Wyoming’s worst serial killer: The Murderess of Slaughterhouse Gulch

WYOMING – There is still considerable debate over the legitimacy of the story but what a chilling tale it is. If true, the Murderess of Slaughterhouse Gulch would be the first and worst serial killer in the history of Wyoming. Some 22 killings are attributed to the “Hotel California” innkeeper where weary travelers checked in but would never leave.

The time was 1868. South Pass City was booming. The highly productive Clarissa Mine and others like it had the place crawling with miners. Others were attracted by color found in the nearby hills. Even those without gold fever wandered through, South Pass was the perfect rest stop on the Oregon Trail for westbound travelers with a dream of starting over.

The Bartlett family arrived in South Pass after leaving Cincinnati where Stephen (in some accounts he is referred to as John; in others, still, he is called Jim) ran a rundown bar. He, a son, a relative named Hattie, and daughter Polly first tried Colorado but things didn’t work out there. When they settled in South Pass City, they opened a lodging house of sorts.

Polly Bartlett (Wyoming Historical Society)

Polly Bartlett was alleged to be the black widow of innkeepers. Seizing on single men for prey, she reportedly poisoned her victims with arsenic-laced steaks (presumable on hand to kill mice) after liquoring them up with a little whiskey and a little frisky. They were easy marks. Loners, drummers, miners, cowboys, deadbeats—if they had some money, Polly knew how to get it fast.

It was the perfect time and place: a rowdy mining town on the edge of the great frontier. Wyoming was not yet a state. The area was known to old-timers as Dakota country. Some newcomers were beginning to call it Wyoming Territory. They named South Pass City the county seat of Carter County. It would be changed to present-day Sweetwater in 1869.

All the while, nobody missed the missing in those days. It was not uncommon for people to go astray in 1860s Wyoming. Indian trouble was very real. Highwaymen would rob and kill for a silver dollar or a horse.

Esther Hobart Morris would be named first female justice of the peace in 1879, and later launch the women’s suffragette movement from a testosterone-fueled town of miners and miscreants. But first, Polly did her work. In the span of no more than a year, she reportedly drugged, robbed and buried more than 20 men with the help of her father.

Her final victim was a young man named Barney Fountain. The 23-year-old was the son of a wealthy mine owner, Bernard Fountain. After his disappearance, a Pinkerton detective started looking into things and before long the sheriff/marshal of Carter County, a man named Adam Lombardi, posted a $13,000 reward for the Bartlett’s, who had struck out in a hurry, reportedly headed for Oregon.

Ed Ford (Wyoming Historical Society)

Ed Ford ended up collecting the reward after tracking down the Bartletts days later camped along the Hoback River. He shot and killed the father and brought back Polly for her hanging.

It was fitting Ford be the one to capture Polly. Months before he was almost seduced and poisoned like all her other victims but he did not care for alcohol so Polly’s plans were foiled. Later, when Ed’s brother Sam went missing after staying at the Bartlett Inn, Ed became suspicious. He convinced the sheriff that something wasn’t right at the Bartlett Inn of death.

As so often happened in those days (Morris even joked once her job was mostly quiet and boring because of vigilante justice) Polly never made it to trial. While being held in jail, a man named Otto Kalkhorst blasted her through a cell window with both barrels of a shotgun on October 7, 1868. Kalkhorst was a foreman at one of the mines owned by Bernard Fountain. He was never tried for the murder.

Authorities reportedly dug up some 22 bodies from corrals on the Bartlett property. That would make Polly Bartlett the most cold-blooded killer in state history.

Read the whole story. It is fascinating. Wyoming’s Amazing Poisoner

South Pass City jail as it looks today.
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