The Pickled Skull Mystery

The Pickled Skull Mystery

A half-dozen Texas Rangers got wind of a rich gold strike in South Park in 1863. This prompted the Rangers to ride north to check things over. Their destination was the new Colorado mining camp of Montgomery, located at the foot of Hoosier Pass and at the headwaters of the South Platte River. Montgomery had already hit its peak by this time and became the largest community in the entire South Park region.

One evening, the Rangers decided to explore the foothills. During their ride, they spotted an encampment of Ute Indians belonging to Chief Colorow. Low on rations, the Texans boldly rode into the Indian camp. Colorow had mixed feelings about the white men but decided to help the Rangers by giving them some fresh meat and assigning them a place to camp.

The Rangers took note of the Indian ponies. During a dinner of fresh antelope steaks provided by the Indians, the Rangers discussed the question of stealing some of the ponies.

At dawn, Colorow’s braves got ready to organize a hunting party. Boys were sent to find the swiftest mounts from the herd and quickly discovered that a dozen of their best ponies were missing. Their Texan guests were also gone, and the ashes of their campfire were nearly cold.

The hunting part quickly switched to war paint and took after the Texan horse thieves. The trail led past Fairplay and into heavy timber. The Rangers knew that the Indians would follow and took a circuitous route back toward Montgomery. The Indians were excellent trackers and soon caught up with the ungrateful Rangers. The two parties fought in a gulch near Mount Silver Heels.

Little is known about the battle. One of the Rangers died in the conflict, and his name was listed only as “John Smith.”  The Indians stripped “John Smith” of his clothes but left his scalp. No trace was found of the other Rangers, and it is presumed they escaped.

Doc Bailey of Montgomery was a jovial physician, but most of his practice was confined to staggering between one of the town’s saloons and his cabin. He owned a drugstore and a shoe store in Montgomery. He was also an avid hunter. A few days after the Ute-Ranger battle, Bailey was hunting along the base of Mount Silver Heels when he suddenly brought his horse to a stop. He could see a white object stretched out on the side of a rock, and it looked human. He rode over to the still form just as the others in his party arrived. Dismounting, Bailey drew his hunting knife and tested its edge on his thumb. He remarked to his friends that he had always wanted a human head to dissect and study. Much to the horror of his companions, he sawed off the head of “John Smith,” leaving the rest of the corpse to rot.

After he arrived back at his office, Doc Bailey got out a large pickle jar and submerged his prize trophy in the pickling solution. So that all could see his prize possession, he placed the head in this office window. Needless to say, those passing by found the sidge of the head in a pickle jar repulsive. It wasn’t long before some citizen stole the head, placed it in a gunny sack and dropped it into an abandoned mine shaft.

Long after “John Smith: and the story of the battle between the Rangers and the Ute Indians was forgotten, two miners purchased an old claim near the ghost town of Montgomery. The men pumped the water out of the shaft and began to clean out the debris to begin mining operations. While shoveling out the mud, one of them hit something round that was covered with rotting cloth. With the mud and cloth removed, the object clearly was a human skull. The discovery was a mystery; the abandoned shaft yielded no bones. Fortunately, an old-timer remembered the story of Doc Bailey and solved the pickled skull mystery.

grinning skull

“The lightning flashes through my skull; mine eyeballs ache and ache; my whole beaten brain seems as beheaded, and rolling on some stunning ground.” -Herman Melville