Thursday, November 8, 1900, was a cold day on the Colorado prairie. When school ended that afternoon, 12-yearold Louise Frost, only child of a well-known area sheep rancher, hitched up her horse and buggy in the small town of Limon, 80 miles southeast of Denver. Before heading to her home several miles away, she stopped at the local post office for mail, stopped by Russell Gates’ mercantile store to purchase penny candy, and picked up a young schoolmate, giving her a ride to the nearby crossroad. Sometime after 5 o’clock, the horse and buggy arrived at the ranch, reins lying neatly across the dashboard, lap quilt folded carefully, candy and letters on the seat. But Louise was missing.
Alarmed, her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Robert W. Frost, followed the route all the way back to Limon but found no sign of their daughter. Within minutes, townspeople and neighbors were alerted, and small groups of men began combing the countryside. It was several hours later when a party of searchers, in sight of both the town and a railroad yard, heard the sound of low moans coming from a shallow ravine. Louise Frost had been found. She was lying, barely alive, at the bottom of a gully. Both the Denver Times and the Rocky Mountain News reported that the young girl had a total of 14 stab wounds inflicted to both breasts, the neck and forehead, and a gaping gash the entire length of her right thigh. Her skull was fractured from the impact of a heavy boot or boots, and she had been raped. It was observed that some of her shed blood had turned to icicles. Two doctors present at the scene were able to revive her briefly. She whispered, “Yes, mama, I’m home,” and lapsed again into unconsciousness. She died around midnight.
The Times reported that people at the scene agreed she must have known the attacker because there was no sign of a struggle outside the ravine. It appeared that she had walked willingly to the place where the assault occurred. According to the News, the only pieces of evidence were a set of boot tracks and a plaid silk necktie, soaked in blood, believed to have been torn from her assailant.
The following day, November 9, a large posse was formed, consisting of area residents and experienced frontiersmen familiar with Lincoln County. Bloodhounds were also brought in from nearby Cañon City at the request of Lincoln County Sheriff John W. Freeman, who believed there might have been more than one attacker. Although the plains were scoured for two days and a reward of $500 per person was posted, no suspects were apprehended. The public was frustrated and enraged. The potential for violence escalated when the Denver press asserted that the crime was obviously committed by a “Negro.” Racial tension, always simmering just beneath the surface in turn-of-the-century Colorado, needed little to reach the boiling point. Blacks permanently residing in eastern Colorado during this time were rare. It was far less complicated for Limon’s citizen to believe the crime was committed by a black itinerant than by a white neighbor.
Also on the 9th, an unidentified child gave authorities the description of a black man seen in Limon the afternoon of the murder. Based solely on this information, police questioned three black men—a vagrant, a farmhand fired by the victim’s father and a Denver junk dealer—but all were released when their alibis were confirmed. The following day, three more black males—Preston Porter and his two sons, Arthur and Preston Jr.—were taken into custody as they cashed payroll checks from the Kansas-Pacific Railroad, which employed them as laborers. The senior Porter was described by railroad supervisors to the Rocky Mountain News as “a respectable, hard-working colored man,” and no serious suspicion fell on Arthur, his younger son. All three vehemently denied any part in the crime. Preston Porter Jr., 16, stated that he had taken the day off and had hung out at the Limon Hotel with a friend until 1:30 p.m. that day. No one noticed Preston later in the afternoon. He was, however, at the railroad cook car, five or more miles outside of Limon, for dinner at 6 p.m.
For reasons that are not altogether clear, the police determined that Preston Porter Jr. was the killer. He was arrested on November 11 and detained in the Denver jail while authorities began looking for evidence, however circumstantial. A Denver journalist described the accused as “illiterate and dull,” and declared that his “bulletshaped head and thick, sensual lips” were indisputably the marks of a criminal. The police collected a pile of burned clothing, allegedly bloodstained, near the boxcar in which Preston lived with his father and brother, a bloody lace handkerchief in the same vicinity, and boots closely matching tracks at the crime scene. A box of clothing mailed to his mother in Lawrence, Kan., was retrieved and said to contain bloodstained trousers and hat. It was alleged that he had spent time in a Kansas reformatory for the theft of a buggy and attempted child molestation. That Preston allegedly knew the location of Louise Frost’s missing coin purse was considered damaging to him. How he might have acquired that knowledge and its relevance to the crime, along with the other evidence, would never be examined by a jury.
One small contingent tenaciously maintained Porter’s innocence. Foremost among his advocates was a Pinkerton Detective agent named Murray, who believed that the evidence in hand left an overwhelming case of reasonable doubt. Agent Murray pointed out aspects of the evidence that should have been, and probably were, blatantly obvious. The crime was committed between 4:30 and 5 p.m., and Preston’s presence at the cook car at 6 p.m. was corroborated by witnesses. The accused would have had to complete a rape and a particularly gruesome murder, run for over an hour at top speed, and arrive covered with blood. Yet he had not appeared to be agitated, and there was no blood on his clothing. The pile of burned clothing was found near, not in, the Porter’s boxcar and in an area accessible to anyone. The clothing was never shown to be Preston’s. It was never proven that the handkerchief belonged to Louise or, due to the primitive level of forensics in 1900, that the blood was even hers. It also seemed unreasonable that a murderer would burn part of his bloody clothing and then mail the remainder to his mother. Further, Preston’s boots were confiscated, but no search was conducted for others that might have been similar. Still another concern was the bloodied silk tie, an unlikely accessory for a railroad laborer’s outfit and never connected to Preston Porter in any way. Also worth noting was the fact that the accused was only 5 feet, 2 inches tall, weighing 110 pounds, and the victim was described as “fleshy,” weighing 136 pounds.
Another puzzling aspect of the case involved the account given by Fred Schum, sole eyewitness to the attack. Schum, an employee of the railroad, seemed to have an unusual amount of knowledge concerning the Frost girl’s activities on the afternoon she was murdered. The Denver press gave an overview of Schum’s statement to the Denver police. He reported that he saw her leave Limon in the buggy, with a companion, around 4:30 p.m. A few minutes later, he saw two people “frolicking” on the prairie, assuming it to be young Frost and her friend, not knowing that her companion had been dropped off at the crossroad. From only 50 yards away, he could identify Louise but give no description of her companion. He heard no cries for help and seemed to ignore the fact that her buggy was either missing or traveling away, leaving her behind. He could not distinguish between innocent play and a frenzied, murderous encounter in which one participant was fighting for her life. It cannot be known if an unidentified person was on the prairie with Frost that fateful afternoon, but, by his own admission, Fred Schum was there. Schum was never investigated further nor ever considered a suspect. In the end, neither logic nor reasonable doubt made a difference. In utter frustration, Detective Murray told the Denver press, “Miss Frost was coaxed from her buggy by someone she knew, and the guilty party is one of those crying loudest for vengeance.” Given the social climate of the time and her standing in the community, it is very unlikely that she would have known the black railroad laborer Preston Porter Jr.
For three days following his arrest on November 11, although repeatedly moved from the “sweat box” to the interrogation room, Porter steadfastly maintained his innocence. Finally, the police threatened the teenager with the lynching of his father and brother if he did not confess. On Wednesday, November 14, Preston Porter confessed. His statement was little more than “I’m guilty.” Detective Murray believed, as do many historians today, that the confession was extracted by force and, therefore, completely worthless.
Once his confession was announced, an angry mob began forming in Limon; men were coming by train from other towns, and talk of lynching was everywhere. The Denver press published the arrival time of the train transporting young Porter from Denver to Limon for trial. The newspapers did this even though they were well aware of the prevailing vigilante atmosphere and the gathering mob.
At approximately 4 in the afternoon on Friday, November 16, when the train from Denver arrived in Limon, the sun was beginning to wane in the western sky. Eight days earlier, Louise Frost had been attacked at this time of day. A seething mass of angry men, numbered by some estimates at 300, surrounded the platform, overpowering Sheriff Freeman and pulling his prisoner from the train. The accused was then chained to the back of a buckboard wagon and dragged for more than a mile to the spot where Frost’s body had been discovered. Earlier in the day, an iron rail had been driven upright into the ground, honoring the request of Robert W. Frost, who had been given the dubious privilege of choosing the method of execution for the accused. Mutilation had been discussed at some length, but ultimately the victim’s father opted for burning him alive. It was not a new concept. The previous month a black man had been burned at the stake in Eclectic, Ala., and at least nine other black men had suffered similar fates in southern locations since 1893. Of course, lynching black men was far more common. In the year 1900 alone, according to the Chicago Tribune, 117 blacks were lynched.
The Denver Times and the Rocky Mountain News reported that Porter was both chained and tied with rope to the iron stake, arms above his head, reaching toward the darkening heavens. Placed neatly at the foot of the rail was a pile of oil-soaked wood. At 23 minutes after 6, Robert Frost lit an oily rag and threw it onto the waiting timber. As the kindling caught fire, the teenager screamed: “Oh my God, let me go! Please let me go! Oh my God! Oh my God!” He then cried out, “Tell Papa I’ve gone to Heaven.” Soon engulfed in flames, he could not speak—but his screams were heard for 12 minutes more. Long after Preston Porter Jr. drew his final tormented breath, the crowd continued a grisly vigil. When nothing was left but charred bones and ashes, the men finally dispersed, abandoning his pitiful remains on the prairie.
In the wake of Porter’s murder, a national outrage ensued, no doubt partly due to the barbaric execution method. Sermons were preached from pulpits across the country, including several by Booker T. Washington, denouncing the crime and demanding justice. A petition went as far as Colorado Governor Charles S. Thomas, but the Georgia-born politician refused to intervene. Sheriff Freeman refused to arrest or even identify members of the mob. This is especially troubling in view of the fact that the Denver Public Library’s Western History Collection has a photograph of the crowd surrounding the boy’s burning body. Many of the grinning faces are clearly visible. “An investigation would involve Lincoln County in a needless and fruitless litigation against its own citizens,” the sheriff concluded. Later that year, an inquest concluded that Preston Porter’s death was caused by parties unknown.
Louise Frost was buried in Denver’s Fairmount Cemetery beside her 2-year-old sister, who had choked to death four years earlier. Following the murder of Louise, the rest of the Frosts moved back to their previous home in the Midwest. There is no record of Preston Porter’s remains ever having been removed from the prairie where he died. His father and younger brother returned to their home in Lawrence, Kan. Justice failed Louise Frost because no one was ever convicted for her murder.
Justice failed Preston Porter twice—once, by denying him his constitutional right to a trial by jury and, again, when the criminals who tortured and murdered him went unpunished. There is no marker testifying to these tragedies. The Frost girl and the Porter boy are all but forgotten. Still, after more than 100 years, the question remains: Who murdered Louise Frost?
Originally published in the February 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.