Possibilities

Courtesy of linkpendium.com-jackson-co-genealogy

The death of my great-great-grandfather John E. Lee, and the circumstances surrounding it, has always fascinated me. His demise is still somewhat shrouded in mystery. Born in Michigan in 1843, John served in the Civil War, afterwards moving west with his wife Lucy and their children to the “North Park” area of Colorado.[1] It was here in the mid-1870s that John and Lucy homesteaded, near the icy waters of the Michigan River, with John earning his living off the land as a skilled hunter and trapper.

Something of a Colorado “mountain man,” John Lee would go on to become an intrinsic part of North Park’s local folklore: “I remember John Lee taking out 97 antelope in one trip. He got stuck with his load on the sand hill south of Pinkhamton, unloaded part of his load, pulled up the hill and carried the ones he had unloaded up the hill, loaded them up and went on. I remember John Lee as a large powerful man.”[2]

(Note to self: Can this man really be related to me?)

John’s death, late in the morning of 25 May 1885, stunned a lot of people. Only 42 years old at the time, and apparently in robust health, it seemed unusual that coroner C.H. Marsh would rule Lee’s cause of death to be from heart disease. Prior to Coroner Marsh’s ruling, speculation had stirred a further question: Had John Lee been poisoned? Newspaper accounts of Lee’s death attempted to retrace his steps that day, noting that he had eaten at a local ranch and, further, that Lee had mailed a letter to an attorney in which he noted that there were those out there (related to John’s business interests) who “wished to do him harm.”[3] With this background to the case, Coroner Marsh was summoned to make an official ruling on Lee’s death.

[It] might have been harder for Lee to avoid the flowering Death Camas.

Reading the accounts of my great-great-grandfather’s death bring up many of the same questions “North Parkers” must have asked in May of 1885. Beginning with the statement that Lee had “eaten at a local ranch,” I have looked at possible natural poisons John Lee might have come into contact with that day. I believe that Lee would have been too savvy to ingest any of the better-known natural poisons like larkspur, lupine, or even hemlock. But it might have been harder for Lee to avoid the flowering Death Camas.[4] It’s said to resemble wild onions, and it is conceivable that Lee may have unknowingly ingested Camas bulbs as part of a “stew” on his last day. However the accounts do not show where anyone other than Lee is reported to have fallen ill that day.

Lee’s contention that there were those who “wished to harm him” is an interesting one, and while it is noted in the accounts that he refers to these people as a part of his business concerns, it’s unlikely that any one of them would choose to harm Lee by using poison in preference to an old-fashioned six-shooter. No, it is more likely that any enemies of Lee’s (in business matters) would have wanted to force him into an honest (or a dishonest) bankruptcy. Poison, even by means of the Death Camas, seems a bit out of the norm for those rough and ready Western times. So through all of this I have wondered, Could there be a third possibility?

Lucy Melinda (Nestle) Lee (1850-1888)

After Coroner Marsh’s visit, the rumors of poison must have died down, and any enemies of Lee’s business concerns must have moved on. Indeed, everyone must have “moved on,” including John’s widow, Lucy Lee. Indeed, is Lucy Lee herself the “third possibility?” Consider this: In the Colorado State Census of June 1885, John’s widow Lucy has “taken up with” one Dr. George Bassett, a nearby physician. Keep in mind her husband had just died on 25 May 1885, and that she is enumerated with Dr. Bassett just one month later.[5] Who better to have access to the poisons of the day causing death, the ability to hide it, or who better to dissuade a coroner’s finding other than a physician? Indeed, who are other parties who might have wished to do him harm? Isn’t it often said that the spouse is always a person of interest?

Notes

[1] In 1874, “North Park” was claimed by both Summit/Grand Counties and by Larimer County. In 1886 the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that North Park was a part of Larimer County – that is until 1909, when Jackson County was formed. See: visitnorthparkco.com

[2] “Early Days in North Park, Colorado – as told by T. John Payne to James R. Harvey,” Colorado Magazine 14: 6 [1937] has a brief biography of John E. Lee.

[3] Quoting Fort Collins Courier, 23 July 1885.

[4] R. Scott Rappold, 6 Poisonous Plants to Avoid in Colorado, outtherecolorado.com, 24 May 2017.

[5] The date of death for John E. Lee varies from 25 May to 25 June 1885. The May death is reported (and used here as the correct date) in the affidavits of his daughter in John Lee’s Civil War pension file.

Jeff Record

About Jeff Record

Jeff Record received a B.A. degree in Philosophy from Santa Clara University, and works as a teaching assistant with special needs children at a local school. He recently co-authored with Christopher C. Child, “William and Lydia (Swift) Young of Windham, Connecticut: A John Howland and Richard Warren Line,” for the Mayflower Descendant. Jeff enjoys helping his ancestors complete their unfinished business, and successfully petitioned the Secretary of the Army to overturn a 150 year old dishonorable Civil War discharge. A former Elder with the Mother Lode Colony of Mayflower Descendants in the State of California, Jeff and his wife currently live with their Golden Retriever near California’s Gold Country where he continues to explore, discover, and research family history.

14 thoughts on “Possibilities

  1. I really enjoyed this column Watching all those crime shows has educated us to think beyond the first “official” findings. Your theory seems plausible, but I don’t know that you’ll ever “prove” it. It does add an interesting story to your tree.

  2. Fascinating stuff, Jeff. Great sleuthing. I wonder if Dr. Geo. Bassett was any relation to Ann and Josie Bassett of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fame? Their family’s ranch was in Brown’s Park, Colorado.

    1. Alane, thank-you for this. I too have wondered about the Bassett connection here, but so far have not found anyting to tie Dr. George, (or Mrs. Lee) to the Bassett’s of Brown’s Park, or to Butch and Sundance. It does make me wonder though if they did not travel in the same circles….

  3. What a great story! Your suspicions seem justified, and your theory intriguing. I suppose it’s too late for an exhumation…

  4. Jeff,

    Fascinating story. The death camas was well known to the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, though they tended to avoid it rather than use it. I have, however, read some stories, apocraphal or not, about some tribes who used it against others when the settlers, who thought they had the “real” rights to the land, were trying to herd each tribe onto its own reservation.

    Lee’s daughter WOULD report the May date for his death in his Civil War pension file, because the June date would mean his widow was ineligible for the pension, since the census showed she was living with Dr. Bassett. Did they ever marry?

    One of my gg grandfathers has a story related to his death too, though it’s not nearly as interesting as your story. N.S. Bastion (1808-1884) was a minister, mostly in central Illinois. He was always desperately poor, even while he and his wife, trained at Oberlin, ran the only high school in Illinois south of Chicago (in the small town of Sullivan, Moultrie County, near Springfield). He even wrote a book in an attempt to make money–a long theological tome, a copy of which now resides in the Library of Congress. I doubt anybody but me has ever waded through it, but I thought I might learn something about his personality from it. I did. He was extremely strict in his moral expectations, which may be why his only surviving son ran away from home as a young adult and ended up as a rancher in New Mexico, never to communicate with his family again until after his father’s death. Bastion was ultimately forced to support his wife as a supply preacher. He must have had some reputation as a preacher, because in February of 1884, a church in Adams County, Illinois, a couple hundred miles from his home in Sullivan, asked him to come as an interim minister while they looked for a permanent one. By the time Bastion arrived, he was very ill, and the widow who had agreed to board him had an invalid on her hands. Two weeks later, never having gotten out of bed, let alone preached, he died. A service was held, after which his body was sent home to Sullivan, another service was held, and he was buried in an unmarked grave in a known cemetery. It’s unclear if the lack of a gravestone is because of their poverty, or his principles. I found several newspaper articles in Adams County, arguing about who should pay what, given that Bastion had never done what he’d contracted to do. There was paying the woman who’d taken care of him, the cost of the service, plus shipping his body home. Some assumed he was rich and his family could pay it all. Others noted that love offerings had already been taken up that covered the entire amount. All this rather amused me–church politics go back rather a long way.

    Doris

    1. Hi Doris,

      How very interesting your N.S. Bastion is! I can see some parallels between his life and that of John Lee’s – as Lee’s gravesite also has yet to be found. You asked me if John’s widow Lucy ever married Dr. Bassett. No, they did not marry. He was several years her junior and I am not sure that the doctor didn’t “take her in” out of pity for her widow’s condition. Dr. Bassett’s role in all of this is as hard to pin down as is John Lee’s cause of death. What had concerned me on a “sub-level” in all of this is that John Lee may have suffered from some PTSD from the CW and surely from his time in Andersonville – that being said I wonder how good a husband and or father John was (perhaps another parallel to N.S. Bastion) – and more so if he was guilty of cruelty to his spouse and children. (I do not have any evidence to support this though).

      Enter in the kind Dr. Bassett who may have helped Lucy escape a bad situation through egregious means…..

      What causes me to believe this is a “possibility” is that family dynamics often repeat themselves before and after any particular previous generation. Case in point: John and Lucy Melinda Lee’s eldest son, William Lee, was (also?) murdered by his wife, Viola Kelley Lee, who ultimately turned the gun on herself. Was William Lee cruel to his wife in a manner that caused him to meet the same “possible” fate as his father John was? – It is an interesting proposition. I’m not at any sort of a psychologist and I am in no way qualified to comment on cruelty like this – but the terrible acts of spousal abuse may have been multi generational – and Lucy may have looked for the only way out a 19th century woman might have had – the help and friendship of an empathetic doctor’s arsenal.

      Doris – many thanks for reading my post and taking the time to share your story of N.S. Bastion! It is appreciated.

      Jeff

      https://vita-brevis.org/2017/03/lost-not-forgotten/

  5. If my memory serves me right Johnny Wilcox was involved with Butch Cassidy and Sundance but not sure where I read it. The history book written that I referred to you to in the past that I acquired from the Encampment Wyoming Museum had some material in it about these people. The book was titled TOUGH COUNTRY written by Gay Day Alcorn and is no longer in circulation but was published by Legacy Press in Saratoga Wyoming. Seven years of research went into this book according to Michael J. Koury the Publisher of the Old Army Press. He talks about the trips to England and and the unpublished diaries of Sir Henry Seton-Karr and the Sand Creek Land and Cattle Company’s manager, Walter Cowan and his brother James. Over 756 Overland Trail diaries were researched for the book Tough Country. Also you could call Patti Finley, up in Idaho and ask her if she remembers this stuff. There were some odd things going on in the Wilcox Family back in the day. Johnny Wilcox was the foreman for the famous old Swan Ranches including the L7 Ranch up there. Charles M.Wilcox’s picture is there on page 144 on a horse when he worked on one of the L7 also. They also refer to Hiram Wilcox who died on 5 January 1893 father of Charles Wilcox is buried at the Cadwell Cemetery. Not sure if any of this helps or not as there was no mention of the Bassets in the books I have.

  6. Absolutely grand family history tale to hold the grandchildren spellbound!!! Perhaps the solution here is the old standby “follow the money”. Apparently Lucy did!

  7. I always wondered about Lucy being enumerated with the doctor. I found them together in a census while researching a great uncle, Lloyd Lester Lee. Lloyd’s wife in 1910 Boise, Idaho was my great aunt, Madge Dugan Lee.

    1. It’s also a possibility that she was providing housekeeping and/or minor nursing services for the doctor in exchange for room and board. Did her husband leave her anything to subsist on?

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