Wyoming’s First Serial Killer . . . Huh?

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Bill Sniffin
Bill Sniffin

It is hard to find any evidence of some mysterious serial killings that allegedly occurred in Wyoming 147 years ago.

According to a couple of books, a notorious family named Bartlett killed 22 young men before being hunted down and killed back in historic South Pass City.

Following is the straight story, according to the authors of the books. At the end of this, we have some dissenting comments.

Most of the crimes centered on pretty Polly Bartlett who was adept with arsenic.

From 1866 to 1868, South Pass City was known both for gold deposits and for the passage through the area by thousands of folks heading west to Oregon, California and Utah.

This sordid tale starts when Stephen Bartlett left his hometown of Cincinnati for Colorado. That move did not pan out well so they headed north to South Pass City.

The family consisted of daughter Polly, a young son and a niece named Hattie, who was the housekeeper and paramour of old man Bartlett. The family had acquired a substantial supply of arsenic, used presumably to kill mice

They set up camp in the South Pass area. Their first victim was a young man, Louis Nichols. He was one of the few people heading east. He had some gold with him and was headed home.

He offered Polly $10 if she would make him a steak, which she promptly did (with some extra seasonings).  Nichols went into convulsions and died.

Like folks new to the hospitality industry, this looked like quick money and easy pickings to the former Ohioans.  They soon set up shop.

The Bartletts built a barn with a big hayloft plus a large house called the Bartlett Inn. They also had corrals.

Then they waited. It did not take long.

The next victim was an Omaha man, Tim Flaherty. A collection agent who worked in the cattle business, he had been calling on folks in the area. 

Then there was Edmund Ford of South Pass City who told a story about his brother, who was staying at the Bartlett Inn, and who subsequently disappeared.

Many other young men disappeared before Barney Fortunes, 23, showed up. He disappeared after staying at the Bartlett Inn. The Pinkerton Detective Agency did a thorough investigation but the trail went cold after they tracked young Fortunes to the ill-fated Inn.

This prompted the Bartletts to pack up and skip. A $13,000 reward was posted for them. An ex-lawman, who was a pretty good shot, named Sam Ford, tracked down old man Bartlett, and out-dueled him, shooting him in the chest. Ford claimed the reward.
Meanwhile, Polly had been apprehended and was in the Atlantic City jail awaiting trail.

On Oct. 7, a person who looked a lot like Fortune’s mine boss, Otto Kalkhorst, rode his horse down Smith Street at dusk with a sawed off 10-gauge shotgun.  He emptied both barrels into Polly through a window, ending her investigation and the need of a trial.

Later, the authorities reportedly dug up the 22 bodies of unlucky young men who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.  They had been murdered and then buried in the corral on the Bartlett place.

Two entertaining books detail these events.  One is Jim Sherlock’s South Pass and its Tales. Other is by Ed Hudson called An Evening at the Bartlett’s. Both are quoted extensively on the Internet. Sherlock is dead and Hudson says, “this is my story and I’m sticking to it.” 

My friend Jim Smail, the well-known desert rat and South Pass authority, says the story is true.
Or fiction? The curator at South Pass City Historical Site, Jon Lane, says he has looked extensively for proof of any aspects of the story and can’t find any. He prefers to sit on the fence when it comes to
taking a position.

The state’s leading historian Phil Roberts of Laramie calls the tale, “Good story. Too bad that it is utterly fiction.”

Famous crime writer Ron Franscell (a Casper native) includes Polly’s story in his book about crime in the Rockies. He even includes GPS coordinates of the crime scene.

Contending authenticity, Hudson concludes, “I was not writing a history book. It is a novel based on historical facts. Jim Sherlock wrote the original version of this tale.”

Accordingly, we would agree that it is a great yarn. Heck, it might even make a great movie.  Clint Eastwood, are you listening?


Please “like” Wyoming Books and Columns by Bill Sniffin on Facebook. Other information available at www.billsniffin.com and www.wyomingwonders.com. Sniffin is a long-time Wyoming journalist and lives in Lander.


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