Sunday, April 10, 2016

Till Jealousy And Bullets Do Us Part

Frank and Phoebe's relationship was not good. In fact, that is an understatement. It was wretched and, in the summer of 1901, on display for public fodder.

On Monday, June 3, 1901, Phoebe left her Denver home to do some shopping. She reported that she, "went down town on my bicycle. On Sixteenth street I met Ira Scott, with whom I was slightly acquainted, and he suggested that we take a ride in the direction of Riverside cemetery. I agreed. Our meeting was purely accidental, but I saw no harm in riding with a friend."1

The following day, my third great-grandparents' dysfunctional marriage exploded onto the headlines of Denver's newspapers amidst a hail of bullets and jealousy.

Phoebe Jarvis (Gervais) was born in Kingsey Falls, Quebec on June 28, 1866. Francis Stephen Lamb was baptized in the town of Richmond, Quebec on April 28, 1859. They married in Sherbrooke, Quebec on April 23, 1885.

Francis Stephen Lamb and Phoebe Jarvis Marriage

They were enumerated in the 1900 US Federal census living in Denver, Colorado with their children. Oddly, Francis (now Frank) used a modified version of his middle name as his surname. Family lore said Frank Stephen Lamb killed a man in Canada, and fled to the United States and changed his surname to Stephens. No evidence has been found to corroborate the Canada murder story. Was the story conflated with the events of June 1901? If so, it still doesn't explain why the surname was different on the 1900 census - a year before the events of 1901.

A Tumultuous Marriage
Witness accounts illustrated a tumultuous marriage that finally came to a breaking point. The neighbors reported that, "domestic storms were a frequent occurrence."2 Eva, their eldest child and my second great-grandmother, tearfully told a reporter that, "Papa and mamma have been quarreling off and on for over two years."3 The papers hinted at past violence, noting that, "A year ago, Mrs. Stephens fired at her husband with a shotgun and narrowly missed blowing his head off."4 Phoebe said Frank charged at her with a knife in that incident, and she fired in self defense.

Frank suspected his wife was having a relationship with Ira Scott after Frank Jr. told his father that Scott was coming to the family home and going for bike rides with Phoebe. On that fateful Monday, Frank burst into the house to find her preparing to go downtown for a bike ride.

The paper reported that he "flew into a rage and swore at his wife and tore her bicycle skirt in two. He said he was going to leave her and never return."5 Phoebe told him, "Well, leave and take everything you own with you."6 He did leave, taking his Winchester rifle with him and son Frank Jr.

After traveling a half mile, Frank sent his son back to the house to see what Phoebe was doing. Frank Jr. returned to his father and reported "that his mother was sewing up her skirt."7 Shortly thereafter, Phoebe unwittingly rode her bicycle past her husband and son. "There goes mamma," Frank Jr. alerted his father.8

The newspapers splashed several photos of Phoebe across the pages, so readers could glimpse the alleged adulteress. One picture even featured Phoebe in her riding skirt posed with her bicycle. None of the articles included photos of Frank.

Frank secretly followed after his wife leaving his son behind. Phoebe and Mr. Scott dismounted their bikes at Riverside Cemetery, passed a fisherman on the banks of the Platte River, and walked about the grounds. Phoebe relayed to police what happened next:

"We then walked on a dozen paces, when we saw a man crouched in the grass at some distance. Mr. Scott remarked that the man acted suspiciously, and just as he said this I recognized him as my husband. I was badly frightened and shrieked, 'My God, there comes my husband with a gun!' and then both Mr. Scott and I ran in opposite directions. My husband then aimed his gun at me, exclaiming, 'Yes, you ------: I've got you now!' and fired twice. When I turned to run I passed close by the fisherman, and one of the shots intended for me struck him somewhere and he fell over groaning, 'My God: they've killed me!' I stayed at the cemetery until the officers came, and rode to town with them."9

The fisherman was Matthew Brown who took a bullet to his lung. Initial reports predicted his wound was fatal, however, he survived the attack.

In Hiding
Frank fled the scene and went into hiding. His whereabouts were a mystery. In February 1906, nearly five years after that fateful day, the Denver Post published an obituary of Richard "Old Dick" Hoskins, a friend of Frank's who was a colorful character and early Colorado pioneer. The obituary finally shed light on what happened to Frank following the shooting.

"Stephens, under the impression that he would have to stand trial on the charge of murder, made his escape. For at least a month the Denver police were under the impression that he had committed suicide, so complete had been his disappearance.
But Stephens was at Idaho Springs, carefully concealed by "Old Dick" Hoskins. Realizing the danger his friend was in, Hoskins secreted him in a tunnel in one of his mines. For forty-five days Stephens never saw daylight. Faithfully every six hours "Old Dick" carried him sufficient food to keep him alive, and when the injured Brown finally recovered Hoskins turned Stephens loose."10

There's no account of Frank being charged or standing trial for the shooting. His seclusion apparently helped him evade justice. Sadly, the family's drama continued to make occasional headlines.

On July 22, 1901, the Denver Post published an article "Children Gone: Stephens Family Disintegrating at a Rate That Frightens Mother - Stephens Suspected." The article revealed that Eva - the eldest daughter and my direct ancestor - was now "wayward" and had been sent to the Home for Incorrigible Girls. Phoebe's son Ray was in a county hospital due to "spinal trouble." Daughter Myrtle reportedly took her four other siblings to visit their ailing brother and never returned. Phoebe believed that the children went to be with their father whose whereabouts were still unknown thanks to "Old Dick" Hoskins.

In March 1904, Phoebe sued Frank for divorce. Her petition, again deemed newspaper-worthy and published in the Denver Post, told the salacious details of her violent relationship. She charged that, "he shot at her on two occasions, attacked her with an ax on another, drew a razor on her at still a later date, and has repeatedly abused, villified (sic.) and threatened her."11 The petition seems to have failed because the final divorce decree was not granted until 1915.

The 1915 divorce complaint said Frank and Phoebe moved to Denver in 1888, had been separated since April 1901, and that her only means of income was from work as a waitress. Frank worked in a mine in Tolland, Colorado. In her complaint, Phoebe relayed another traumatic encounter.
" the month of about February, 1902, this plaintiff at the special instance and request of the defendant went to the town of Idaho Springs, Clear Creek County, to get the children of the parties hereto, and upon her arrival in said town of Idaho Springs, the defendant then stated and declared to this plaintiff that he sent for her solely to get her to come there and that he was then going to cut her throat and then and there exhibited a razor with which he declared that he would then kill and murder her and whereupon this plaintiff, fearing for the safety of her life, hastily departed from the house of the defendant and went to a nearby neighbor's..."
Making his own case to the public, Frank explained to the Denver Post in April 1915 that, "Hamilton Armstrong, who was chief of police at the time he shot the man [Brown], whose name, he says, is unknown to him, refused to hold him under arrest when he learned of the circumstances under which the shooting took place."12 The insinuation was that the shooting was merited given the speculation that Phoebe was having an extramarital relationship. If true, one cannot help but wonder how Mr. Brown felt about that decision.

In October 1915, the divorce decree was finally approved. The domestic violence came to an end; miraculously, without anyone losing their life.

Phoebe moved to California where she remarried in May 1920 and lived - without ever discussing the violent tabloid past - until her passing in November 1945.

Three years after Phoebe remarried, Frank's life came to a violent end. While driving a truck near Mesa, Arizona on his way back to Colorado, Frank lost control of the vehicle. His son Albert was in a car ahead of him. After losing sight of his father, Albert turned around and retraced the roadway. Eventually, he found the wreck and, discovered "his father, with skull badly crushed, lying in a gulch where he had been thrown from the machine as it slid from the road..."13

How did the violence impact the family? How did the children reconcile their parents' quarrels that led the family to disintegrate? Perhaps the scandals are why Eva always sharply told my own grandmother that they were not to discuss the past. That is a heavy legacy that forcibly removed family history from its descendants.

Strangely, if it were not for the reporting of intrusive newspapers, this story would be an unknown and unimaginable piece of my own history. Human stories have both good and bad, and as a family historian I choose to embrace both.

1 Jealousy Aimed Gun. (1901, June 04). Denver Rocky Mountain News, p. 2.
2 Ibid., p 2.
3 Ibid., p 2.
4 His Aim Was Bad (1901, June 04). Denver Post, p. 5.
5 Ibid., p. 5.
6 Ibid., p. 5.
7 Ibid., p. 5.
8 Ibid., p. 5.
9 Jealousy Aimed Gun. (1901, June 04). Denver Rocky Mountain News, p. 2.
10 True Pioneer and Fighter Passes Away (1906, February 18). Denver Post, p. 24.
11 Two Woeful Wives Want To Be Divorced. (1904, March 11). Denver Post, p. 13.
12 Man Says Wife Tried to Kill Him in Answer to Divorce Suit. (1915, April 08). Denver Post, p. 8.
13 Colorado Man Dies in Accident. (1923, October 11). Mesa Tribune, p. 4.


  1. Michael, I truly enjoy reading your blog! I found newspaper snippets regarding one of my own great grandparents divorce and leads me to believe that their marriage was less than amicable.

    1. The newspaper snippets are like a double edged sword. On the one hand, I find the articles intrusive (and I'm sure my family was mortified at the coverage), but I'm also thankful for the details that shined light on a part of my family history I knew nothing about. Thanks for your comment, Dawn! I appreciate it.

  2. Michael, I truly enjoy reading your blog! I found newspaper snippets regarding one of my own great grandparents divorce and leads me to believe that their marriage was less than amicable.