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Colorado's Mrs. Captain Ellen Jack: An Interview with Author Jane Bardal PT. 2
Ellen E. Jack backed up her orders with a shotgun as she stood at the entrance to her Black Queen Mine. To profit from the mine, located near Aspen, she engaged in many other battles with lawyers and capitalists who tried to wrest her ore away. Mrs. Captain Jack contributed to the myth of the West by crowning herself as the “Mining Queen of the Rockies” as she entertained tourists at her roadhouse near Colorado Springs. Author Jane Bardal offers a captivating biography of a pioneering woman who fashioned a legacy through true tenacity and maybe even a few tall tales.
Jane Bardal’s previous publications include “Southwestern New Mexico Mining Towns” and “Oral Histories from the Grants Uranium District,” in the Mining History Journal. She teaches psychology at Central New Mexico Community College.
And there is a point at which her legal entanglements begin to be burdensome on her. The mine doesn't produce quite as much. And she decides to pick up sticks. She decides to get out of Colorado for a little bit and go down south to Arizona.
Now, I'm going to leave some of that discussion for our listeners to enjoy in the book itself, because there are some fun stories of what happened down in Arizona. I only want to ask you about one of them.
And in particular, I want to ask you about some of the colorful characters, that she meets down there. And in particular, I want to ask you about none other than Cochetopa Shorty, who I think has to be my absolute favorite person in this book after Captain Jack herself.
Yeah. Well, she did go to Arizona for a while. That was a very short lived affair. But she also, prospected in the Gunnison Gold Belt, which was just to the south of Gunnison. And that's where she encountered Cochetopa Shorty.
So, she had stake claim with some mining partners and he didn't like it that they were in his area where I think he had some goats or something and he had accused them of tearing apart his fences. And so, that's how she encountered him.
But one of her mining partners actually brought a case against Cochetopa Shorty, because he threatened to kill them. And so, they brought him to court for that and they accused him of being insane. So, I thought that was kind of interesting and they didn't win on that basis.
But yeah, Cochetopa Shorty was quite a character and met an unfortunate end himself. But I thought it was interesting that an eccentric character like Captain Jack would be accusing someone else of insanity.
I think that excessive drinking was really quite common. That's what she accused her husband, Redmond Walsh of being habitually drunk. And the judge in the case actually defined habitual drunkenness as being incapacitated for a good portion of the time.
And so, I think it was fairly common for people to be that way. And that was part of the movement towards prohibition and where she got into some trouble later near Colorado Springs for operating essentially a saloon there as well.
Sure. And medical science of the day I'm sure had very little understanding compared to today of chemical addiction and neurological triggers and that sort of thing. I mean, we're not going to hold them to today's standards as far as understanding the local town drunk.
And I wanted to ask you, picking up on a small thread from last week, when she moved to that area and began prospecting, do you think she knew she was signing up for this kind of conflict? That her life would not be as simple as being out on the trail, picking, shoveling hand, hauling down or from the mountainside?
And so, she eventually won settlement with the insurance company. And so, she had a bit of that back east. And I think she did feel very vulnerable as a single woman. She at least mentions that as her reason for getting married to Walsh.
And so, a lot of women were boarding house owners in the West. It was one of the main things that women did is to run a boarding house. Running a saloon, maybe a little less common. And certainly, we know about madams from the West.
So, I think that looking at that pathway is perhaps not a surprise that she faced some contention. There were some other women, mine owners, but not very many. And so, that was kind of a path that she forged.
And that there were any number of individuals with malice in their hearts, or greed, of course being the driving force there who would just as soon turn on their co prospectors, turn on their co-owners and try to solve the problem the old fashioned way.
More interesting, perhaps, Jane, is later in life, she actually got involved in investigating a couple of murders out on the trail in Colorado. And she was not involved in the actual crimes. She kind of came to them afterwards through different means.
But I wanted to ask you about this because this was something that of course she would have been aware of was happening all throughout her prospecting years. And then it finally kind of comes home to roost when these bodies are discovered not far from her campsites.
And Captain Jack kind of inserted herself into that story because she had found a pile of burn clothes near her place as she was traveling into Colorado Springs. So, she would've had to walk maybe two, three miles to get into Colorado Springs.
And so, she went to the sheriff and told him about what she found. And I think that case kind of illustrates the dangers of a woman who takes up with a rather unscrupulous man. Which actually is what Captain Jack did on several occasions. She got involved with some questionable men.
And that woman, Bessie Bouton, ended up getting killed. And so, that was a pretty long case that I followed out. I just put a short bit of that in the book. But the murderer was eventually found and ended up killing himself.
So, anyways, she was involved in that case and that kind of put her in the newspaper and she got her story out there. Her story, her version of what she had seen and kind of what she had imagined and what she had dreamed.
Some of her information really wasn't all that relevant to the case, but it was her chance to be described as a medium and a spiritualist in newspapers around the country, because that was actually a nationwide story that many papers picked up on.
And then the other story about Laura Matthews, that had more to do with her directly because her and her lover were holding trusts at her place on the high drive. And that's where she was serving chicken dinners to the tourists by day, but then was serving beer, serving liquor without a license-
… at her place. Yes, by night. And so, those two people were some of the partiers. And then the woman ends up dead. And so, that's where Captain Jack was interviewed. And that's where she tells the story about being the widow of Charles Jack and gets her name out there in the papers again.
So, I think that was probably also, the reason why she was then brought up on charges of selling liquor without a license. She was on the outskirts of Colorado Springs and at that time we saw a real change in prohibition gaining steam that was around 1909-ish.
So, I think that played a role in those cases which she was able to successfully evade. And also, part of Colorado Springs was founded by General William Palmer, and he really wanted to curtail such rowdy behavior as well.
Well, the saloons and brothels set up in Colorado City, which was about two miles to the west of where the bulk of downtown Colorado Springs. And the stipulation in Colorado Springs itself was that liquor could be sold at drug stores for quote “medicinal purposes”.
Let me ask you some questions about Captain Jack's legacy. One of the reasons that we are even able to have this conversation goes back in a weird way, to those postcards that you talked about last week.
She was so skilled at creating an image of herself and furthering that image as you say, with respect to these particular murders out on the trail. I mean, everywhere she went, she was just — opportunist is the wrong word, I think here, she's just very shrewd. And she knew that she wanted to create a kind of a mytho as you say in the book.
And Colorado Springs had really been a center for tourist activity for quite some time. So, if you go back to the 1890s, there were a lot of people traveling there by train from the East Coast. And so, she really started to tap into that market.
So, there were carriage drives that would go up and over the high drive out from Colorado Springs, past the Broadmoor Hotel, Helen Hunts Falls, other places along the high drive and then back through Colorado City and back to Colorado Spring.
So, it was a loop that people could make. And so, there were quite a few carriage rides. People would take barrow rides and they'd go up to Pikes Peak or some of the surrounding areas, the Seven Falls area. So, there was really a lot of tourist activity that she could really tap into.
And some of the postcards I have that tourists wrote on would comment on her and tell a little something about her. And so, many of those postcards have been saved by postcard collectors over the years.
Those are also, unique postcards. They're real photo postcards. So, she did make some multiple copies of some of them. But there was a little camera that people would have that would actually create the postcard itself. And so, that's one reason why they're still highly valued by collectors.
And I think one of my absolute favorites in your book was the photograph of her allegedly carrying sort of like a barrow sack full of tungsten ore. And it's sort of the label on the postcard says, “Captain Jack bearing a load of tungsten ore.”
And then your caption, I should say, not her caption to the photograph, but your caption to the photograph is, "There are no known deposits of tungsten in this area." I really appreciated that. Thank you for that. Yeah.
But she might have called whatever mineralized rock was coming out of the ground as tungsten and selling that image to the tourists. And the other image she has, which is of her mining gold ore. I think that one's really funny because she's in this cloud of smoke.
And then the tourists would get out of their carriages or off their barrows and they would go look at her mine tunnel and she would tell them these stories and entertain them. And so, that's how she made some money selling these things and eeking out a living.
I mean, you write in the book that there are kind of competing assessments of her personality or her character depending on who's looking at her and depending on the lens that they're looking at her from.
And what I mean by that is you say there's a strain of thought out there that wants to call Captain Jack an eccentric, and that that's a fairly specific term in psychological circles. That it means a little bit more when it comes from a technical background than it does from just kind of everyday parlance.
Yeah. Well, there was Western Reflections Publishing republished her autobiography recently. And the title is Colorado's Eccentric Captain Jack. And I think that's an accurate title. One of the aspects of her personality that comes out as being eccentric is the word peculiar as well.
So, after she passed away, her daughter came out West because apparently her daughter probably thought she had some great fortune, which turned out to not be true. And Captain Jack had left her meager possessions to a couple of her friends and her daughter contested the will.
And he said, "Well, I don't know anything about that. I'm not qualified to assess that. Sure, she had this kind of talk about planets and the stars that affect our actions, but I just didn't pay any attention to it."
And the lawyer asked, well, is there anything that was peculiar about her? And the person said, "Well, I always knew that she was peculiar." And so, I think that best describes how she was. He mentions that she typically calls people by their last names.
In her autobiography she calls her husband Walsh. She doesn't use his first name ever. And so, this person said, "Well, she always called people by their last names, not their first name." Now, that's just a bit of an eccentric part of a person's character.
But I think that overall she was, for the most part, able to manage her own affairs well enough to live up on the side of the mountain for a good portion of the year. She probably came down into town in the wintertime.
But I think that she probably wasn't real good at managing money. She did make a great deal of money from the Black Queen. And then the only comment on that comes from a newspaper reporter in Erie, Colorado who said, "She makes and spends money freely like all minors do."
And so, that's perhaps a aspect of her character that relates to she wasn't really very financially well off and maybe had some trouble as far as managing money. And certainly, all the lawsuits against her for not paying her bills might attest to that.
But I think eccentric is a good way of looking at it. As a psychologist, I'm trained to do research and I'm not a clinical psychologist, so I do not want to put any kind of mental health labels on her. I don't agree with doing that. Certainly not for a historical character.
And she also, had some different kind of belief systems such as the belief in spiritualism that was fairly common at the time, which actually some people took as a sign of mental illness. And so, a lot of people believe that.
And spiritualism actually created an atmosphere where women could go out and speak in public and was one of the influences on the women's rights movement and suffrage movement and the latter 1800s, and then of course, suffrage in the early 1900s.
So, some of that actually created an atmosphere where someone like Captain Jack could go out and do what she did, and have greater independence. Not total independence, but greater independence and freedom to live her life as she pleased.
So, I view that overall as a positive part of her character. And to do the things she did, she had to be able or willing to go against social norms. So, someone who was more conventional simply would not have done what she did.
When I look back over your portrayal of her, I see somebody who is independent, who is feisty, who is combative, but only when she needs to be combative. She's not going out picking fights, she's just defending herself.
She is assertive, she is driven, she is in some ways, a visionary. She sees things that are not yet there and then tries to go and create them. I mean, these are all tremendously admirable qualities, I think, in the main.
And we can't exactly call her harmless because she did know how to fire a pistol and she could fire it very, very well. But she's not going out there shooting willy-nilly. She is acting in self-defense in those instances where we see her.
So, really interesting complex figure here. And I guess maybe the last question I have for you is a question of — it's a coin with two sides. And the first side of the coin is, what was her legacy as this independent very strong woman?
Well, I think she just expanded the boundaries. She was one of many women who did that. And I think if you look at maybe the long legacy of American history, one theme has been continually expanding opportunities and freedoms for a wider and wider group of people.
And she was part of that. She perhaps didn't contribute nearly as much as maybe some of the leaders that we look at in history today, but she had her own small part to play in terms of just going out on her own, being a business woman, being a prospector, a mine owner, and doing all these activities.
Even running a boarding house and then her roadhouse up on Colorado Springs, selling her story as a prospector and miner, I think are all really unique contributions. And was part of larger movements of women doing this.
And there were some surprises that I found in my research. I mean, even just looking at how someone went about a divorce. For example, I had always thought that men, husbands could freely beat their wives during that era. And that was certainly not true at all.
And a friend of mine said, "Well, I thought it was always the rule of thumb a husband could beat his wife with something no bigger than the thumb." But actually in the court case, the judge defined extreme cruelty very specifically that it was not okay for a husband to do that.
Well, and speaking of kind of persistence and her sense of her own personal integrity that she was always fighting for, can I tell you how satisfying it was late in your book when she finally does win the court case against her own lawyer who had stabbed her in the back, when she finally wins against John Kincaid?
And it just like it's been running for year, after year, after year, after year, and she nails his butt to the wall. I mean, and it's like the money at that point doesn't matter because it's all going to get kind of frittered away or eaten up in fees anyway. But she won.
Well, let me ask you this, this has been such a pleasure traveling out under the starry sky, the wide open Colorado sky with her. And just can't thank you enough for taking us on that adventure. I mean, she really is a fascinating figure in American history.
So, I have a YouTube channel, which I kind of got into doing hiking videos. So, I do have some plans in the future for going to some of these locations again. I did travel to some locations, but now, that I'm doing video, just making some videos of where she was.
That is so exciting. One of the last things you write about in your book is the rock that she used to take photos in front of, near her old camp stead. And I presume you're going to have to go and sort of get a video in front of this enormous rock.
Yes, yes. Yeah, I did hike up there. That's a pretty short hike and going on Captain Jack's trail because that's still there. So, all the buildings are gone because they were falling apart and so they were taken out of there.