
Nearly 8,000 people came to Lampman’s funeral parlor to view Strong’s body. The big man’s head wound was hidden by his dark hair, but his thick mustache did little to conceal the small marks made by the scatter shot. The shooting was the talk of the town, and two stories emerged. Strong’s father-in-law and gambling buddies told anyone willing to listen that Strong and Crumley had teased each other and argued throughout the night. While Strong drew his gun a couple of times, he’d been convinced to put it back. They insisted that the gun lay nestled in Strong’s coat pocket when Crumley pulled the riot gun’s trigger.
Friends and employees of Crumley took the stance that Strong had threatened Crumley repeatedly throughout the night. They told how Strong knew Crumley was armed and still had advanced toward him. In their minds and words, Crumley shot in self-defense. The jury agreed, acquitting Crumley on November 7, 1901. The matter disappeared from the local papers.
Was Crumley truly protecting himself from a bear of a man bent on bodily harm? Or was Crumley part of a plan to get rid of Sam Strong, a plan that capitalized on the 37-year-old millionaire’s predictable behavior to make him an easy victim?
Sam Strong was born on January 11, 1864, the seventh of Adley and Drucilla (Curry) Strong’s nine children. Adley Strong, a blacksmith with the Ohio 7th Light Infantry during the Civil War, contracted typhoid fever at Tennessee Landing, Pa., an illness that plagued him the rest of his life. Sam came into the world less than a year after Adley’s medical discharge.
Hardships were nothing new to Adley and Drucilla. They had eloped, and her father refused to speak to them. Their first two children had died before age 5. Adley’s illness seemed just one more trial to endure. Before the war, Drucilla made sure her boys got a good education, and two of them went on to college–eldest son George got a mechanical engineering degree, and William studied architecture.
Things changed drastically in the Strong household, though, when Drucilla contracted tuberculosis. Eldest daughter Samantha, now married, returned home to fill the role of caretaker for her mother. On January 12, 1874, the day after Sam’s 10th birthday, Drucilla died. Throughout Ohio’s Vinton and Meigs counties, families struggled against disease, weather and low property values. The Strong family barely got by. Samantha also developed TB. Three years later, she died.
By 1880, George Strong had left home to seek his fortune in the mining camps of Utah and Colorado territories. Not long after, brother William developed TB symptoms. Adley Strong then decided to take the family west to a drier climate. In Nebraska he filed a homestead claim, as did his son Charles, Sam’s younger brother.
Sam Strong decided to push on farther west, to where George worked. Sam found work and a wife. In Colorado Springs, on August 24, 1884, he married Rebecca Jane Baldwin. The newlyweds headed to Loup County, Neb., where Sam filed a homestead claim near the claims of his father and younger brother. At first, the four of them shared a two-room soddie. In April 1885, Rebecca gave birth to a son, Grover.
Eventually, Sam and Rebecca built their own sod house, and a daughter, Mable, was born there. Adley, meanwhile, moved to another claim, near Woodriver, Neb.
Winter struck hard in 1888–the worst in Nebraska’s recorded history. Sam Strong’s family of four huddled together in their soddie, battling the cold, wind and snow. They survived, but Sam must have had his fill of blizzards on the Plains. He headed back to Colorado Springs, where George, who had married Emma Talbert in 1887, still lived. Rebecca and the two children remained in Nebraska for a time, but eventually joined Sam in Colorado.
Sam Strong found work hauling lumber from a mill in Sadelia to Colorado Springs and surrounding towns. He dreamed of riches, though. Bob Womack had reportedly found gold nuggets on his ranch high in the hills west of Colorado Springs; a mercantile store in town displayed them in its window for months.
One day in the spring of 1891, Sam and his friends Jimmie Burns, Jimmy Doyle and Winfield S. Stratton were playing cards in the Colorado Springs volunteer fire station when ‘Crazy Bob’ Womack showed up. He’d been drinking. After a while Womack pulled a rock out of his pocket and set it on the table. Most people doubted there was really any gold on Womack’s ranch. For one thing, the often-drunk Womack was not considered a reliable source. For another, no stream suitable for placer or sluice mining existed up there. The trickle of water dubbed Cripple Creek was dry most of the year. People had also heard about a mine–a useless mine–that had been salted years ago near his place.
When Stratton picked up the rock from the table, though, his eyes lit up. Strong and the others noted his expression. A carpenter by trade, and part-time prospector at heart, Stratton had come to Colorado Springs from Indiana in 1872. He’d taken classes at Colorado College, and he knew the area’s rocks well. While the card players were discussing the nugget, another local man, Leslie Popejay, happened by and took more than a passing interest. He offered Stratton a grubstake, and Stratton took it, heading out for Cripple Creek a few days later. Strong, Burns and Doyle soon followed.
After a couple of months in the hills without finding anything, a discouraged Stratton returned to Colorado Springs. In early July, though, he dreamed about a rock outcrop near his tent on the south slope of Battle Mountain and hurried back to Cripple Creek. His dream was about to come true. On July 4, 1891, Stratton staked out the Independence mine, which would one day be the largest producer in the area.
Sam Strong filed a claim that was adjacent to Stratton’s. Burns and Doyle were nearby. They were all perched on Battle Mountain. When Stratton found his first nuggets, the others dug harder. Bob Womack never filed claims and never benefited directly from his find, but Stratton and other rich mine owners often gave him money, which kept him well supplied with liquor.
About the time Sam Strong filed his claim, Rebecca divorced him. She had grown weary of waiting for riches and for her husband. Her timing was bad. Within months, he hit a rich vein. Strong, who had never had more than a few coins in his pockets before, now had more gold than he’d ever imagined. Within weeks, the syndicate of Edwin W. Giddings, William Lennox and Ernest Colburn offered him a lease for $100,000 on his claim, $10,000 of which was paid immediately, the rest in installments. Strong had struck the mother lode. He quickly signed and received his first payment.
At 27, Sam Strong had suddenly become a very rich man. With money to spare and time on his hands, he drank, gambled and caroused in towns all over the area. George Strong, whose skills as a mechanical engineer were of use to his younger brother, often joined Sam in his escapades. He and George took turns bailing each other out of jail for fighting. The brothers purchased the Texas House Saloon in the growing town of Victor, just down the hill from the Strong mine.
In 1893 Sam and George had a falling out. George wanted his share of the riches coming out the mine and Sam’s other investments. He told the court that his expertise in mechanical engineering contributed to Sam’s finding the mine. Sam countered by bringing up George’s apparent alcoholism and marital problems. The case was settled out of court, and the brothers continued to work together, at least in the saloon.
Sam Strong wasn’t the best miner, but he knew how to make his money grow. He bought shares in other mines and also set up a money-lending business in Colorado Springs. He moved into the apartment above the offices on south Tejon Street.
Throughout 1894 miners flocked to Cripple Creek, Victor, Anaconda and other towns in the valley. The area was collectively referred to as the Cripple Creek Mining District. Tents and lean-to houses filled the hillsides, but families were beginning to populate the district, and they wanted more than ramshackle housing. Tensions between working miners and the owners grew. Workers wanted standard pay, and the Western Federation of Miners wanted a foothold in the rich camp. The result was a strike.
On April 25, 1894, the Strong mine exploded into a scattered pile of lumber. The union took two hostages, and the Colorado state militia set up camp just outside the city limits of Cripple Creek. The union and the mine owners settled the strike that August, but the carefree camp life was never the same.
Two miners who had worked at the Strong mine, Nicholas Tully and Robert Lyons, were eventually arrested in connection with the mine explosion. Convicted of malicious mischief, they were sentenced to six to eight years and taken to the state penitentiary in Cañon City in the summer of 1895. Less than two years later, they were pardoned.
Sam Strong had kept quiet during the long strike. He alienated both sides–the mine owners by not standing with them; the men he had the most in common
with, the miners, by simply being a mine owner. His own brother was one of the common folk. George Strong now ran the saloon by himself, but Sam continued to frequent it. Shortly after the strike, a drunken brawl occurred. The sheriff arrested Sam and George to keep them alive. From then on, Sam carried a small pistol in his jacket, and George soon left Cripple Creek. (According to family letters, George was ill for a long time before dying in 1904 in Albuquerque, New Mexico Territory, near older brother William Strong.)
Adley Strong died in 1895, and Sam attended his father’s funeral in Nebraska. While there, Sam frequently took out his little gun to accent his words. A rich man never could be too careful. The farmers, awed by his success and wealth, considered him pompous. Charles, who had remained in Nebraska, shook his head and dismissed his brother as a fool.
Sam Strong was only too glad to get back to Colorado, where a man of his means could buy all the friends and female companionship he wanted. He was known to visit the Homestead, Cripple Creek’s exclusive brothel. But he also enjoyed the company of young ladies who had been groomed by proper mothers to adorn a man’s arm. A young Colorado Springs woman, Nellie Lewis, became a particularly close paramour. Strong even took Nellie to New York on an expensive trip, staying in some of the most prestigious hotels. He also kept company with a woman named Luella Vance. Later, Sam referred to both of these women as’simply mistresses.’
In 1899, at the home of his employee John Neville, Sam Strong met John’s charming daughter, Regina. She turned his head and his heart, and he soon proposed. Despite her parent’s protests, they wed in Altman, Colo., on February 5, 1900. He was 36; she was 18. As the newlyweds boarded the train on their way to catch a ship for their European honeymoon, the sheriff served Strong with papers for two breach-of-promise suits–one by Luella Vance, the other by Nellie Lewis. In their minds, the millionaire had apparently married the wrong woman.
Attorney J. Reid Crowell took Miss Lewis’ case. In an attempt to discredit her, Sam Strong and his attorneys set out to find men in Colorado Springs who had been intimate with Nellie Lewis. The newspapers compounded the situation by publishing the details. The public was scandalized and Lewis embarrassed.
In retaliation, Nellie Lewis testified that Sam Strong himself had paid to have the Strong mine blown up during the 1894 strike. Also, love letters he had written to her were read in open court. Strong’s own behavior helped doom the case. He had to be ordered to answer questions and at times contradicted himself.
On April 17, 1900, the jury awarded Nellie Lewis $50,000 in damages. Strong’s attorneys immediately appealed the decision. Meanwhile, Luella Vance’s case was settled out of court, also for $50,000.
The matter of the mine explosion was not so easily swept aside. The syndicate that had leased the mine from Strong grew angry upon hearing the details of Nellie Lewis’ testimony. This was the first these rich men had heard that Strong had been involved in the blowup. Nicholas Tully, one of the men who had been convicted of the crime, saw an opportunity to clear his name. He teamed up with attorney Crowell, and together with various miners and the rich men of the syndicate, they built a strong case against Strong. They said that Strong had ordered the high-production mine blown up in hope that the syndicate would quit the lease–which would have given control of the mine back to him.
The notoriety of the Nellie Lewis trial earlier that year and Strong’s lack of popularity in conservative, alcohol-free Colorado Springs helped convince the court that Strong could not receive a fair trial there. The proceedings were moved to Denver, which was also more convenient for Sam, since he was now living in the capital city with Regina.
The Denver papers carried a day-to-day account of what they dubbed the ‘War of the Millionaires.’ The trial began on April 23, 1901. An entire day was spent examining the fortunes of the syndicate members and Strong. According to their own testimony, William Lennox was worth $3 million; Ernest Colburn, $2.5 million; and Edwin Giddings, $4 million. Strong’s worth was argued over. His attorney hoped to show that he didn’t need the money from the Strong mine and therefore had no motivation for having it blown up. They finally agreed that Strong was worth a mere $1 million, though his estate was settled less than six months later at more than twice that amount.
A parade of witnesses filed in and out of the courtroom for six weeks. Multimillionaire Winfield S. Stratton, who had become the ‘Midas of the Rockies,’ testified to the details of the strike. William Bell, the state militia officer in charge at the time of the strike, also testified. Their testimony was favorable for Sam. Nicholas Tully and Strong’s spurned lover, Nellie Lewis, offered unfavorable testimony against Sam.
The most damaging testimony of all, though, came from the affidavit of a miner named John Edmund ‘Kid’ Allen. The Kid refused to return to Colorado for fear he would be arrested and sentenced for the crimes he claimed Strong had paid him to commit. His accomplice, Henry Munford, had conveniently died in a mining accident in Nevada some time before. Kid Allen described in detail how Sam paid him. Other witnesses corroborated his story, but each of those men had done time in Cañon City with Lyons and Tully. Strong’s attorneys attacked their credibility.
Throughout the long trial, Regina Strong stood beside her husband. She sat in court each day with Sam, facing his accusers and the public. The papers reported not only on the trial’s progress but also on the clothing the attorneys and witnesses wore and on which Denver school was present on a field trip. In the end, the 12 members of the all-male jury found for Sam Strong, returning their ‘not guilty’ verdict on May 17, 1901, after only one ballot. It had taken them less than three minutes to decide. A murmur of approval rose from the spectators. Maybe folks had it in for him down in Colorado Springs, but in the big state capital, they were willing to give him a fair shake. A smiling, tearful crowd of supporters engulfed Strong and his party. Half an hour later, he sailed up and down the streets of Denver in his automobile, ‘not a trace of malice for the anxiety’ upon his face, according to the Denver Post. The headlines read, ‘Strong Vindicated.’ The same press that days earlier had branded him a villain now carried stories of his success.
The syndicate’s attorneys requested a motion to prepare a new trial, and the judge granted 60 days. Strong’s attorneys filed a counter suit for damages. The legal system wasn’t finished yet. On May 19, a Denver Post reporter spoke to Nellie Lewis. He quoted her: ‘Let him come on. I have a lot of testimony that I haven’t said yet.’ The article described Miss Lewis as ‘confident and coolly menacing.’
The strange twist to it all was that in order to win the damage suit, Strong would have to use some of the same witnesses he’d discredited in the current trial. The Denver Post reported that several of the witnesses had admitted to conspiring against Sam–a conspiracy orchestrated by Nellie Lewis and her associates. The follow-up trials promised as much excitement and scandal as the original one had provided.
All the legal battles, as well as the fact he and Regina had moved into a new home in Denver, had kept Sam away from Cripple Creek and his business. But on Wednesday, August 21, 1901, Strong boarded the train for the mining camp. Little did he know that Grant Crumley would cause him more distress than all those millionaires and mistresses combined.
Back on February 17, 1899, Sam Strong had spent the evening at Cripple Creek’s National Hotel, where his friend Grant Crumley managed the gambling room. Strong’s luck had been bad that night. After several large losses, he had cashed a check for $2,500. Crumley had readily advanced him the cash, but the next day Sam had heard rumors around town that Crumley ran a crooked roulette wheel, so he had angrily stopped payment on the check. Crumley had tried unsuccessfully to collect the cash directly from Strong and then had sold the check to Thomas Clark for a reduced price. On March 17, 1901, Clark had filed suit against Strong to collect the debt. In mid-August 1901 the court finally settled the suit, with Strong paying $635 of the $2,500. About a week later, when Strong went back to Cripple Creek, he had no reason to expect trouble from Clark, or from Crumley either.
Strong spent most of August 21 at the Pinto mine, where he laid out work for the next two years and discussed plans for a new processing plant. That evening Strong went out partying with his father-in-law, John Neville; his Cripple Creek attorney, Owen Prentiss; and the Pinto mine’s superintendent, Sam Fitch. They visited four gambling establishments before reaching the Newport Saloon.
At the Newport, the group gathered around the roulette wheel, which happened to be run by Crumley. Both Crumley and Strong made several comments about their last meeting over a roulette wheel, back in February 1899. But there was no trouble at first. At one point, Crumley bought Strong a drink to celebrate their letting bygones be bygones.
Around 6 a.m., August 22, the gamblers were still at it. Neville and the others urged Strong to return home. They were tired, Sam was drunk, and the morning shift had already headed to the mines. After Strong went to the men’s room, though, Crumley made it clear to Neville that he wanted to keep spinning the roulette wheel. Strong was ahead on the wheel, and Crumley wanted to change that.
When Strong returned, Neville and Crumley were arguing. ‘Don’t curse that man,’ Strong told Crumley, ‘He’s my father-in-law.’ Crumley took a swing at Strong, who instinctively reached into his back pocket for his gun. After a short struggle, Sam returned the gun to his coat pocket. The men went to the bar and shared a bottle of wine. The arguing continued, though, and the gun reappeared in Sam’s hand. Sam’s friends convinced him to put it away again.
Crumley headed to the cigar case as the group made their plans to leave. In the nearby front window stood a desk and a safe. Beside the safe was a 10-gauge shotgun. Strong, Neville, Prentiss and Fitch finished their drinks and walked toward the front door. They rounded a large cedar post and found themselves facing Crumley. A shotgun rested against the gambler’s shoulder, and the barrel was pointed squarely at Strong. Crumley pulled the trigger. There was no saving Sam, who died two hours later at Neville’s house.
Following an inquest and brief trial, Grant Crumley was acquitted of murder. The jury believed his claim of self-defense. Reports that Strong’s gun had fallen to the floor and that his father-in-law had scooped it up were too difficult for the jury to ignore. The question of whether it had fallen from his coat pocket or his hand was asked but never answered. The jury agreed that his earlier behavior indicated his intent to harm Crumley. But unanswered questions still cast shadows around what happened in the Newport Saloon that fateful August morning nearly 100 years ago.
Following Sam Strong’s death, Regina Neville Strong remained in Denver. His bride received half the estate, while the other half was split between his two children. His first wife, Rebecca, sued the estate but was not successful. Sam’s brother William became the children’s guardian and oversaw their finances until they were of age. Strong’s suit against Nellie Lewis was waiting on appeal at the time of his death. Regina approved the payment of $50,000 to Lewis after Sam had been buried. During the next few years, Regina traveled to Siberia, Mexico and Hawaii. It wasn’t until she was 39 that she remarried, nearly 20 years after Sam’s death. The press that had hounded her when her husband died continued to do so, and she refused to speak to anyone about him.
Nellie Lewis married a streetcar conductor five years after Sam Strong died. They left Colorado Springs a few years later, their whereabouts unknown. Attorney J. Reid Crowell died in Colorado Springs in 1904 from alcoholism. Grant Crumley stayed in Cripple Creek for another couple of years but headed to the Nevada mining camps when the next union war threatened in 1903.
An old photograph used to hang in the gift shop at the Mollie Kathleen mine in Cripple Creek. The caption beneath the picture said it was Sam Strong, lying dead on the floor of the Newport Saloon. The picture has appeared in several publications with a similar caption. The alleged dead man does look like Sam Strong, with his thick black mustache and dark hair. But the man doesn’t have any head wounds or facial wounds, and Sam didn’t actually die in the saloon. At some point in the 1970s, the picture disappeared, but it is now part of the Pikes Peak Library District’s Special Collections. The prosecuting attorneys at Grant Crumley’s trial in 1901 produced that picture and perhaps two others, but the photos were never allowed into evidence. The Strong look-alike lying ‘dead’ in the one photo is seen standing in another.
Many millionaires of the Gilded Age left legacies throughout Colorado. Foundations and buildings are named after them. Not Sam Strong. The shack he once lived in is now a pile of rotted boards. His mine is all that remains. It stands above Victor, Colo., looking down on the town like a silent sentinel forever on guard.
This article was written by Angel Strong Smits and originally appeared in the August 2001 issue of Wild West. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!