Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Polly Bartlett, Serial Killer? Old Legend or 1960s Hoax? – Wyoming, 1868

“The Murderess of Slaughterhouse Gulch” (phrase first used in 2015 by Terry DiDomenico)

The story of serial killer mon and dad duo, Polly and Jim Bartlett and their Bartlett Inn has, in recent years, been represented as local “lore,” that perhaps is based on facts, embellished or not. The story – which asserts 22 guests were murdered – is similar to the three documented Kansas serial killer families The Bloody Benders 91873), Kelly Family (1887), Staffleback Family (1897). Yet, online accounts and books from the 21st century do not cite any vintage source earlier than a 1963 magazine article (Dean W. Ballinger, “Polly Bartlett: Wyoming’s Amazing Poisoner” Real West, July 1963], which used the technique of invented detail to fill out a story packed with photos, specific dates and events. Yet the archival sources of photos and facts are not cited. This is not uncommon for a popular magazine of this sort, however.

Whether the story is a legend or factual, we should expect to be able to locate it, in one form or another, in 19th century or early 20th century folklore or local history sources. Wyoming mining history has attracted as reasonable amount of attention.

If pre-1963 sources do not turn up, the story is likely to be a fiction created in 1963. Ballinger, author of the Real West article, offers a clue that points to the reason the article came into being.

Recently John W. Woodring, former publisher of the Sterling, Colorado ‘Advocate’ purchased the remains of the old frontier town. It is one of the best preserved ghost towns in the west. He plans to restore it as a tourist attraction.

Doubtless it will attract many vacationists. But how many of the hordes who will state at the remains of Bartlett’s Inn will realize that this is no ordinary structure … that 22 men died in it because of the greed of an evil woman? [Ballinger, 1963, p. 60]

Here we have a plausible rational for creating a hoax – supported by photos, details of events, specific dates and names – if indeed the story turns out to be a fabrication dating from no earlier than 1963. The creation of a “Bloody Benders”-style story would go far to boost the tourist attraction to John W. Woodring’s novel venture. The Lavinia Fischer legend – a real criminal who is unlikely to have been a serial killer – attracts tourists to the old Charleston Jail.

My own hypothesis that Dean W. Ballinger, probably at the behest of John W. Woodring, invented the tale can be easily disconfirmed by anyone who might locate a published or even manuscript mention of the story predating 1963. “Mrs. Dale Smith,” photo of James Lee and “John Cullen Collection” (photo of John Vaness), Wyoming Historical Society (Edmund Ford). If a hoax, the story is of little interest, but if it is either an entirely factual story, an embellished and distorted story based on real Bartlett family, or even a folk legend it is of real interest.

The most obvious archive to search would of course be the University of Wyoming library archives in Laramie. Currently the Wyoming Historical Society “is a nonprofit membership driven educational organization which manages a statewide federation of chapters.  The Society does not collect artifacts, or hold research records.” Perhaps there are extant archives of Dean W. Ballinger or John W. Woodring.

[Robert St. Estephe, Unknown Gender History, Aug. 22, 2020]


CHRONOLOGY (as given by Ballinger)
1867 – Polly Bartlett (20s), Jim Bartlett, father; Bartlett’s Inn, 3 miles east of South Pass City, Wyoming.

1867-68 – 22 victims, including: Carl Armentrout, Lewis Nichols, Timothy Flaherty,

James Lee (photo), John Vaness (photo).

Jun. 18, 1867 – Carl Armentrout murdered.

Apr. 14, 1868 –Edmund Ford (photo), murdered.

Aug. 14, 1868 – Theodore “Teddy” Fountain (23) murdered.

Oct. 7, 1868 – Polly murdered while jailed.



[Dean W. Ballinger, “Polly Bartlett: Wyoming’s Amazing Poisoner” Real West, Vol. 6, No. 30, July 1963, pp. 22-25, 58-60.]

[“Wyoming’s worst serial killer: The Murderess of Slaughterhouse Gulch,” Buckrail, Dec 8, 2017]

[Debbie Cobb, “Wyoming’s First Serial Killer Was a Woman,” 95.5 My Country (KWYY radio, Casper, Wyoming), Apr. 28, 2019]

[Bill Sniffin, “Bartlett tale would be a fine movie,” Wyoming Tribune Eagle (Cheyenne, Wy.) (Sheridan Media), May 24, 2015]

[Ron Franscell, Crime Buff's Guide to the Outlaw Rockies, 2011, GPP, Guilford, Ct., Morris Book Publishing, p. 217]

[John Stuart Clark, After the Gold Rush: A Bicycle Journey Through American History, Five Leaves, 2005]

[Terry A. Del Bene, “The Murderess of Slaughterhouse Gulch,” Pulp History: The Past You Never Learned in School, Mar. 15, 2015]








MORE Discredited Female Serial Killer Legends & False Reports


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