Tom Ross

Tom Ross

Tom Ross: Pioneer Mesa County safecracker had his nose replaced by his left pinky finger

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Tom here.

— The Western Colorado towns of Grand Junction and Steamboat Springs had similar starts in the late 1880s. However, Grand Junction, with a milder year-round climate and a fortuitous location at the confluence of two major rivers, zoomed ahead of Steamboat in terms of economic development and criminal misdeeds.

A major factor in the disparity in the growth rates between the two towns is that the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad arrived in Grand Junction one year after it was founded in 1882. The Moffat Road did not come to Steamboat Springs until 1909.

That might have turned out to be a blessing because historical accounts suggest Grand Junction’s early days were far more violent than the first decades in Steamboat Springs.

The murders, hangings and assorted acts of mayhem that took place in Grand Junction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are told in a lively style by author D.A. Brockett in her 2012 book, “Wicked Western Slope.”

After a quiet first year of its existence, Brockett writes, the first shooting in Grand Junction took place in November 1882 a few days after an earthquake rattled the population. A gambler named Broken-Nose Sims took a potshot at a railroader named Mike Dunn as he slipped out the back door. Subsequently, Marshal Jim Davis pursued and shot the fleeing man in the back. The local militia troop disapproved of how quick the marshal was to shoot and threatened him with his life, but nothing came of it.

Speaking of broken noses, Brockett, who was very diligent in her research, also tells the story of the unintended murder of gambler Walter “Big Kid” Eames.

Brockett relates how Eames, who was admired in town, ran the gambling establishment known as The Biltmore Club above the JCPenney Department Store. Eames met his end one night when three cellmates from the notorious San Quentin prison set out to rob him.

The men — Fern “Bubbles” Sadler, gunman Otis Slane and safecracker John Homutoff — didn’t mean to kill Big Kid, they just wanted some of his money. But the masked men were nervous as they entered the gambling room, and Slane accidentally discharged some buckshot into Big Kid’s face. Naturally, he died a short time later.

But the quirkiest part of this crime story has to do with Homutoff’s nose.

Earlier in his criminal career, he lost the nose while trying to blow a safe with nitroglycerine (it was the same crime that landed him in San Quentin). He might have been too generous in his use of the volatile liquid as the flying safe door sheared his schnozz right off his face. By the time Homutoff received medical attention, his only option was a prison doctor.

The learned physician decided to graft Homutoff’s left pinkie (still attached to his hand) to his nose wound. Six weeks later, with the flesh fused, he cut the finger off the hand, and Homutoff had a nose again, albeit a strange-looking one.

Brockett does not mention whether the safecracker still had to trim all 10 of his fingernails after the surgery, but I’ll forgive her that detail as this is one lively read for a history book.

My advice is that you track down a copy of “Wicked Western Slope,” published by The History Press of Charleston, S.C., and read it thoroughly.

By the way, Bubbles Sadler, Otis Slane and John Homutoff all did time for their botched burglary in Grand Junction, but all three were paroled and lived out their years quietly in Colorado.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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