There are at least 160 people who “were killed by mobs in Colorado between 1859 and 1919,” according to information gathered by Colorado Lynching Memorial Project.
That number includes 15-year-old Preston “John” Porter Jr. who was lynched on the outskirts of Limon, Colorado in November 1900. A Black teenager, Porter was the subject of a January Lost Highways podcast episode by History Colorado. His is one of the most horrific lynchings in U.S. history. Porter was chained to an iron stake and burned alive at the same spot a young white girl’s body was found earlier that month, and for whose murder he was accused.
The Craig Courier in 1900 reported, “Porter turned his head and a frightful expression changed his face: With a sudden convulsive tugging, he stretched his head as far from the rapidly increasing flames as possible and uttered a cry of pain.” Some of Porter’s final words as he was set on fire reportedly were, “Oh, my God! Let me go, men. I’ve got something more to tell you. Please let me go. Oh, my God, my God!” The Craig Courier also reported that Porter begged to be shot before he died engulfed in flames in front of roughly 300 onlookers, none of whom intervened.
Before Porter was murdered by hundreds of vigilantes, he and his father and brother were incarcerated for the girl’s murder and were tortured during interrogations that lasted for days. After being locked in what newspapers at the time called “the sweat box” for four days, Preston confessed to the crime to save his father and brother from the mob that was sure to enact vigilante justice.
“They never did an investigation to find out who killed her,” said Terri Gentry, a community historian and member of the board of directors for the Black American West Museum, on the Lost Highways podcast episode. “They just decided since this Black man happened to be in town working on the railroad, that that’s the only answer to the fact that this little white girl was killed.”
Noel Black, one of the Lost Highways hosts, said that then-Gov. Charles Thomas, “a former confederate soldier, believed Preston would be lynched, and didn’t try to stop it.”
“It was a common practice for people to try to get souvenirs at lynchings,” said Anthony Suggs, missioner for advocacy and social justice at the Episcopal Church in Colorado, in the Lost Highways episode. “And in this case, the souvenirs happened to be pages out of Preston’s Bible, that he signed, and tore out, and distributed.”
“Have you imagined the return to the sun? I hope you did, Preston. Because a star ain’t nothing but a fire” — Jovan Mays, “TO PRESTON”
The Associated Press reported Thomas ordered “Assistant District Attorney [Henry] McAllister to proceed against those engaged in the cremation [of Porter.]” McAllister then reportedly ordered “Sheriff [John] Freeman of Lincoln County where the crime was committed and punishment meted out, to arrest” the mob members.
Westword reported in November 2018 that the public generally “deplore[d] the method of killing while clucking sympathetically about the ‘natural emotions’ that must have driven the community to such an act. Even members of the clergy who denounced the lynching seemed to be condoning it, too.”
Locally, the blame for the violent lynching was passed around. Thomas largely blamed Freeman and reportedly said, “My opinion is that there is one less negro in the world.” Freeman, meanwhile, reportedly said prosecuting Porter would have been fruitless anyway. Not long after this incident, Denver would become ensnared in the political and judicial control of the Ku Klux Klan.
Colorado Lynching Memorial Project noted that “in the end no on[e] was held accountable either for killing Preston, or for failing to protect him.” The NAACP explains on its website that between 1882 and 1968 just over 72% of people lynched in the U.S. were Black.