Where the Bodies Are Buried

When I started down the road of family research, a helpful genealogist told me where the bodies are buried.  “Look in the Civil War pension files,” was her sage advice.  It was her experience that those intrepid pension sleuths usually turned up something interesting.  Civil War pension files can tell us not only where the bodies are buried, but who dug the graves, and whether foul play was suspected.  Sometimes the special examiners for the Bureau of Pensions seemed to pursue leads for their own amusement, long after the list of essential witnesses had been exhausted.  The pension file for Capt. Silas Stillman Soule of the 1st Colorado Cavalry Volunteers is a prime example of an investigative dig that threatened to become a bottomless pit.  

Nine days after John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, an Army private named Charles Squires assassinated Capt. Soule, who was Provost Marshal at Denver, as Soule investigated a report of gunplay in a neighborhood near his home.  By 1904 Silas Soule had moldered peacefully in his Colorado grave for nearly forty years, celebrated by some as a martyred hero who always followed his conscience, despised by others as the man who had ratted out his fellow soldiers for their part in the Sand Creek Massacre, and who had forever branded Col. John Chivington as a cruel monster.  1904 was also the year Soule's pension file ballooned to well over 200 pages.  A few of those pages are blank, but many others are crammed with enough secrets to make a dead man blush.

The woman who tried to pass herself off as Mrs. Emma Soule was a seventeen-year-old widow when, according to her, Silas Soule installed her in the rooms they shared as husband and wife at Central City, Colorado Territory.  Emma claimed that she and Silas were married by a justice of the peace who  committed suicide a few decades later.  She swore that she had sent the original certificate of their marriage to the county clerk, a man named Updegraff, who was also deceased by 1904, and who left behind a reputation for sloppy records-keeping.  Someone who was familiar with the operation of the clerk’s office in the 1860’s found it perfectly understandable that the certificate might be missing.  Mr. Updegraff had a habit of combing incoming mail for cash remittances.  If he found any, he immediately trotted over to the nearest saloon.  Depending on how much money he dug out of the mailbox, he might disappear for days, staggering back to the office eventually to dump the mangled and greasy remains of the mail in a heap atop his desk.

Examiners at the Pension Bureau developed a theory that Emma may have been a naive girl who was duped by Soule into becoming his kept woman in Central City.  Emma testified at one point that, “I knew but little about his affairs - he paid my board, I was young, and when he came home he expected to have a good time.”  Ward Deniston, a lieutenant who had taken charge of Soule’s “D” Company while its captain took some much-needed sick leave, testified that Soule couldn’t have married Emma in November 1863, as she claimed, neither would he have felt much like keeping her stashed as his plaything in Central City.  According to Deniston, Soule was suffering from such a raging case of syphilis in February 1863, that recovery within a year was unthinkable, if a full recovery was even possible.

Not every piece of information waiting to be discovered in the Soule pension file is quite so sordid.  We learn, for instance, that Silas Soule’s legitimate widow, the former Hersa Coberly, lived on her mother’s ranch thirty-eight miles south of Denver on the road to Pueblo.  In 1904 seventy-five-year-old Ward Deniston reported that Hersa’s mother had been vehemently opposed to her daughter's marriage to Capt. Soule, and received the newlyweds cooly when they arrived at her doorstep on Saturday April 1st.  Silas and Hersa had attended the theatre together Thursday evening and again on Friday before suddenly deciding to wed the following morning.  Deniston also noted that the chaplain who married the couple had once hoped to court Hersa Coberly.

The subject of pension papers came up a few days ago when Dave Lovewell asked about Orel Jane Lovewell’s aborted claim for the widow’s share of Thomas Lovewell’s pension.  I sent Dave the transcript of his great-grandmother’s deposition, which makes for pretty tame reading compared with anything in the Soule papers.  Not only were no errant bodies disposed of, Orel Jane’s testimony reveals that a few family members who were long thought to have passed away in the 1850’s and 1860’s, were still walking the earth and making a nuisance of themselves in the 1880’s.  A generous portion of the Lovewell file is devoted to depositions from the couple’s neighbors, testifying to their good character.

The Soule case, on the other hand, reminds us that Colorado was part of what we still call the Wild West.  As with Vegas, much of what happened there, stayed there.  At least it did until the minute someone filed a pension claim.

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com