The Truth in Disguise: A Leadville Stagecoach Story
By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today
When you live in a city with a history as rich as Leadville’s, sometimes it’s hard to separate the truth from tall tales. Maybe that’s because some of the things that actually happened here are so unbelievable. Or it could be that events recounted at the local pub acquire more artistic details with every pint.
This is one of those stories, told to me by an old-timer many years ago. Since first published in 1994, “The Stagecoach Story” it has traveled around the world and been translated into several languages. After all, who can resist a genuine old west tale? I hope you find it as entertaining.
Some of Leadville’s more adventurous stories are derived from the short-lived stagecoach days. Although this mode of transportation is a classic symbol of the old west, its service quickly came to an end with the completion of the transcontinental railroad. In Leadville, it had an even shorter life; but those three years (1877-1880) were packed with enough harrowing experiences to last a lifetime.
This story revolves around a tombstone that can be seen along the old stagecoach road off Hwy 24 south, just before the turnoff to Twin Lakes. You have to know just where to look . . . but here’s the story.
Although the stage lines carried passengers, the majority of their profit came from transporting mail and freight. The government gave out very profitable mail contracts, and competition among the stage lines was fierce. But so was the danger.
Stagecoach drivers in the old west were some tough hombres, with the job of getting their wagons to the station on time, and avoiding a myriad of hazards along the way. And in mining towns like Leadville, where fortunes were extracted from the ground and transported to Denver, robberies were a given.
In 1879, it is said that Sheriff Kirkham (somewhat verifiable, although it’s unclear if he was a deputy or perhaps even a city officer.) was facing a slew of stagecoach hold-ups along the route between Leadville and Buena Vista. It was the work of one bandit who seemed to have inside information on when the gold shipment would be on board, as that was the only time the robber struck. The sheriff came up with an idea to capture the crook, only this time he kept his plan to himself. He didn’t tell his deputies. He didn’t let his close friends or even let the bank in on his scheme. He didn’t even tell his wife!
On March 7, Sheriff Kirkman put his plan into action and dressing in disguise as a woman, boarded a stagecoach carrying some very precious cargo. Just as he suspected, when the stagecoach neared the Twin Lakes junction, the lone bandit appeared, ordering the gold to be handed over. The sheriff sprang into action, ripped off his disguise, and drew his weapon. “Halt!” Sheriff Kirkham yelled. “In the name of the law!”
The bandit was clearly surprised, and took off running, ignoring the lawman’s order. Sheriff Kirkham brought down that stagecoach robber with one bullet in the back. When he reached the body, he anxiously turned it over to discover the identity of the brazen bandit. It was his wife, dressed in disguise as a man!
Sheriff Kirkham could not bear the shame and embarrassment of his wife’s actions, so instead of bringing her back to town for a proper burial, he laid her to rest along the old stagecoach road. The epithet reads: “My Wife – Jane Kirkham – Died March 7, 1879 – Aged 38 years, 3 months, 7 days” The tombstone can still be seen from Highway 24 when you’re headed south, just before the Twin Lakes turnoff. In fact, it’s on the other side of the Arkansas River, directly across from the Highway 82 sign. But, if you head out to see the somber relic for yourself, please keep one eye on the road. Stagecoach travel was hazardous enough!