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BERRY WAY WAS probably guilty of the crime he was charged with, although of course we can never really know, and he maintained his innocence to the end. A couple months before, he had left with mule skinner Frank Gallagher on a pack train trip from Canyon City to The Dalles. The pack train had never arrived, and on May 1, some travelers had found Gallagher’s body near Cherry Creek — shot in the head, and robbed of everything, including his entire pack train and $80,000 in gold. And a little later, Berry Way was seen with some of the stolen goods.
When Deputy McDaniels had learned of this, he’d set out with a posse, caught up with Way, and arrested him. Then, late one night while the posse members slept, Way had slipped out of his bonds and escaped. The severely embarrassed McDaniels had actually put up $250 out of his own pocket as a reward for his recapture.
Eight days later, Way had turned up in the town of Auburn, and McDaniels had gone out, picked up his trail, tracked him down, and re-arrested him. And it had been on his return with his prisoner to Canyon City that the vigilance committee had formed, and taken matters out of his hands.
NOW, IN “COURT,” this whole story was presented to the “jury.” The “prosecutor” and “defense attorney” questioned and cross-examined witnesses just like on “Perry Mason,” and finally the “jury” retired to a separate room just like real juries do at real trials, and half an hour later they emerged to deliver their inevitable “guilty” verdict. The whole thing would have made for a pretty good Vaudeville comedy show, if not for the deadly gleam in everyone’s eye and the very real hangman’s noose waiting inevitably for the defendant like the curse of Oedipus at the end of it.
BERRY WAY WAS sentenced to be hanged, of course; but the committee, keen to differentiate itself from those barbaric lynch mobs that just murder people willy-nilly, voted to break with lynch-mob tradition by scheduling the “execution” for 2 p.m. the next day rather than just stringing him up right away.
And so the next day — June 4, 1863, exactly 155 years and 1 day ago — Berry Way stood on the makeshift scaffold, looking out over a crowd of about a thousand gawking faces. Invited to give his last words, he calmly told the crowd that he was innocent of the crime of killing Gallagher. He went to his death maintaining his innocence, despite full knowledge that he’d be hanged either way, and regardless of the protestations of clergymen who reminded him that he’d be damned to Hell if he died with a lie on his lips.
All of which may have led some in the crowd to wonder if they really had made a mistake ... and maybe, just maybe, to regret not having let him go to The Dalles for a real trial rather than settling for a locally produced Vaudeville courtroom-drama show.
Today, Berry Way’s skull is on display at the Grant County Museum in Canyon City.