DPL Archive: The Communion Murder of 1908

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“A moment after Father Leo placed the host on Alia’s tongue, Alia pulled out a gun. An altar boy called for the priest, but in an instant a bullet was fired into Father Heinrichs’ chest.

Denver Public Library / Western History Collection

Father Leo Heinrichs was assassinated in 1908 while distributing hosts, shot dead by Sicilian anarchist Giuseppe Alia inside the Church of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. The area around the crime scene would later become Denver’s Auraria Campus. The fallout and the larger context around this act of violence is the subject of Alex Hernandez’s latest dive into the records of the Denver Public Library.

As a librarian, Hernandez constantly finds himself sorting through random stories buried in old newspapers. For his latest blog post, he said he came across news of the murder as he and his colleague were answering an unrelated question from a client. Hernandez couldn’t help but dive deeper, piecing together old articles in a press clipping kit about the crime.

“A moment after Father Leo placed the host on Alia’s tongue, Alia pulled out a gun. An altar boy called the priest, but in an instant a bullet was fired into Father Heinrichs’ chest, ”Hernandez wrote. “According to the next day’s account Denver Post, Heinrichs attempted to drop the ciborium that was holding the remaining hosts to keep them from touching the ground, but he almost immediately fell to the ground himself, dead from a severed aorta.

An illustration from the February 24, 1908 edition of the Denver Post.
Denver Public Library / Western History Collection

Authorities transferred Alia to a Colorado Springs jail, fearing the possibility of a lynching in Denver.

While Alia was likely suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness, Hernandez wrote that the Denverites at the time probably didn’t appreciate that fact. Anti-Italian sentiment ran deep in the city’s early days. About 15 years before Alia shot Father Heinrichs, “a large crowd with little difficulty” forced their way into a Denver prison, grabbed another Italian accused of murder, and hanged him in a prison. city ​​street.

“Denver was dishonored by a lynching on the night of Wednesday the 26th,” the Castle Rock Journal reported in August 1893. “It can be said, however, that the victim of the mob was guilty and well deserving of his fate.”

White mobs also lynched Chinese and black residents.

Hernandez said the murder of Father Heinrichs fueled growing xenophobia among white residents, which helped the Ku Klux Klan reappear in the early 20th century in Denver and combined with legal crackdowns preventing immigrants to enter the country.

Photos from a February 26, 1908 edition of the Denver Post.
Denver Public Library / Western History Collection

Like most of his blog entries, Hernandez said he sees parallels between this story of old Denver and today. The anarchist movement was part of other social reforms, an emerging labor movement and rejection of America’s golden age, troubling people satisfied with the status quo. He sees this in militant movements today, and said the zealous demonization of people seen as “other” is also reflected in discourse today.

“As after 9/11,” he wrote, “a wide range of people have been painted with an even wider brush of contempt and mistrust. “

But Hernandez said those guidelines weren’t what motivated his writing.

“It’s a cuckoo-banana story,” he told us. “It jumped out at me.”

Headlines from a March 15, 1908 edition of Rocky Mountain News.
Denver Public Library / Western History Collection

As Alia’s attorney attempted to save her client’s life with an insanity plea, Alia was found fit to stand trial and sentenced to death. His case was probably not helped by the fact that he attempted to kill a Colorado Springs prison guard during an escape attempt shortly after being convicted. Hernandez discovered that Alia did not know when he would be executed until the day this happened.

“According to Denver Post, he ate his last meal after several readings of a letter from his wife and two of his children, ”Hernandez wrote. “Soon after, he was taken to the gallows room, hanged, and buried in a pine box in the prison cemetery. No tangible evidence of Alia’s involvement in an organized national anarchist plot has ever been presented.

You can read the whole story at denverlibrary.org. Hernandez said everyone is welcome to ask Western History Collection staff about their sights. You can come in and start talking or use their online form to submit questions. Let us know if you do and find something interesting!

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Alia attempted to kill a Colorado Springs prison guard, but did not. We also misspelled “cuckoo bananas”.

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