Cover photo : Marcia Ward
as always for Marcia
(much of this material was gleaned from a story told by my father-in-law, Russell Zimmer, and from Francis Melrose’s account in the ROCKY MOUNTAIN MEMORIES column of the Denver Rocky Mountain News of September 12, 1999)
There are particular places on earth that seem to be magnets for tragedy or repositories of bad luck and/or evil or wellsprings of great fortune. Think the Bermuda Triangle, think Calvary, think Sand Creek; thinking on the bright side, think The Mercury Café. This story is about a somewhat malevolent location in Denver.
On January 24, 2003, a Cessna 172 Skylark on its way to Cheyenne Wyoming from Centennial Airport collided with a twin-engine Piper Cheyenne that was en route to Centennial Airport from Jefferson County Airport. The Cessna wound up landing almost eerily intact, albeit with two dead onboard, in a back yard a few blocks south of where on Moncrieff Place a block east of Lowell in Northwest Denver the larger Piper Cheyenne crashed into a home that burst into flames killing all three young men on board, one of whom had survived the Columbine massacre five years earlier. A tragic event, for sure.
Strangely, on the lot just west of the Piper Cheyenne crash site, sits another house that was home to an even more bizarre tragedy that took place in 1941, coincidentally, a sad story that has dovetailed into my wife Marcia’s family lore.
In 1891 a young accountant, Philip Peters, and his wife Helen moved into a modest brick bungalow at 3351 West Moncrieff Place in Denver Colorado. The outgoing, generous and entertaining couple lived there for the next fifty years, during which time they offered their hospitality to family and friends and, even, strangers. They were music lovers and founded the West Denver Mandolin Society, as mandolins were all the rage at the Turn of the Century. Helen and Philip kindly offered their home for Society meetings and practice sessions. They were especially benevolent to one Theodore Coneys, a musician whom, a decade earlier, they had hosted as a teenager when Theodore was traveling from Indiana to California for a music competition. Coneys was then a debonair albeit impoverished mandolin instructor who conducted classes in the Peters’ living room during his time as a member of the Mandolin Society. Out of the goodness of their hearts Helen and Philip fed the undernourished Coneys dinner off and on during their tenure with the Mandolin Society, but Coneys drifted away from Denver in 1912.
Fast-forward almost thirty years. In the autumn of 1941, Helen was hospitalized with a broken hip. Her hospital stay was lengthy. Because the elderly Mr. Peters was alone, neighbors on Moncrieff Place invited the 73-year-old Philip to take supper with them during Helen’s hospital stay as cooking for himself was not Philip’s forte. When Mr. Peters failed to show one night for dinner and then failed to answer their knock at his front door, the neighbors, concerned that Mr. Peters might have had a stroke, had their youngest daughter crawl into the house through an unlocked kitchen window where she was terrorized to discover the body of Philip Peters. He had been bludgeoned dozens of time with a cast iron stove shaker. Arriving police, after their search, were exceedingly puzzled, as they found neither the killer nor any clues to the murderer’s identity. Robbery was ruled out. Especially odd it was that all the outer bungalow doors were locked.
Over the course of the next few months, the murder case remained unsolved. During that time, housekeepers whom Helen hired quit one after the other referencing a ghostly presence and weird noises. Helen alerted the police again and again to the strange things a foot in her home, and they conducted additional fruitless searches. Helen, at wit’s end and unsure of what to do, approached my wife’s great aunt Mary, her good friend, across the street for help. Visiting Mary at the time from Wyoming were Mary’s brother Frank and his teenage son Russell, my wife’s grandfather and father. Over a lunch of cherry kuchen (her nephew’s favorite) and chicken soup, Helen spoke of her suspicions, mentioning her housekeeper’s sightings. She went on to claim that on more than one occasion she’d found the refrigerator door ajar. A half-quart of milk would turn into a half cup of milk. She had a litany of minor food disappearances. She remarked that there were strange smells as well. And sometimes, she’d arrive home from shopping and find the rocking chair a-rocking. The ever practical and skeptical Frank rolled his eyes and winked at his son, an indication that he thought her husband’s tragic death had warped Helen’s logical thinking. Finally she asked Frank and Russell if they’d take a serious look around her house. And they did search every room including the cellar. The father and son conducted what they felt was a thorough search of the house, as had the police more than once, and like the police, Frank and Russell came up with nothing. Helen was so bewildered by the fruitless investigation of her husband’s murder and her intuition that something was a miss at 3351 Moncrieff Place that she moved to Grand Junction to live with her son. The house remained unoccupied. Or was it?
Spurred on by the neighbors’ stories of footprints in the snow heading towards the kitchen window and reports of occasional noise and faint late night light emanating from the house, the police reluctantly, yet dutifully, set up surveillance in Marcia’s great Aunt Mary’s shrubbery. And soon their persistence was rewarded when they glimpsed a face in the window as a curtain was briefly pulled back. The police raced into the house and saw a door swinging shut across from the top landing. And inside a closet they found a narrow opening through which one Theodore Coneys was attempting to ascend. The police grabbed two feet that were attached to the disheveled, emaciated, and exceedingly stinky seventy-five pound man who came to be known as Spider Man, a moniker having to do with the cobweb infested mini attic where Coneys had apparently lived. To quote an investigating detective, “A man would have to be a spider to stand it long up there.” The stench in Coneys makeshift abode was so putrid and foul that one of the detectives actually fainted. No surprise it was that Theodore Coneys immediately became the prime suspect in Philip Peters murder, a crime that he admitted the very night of his capture although he claimed self-defense, as in “It was him or me,” as Peters was carrying a blackthorn cane he used.
At his trial that ended in his conviction, Coneys spun a tale of poverty and homelessness that led him back to Denver in 1941 after his departure from Denver in 1912. The Great War years and The Great Depression had not been kind. He spent years hobo-ing and working as an itinerant laborer. Back in the city where he’s known better times, Coneys had hoped his old benefactors from his mandolin days would give him a loan; thus he went to visit Philip and Helen, but finding no one home and the front door unlocked he went in to steal some food. Knowing of the mini attic space from his stay on Moncrieff Place years before, Coneys secretly lodged himself there. He pilfered food at night while Helen and Philip slept. Sadly, Mr. Peters, alone with Helen in the hospital, had come across him one night at the refrigerator and Coneys killed him. With nowhere to go, Coneys stayed after murdering Mr. Peters even as the police searched the house the night of the murder and subsequently. He was there when Russell and Frank searched as well. Until July of 1942 he remained during the time that Helen lived there alone and after she departed for Grand Junction. He drank water from radiators and the hot-water heater and ate jarred jam he found in the cellar. He had even jerry rigged the wiring and electrified a radio and some lights; hence, the occasional lights and noises emanating from what the neighbor kids had come to call “the Haunted House.”
Coneys was sentenced to life in prison in the Colorado State Penitentiary where he died in 1966, about the time my wife took up roller skating on the sidewalk in front of Spider Man’s abode while visiting her Great Aunt Mary. Fortunately Marcia so loved her visits with Mary that she vowed to herself that she’d leave small town Torrington Wyoming one day and make big city Denver her home. Lucky me she made good on her promise.