The Walsenburg Massacre

Violence Against Immigrant Laborers

When five Italian men were convicted of the murder of a saloonkeeper in Walsenburg, Colorado, a quest for revenge led to the murder of six men.

In 1895, a saloonkeeper named Abner Hixon was murdered in Walsenburg, Colorado. Five Italian miners were convicted in the case. 24-year-old Antonio Lorenzo was identified by the coroner's jury as the murderer, and Stanislaso Vittani, Francisco Ronchetto, Pietro Giacabino, and Antonio Zapetto were charged as accessories to murder. Community anger towards Lorenzo and his accomplices quickly built.

On March 12, 1895, Vittani, Ronchetto, Giacabino, and Zapetto appeared in court in the nearby town of Rouse. That evening, they began their return to the jail in Walsenburg accompanied by Sheriff Earl Danford and Marshal Charles Harriman in a wagon driven by Joseph Welsby. Six to eight masked men intercepted them en route. The vigilantes told Welsby to stop the wagon and demanded that Harriman get off of his horse. As Harriman attempted to flee, the men opened fire on the group. First, they hit and killed the wagon driver Joseph Welsby. A bullet grazed Ronchetto. The others escaped and Sheriff Danford was left with the injured Ronchetto, who he returned to the jail in Walsenburg. 

The vigilantes eventually followed, intent to finish their act of revenge. When the two guards heard a rap at the prison door, followed by a voice stating that it was the sheriff, they promptly opened the door, only to find masked men with guns drawn. While two of the men watched the guards, two others made their way towards the back of the building where the already-injured Ronchetto had been returned by Sheriff Danford and where Lorenzo had been imprisoned throughout the night. They opened fire on the prisoners, killing Lorenzo first with a shot to the head. Ronchetto was shot multiple times and died twenty minutes later. The bodies of the escaped Vittani, Giacabino, and Zapetto were found in the following days filled with bullets. It is unclear whether the vigilantes had tracked and killed them before or after the shootings at the Walsenburg jail, but the result was the same. All five of the Italian immigrant miners were dead.

Many in the town believed that the masked vigilantes were, in fact, a known group of the murdered saloonkeeper Abner Hixon’s close friends. Nevertheless, a convened grand jury failed to indict anyone for the vigilante killings. The Italian ambassador to the United States, Marquis Imperiali, was furious about the incident. He demanded reparations for the dependent families of the Italians, as both Vittani and Zapetto had wives and children who still lived in Italy. The massacre received national attention, and President Grover Cleveland addressed the issue in 1896, urging Congress to grant these reparations, which they eventually did.

Images

Walsenburg, Colorado
Walsenburg, Colorado A modern view of Walsenburg, Colorado. Source: “Walsenburg with the Spanish Peaks in the Background.” Jeffery Beall. 2017. Via Wikimedia Commons. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walsenburg,_Colorado#/media/File:Walsenburg_and_the_Spanish_Peaks.JPG.
Political Cartoon of Anti-Italian Sentiment
Political Cartoon of Anti-Italian Sentiment A political cartoon that demonstrates anti-Italian sentiment in the nation. Source:

“Italian Population Mascot 1888.” The Mascot. 1888. Via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ItalianPopulationMascott1888.jpg.

Mine Near Walsenburg
Mine Near Walsenburg One of the mines located near Walsenburg. Walsenburg, like many other small towns in Colorado, was founded for mining, and it was an important part of the town’s economy. Source:

“Tipple of Turner Mine (Independent) 9 mi North of Walsenburg, Colo.” Circa 1890-1910. 96.69.237. Courtesy of History Colorado Online Collection. https://5008.sydneyplus.com/HistoryColorado_ArgusNet_Final/Portal.aspx?lang=en-US&d=d. 

Walsenburg
Walsenburg Source: “Tourist City (Walsenburg) and Spanish Peaks.” William Henry Jackson. Circa 1882. 86.200.847. Courtesy of History Colorado Online Collection. https://5008.sydneyplus.com/HistoryColorado_ArgusNet_Final/Portal/Portal.aspx?component=AAFW&record=023823d6-8b4c-4e10-b2d8-8677635f2fac
The Old Jail of Walsenburg
The Old Jail of Walsenburg This jail-turned-museum is located in central Walsenburg. The jail was, however, erected in 1896, so it would not have been the jail in which Lorenzo and Ronchetto were shot and killed. Source:

“The 1896 City Jail in Walsenburg, Colorado, which in 1994 Became the Mining Museum for ‘The City Built on Coal.’” Carol M. Highsmith. May 26, 2015. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/item/2015632564/.

Location

Metadata

Sydney Wilson, Brigham Young University , “The Walsenburg Massacre,” Intermountain Histories, accessed February 28, 2024, https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/723.