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Historical Perspectives

Mysterious postcard sparks investigation

A man and woman froze to death 100 years ago at the top of Pikes Peak – in August. At least it’s what the postcard states.The postcard, discovered in the Pikes Peak Library District’s Special Collections section, depicts the body of a man lying face up amid rocks and snow, with his hat to the side.The hand-written caption printed on the card reads, “Frozen to death on Pikes Peak Aug. 21, 1911.”The postcard’s discovery sparked an investigation by PPLD researchers that was documented in “Frozen to Death on Pikes Peak: A Cold Case Investigation,” a 30-minute movie made by the PPLD.The movie premiered Aug. 20 and follows researchers Kaitlin Hoke and Katie Rudolph as they try to decide whether the picture is real or fake.In the movie researchers first consider whether the postcard is physically consistent with postcards printed in 1911.It is. The place for the stamp is marked by a square of upward-pointing triangles characteristic of postcards printed between 1910 and 1918.Then, the researchers consider whether the photograph might have been staged, as in the case of Grant Crumbley, who shot and killed Sam Strong in the Newport Saloon in Cripple Creek, Colo., in 1901. At the murder trial, pictures of a man portraying Strong lying dead on the saloon floor were submitted into evidence.With staging a definite possibility, the researchers search the archives for local newspaper stories printed in August 1911.They strike pay dirt with an article from the Gazette dated Aug. 23, 1911.”Die on peak in site of summit,” the headline reads.”Within half a mile of their goal, the summit of the peak, which they assayed to conquer on foot, Mr. and Mrs. Willis A. Skinner, each aged about 50 years, of Dallas, Texas, were overcome by cold and exhaustion and were frozen to death,” according to the story.But is the story credible?The movie notes that Pikes Peak was the scene of a fraud perpetrated in 1876 by John O’Keefe, whose job was to take weather readings on the summit and signal them to the city below.O’Keefe’s tall tale about rats on the peak’s summit was first printed in the Pueblo Chieftain newspaper. The tale then spread to the Rocky Mountain News, which published an articled entitled “Rodents on the Rampage – an Awful and Almost Incredible Story, a Fight for Life with Rats on Pikes Peak.”In the Rocky Mountain News story, O’Keefe claimed the top of Pikes Peak was overrun by rats the size of cats that fed on “saccharine gum that percolates through the pores of the rocks.”The story continues:”Since the establishment of the government’s signal station on the summit of the peak, these animals have acquired a voracious appetite for raw and uncooked meat, the scent of which seems to impart to them a ferocity rivaling the fierceness of the starved Siberian wolf.”O’Keefe claimed that on his first night at the station, he and his wife were attacked by rats and would have been overwhelmed had they not electrocuted them using electrical wire powered by a battery.When the battle was over, they discovered the rats had eaten their infant daughter, Erin.O’Keefe claimed he buried all that was left of Erin (her skull) under a pile of rocks with a marker and this inscription, “Erin O’Keefe, daughter of John and Nora O’Keefe, who was eaten by mountain rats in the year 1876.”The grave became a popular tourist attraction, and O’Keefe charged 50 cents for tourists to have their picture taken at the site.O’Keefe was eventually revealed as a fraud. He didn’t have a wife or daughter, and probably buried his dead burro under the rocks.With the O’Keefe story as a cautionary tale, the PPLD researchers turn to the 1910 census to see if there really was a Willis A. Skinner who lived in Dallas.There was. He was born in North Carolina, and married his wife, Sally, a native of Mt. Pleasant, Texas, within a year of moving to Texas.The researchers find further confirmation of the Gazette story in the Dallas Morning News, which on Aug. 23 reported the Skinners’ deaths and included a new eyebrow-raising detail: a letter, dated Aug. 17, 1911, was found in Skinner’s pocket.In the letter, a person named J. A. Choice wrote:”I hope you are having the time of your life in Colorado. I’m sending you an overcoat as per your request. I hope you don’t freeze to death on Pikes Peak.”Also on Aug. 23, the Gazette reported the Skinners had taken out two accident insurance policies on Aug. 9, 1921, good for 30 days. The policy would not pay if “death was due to overexertion.”The PPLD researchers found further evidence of the Gazette story’s veracity when they found a 1913 Gazette article about two attorneys from Dallas who arrived in Colorado Springs. They were in the Springs to take depositions from witnesses, including the Gazette reporter and the photographer who took the Cog railway up Pikes Peak soon after the Skinners’ bodies were found.One attorney represented Carnegie Frank Skinner, the Skinners’ unofficially adopted 13-year-old son, and the other represented Sally Skinner’s relatives, who were suing the boy in Texas court for the Skinners’ $100,000 estate.The terms of the Skinners’ wills provided that if Sally Skinner died first, the estate would go to the boy, and if Willis Skinner died first, the estate would go to Sally Skinner’s family.In the Westlaw database of court records, the PPLD researchers found that the Texas court concluded it could not determine who died first.Citing a provision in both wills, the court found the boy to be entitled to the estate – all in all, fairly good proof that “Frozen to death on Pikes Peak” is a true story.The Gazette article of Aug. 23, 1911, reported that Cog railway workers saw the Skinners as they hiked up the mountain and heard them talk about whether to continue.According to the article:”Skinner was apparently greatly affected by the effort of walking up the mountain and on several occasions told his wife he did not believe he could get to the summit.” … Mrs. Skinner was eager to push ahead, saying she had come all the way from Texas to walk up the peak.”At Windy Point, a little more than two miles below the summit, Skinner was almost in a state of collapse and his wife was walking several yards ahead of him. This was about 4 o’clock Monday afternoon.”Mr. and Mrs. Skinner staggered up on the mountain for more than a mile and then, with their goal in sight, they sank down, unable to take another step. Then it was that a snow storm broke, which drenched the foothills and lowlands with rain, and snow transformed the miles of mountain and sky into a wilderness of white.”Dallas Morning News story reported that the bodies were returned to Dallas, where they were buried side by side at the Oakland Cemetery on Aug. 27.One can only hope that Sally Skinner was determined to climb Pikes Peak to see the view and not the grave of Erin O’Keefe.

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