September 15, 2012

Denver Behind Bars: a book review.

enver Behind Bars
by Lenny Ortiz

Denver Behind Bars: The History of the Denver Sheriff Department and Denver’s Jail System 1858-1956
Author: Lenny Ortiz
Paperback: 234 pages
Publisher: Aventine Press
Date published: 2004
Illustrated: 51 historic photographs
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1-59330-232-0
Retail price: $15.95
Purchase on Amazon

I found Denver Behind Bars by Lenny Ortiz to be an invaluable history of the Colorado correctional system and the office of the sheriff, the oldest officer of the law in recorded history. The book covers not only the work related conditions and hardships of the jail guard, but those of the prisoner as well. To my personal preference much of the history concerns Colorado’s capitol of Denver and its hectic quest in building a safe, humane, and profitable prison framework to protect the citizens, the guards, and the prisoners.

Lenny Ortiz is a native of Colorado, who spent 20 years employed as a sheriff in the detention centers of Colorado. In that capacity he became a published historian and collector of Colorado sheriff and prison history. His book is an honest hard look at the American correctional system and its history. Extremely thorough, it is a detail history of the Colorado sheriffs, jail and prison system from the earliest years to the present day. I learned a lot about the jail process that I had not known previously and just one read through has helped my own research on the criminal underworld of Denver, and I’m certain this book will continue to aid my work for many years to come.

One might not think that a book on Colorado's prison history would be all that exciting but the author takes the reader on a very interesting history of imprisoning law breakers and wrong doers as far back as Biblical times, on up to the present day. Interesting to note that the American prison system in the 1840s held a mere 4,000 inmates, however, by 1870 that number grew to over 70,000, an astronomical number for that era. That number dropped to 57,000 by 1900. Another interesting note I found fascinating is that many prisons in the United States, including Alcatraz, Folsom, and San Quentin, were built by the prisoners themselves?

My personal interest for this book relates to Denver's famed underworld crime boss, Soapy Smith and his corps of bunco men who knew the cells in the city intimately. Although Soapy is only mentioned in passing, familiar names associated with him, discussed in the book include famous Denverites such as Sam Howe, Frank Smith, Charles Linton, Bat Masterson, John “Doc” Holiday, Henry Brady, and William Burchinell. Familiar places include the Canon City Penitentiary, the Denver court house, the Denver city hall, the Palace Theater, and the Euclid Hall police station. There’s even a section on the 1894 City Hall War. The history of the Euclid Hall intrigued me as I had visited the place several times in the 1980s and 1990s. Located on 14th street across from where city hall once stood, Euclid Hall still stands. When I visited the location it was a restaurant and bar, aptly named, Soapy Smith’s Eagle Bar. However, until I read Denver Behind Bars, I did not know that it was once a police station with jail cells in the basement where surely Soapy and members of the Soap Gang were reluctant, even if only temporary, residents.

For me, well researched books like Denver Behind Bars tend to divulge all kinds of new information that fill in gaps that complete some of the mysteries regarding Soapy Smith, that I would most likely have never found on my own; For instance, when Soapy was in Skagway, Alaska one of his last, well-known quotes partially came from the bible; “The way of the transgressor is hard.” Soapy added, “to quit” at the end of the sentence to make it uniquely his, but where did he come across the original bible verse? It is very possible that he learned it as a young boy in Georgia, but he could have also come across the quote while in jail. In his book, author Lenny Ortiz discloses that the passage was prominently framed on the jailors office wall of the Denver city jail located in the Butterick Meat market until 1884 when the jail was relocated. Most likely, but unknown, is the probability that the framed bible quote again adorned another jail office wall. 

The book is laced with 51 rare historic photographs.

Some of the tantalizing sub-titles and subjects in the book include,
The Sheriff and His Deputies
Sheriff and Jail Facts
The History of Corrections and the Sheriff
The Colorado and Denver Sheriff
Early Law Enforcement
Denver’s First Criminal Trial
Chain Gang and the Ball and Chain
Denver’s First Murder Trials
Vigilance Committees
First Jail Break
Denver Marshal’s Office
Denver Police Corps
The Turkey War
City Jailers
Doc Holiday in Denver
Bat Masterson in Denver
First Female Prisoner
The First Escape
The Chinese Riots
Kids in Jail
Denver’s First Paddy Wagon
Denver’s One Man Jail
Denver’s First Female Deputy Sheriff
and many more.

The only nugatory point is that the book has no index. If your research involves the history of Colorado's jail system and the sheriffs I very strongly recommend this fine work. It has already found a special place of honor on my bookshelf.

"He owns the town. A world of meaning is contained in that expression. He has it to do with it what he will in so far as all professional swindling and stealing is concerned. Denver may not be aware of this interesting fact but it is none the less true. The city is absolutely under the control of this prince of knaves, and there is not a confidence man, a sneak thief, or any other kind of a parasite upon the public who does not pursue his avocation under license from the man who has become great through the power vested in him by those whose sworn duty it is to administer the laws without fear or favor."
Rocky Mountain News. July 29, 1889.


1775: An unofficial flag, made to represent the United States, is raised by Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Mott after seizing Fort Johnson from the British in Wilmington, North Carolina. The flag is dark blue with the white word "Liberty" sewn onto it.
1776: British forces occupy New York City during the American Revolution.
1789: The U.S. Department of Foreign Affairs is renamed the Department of State.
1853: Reverend Antoinette Brown Blackwell is ordained, becoming the first female minister in the United States.
1857: Timothy Alder receives a patent for the typesetting machine.
1858: The first government contract transcontinental mail service of the U.S. begins. Delivery between Tipton, Missouri and San Francisco, California takes 12 days to complete. The line continued to operate as a part of the larger Wells, Fargo and Company operation until May 10, 1869, the day the transcontinental railroad was completed.
1858: Major Earl Van Dorn begins a punitive mission against Comanche Indians from Fort Belknap, Texas.
1880: A local newspaper in Hayes City, Kansas estimates that 400,000 head of Texas cattle were driven to Kansas that season.
1883: The University of Texas in Austin, Texas opens.
1891: The outlaw Dalton Gang robs the Missouri-Kansas & Texas Express outside of Lellietta, Oklahoma Territory.
1892: The Dalton Gang robs the train depot at Adair, Oklahoma Territory just before robbing the Missouri-Kansas & Texas train pulling into the station. The gang pulls a wagon to the express car but the guard inside refuses to open up. After the bandits fire shots through the door the guard surrenders, allowing the gang inside. The gang is surprised by gunfire coming from the passenger cars where a force of Indian police and railroad detectives attempt to put a halt to the robbery. The gang loads the wagon as they battle the lawmen, wounding Deputy Marshal Sid Johnson. Johnson recognizes Grat Dalton, as he had served with Grat and Bob Dalton as marshals in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The Dalton Gang escapes unscathed with the stolen money.


  1. Thank you for the great review...

    1. I am glad you liked it Mr. Ortiz. Your book is a treasured resource.


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