Emma, or Essie: And fishing with hand grenades

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The first time I heard the story of Emma Mentzer was in Brian Tobin’s history class, as a junior in high school. In between his rants about “screaming Arab regulars,” Tobin was famous for dramatic accounts of seemingly minor details in life and times of eras past. They provided texture and color for history that I have enjoyed to this day. He told personal stories of fishing with hand grenades as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam, (toss a grenade in the lagoon, jump back, then gather the fish) and strange and terrible tales of fear and loathing in the heart of American depravity.

But the yarn of Emma’s plight carried special meaning because it was right up the railroad there in Telluride – if only the railroad was still around.

By all accounts, there was no questioning that Emma Mentzer was a fine-looking woman. Variously described as “a handsome woman and very devoted to her husband,” and “pretty woman from Chicago who, by everyone’s estimation had married well when she wed a young physician named O.F. Mentzer,” her story has captured yarn-weavers attention for more than a hundred years.

The trouble is figuring out what exactly is her story.

Swirling around in the snow and thin air up there are several fantastic versions and separating the gold from the overburden is an arduous task. The various versions twist and turn different ways, even to point of identifying who she was, and what was her name. Was it Emma or Essie? Was she patron of Chicago society, or former madam at a house of ill repute? All are questions that have been pondered for a century now, hairs that have been split and examined, but without definitive answer. I’m not sure I am up for answering them either. So, I will tell you what I know.

Oscar F. Mentzer traveled from his native Sweden to the United States in 1881. By 1890, he had set up a physician’s practice on Larimer Street in Denver.

“He enjoyed a reputation as a skilled surgeon and built up a large practice worth reportedly $15,000 per year,” according to Carol Turner, in her book “Notorious Telluride: Wicked Tales from San Miguel County.”

“Mentzer was also known as a charitable, kind doctor who treated many poor patients without charge.”

Oscar and Emma (formerly Monroe) had met when they were both guests at the Hotel Albert in Denver and were married in Colorado Springs in July of 1894.

“Unfortunately, despite his happy circumstances, 30-year-old Dr. Mentzer was an alcoholic,” writes Turner. “His drinking soon began to interfere with his practice. He missed days in the office and patients left his care, seeking a more sober physician. Emma Mentzer left her husband and returned to Chicago, where she reportedly divorced him.”

According to Turner’s account, the good doctor announced to his friends that he was getting away from the temptations of the city and moving to Telluride to reform and set up a new practice.

He did so, and after a year in the roaring camp, as Turner describes, he was generally respected around the camp as a “very able surgeon.”

“However there were some incidents where he committed acts that did not meet with the general approval … and he was feared to a certain extent, especially by female patients.’”

In late 1897, Oscar renewed contact with his ex-wife. Reports in the Telluride papers said that she told him that she was “sick and starving and imposed upon, and if she didn’t have him, she would have to starve to death.”

The doctor began sending money to his former wife in Chicago and continued throughout 1898, accounting for more $900 that year – which was a tidy sum in those days, equating to substantial annual salary – as revealed in records later. All this time, he begged his wife to return and promised his complete reform. In July, she apparently agreed to meet him in Denver and they renewed their marriage. They returned to Telluride in early August.

Apparently this all hinged on the condition that he stay sober, but that was not to be.

Oscar’s former partner, pharmacist S.A. Gross told the Telluride Journal later, “Mentzer was here six weeks or so ago. He wanted to come back with me again but I told him no. He was too far gone. He looked seedy from drinking so much. He said he was going to stop drinking for good, but I could see that he never again would be the man he had been, so I wouldn’t have him.”

Upon the Mentzer’s return to Telluride, Emma’s brother, Will Monroe, and his wife also moved to the camp with intentions of going to work at the Bessie Mill as engineer. They stayed with the Mentzers.

“During the first week in October, Mentzer visited Tompkins Hardware Co. in Telluride and purchased a .32 caliber Iver Johnson pistol. He told the salesman he needed protection against “dogs and holdups” when he traveled at night to places like Sawpit. The salesman insisted that Doc Mentzer was perfectly sober when he purchased the weapon or he would not have sold it to him,” says Turner.

Will Munroe, Emma’s brother, told the following account of the night of Oct. 7, in testimony before the court, during Oscar Mentzer’s trial for the murder of Emma Mentzer.

The Monroes and Mentzers had a pleasant evening together and the doctor was jovial and smiling. About 9:30 in the evening, Emma suddenly called to her brother from another room. Arriving right away, he heard a scream and a shot. As he entered the room, the doctor turned to him, smoking gun in hand. The two wrestled for control of the pistol and Monroe was able to remove the gun and toss it to his wife, who had just arrived according to his testimony. She in turn, threw it out in the yard. The two men “both splendid specimens of physical manhood” continued the fray until Monroe got the upper hand and knocked the doctor unconscious. He then reportedly dragged him out to the porch and threw him in heap.

Only then did he return to the house and discover his sister had been shot in the temple. Emma died from her wound about a half-hour later, according to what Will told police. When they arrived, the doctor was still unconscious in a heap on the porch. He remained so even after they carted him off to the sheriff’s office and was deposited on a cot there.

In the next issue, the San Miguel Examiner lamented over the death of Emma Mentzer.

“Mrs. Mentzer was a most charming and amiable woman and possessed the traits that made her lovable to all, and her sad fate brings great sorrow to her relatives and the community alike.”

Meanwhile, it became obvious to the authorities finally that the doctor was suffering from a serious head injury. The two doctors called, Hall and Clark, were unable to revive the man and determined that they must trepan his skull, or drill a hole to relieve pressure on the brain. The procedure seemed to have worked as the doctor, with additional help from another inmate, pulled through.

“Three weeks after the shooting, Mentzer had his preliminary hearing,” writes Carol Turner. “The only witnesses, Will Monroe and his wife, gave mixed and contradictory testimony during the hearing, and observers began to express doubts about their reliability and respectability.”

There was rampant speculation that these witnesses might hustle out of town in the middle of the night.

In the doctor’s version of the story, he said he had no intention of shooting his wife and the gun went off accidentally in the struggle with Monroe.

The verdict was delivered to a packed courtroom early in the day on Dec. 5, 1898 finding Oscar Mentzer guilty of second-degree murder, with a recommendation for leniency. He was sentenced to 20 years.

According to Turner, “After the trial, public opinion swung sharply in Mentzer’s favor when details emerged about the questionable character of the Monroes, including Emma.

The same day the jury reached a verdict, Monroe’s real wife arrived in town, having traveled all the way from Illinois. It turned out she and her attorneys had been scouring the country looking for Monroe, and the headlines about the shooting had revealed his whereabouts.”

“Mrs. Monroe said her husband had beaten her and strangled her on many occasions. Finally he took her and the children to her sister’s house in Chicago and left them there. After many weeks without word, she hired detectives to hunt them down. They found them in a Chicago bordello with the woman he now claimed was his wife. She stated further that Emma Mentzer was the “landlady” of the Chicago bordello, and at that time was in court facing charges for theft. The Monroes took off and that was the last she knew of them until she read in the papers of the shooting in Telluride.

According to the Telluride Journal at the time:

“The whole history of her (Mrs. Monroe’s) life with Monroe show him to be a most despicable character, and it is a little remarkable that the proven bigamists and self confessed perjurer should be allowed to quietly slip away without punishment. His sister, whose evil influence had much to do with his downfall and outrageous treatment of his wife and children, and their final abandonment, is in her grave, sent there by a bullet fired by the man she had driven into a frenzy.”

By that time, Will Munroe and his “other wife” had disappeared from Telluride. There was talk of a new trial, but Oscar Mentzer had already began serving his time in Canon City.

His medical training apparently had a role in securing a spot in the prison dispensary. Injuries sustained from the beating from Monroe made it difficult to sleep and he took chloral hydrate to help. Twenty months into his sentence, with his friends and attorney working on a possible pardon, he appeared at the prison kitchen asking for coffee but before he could take a sip, he fell to the floor and died, cause attributed to an overdose of chloral hydrate. He was 36.

But here is where some versions of the story take on a life of their own.

Tales of “Essie” (instead of Emma) Mentzer being sighted on the Rio Grande Southern Railroad became a standard. In most such yarns, the doctor was a Jekyll an Hyde sort of fellow with not only binge drinking problem, but a maniacal drug habit as well. According to the stories, in front of many witnesses, a beautiful woman would appear as real as you or I. People on the train would offer her sympathy and help, but she was inconsolable and frantic, hysterically repeating, “He’s almost here. I have to go.” Then disappear into the thin mountain air, right in front of everybody.

In one version of the story by Dan Asfar that appeared in his book, “Ghost Stories of Colorado,” “with every successive mile, she grew more anxious, feeling the presence of her homicidal husband get stronger and stronger. She always vanished the moment someone on the train recognized and called her by name. If that didn’t happen before she was 10 miles out of town, she would just vanish on her own, unable to deal with the dread of an unseen husband’s approach any longer. Those 10 miles were as far out of Telluride as Essie Mentzer was ever able to get.”

One question from me only: Do we call the ghost Essie or Emma?

I suppose we should inquire as well, if she ever went fishing with hand grenades?

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