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Chloe Effron

25 Lofty Facts About Colorado

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Chloe Effron

Even if you’ve never visited, you might know a few things about Colorado: maybe that it was the 38th territory to gain statehood, that it inspired the timeless John Denver tune “Rocky Mountain High” (now one of two official state songs), or that it’s widely accepted as our nation’s reigning pot capital.

There’s a lot more to the Centennial State than its high peaks, though. As the nation’s eighth-largest state (despite being only the 22nd most populous), Colorado represents a huge slice of U.S. and North American history—one that’s brimming with dino discoveries, rock 'n’ roll debuts, renowned Native heritage, and even a headless chicken.

1. The mile-high metropolitan center of Colorado isn’t just putting on high-altitude airs with its nickname. Stand on the 13th step leading up to the state capital building in Denver and you’ll know what being exactly one mile above sea level feels like.

2. While you're feeling high-up at the state capital building, check out the building's interior, much of which is decked out in beautiful Colorado Rose Onyx—actually, in all of it that exists, as far as we know.

3. Colorado’s achievements for height don’t begin and end in Denver—not by a mile. The state also boasts the U.S.’s highest sand dunes, its highest paved road, the contiguous United States' highest mountain peaks (with several dozen clearing the 14,000-foot mark), its highest alligator park, and its highest auto tunnel, among many other things. The long list isn’t too surprising, perhaps, given that Colorado sports 75% of all U.S. terrain that’s 10,000 feet above sea level or higher.

4. But it also holds a record for depth. As Guinness World Records reported, the “mother spring” in the spa community of Pagosa Springs—just one of many in a vast developed network—is a lovely but unassuming pool “35 feet across with an average depth of 20-30 ft [with] a hole in the bottom of two feet in diameter.”

After Guinness reps sent a 1002-foot plumb line down that hole, however, they “watched and waited in anticipation as the line went down … and down … and down,” until, maybe ten minutes later, “the line ran out without hitting any obstacles, and a new Guinness World Records achievement was verified.” For all we know, then, that mother spring is bottomless.

5. Famous for their resourcefulness and determination, Coloradans have secured a healthy number of world records for their state, including one for a 124-dB bark that took a total of 76 canine volunteers. Residents have also achieved recognition for the highest-ever score in the game “Oil Tycoon” (by an enormous margin), the largest assembled group of persons in gorilla costumes, the world’s most environmentally friendly bomb-detector, and more.

6. In 1970, the International Olympics Committee awarded Denver the honor and undertaking of hosting the 1976 Winter Olympics, something that the state had lobbied hard for alongside other domestic and international locations. Come 1972, though, state residents had the opportunity to vote on whether or not they’d allow the state to take on this very costly and possibly environmentally damaging task; almost 60% of voters decided the venture wasn’t worth it, making Colorado the only state to ever turn down the opportunity.

7. The separate indigenous groups that constitute the nomadic Ute tribe are famous for the sophisticated horsemanship they developed hundreds of years ago. In Colorado’s rich, vast, and valley-filled terrain, this allowed a significant advantage for both hunting and fighting; they were accomplished riders before many of their original and European-émigré neighbors.


8. As European settlers encroached increasingly on Ute territory in Colorado, the tribe's different groups attempted to discourage the new agriculture developments (which displaced grazing lands for their horses) and government surveyors however they could; sometimes, the struggles ended in violence.

After the U.S. government finally suppressed the so-called Ute uprising with a larger presence of soldiers, Chief Ouray and his second wife, Chipeta, traveled to Washington D.C., where he spoke before Congress on behalf of his people and to explain the situation in his homeland. Ouray signed a treaty with government officials before returning home, but, very sadly, it did not allow Ute tribe-members to remain in Colorado as they wanted; instead, they were displaced to Utah reservations en masse.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

9. As Matthew McConaughey once observed, the "man who invented the hamburger was smart," but the "man who invented the cheeseburger was a genius." Several persons from various states have claimed the latter honor, but one of the top contenders of record is Louis Ballast of Denver, who began selling them in 1935 "at the Humpty Dumpty Drive-In near Federal and Speer boulevards" in a restaurant often "referred to as The Barrel because it looked like one." Ballast reportedly "first tried Hershey bars and peanut butter as burger toppings, but neither impressed the customers," according to the Denver Post.

10. Infamous horror actor Lon Chaney, Sr., a.k.a. the "Man With a Thousand Faces," was born in Colorado Springs in 1883; just 70 years later, comedian Tim Allen came into the world in Denver. Which career best reflects the spirit of the Centennial State? Hard to say.

Getty Images // Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

11. M. P. Felch discovered the first known remains of a Stegosaurus hidden in Colorado's mountainous terrain in 1876, and the state also gave us the most complete Stegosaurus skeleton even found—nicknamed "Spike"—in 1992.

12. While all dinos do not get equal press, former residents of Colorado (based on fossil finds) include species such as Allosaurus, Amphicoelias, Apatosaurus, Brachiosaurus, Camarasaurus,  Ceratosaurus, Cionodon, Denversaurus, Diplodocus, Dryosaurus, Epanterias, Haplocanthosaurus, Marshosaurus, Nanosaurus, Ornithomimus, Othnielia, Polyonax, Supersaurus, Torvosaurus, Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus rex, and Ultrasauros.

13. Led Zeppelin made their American debut in front of Colorado rock fans. According to promoter Barry Fey, organizers weren't sure how this British band—then relatively unknown in the U.S.—would play to crowds at Auditorium Arena in Denver on December 26, 1968. Nevertheless, it went off without a hitch; Fey recalled that, after the band's intro of, “Ladies and gentleman, please welcome, direct from England for their North America debut, Led Zeppelin!”:

There was a smattering of polite applause. Then, Robert Plant let it rip and everybody in the audience was stunned. Frankly, I don’t know how [the next band, Spirit] went on after that. You didn’t have to be a genius to know Zeppelin was going to be a smash. Oh, my God. People were going crazy!

14. Setting aside the Great Diamond Hoax of 1872, Colorado has produced plenty of real, gem-quality and industrial-quality diamonds in its day, many near "Diamond Peak."

15. It was also the site of a huge silver boom. After the precious metal was discovered near Leadville in 1879, prospectors rushed the region hoping to find their own fortunes. Many did, too: by the time the price of silver collapsed in the early 1890s, over $80 million worth of silver had been dug up.

16. As a result of these booms, Colorado has almost as many "dead" towns as live ones. In addition to the discovery of silver and diamonds, Colorado also drew waves of settlers and fortune-seekers throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Settlements and trading posts sprang up to support gold miners, fur trappers, and various other entrepreneurial types; by the time the dust had mostly settled in the mid-20th century, however, Coloradans found themselves left with as many as 500 ghost settlements


Wikimedia Commons // CC 2.0

17. According to some, access to the massive amount of oil shale under Colorado and Utah's Rocky Mountains could make the U.S. one of the top two oil-producers in the world. Understandably, though, Coloradans and environmentalists around the country still have some concerns.

18. Marijuana was legalized there in 2014, but if pot's not your thing, the state is also a beer-drinker's paradise. At last count, the state housed 289 different breweries, the third-highest number in the country. It also hosts the annual Great American Beer Festival, a three-day event in which hundreds of beer experts and thousands of fans flock to Denver from around the world in shared appreciation of real liquid gold: beer. 

19. Daveco Liquors in Thornton, Colorado, prides itself on being the "World's Largest Liquor Store." The shop covers an area of 100,073.1 square feet (almost 2.3 acres). So, if you're the indecisive type, maybe skip a visit to Daveco before your next Colorado barbeque.

20. Mike the Headless Wonder Chicken was born in the state … and lost his head there, too. Also known as Miracle Mike, this special chicken met his end in 1945 when Fruita, CO farmer Lloyd Olsen set out to kill the bird for his and his wife's evening meal. When Olsen chopped off Mike's head, though (which he later saved as proof), he missed Mike's jugular vein and left one ear and most of Mike's brain stem intact. From then on, the chicken was (mostly) able to function as his kind usually do.

Over the next 18 months, Miracle Mike—who was fed through the throat with a dropper by the Olsens and his manager—toured the nation, earning a quarter per viewer for his owners and even putting on several pounds post-decapitation. Sadly, Mike finally choked to death in a hotel room one night, but he otherwise spent the last, fame-filled period of his life as a "robust chicken—a fine specimen of a chicken except for not having a head," according to Olsen. 

21. Wellesley professor Katharine Lee Bates was inspired to write “America the Beautiful,” a poem that would evolve into the famous tune, while “[celebrating] the close of the session by a merry expedition to the top of Pike’s Peak” in 1893. They made the ascent by prairie wagon. Moved by “the sea-like expanse of fertile country ... under those ample skies,” she said, “the opening lines of the hymn floated into [her] mind.” 


22. San Francisco's Lombard Street may be extra-twisty, but it's small potatoes (curly fries?) compared to the 26.5-mile stretch of Denver's Colfax Avenue, the longest continuous street in America

23. With its rich history of horsemanship, it's no surprise that Colorado held the first-ever rodeo on record in Deer Trail on the Fourth of July, 1869, or that the state continues to host the most rodeo events per year in the country.

24. Would-be cowboys better be sober. In this state, riding a horse while intoxicated is considered a traffic offense (not to mention dangerous, and pretty rude to the horse).

25. Coloradans take the treatment of the environment seriously too. In Colorado, it is reportedly unlawful for any person to "willfully mar, mutilate, deface, disfigure, or injure beyond normal use any rocks, trees, shrubbery, wild flowers, or other features of the natural environment in recreation areas of the state." All things considered, it seems like a pretty reasonable request (as does the bylaw that restricts llamas from being grazed in public areas).

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Weird
Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
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The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

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History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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