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Murder at the Brown Palace: A True Story of Seduction & Betrayal (2003)

av Dick Kreck

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713299,785 (3.04)1
The love story, murder mystery and court case that centered around the 1911 murders at the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver.

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Not that engrossing, but some good facts in there. ( )
  Chica3000 | Dec 11, 2020 |
A sort of cow town version of the Evelyn Nesbit/Stanford White/Harry Thaw case. The participants were Isabel “Sassy” Springer, trophy wife; John W. Springer, wealthy older husband; Sylvester “Tony” von Phul, champion balloonist, erstwhile lover of Sassy, and eventually deceased; Frank Henwood, business partner to John Springer, another erstwhile lover of Sassy, possessor of a violent temper, and poor pistol shot (but good enough for von Phul); and George E. Copeland, innocent bystander who happened to be bystanding in the wrong place when Henwood opened fire.

Author Dick Kreck is a retired Denver journalist and author of a number of books about the city and the State of Colorado. Murder at the Brown Palace has a newspaper-article feel, and Kreck often describes conversations and actions with less documentation than would satisfy a professional historian – however, nothing’s ever unreasonable. The Brown Palace is a Denver landmark; I’ve never had occasion to stay there but I’ve had an outstanding Sunday brunch and an afternoon High Tea (complete with harpist) there. Kreck notes that the hotel was built by a carpenter, Henry Brown, who arrived in Denver in 1860 and put his savings into real estate, astutely figuring out that the eventual State Capitol would be built on a low hill and buying up land around it. The hotel was originally “Brown’s Palace Hotel” but is now known as “The Brown Palace”; the transformation was probably helped by the fact that the exterior stone façade is, in fact, brown (looks like arkose but I expect attempts to sample with rock hammer would be frowned upon so I’m not sure). Kreck doesn’t explain the building’s triangular shape; the original Denver Congressional Grant had the street grid laid out perpendicular to the South Platte River, under the mistaken impression that the city would become a river port. Anyone who’s actually seen the South Platte could have quickly disabused planners of this notion, but the information came too late and downtown area streets run at about a 45° angle to the cardinal points (it’s actually 43° and change IIRC), to the endless confusion of visitors from out of town. When the city expanded people had come to their senses and new streets were laid out north-south and east-west. That meant that there were a lot of triangular parcels when the old street grid intersected the new, and, of course, the Brown Palace is on one of them.

Leaving the triangle and back to the love quadrangle. John Springer had made his money in cattle and horse ranching. His first wife was the daughter of a wealthy Texas ranching family, but she died young of tuberculosis, leaving Springer with a daughter. His second wife, married in 1907, was the beautiful Isabel, twenty years younger and a divorcee. Unfortunately, the new Mrs. Springer had a history with Tony von Phul. Although dashing and well-off enough to be able to afford numerous balloon flights (Kreck notes that these cost around $100 each in contemporary currency), von Phul was not in Springer’s league. Despite his provision of fine riding horses, elegant carriages, motor cars, several luxurious houses in and out of Denver, jewels, furs, and all the usual accoutrements, Sassy apparently tired of Springer and by 1911 had renewed her correspondence with von Phul. Kreck quotes some of the surviving letters, in which Sassy promises von Phul “love and kisses”; not much now but probably enough in 1911. (During the scandal newspapers hinted that there were other letters promising much than love and kisses, and in graphic detail; nobody knows).

At any rate, in her last letter but one to von Phul, Isabel said she couldn’t be without him and if he didn’t come to Denver she would board a train and head for him in Kansas City. That was enough to get von Phul on a train going the other way. It’s not clear exactly what von Phul intended; was he going to take advantage of Isabel’s offers or was he going to put a stop to things? Kreck suggests the later but it’s not clear.

In the meantime, Isabel seems to have gotten cold feet over what von Phul might do when he showed up and contacted Frank Henwood, business partner to her husband and something of an odd duck. Henwood was what would nowadays be called a “trustafarian”; he had been left enough money to draw an income of about $1000 year; in modern purchasing power, that’s somewhere between $30K and $40K depending on who’s counting. Henwood seems to have gone through a whole series of “middle class” jobs (to the extent that the prosecutor at his trial described him as a “vagabond”). He had a documented temper, with several fights on his record – although nothing beyond simple fisticuffs. Kreck doesn’t speculate, but I imagine Henwood knew he could have a reasonable middle-class existence on his family income and only worked when it suited him; he was probably willing to go into “take this job and shove it” mode whenever he was unsatisfied.

At any rate, by 1911 Henwood was a business partner with John Springer; it was never clear, then or now, what exactly he did. He was a frequent companion to Mrs. Springer on picnics, carriage rides, and at the theater – sometimes with Mr. Springer, sometimes without. At the trial it was suggested that as far as Isabel was concerned his partnership was more oriented toward her bedroom than her husband’s office. Particularly damaging testimony came from the housekeeper at the Springer’s ranch, who said Henwood was a frequent overnight guest – often when Mr. Springer was away on business – and at least once his bed wasn’t slept in.

Well, regardless of the relationship between Isabel and Henwood, she turned to Henwood to get her letters back from von Phul, She claimed that they were “foolish” letters and von Phul had threatened to send them to her husband – one at a time – unless she submitted to his demands. Classic melodrama. Henwood leaped into the role of protector of his lady’s honor and agreed to obtain the letters from von Phul.

The melodrama quickly came to a climax. When von Phul arrived in Denver, Henwood confronted him and asked for the letters. Von Phul responded by cursing Henwood, knocking him down, and pulling a gun on him. Henwood went to a local hardware store and bought a gun of his own. In the meantime Isabel got cold feet again and asked Henwood to back off, saying she would handle the matter herself; Henwood refused. Eventually, after a performance of Ziegfield Follies of 1910 (it was 1911 but it took a while for things to get from New York to Denver) that both had attended, Henwood and von Phul met in the bar at the Brown Palace, apparently by coincidence. Henwood asked for the letters again; von Phul responded by decking him with a single punch. Henwood got to his feet, drew his Smith & Wesson, and fired all five shots.

Fired at a range of only a few feet, every shot hit; however, only three of them hit von Phul. Two struck visiting mill owner George Copeland, who had just stopped by for a drink, and one went through von Phul’s arm and hit James Atkinson, another bystander. Von Phul died the next day; Copeland a week later. Atkinson survived but was left on crutches for life.

This part of the action is over in the first few chapters; the bulk of the book concerns Henwood’s trials. He was tried twice, once in 1911 and once, after an appeal, in 1913; both times it was for the murder of Copeland, not von Phul. The first trial ended with a verdict of second degree murder; demonstrating that sometimes you should leave well enough alone, the second ended in a conviction for first degree murder and the death penalty. The chapters about the trial drag a lot; however almost all of Kreck’s sources are newspaper accounts and it was the “trial of the century” in Denver. There are therefore a lot of details about how Henwood looked, what kind of clothes he was wearing, and how the witnesses acted (especially Mrs. Isabel Springer). There being no CSI-Denver 1911, it was never established whether von Phul was facing Henwood when he was shot or had his back to him; witness accounts varied. Henwood claimed von Phul was trying to draw a gun but none was found on him; Henwood’s defenders claimed it had been removed by one of the people who went to aid von Phul. (It was established that von Phul frequently carried a gun, as he had forgotten it in hotel rooms several times and it had to be returned to him).

All the participants went on to fairly sorry lives (not counting von Phul and Copeland). James Springer divorced Isabel shortly after the trial and in 1915 married another trophy, Janette Lotave, who was 27 years old (probably, she was pretty coy about her age) to his 56 and, like Isabel, a divorcee. His fortune declined and when his daughter Annie (by his first wife) committed suicide in 1940 she left him an allowance and the right to live in her mansion (he preferred a small house in Littleton). He died in 1945; Janette died in 1957.

Springer’s ranch south of the city was sold off and passed through several hands until finally being renamed “Highlands Ranch”. It was purchased by a developer and is now the largest community in Douglas County, Colorado. (I had to do some environmental work there a couple of times; it’s an odd place, since despite having a population in the 50,000 range it’s unincorporated. Police service comes from the Douglas County Sherriff, fire from an independent fire district, water from an independent water district, and so forth. Every time a bus sprang a leak in the Highlands Ranch Park-N-Ride I had to contact so many different agencies it often took longer to get the last report in than to clean up the spill). Springer’s mansion is still there and is sometimes opened for charity events.

Henwood’s death sentence was commuted to life; he was released on parole in in 1922 but was back in again in 1923 after threatening to kill a woman who refused an offer of marriage. He died in prison of “dilation of the heart” in 1929.

Isabel quickly ran through her divorce settlement and ended up in New York. Affecting a platinum blonde wig she worked as a bit actress in silent movies and as a nude model. In 1917, she died of “cirrhosis of the liver (hypertrophic)” and “alcoholic neuritis” in the charity ward of a New York City hospital. In 2002, Kreck tracked down her unmarked grave in a New Jersey cemetery and paid for a headstone.

The bar at the Brown Palace is still there; now called “Churchill’s”, it’s a cigar bar. I’ll have to brave the smoke and lift a glass to Isabel someday.

A quick read; the main problems are that the chapters about Henwood’s trials drag. Kreck presents a lot of details about various confrontations between von Phul and Henwood and various misdemeanors of Isabel Springer that are only documented by trial testimony; von Phul wasn’t present to give his version. However, if Kreck had prefaced every statement with “According to Henwood…” or “According to trial records…” the book would have been pretty tedious. Well illustrated; not indexed. Kreck provides a list of sources for each chapter but there are no endnotes or footnotes. The bibliography is mostly general books about Colorado or Denver history. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 15, 2017 |
"A riveting tale of murder and deception that reads like a television soap opera, complete with adultery, murder, and drugs." —The Bloomsbury Review

"Kreck's research is excellent and his story-telling skills even better. This is a thoroughly engrossing tale." —The Denver Post
  fulcrumpublishing | Jul 26, 2011 |
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Sylvester  Louis Von Phul was in a dark mood when he stepped off the Denver Limited from Kansas City at Denver's Union Station on May 23, 1911.
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The love story, murder mystery and court case that centered around the 1911 murders at the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver.

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