The Justice Files: The Last Lynching in the West

Justice Files

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Utah) – Some call the 1925 lynching of Robert Marshall a dark time in Utah’s history. He was lynched for allegedly killing a law enforcement officer in Castlegate near Helper.

“Castlegate was owned by the Utah Fuel Company in Carbon County and it was a mining town,” said Kimberley Mangun, an associate professor at the University of Utah.

In the early 1900s, Castlegate’s coal mines were known to have the finest coal in Utah. It became the main source of income for men and their families in Carbon County.

The county was a melting pot, attracting immigrants from Italy, Greece, and eastern Europe.  A handful of black families also ventured to the west from America’s southland.

Among those was Marshall.  

“Robert Marshall was a 40-year-old worker,” said Mangun. “He had been hired recently to work in the mines. He was immediately branded as a trouble maker.”

Historically, unions quite often clashed with mine owners. Workers fought over wages, work hours, and working conditions.  

It was under that environment that Marshall met J. Milton Burns, Castlegate’s town marshal.

“Blacks at that time were the lower rung of people there,” said Dr. Steve Lacy and author and Utah historian. “He was just giving Marshall a hard time because he felt Marshall was acting like he wasn’t supposed to.”

In early 1925, Marshall was arrested for shooting another man in Moab. But charges were dropped when prosecutors called the shooting justified.

“One day he was seen at the local post office reading a newspaper,” said Mangun. “The deputy sheriff,  Milton Burns grabbed the gun from Marshall and there was an altercation.” 

She said those who saw the confrontation claimed Marshall was upset and told the deputy it was his constitutional right to carry a gun.

Soon after the confrontation, Burns who also moonlighted as the night watchman at the Utah Fuel Company was ambushed and shot several times as he made his nightly rounds.  He later died at the hospital.

The shooting of the town marshal made headlines. The local newspaper claimed there were witnesses.

“Those witnesses turned out to be two white boys under the age of 12,” said Mangun. “They claimed to have seen this transpire and claimed they had seen Marshall escape into the countryside.”

Dr. Lacy who grew up in Price befriended one of the boys later on in life. He said the boys taunted Marshall using the “n” word.

“He kept yelling at them, the two boys did and they ran off,” said Lacy. “Right after that is when Marshall killed Burns.”

But no one saw the shooting and for the next three days, there was a manhunt. The sheriff and deputies searched the hillsides for Marshall.

Finally, with the help of an informant who happened to be Marshall’s roommate, he was arrested at his cabin. The deputies claimed Marshall confessed to shooting Burns.

“There were six men who put Marshall in the car,” said Mangun. “They surrounded him and put him in the backseat of the car that was driven by Henry East. He was widely known to be a member of the Klan, even though the KKK was not deemed responsible for the lynching of Marshal.”

In the 1920s the Klu Klux Klan was alive and well in Carbon County and other parts of Utah. Their burning crosses were often seen on the hillsides of Carbon County. Mangun said many of those in the mob were members of the KKK.

“(Burn’s) father was killed in line of duty and that person never brought to justice,” said Mangun.  “There was widespread commentary that this was not going to happen a second time to the family.”

News spread rapidly of Marshall’s arrest. There were about 50 cars full of spectators and members of the posse who began driving towards Price.  

At the courthouse, they found Marshall in the backseat of the sheriff’s car. East went inside to file a report leaving Marshall and five deputies outside.

“They were overtaken by about a dozen men,” said Mangun. “They took Marshall and drove him about 3-miles east of Price to a ranch that was located near the river.”

About that time, a 16-year old and his father walked into a mercantile store on Price’s main street. They saw the commotion.

“Dad (Craddock M. Gilmour) was 16-years old and walked into a general store with his father, my grandfather,” said Sandy Gilmour. “ He saw a man buying rope and they asked what’s going on and he said ‘there’s going to be a lynching, there’s going to be a necktie party.'”

Monday night in “The last lynching in the west,” the mob takes Marshall to the hanging tree.   Hundreds watched, including Utah’s future governor.

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