Some predicted this ‘incarnate devil’ would one day stretch hemp.
When not engaged in their lethal avocation, Western gunfighters generally pursued careers as outlaws, lawmen, gamblers, saloon keepers, cowboys and the like. This partly explains our continuing curiosity about John Henry “Doc” Holliday, whose profession of dentistry seemed so atypical of the gunman. But in the 1870s another practitioner of a profession seemingly far removed from gunslinging, that of watchmaker and jeweler, cut a violent trail across Wyoming and Colorado, before his career abruptly concluded at the end of a rope.
His name was Edward Frodsham. Born in Lancashire, England, in June 1841, he was the firstborn of James and Mary Frodsham. Seven months later, on January 14, 1842, Edward and his parents arrived at the port of New Orleans aboard the ship Chaos. The family settled in Pottawattamie County, Iowa, where James practiced his trade of watchmaker and jeweler and trained his young son in the profession.
By the 1870s the Frodshams had moved to Utah Territory, making their home in Brigham. On March 2, 1875, 33-year-old Edward married Julie Ann Zabriskie in Weber County and eventually fathered three children. He and his bride moved to Evanston, Wyoming Territory, where Edward repaired watches and dealt in jewelry like his father before him. But it wasn’t long before he demonstrated a propensity for violent behavior.
In early 1876 he shot and killed a gambler named Peasely whom he’d accused of seducing his wife. Convicted of manslaughter, he was sentenced that spring to 10 years at the Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary in Laramie. Many in Evanston decried the verdict, saying Frodsham had done the community a service by defending himself against a man they described as “a mean, worthless gambler and pimp who had insulted Frodsham and his wife beyond endurance.” If ever a man needed killing, they said, Peasely was that man.
Among the many signing a petition requesting Frodsham’s release were the attorney who prosecuted his case, the presiding judge, three Wyoming Supreme Court justices and the speaker of the territorial Legislature. Bowing to this public outcry, Governor John M. Thayer issued a pardon on December 29, 1877. Two weeks later Frodsham, having spent 19 months behind bars, was a free man.
Choosing to remain in Laramie, Frodsham rented a building adjoining the popular Gramm drugstore, moved his family into the rear rooms and opened a jewelry and watch repair shop in the spacious front area. The business did well, and he soon hired Lee Landers, a friend from Utah Territory, as help.
May Frost ran a cathouse across the street from Frodsham’s store. In that house on August 9, 1878, Abraham Taylor, a cattle dealer from Utah, got into a heated argument with a railroad worker named Roberts over May’s sexual favors. Roberts initially retreated but returned a few minutes later, armed with a pistol and accompanied by Frodsham. While Roberts held Taylor at gunpoint, Frodsham beat him unmercifully. Patched up by Frost following their departure, Taylor retrieved a revolver from his hotel room and started after his assailants.
Frodsham met him in front of his store and slapped his face. Taylor pulled his weapon and fired an ineffectual shot as Frodsham ran inside and grabbed a gun from Landers. Then began a deadly dance, as the two combatants dodged around a sign in front of Gramm’s, firing at each other. Both were struck twice by bullets, but only Taylor fell. Frodsham staggered up to his prone body, pointed his gun close to the cattleman’s head and pulled the trigger.When the hammer fell on a spent cartridge, he struck the man over the head repeatedly until bystanders knocked Frodsham to the ground and disarmed him. Officers arrived and arrested everyone involved.
Dr. William Harris treated Frodsham’s injuries—flesh wounds to the hip and abdomen—in his office. Attending Taylor in his hotel room, the doctor noted a minor shoulder injury and a more dangerous wound inflicted by a bullet that had struck him between the shoulder blades, traveled upward and exited beneath the chin. Remarkably, both shootists recovered.
The Laramie Daily Sentinel, recalling the violent“Hell onWheels” days of Union Pacific construction, called the shooting “one of the worst occurrences which have taken place in Laramie since the dark days of 1868.”
A grand jury indicted Frodsham for assault, and the authorities, believing his wounds precluded flight, allowed his release on bail. But the desperate jeweler, unwilling to risk another term in the territorial prison, stole a horse and skipped for Colorado, bilking his bondsmen. Arriving in Denver, he sent for his wife and children. The August 31 Sentinel noted their departure, commenting in the same issue that the loss of its watchmaker and jeweler was not regretted in Laramie: “Next to dying, running away was the most graceful thing [Frodsham] could have done, perhaps. The whole community had found out that the clemency and charity which had secured his release from the penitentiary was misplaced, and all most heartily wished him back there. If he had ever come to a trial here, it would have been difficult to have got a jury that would not have hung or sent him to the penitentiary for life on general principles.”
From Denver, Frodsham went to Leadville, the mountain camp then at the height of its silver boom, where he turned entirely to violent outlawry. On December 29, 1878, he shot and mortally wounded former Laramie resident Peter Thams. When news reached Laramie, the Sentinel castigated Frodsham as an “incarnate devil” up to his“old tricks.”The editor warned Leadville’s citizens, “[He was] the most bloodthirsty fiend that ever went unhung,” and having committed “coldblooded murder” in Wyoming, he had gained a pardon “by sympathy for his wife,” only to engage in another shooting scrape before fleeing to Colorado. “The best use they can put him to down there is to hang him,” the editor continued. “It will be doing the world and his family, too, a good service.” On January 3 the paper reported Thams’ death, adding, “Ed Frodsham will in all probability now stretch hemp.”
But Frodsham would live another 11 months, and when he did finally “stretch hemp,” it wasn’t for the Thams killing, and it wasn’t the law that put the noose around his neck.
Still running free in burgeoning Leadville, Frodsham formed a gang to intimidate miners and jump lots. “He was the brainiest, most reckless and fearless man of the toughs,” recalled one camp veteran. “He was interested in all manner of cussedness, but his principal business was jumping mines, mining claims and town lots.” If a property owner showed fight, continued the old-timer,“Frodsham always got the drop.”
The oft-arrested Frodsham beat every charge by means of his cohorts’ perjury. “With a record as a desperado second to few in the city, [he was] full of courage and animal spirits,” wrote one Leadville historian. And when the legal system failed to halt Frodsham’s depredations, citizens turned to “the last resort of Western justice—the court of ‘Judge Lynch.’”
On November 19, 1879, Frodsham led his gang to a partially erected house, drove off the owner and his workmen and took over the property. That night officers arrested him on a charge of disturbing the peace and locked him in the county jail to await a morning hearing. During the night, however, about 40 armed and masked men stormed the jail, dragged out Frodsham and thug Charles Stewart and hanged them from the rafters of an unfinished kitchen. On Frodsham’s back they pinned a notice warning criminals of all types to vacate Leadville or expect the same treatment.
The lynchings prompted an exodus of criminals, and within a month folks in Leadville were proclaiming it the most peaceful and orderly community of its kind. In a strange way Edward Frodsham had helped bring law and order to one of the wildest towns on the frontier.
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.