Vanover: Frontier Justice in Golden

Originally published September 5, 2019

Early Washington Avenue.

Today marks the 160th anniversary of a notorious event in Golden history.

Golden was founded in June of 1859. By September of that year, the town was taking shape as a loose collection of tents and frame buildings. The downtown business district consisted of dry goods stores, a couple of small hotels, and several saloons.

Edgar Vanover was part owner of one of those saloons, and was known to have a vicious temper when drunk—which he often was. On September 5, 1859, Vanover sold his half of the saloon to his partner and went on to become extraordinarily drunk. He visited several bars that day, waving his gun, shooting at glassware, threatening the lives of several people and announcing that he would kill someone before the day was over. Eventually, he became too drunk to load his pistol, so he procured a knife and threatened people with that.

His fellow citizens chased him into a house on 12th Street (the approximate site of today’s Tributary Food Hall) and stood outside, debating whether to banish him from town or kill him. They concluded that if they banished Vanover, he would come back for vengeance, so the safest course was to kill him before he killed someone else. The group called to Vanover, telling him to come out and take his punishment. Surprisingly, he emerged without argument and put out his hands to be bound. The crowd marched him across the Ford Street bridge to a meat gallows, which was normally used to butcher cattle. A noose was placed around Vanover’s neck. The rope was thrown over the gallows and pulled by many hands until Vanover was dead.

This tale was told briefly in the September 10, 1859 edition of The Rocky Mountain News Weekly, in an article entitled “Full Particulars of the late Lynching Case at Golden City.” The article ended with the remark, “We refrain from extending our remarks, believing that all good citizens, when the circumstances are known, will uphold the people of Golden City in performing an act which they believed to be a duty they owed to themselves and the community at large.”

The story was retold, with more detail, in the October 5, 1922 edition of the Colorado Transcript. That article was based on interviews with people who had been present for the hanging.

A 1933 story in the Colorado School of Mines Oredigger retold the story, with several embellishments. That article concluded by saying that the culprit was “attached to a cottonwood.”

Over the years, the idea that Vanover had been hanged from a cottonwood became part of local folklore. The presence of an exceptionally large cottonwood near the site of the execution added credence to that story, and the tree became known as “the hanging tree.”

In 2006, the City cut down the aged tree, created a park where the hanging occurred, and named the park for Vanover. Golden may be unique in having a City park named after a man who was lynched by the community.

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