Bill Sniffin: Did A Serial Killer Poison 22 Men Here In Wyoming 155 Years Ago?

Columnist Bill Sniffin writes: “The rough high desert country around South Pass City was a dangerous place 155 years ago but no place was more threatening than a nondescript boarding house operated by Polly Bartlett.”

Bill Sniffin

July 16, 20236 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

The rough high desert country around South Pass City was a dangerous place 155 years ago but no place was more threatening than a nondescript boarding house operated by Polly Bartlett.

So claims two books and a magazine article detailing how this woman managed to kill 22 cowboys traveling through the area during the time of the gold rush and the Oregon Trail.

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

Most of the crimes centered on pretty Polly Bartlett who was adept with arsenic. Besides the two local books, she was referenced in a Real West Magazine article as “The Murderess of Slaughterhouse Gulch” in an exhaustive article by Dean Ballinger.

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.

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Two Books Insist It Happened

Two entertaining books detail these events. One is the late Jim Sherlock’s South Pass and Its Tales. The other is by the late Ed “Butch” Hudson called An Evening at the Bartletts. Both are quoted extensively on the Internet. Hudson told me ten years ago, “This is my story and I’m sticking to it.” 

My friend, the late Jim Smail, a well-known desert rat and South Pass authority, told me the story is true.

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 rats.

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 arsenic seasonings). Nichols soon 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 trial.

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.

Perhaps It Is Not True?

A former curator at the South Pass City Historical Site, Jon Lane, told me 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.

Franscell says: “Like all good Wyoming stories, there is probably a lot of myth about Polly’s grim story. But I also believe there’s a kernel of truth. Did she kill 22 times? Once? Did she just get a bad rap? I dunno. But during the late 19th century we have other known and verifiable cases of Old West innkeepers who killed and robbed their guests. One is a guy named Charles Kennedy here in my home state of New Mexico. So, the Bartlett story isn’t beyond belief. 

“But do we know anything for sure? Nope. That’s the fun of our mythology,” he says. 

Franscell, who is an international expert on crime having written a great many crime books, continues: “For example, we've utterly bought into the mythology that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were handsome, wise-cracking Robin Hoods instead of the common thugs they really were. Was Tom Horn a good guy or a bad guy? Did Lusk madam Dell Burke really control the power company and threatened to shut down the town's electricity if her girls were rousted?

“We love the myths that are woven into our history. They make the retelling so much more fun and, by extension, make us more interesting. But there always comes a day when they're too tangled up, and we no longer know what's true and what's just a good story,” he concludes.

The Last Word

Because he did the research and wrote the most recent book, I will give Ed Hudson the final word: “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 or TV series. Netflix, are you listening?

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Bill Sniffin

Wyoming Life Columnist

Columnist, author, and journalist Bill Sniffin writes about Wyoming life on Cowboy State Daily -- the state's most-read news publication.