Simple times weren't so simple

Posted

Albert Einstein probably had it right. “Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal,” he said.

Every generation tends to think society today is worse than it ever was. We are all headed to hell in a hand-basket, and “if only I were born 100 years earlier.” Life was simpler then, peaceful, calm, tranquil. Men and women went about their business, worked with their hands and simple tools, kept to themselves and didn't have to worry much.

Well, maybe not.

One of those simple tools was found near the door of a house on Dale Street Monday afternoon, Sept. 20, 1911. Six bodies in two adjacent homes in Colorado Springs, and one of the most brutal crimes ever to take place in this town were discovered behind the doors of those two homes.

“The axe with which the deed was done was found yesterday by Mrs. J.R. Evans who lives next door to the Waynes, at 742 Hanson Place, and from whom it was borrowed last week. It was standing outside the Wayne door, covered in blood,” according to a New York Times story the next day. “Mrs. Evans thought the family had been killing chickens, and thought nothing of the incident until the discovery of the bodies today.”

Killed were Mrs. Alice May Burnham, 25, her six-year-old daughter (also Alice), her three-year-old son John. In another house nearby, Henry F. Wayne, 30, his wife Blanche, 25, and their year-old baby daughter (also Blanche).

“Mrs. June Ruth of 931 South Sierra Madre Street, sister of the murdered Mrs. Burnham, went to the latter's house at 321 West Dale Street, in the rear of the Wayne home, to do some sewing, accompanied by Mrs. Anna Merritt of 730 Pine Street. The front door was locked, and the two women gained entrance by the rear door. On entering the front room they found the body of Mrs. Burnham lying covered in bed. Beside her, one on each side, were the bodies of here two children with their heads similarly cut open with an axe. The covers had evidently been carefully replaced by the one who did the deed. Not an article in the little home had been disturbed,” according to the story in New York Times.

“Rushing to the street, the women gave the alarm, and neighbors flocked to the scene of the tragedy. Instinctively a dozen persons ran to the Wayne home, where no sign of life had been seen since Sunday afternoon. The rear door was found unfastened, and in the bed in the front room the scene witnessed in the Burnham home was almost exactly duplicated.”

According to a 1962 paper by Carl F. Mathews, and the Times article, Arthur J. Burnham, husband and father of the Burnham victims and a yardman at the Modern Woodman sanitarium, was detained and questioned extensively by police but was quickly cleared and released with an air-tight alibi.

Another man, Italian laborer, Tony Donatel, was also arrested but eventually cleared as well. Even Mrs. Evans, the woman who discovered the murder weapon (and her son-in-law and daughter) came under heavy scrutiny, particularly because they were owners of the axe.

“Similar ax murders were taking place over the country this year, whether by the same hand or by some weak-brained individual who read of them is a question never answered,” wrote Mathews, who served for 32 years as superintendent of the Bureau of Identification in the Colorado Springs Police Department.

In April of 2007, Erin Emery of the Denver Post reported that Colorado Springs Police Investigator Dwight Haverkorn was once again trying to connect the dots on this case by trying to prove that the person who killed the Burnham and Wayne families in the city was a serial killer, responsible during a two-month period for 25 murders in five towns: Portland, Ore.; Rainier, Wash.; Monmouth, Ill.; Ellsworth, Kan.; and Colorado Springs. Haverkorn was sifting through Pinkerton Detective Agency records. The agency was called in to work on the case in the absence of a regular police chief and considering the high profile of the case.

"I'm hoping that somewhere in some of those Pinkerton records there might be actual copies of fingerprints that were taken by some of these detectives," Haverkorn told the Post. "And if we had them for two or three scenes, we could come up with a common fingerprint between any two or three and boost my theory that it was a serial killer that traveled the country."

In the end, perhaps it will come back to one of those simple tools.

“The killer almost always entered homes through an unlocked window. He usually lit a candle in the home but obscured it so it would not be too bright and wake his soon-to-be victims. In Colorado Springs, while climbing through a window, he knocked over a bottle of ink, leaving a handprint on the handle of the ax he found and used. There are no records of those fingerprints on file with the Colorado Springs Police Department,” according to Emery's story in the Denver Post.

But someday it may be possible to link a serial killer, who perhaps rode the rails around the country and killed with a simple tool, in times that were far more complex than they appear at first blush.