Voodoo inflames fights in old Leadville
From washerwoman to State Street siren, Lizzie Brown was one of the West’s most colorful characters. Her story is told here in an excerpt from Roger Pretti’s book “Mining, Mayhem and Other Carbonate Excitements-Tales From a Silver Camp Called Leadville.”
Wherever Elizabeth Brown went, bad luck or death seemed to follow. She lived, loved and drank hard, and was a well-known practitioner of the black arts in early-day Leadville.
No one knew where “Lizzie” Brown came from, but in 1879, she was earning a living in the fledgling mining camp washing miners’ shirts for 25 cents each. No doubt business was good, but the lure of laundry held little promise for riches, so Lizzie took up with a gambler named “Hoodoo” Brown.
When the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad pulled into Buena Vista in 1880, the couple traveled there to meet the train, where they planned to cut a swath through the pocketbooks of new arrivals to the Arkansas Valley.
Business was good until the gambler’s luck ran out one warm June night. Hoodoo Brown and three other gamesters were languishing around the green felt table at a high-stakes poker game in Pat Dillon’s Saloon. The betting was desperate, and just before the sun crept over the peaks, angry words flew between Brown and an opponent, the former offering to settle the dispute with six-shooters.
In a nearby vacant lot, the pair stepped off the appropriate distance and turned, their revolvers roaring. Both fell mortally wounded. Brown died within minutes, and his rival, “Curly” Frank, expired several hours later. Since it was less work to dig one grave than two, the men who couldn’t share a poker table in peace were laid to rest in the same grave.
Curse conquered; cat suffers
Hoodoo’s corpse was barely cold when the widow Brown left Buena Vista and returned to Leadville, where she became a State Street prostitute with a reputation of being a bad woman when she was drunk.
“There was a time in the history of Leadville when Mrs. Brown was one of the reigning belles of Leadville’s Tenderloin District,” said a newspaper of the day. “Lizzie wore as fine dresses and big sparklers as any dame of the row.”
In 1885, Brown was reported to be in league with the devil, and in that same year, a man named M.J. McConnell was arrested, tried and found guilty of assault. He left for Aspen after the judge gave him 12 hours to get out of town.
Trouble brewed in the carbonate camp when McConnell returned from Aspen on a mission to kill Brown’s pet cat. He believed that the woman had bewitched his friend, Amos Young, another Leadville resident. Young’s brother, Achilles, had to drug Amos in order to haul him, unconscious and unafraid, across Independence Pass to Aspen and out of the clutches of the reputed Voodoo Queen.
Once in Pitkin County, the results of the enchantment became obvious when the victim contracted mountain fever, then broke his leg in a fall. The bone was set and the brothers decided the time was right to break the spell.
They hired McConnell to do the dirty work for $100. The trio contacted an Aspen clairvoyant, who said that in order to free the bedeviled Amos, a Leadville-Aspen connection had to be made. Blood was taken from Achilles’ fiancee and put into his arm. The woman stayed in Aspen, while he went to Leadville. Achilles was accompanied by McConnell, who was instructed to find Brown’s black feline, “Erebus,” and chop it in half with an ax.
In order to free the victim, the medium said she had to know the exact moment of the execution, so a bracelet was given to the bride-to-be. Young’s fiancée was told to sit in the light of the full moon, and when the bracelet began to pinch her wrist, she was to tell the clairvoyant.
At the midnight hour beneath the pale moonlight, the young woman began to scream, whereupon Amos Young – who had stayed in Aspen – threw the door of the cabin wide as the medium threw open the door of the red-hot stove.
Seconds later, the tail end of the bisected feline was said to have flown in the cabin door. The clairvoyant pushed it into the fire with a shovel greased with lizard oil.
“The stove shook and groaned, but soon was still,” the newspaper reported.
Meanwhile, Achilles and others in Leadville who witnessed the cat murder reported seeing the back half of the animal fly out of the cabin door and into the night.
The hex was broken, because McConnell and others emerged victorious when challenged to a fight by Brown, who had never lost a battle.
In March 1886, James Palmer also fell under Brown’s spell. He was a former cavalry officer and had fought Indians on the western frontier before coming to Leadville, where he worked as the cook at the town jail.
When Palmer heard he had been threatened with bodily harm by a gambler named “Rustler” Blobson, he armed himself with a meat knife and went looking for the man. Instead of finding Blobson, he managed to get himself arrested.
Mysteriously, Palmer began having hallucinations a few days later, after he was told that Blobson and “Tinhorn” Epps had contracted with Brown to bewitch him. The visions featured red monkeys crawling over his body or dancing in the bottom of his whiskey glass.
Brown remained in Leadville until after the turn of the century, residing at 114 East Chestnut at the time of her death from influenza in February 1901. No one claimed her body, and she was buried in an unmarked grave in St. Joseph’s Cemetery.