Ghosts are particularly restless if left to wander in the shroud of mystery — and when an acutely wicked deed goes without answer, explanation or justice — for years upon years.
Such was the case of the tiny immigrant from Switzerland, Gottlieb Fluhmann, murdered in the Puma Hills above Lake George in 1892.
“Fluhmann was a small stocky man scarcely 5’4” tall and was subjected to much ridicule because of his height and broken English,” writes author Midge Harbour in her 1982 book “The Tarryall Mountains and the Puma Hills: A History.”
“In 1890, on one of his infrequent trips to town, he stopped off at a bar,” according to Harbour. “While sitting at the end of bar, he became the subject of Ben Ratcliff’s attention. Ratcliff had long been suspected of stealing some of Fluhmann’s cattle and now taunted Gottlieb with the prospect that he was eating a juicy steak from one of his missing cows. Since Gottlieb Fluhmann had each of his cattle named, and had made each a special pet, this was indeed a humiliation.”
Later , two of Ratcliff’s sons extended the insulting behavior as they rode near Fluhmann’s home. “Gottlieb’s anger had become an obsession and he awakened at night hating the name Ratcliff. When he saw the two boys, he ordered them off his land. The younger lad taunted him as he had previously seen his father do. ‘You can’t make us do anything!’ Gotlieb waved his pistol, which he always carried with him. ‘You can’t shoot us. We’re only kids.’ … The older boy rode up to the corral rode and spit tobacco juice in the face of Fluhmann’s horse. This triggered Fluhmann’ temper and he began firing over the heads of the boys and they rode rapidly away,” writes Harbour.
“When Ben Ratcliff heard of the incident, he sent his daughter to warn Gottlieb that he would be the target of her father’ bullet when he came hunting in October.”
According to another account of the exchange in Celinda Kaelin’s 1999 book “Pikes Peak Backcountry: The Historic Saga of the Peak’s West Slope,” Ratcliff’s reputation insured the danger of actually carrying out such a threat, so the little Swiss man decided to create and emergency plan.
“He would relocate to a cave he had found in the rocky cliff about a mile above his home. He secretly made a new home within this five- by fifteen foot cavity, installing a strong door at the entrance for added protection and a glass window for surveillance,” says Kaelin’s book.
“When Fluhmann first disappeared, everyone, including the local sheriff assumed he had returned to Switzerland. But not Rattcliff. He knew his prey would never leave his beloved animals unattended. When they still appeared well-cared-for after several months, he began a systematic search for the little foreigner.”
He eventually discovered the cave one evening after months of searching.
“Ratcliff waited on the ledge above the cave until early the next morning. As Fluhmann cautiously opened the heavy door to greet the new day,Ratcliff fired sending a fatal bullet through the stock of Fluhmann’s gun and into his chest. He then climbed down to his victim and dragged him back into the cave,” writes Kaelin.
The little man and his mongrel dog’s skeletons were found more than 50 years later by a hunter in the fall of 1944.
“Master Sargent Francis Brahler of Peterson Field discovered the old cave while he was hunting,” reported the Nov. 1, 1944 Gazette Telegraph. “He spotted the old window frame on the ledge and upon investigating, found the cave entrance. The big dishpan was still suspended with the letters, pipes, and other items including two gold inlaid flintlocks. He took many of the items back with him to his campsite and returned the next day. This time he found a human skull and the bones of what appeared to be the skull of a dog.”
Kaelin notes that Ratcliff never did pay for this particular diabolical transgression but was called to account for other misdeeds.
“…Fate did collect him from killing three school board members on May, 6, 1895. His children were again the catalyst for his dangerous temper, and he unleashed his fury when he learned they were having a special meeting to discuss them. He rode up to school house, dismounted, and walked in, shooting Samuel Taylor, Lincoln McCurdy, and George Wyatt… He later turned himself in to the sheriff at Como, was tried, convicted, and later hanged at the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City,” wrote Kaelin.
Perhaps, the ghost of a sawed-off Swiss immigrant, befriended by his own livestock and his loyal mongrel dog, still wanders in the hills and hides in the caves in the Puma Hills above Lake George.
I recentlty was sent the following communication from a descendant of Benjamin Ratcliff.
"Several Colorado residing descendants of Benjamin Ratcliff report that they have never heard the tale of Gottleib Fluhmann. The references cited seem to be based on exaggerated local commentary and contain inaccurate facts. So without proof, they feel that Benjamin has been unfairly accused of the serious charge of being Gottleib's killer."
"However, in the matter of the Bordenville school board, this is the account from Benjamin's oldest child - and Only son - as told to his grandson: Some time around 1875 Benjamin and his wife moved from Missouri to Park County, Colorado, and established a farm about seven miles from Bordenville. Their son and two daughters were born there. His wife died there in 1882 while the children were still very young. Benjamin raised the kids there until 1895. He had a running battle with the local school board in 1894. He wanted them to provide a summer school program, allow the school books to be loaned out, or set up a school closer to his ranch. He taught his children at home, and wanted some help with that. Winter weather was too bad to make the trip to school. Late in 1894 unsupported gossip spread that incest involving Benjamin and his older daughter spread around the local area. He became enraged. The man most responsible for spreading the gossip was on the school board. Benjamin's temper escalated and he ended up shooting all three members of the board as they met together at the school May 6, 1895. He turned himself in the same day as the shooting. Eight months later, on the evening of February 7, 1896, he became the ninth execution by hanging (out of 45 in the history of the state) at the prison in Canon City. "
The descendant, a Colorado native now living in Westminster, also provided this prison photo of Benjamin Ratcliff.