In 1887, Wyoming Territory held its first murder trial on the heels of a triple homicide. The story of these gruesome murders and the subsequent trial are well known to Snake River boatmen. It’s how Deadman’s Bar – the spot where we launch our Barker-Ewing Scenic Float Trips – got its name. All you have to do is ask, and I’ll happily regale you with the tale. And if you don’t ask, I’ll tell you anyway.
I like to begin the murder saga just as I launch the boat, and wind it up as we round the first bend in the river. We’ve floating past a crime scene and into a beautiful vista: the view of the Tetons made famous by Ansel Adams. It’s a great start to our 10-mile trip on the wild and scenic Snake River through Grand Teton National Park. I rarely have the opportunity to field questions during these first spectacular moments – I’m navigating the current, scanning the bank for wildlife, avoiding submerged obstacles, and alerting my passengers to the first of many stunning photo ops. But, there are questions, and I’ve got some answers.
In 1886, T.H. Tiggerman, Henry Welter, and August Kellenberger were panning for gold in the shallows along this stretch of the Snake River and were found brutally murdered. One victim was shot in the back, and the other two were dispatched by ax blows that stove in their skulls. The assailant – John Tonner, a fourth partner on the mining claim – was apprehended and later acquitted by a jury. Though he admitted to the misdeed, he claimed self-defense. (If only Tiggerman, Walter and Kellenberger had known that this location would soon earn the name “Deadman’s Bar,” they might have avoided it entirely. Or dispatched their fourth partner in “self-defense.”)
Tonner’s trial was held in Evanston, 200 miles to the south. A surgeon visited the scene of the crime to collect forensic evidence, specifically the skulls of the murdered miners. These he prepared on-site, boiling them in a large kettle to clean them for transport. He packed the axe-damaged skulls and brought them back to Evanston to be viewed by the jury; the third skull was left behind. (Fun fact: some years later, a fishing party came upon the kettle hanging in a tree along the riverbank, and upon finding that it contained a skull, blasted it with a shotgun. The kettle and the skull are now stored at the Jackson Hole Museum.)
Despite the evidence of fatal axe blows on the two skulls presented to the jury back in Evanston, they voted to acquit Tonner, citing the circumstantial nature of the evidence and the lack of eyewitnesses. Upon his release, Tonner fled Wyoming Territory. He hopped on the first train out of Evanston, promising to pay his attorney as soon as he got back on his feet. Apparently, he never did. The citizens of Wyoming Territory viewed the Tonner verdict as a miscarriage of justice, a sentiment that may have encouraged and justified later vigilantism.
I’ve launched my raft at Deadman’s Bar more than 2,000 times in my decades of guiding. And each time, I reflect on the drama that played out here 130 years ago. It’s an unsolved mystery, with lots of loose ends. Whatever happened to John Tonner? Was he indeed a murderer? Where are the bodies of the murdered men? Did the surgeon who collected the skulls bury the rest of the remains? Or did he cast the headless bodies into the Snake? Are the skulls deserving of headstones?
So many questions that may never be answered. But one thing I know for sure. Is there gold at Deadman’s Bar? Nope.