Murder, mystery and the Dickens Opera House

rosemaryLess than 40 miles northwest of Denver, the City of Longmont is blossoming with new development reflective of a general growth spurt along the Front Range. Despite this relatively recent expansion, historic downtown looks much the same as it did in the late nineteenth century, when a group of intrepid farmers settled in the St. Vrain Valley and began building an agricultural empire. One of these pioneers, William H. Dickens, was only 17 when he led a group of 20 men on horseback from Wisconsin at the behest of his stepfather, Alonzo Allen, a prosperous Midwestern businessman turned prospector.

With a familial link to famous British author Charles Dickens (his mother married Dickens’ grandson) young William developed an interest in culture along with a bent for business.  Born on May 21, 1842 during a sea voyage from England, he lived in Canada until 1857, when he joined his stepfather’s prospecting expedition.  When the gold boom fizzled, Allen and Dickens went back to the land, settling in the St. Vrain Valley.

Dickins became Burlington’s town marshal and later served in the Colorado Third Cavalry under Col. John Chivington, a Methodist minister and a co-founder of what eventually became the University of Denver. Chivington led the Cavalry in what became known as the Sand Creek Massacre.

During the Civil War, a series of broken treaties led to an uprising by the Plains Indians, who virtually shut down Colorado’s overland trails. On Nov. 29, 1864, Chivington’s military action led to the slaughter of 163 peaceful Arapaho and Cheyenne, mostly women, children and the elderly, camped under a white flag on Sand Creek, in southeastern Colorado.  The nation was horrified when soldiers, proud of their “accomplishment,” returned to Denver sporting body parts as decoration on their uniforms. Although the extent of Dickens’ participation is unknown, some have speculated that his involvement in the atrocity may be connected to his assassination two decades later, although he was only one of 700 other soldiers at Sand Creek.  In any event, William left the Cavalry, went home to Longmont, got married and successfully redirected his energy toward banking and commerce. He and Allen established the prosperous Chicago-Colorado Colony in 1871.

A shrewd businessman, William H. Dickens became one of the wealthiest men in the Longmont/Boulder area.  Photo courtesy of the Longmont Museum.

A shrewd businessman, William H. Dickens became one of the wealthiest men in the Longmont/Boulder area.
Photo courtesy of the Longmont Museum.

Significantly enriched by his many business enterprises, which included freight hauling and banking, Dickens began building an opera house at Third and Main in downtown Longmont with to foster the city’s cultural interests.  During the 1800s, more than 150 Opera Houses were built in Colorado, but the well-maintained Dicken Theater is one of only four that survive. Construction began in February 1881, and the following December the theater opened for the Fireman’s Masquerade Ball.  On the first floor, Dickens built the First National Bank, of which he was founder and president. The original bank vault, now a wine vault, has become an attraction for guests at the current establishment, The Dickens Tavern. The local newspaper, The Longmont Ledger, also set up shop in part of the building.

Dickens spent lavishly on scenery and curtains for the theater upstairs, opening up the stage to minstrel shows, plays, lectures, orators and even club and lodge meetings and high school events. Local shows were free or much less expensive than those offered by the traveling professional companies.

Many of the programs sound like fun even today. For example, on June 23, 1899, the Opera House hosted Prof. Gentry’s Famous Dog and Pony Show, featuring “200 aristocratic animal actors traveling in their own special train of palace cars.” Theatergoers were fascinated by an early performance by black pianist Thomas Greene Bethune (a.k.a. Blind Tom), which cost annoyed spectators twice as much as the same show in Boulder, ostensibly because of the enhanced venue. Other interesting performances included a Longmont Talent presentation of “Michael Earl, the Maniac Lover” (Longmont Ledger, Feb. 12, 1897) and frequent appearances by a mysterious performer known only as “The Electric Girl.”  Actual operas, however, were rare.

The Dickens Theater (right), built in 1881, is both a State landmark and a National Register landmark.  Photo courtesy of the Longmont Museum

The Dickens Theater (right), built in 1881, is both a State landmark and a National Register landmark.
Photo courtesy of the Longmont Museum

By 1915, Dickins was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the area. Along with his wife Ida, he lived a block down the street from the Opera House in a building that is now an apartment complex.  On the evening of Nov. 30, the couple was relaxing in their library when a single shot from a high velocity rifle smashed through the window adjacent to the alley.  The bullet caught Dickens in the back and shot straight through, grazing Ida and lodging in the wall.  He died almost immediately.

Lawmen from miles around descended on Longmont like a swarm of hornets, searching around the clock for the culprit. Numerous theories arose, pinning the deed on everyone from criminals Dickens had once arrested to disgruntled employees and envious fellow businessmen. The list was long, since powerful men tend to make enemies.

Naturally the city was astounded when authorities arrested the victim’s oldest son, Rienzi. A suspicious amount of evidence piled up against the young man, who had purchased a high-powered rifle, ammunition and, curiously, a silencer. Detectives found a part of the rifle and some ammunition in his home and the rifle barrel a block away. Plus, Rienzi had no alibi, was $40,000 in debt and stood to inherit a fortune when his parents died, although to be fair, both were already in their 70s. Although it seemed like an open and shut case, his family supported his protests of innocence, maintaining that Rienzi had been framed, posting bail, and even coming up with another suspect, which proved to be a false lead.  When he was found guilty of second degree murder, the Colorado Supreme Court overturned the verdict and set a second trial date in 1921. When the young man was acquitted, he immediately headed for California where he died in the 1960s, still vowing his innocence.  The case was never solved.

Today, events are still held in the theater, mostly musical performances. At Halloween, the management and the Paranormal Society hold a special program honoring the many ghosts that are said to haunt the theater. They naturally include the man who brought the performing arts to a remote farming community and died mysteriously by an assassin’s hand more than a century ago.

Today, the Dickens Theater is still an active performing arts venue.

Today, the Dickens Theater is still an active performing arts venue.

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