Mystery Monday: The Disappearance of George McClellan: Anti-Chinese Riot and Officer McClellan’s Prostitution Scandal and Resignation from the Denver Police

October 1880 was a significant month for George R. McClellan. He had been warned by Denver Mayor Richard Sopris to not bother returning to Denver following a visit home to Hanson, Massachusetts, as a result of his involvement in a bribery scandal within the Denver police department and Denver City Council. But he defiantly returned and continued to serve as a police officer, until fallout from the Moon affair on 15 October 1880 led to his dismissal, along with one third of the Denver police department –including the chief of police – who were fired by a corrupt City Council attempting to cover their own involvement in the bribery scandal. The council’s efforts backfired when the frustrated officers leaked the bribery scandal to the press, and by the end of October there were assurances that the police would be rehired. McClellan had revealed that City Councilman Robert Y. Force had required a bribe from McClellan to join the force, and that other councilmen required bribes to “promote the interests” of other Denver police. It had become public after a man hoping to join the police force had given money to Assistant Chief John Holland and Officer George R. McClellan to pass onto the city councilman to receive a place on the force. However, after accepting some of the money, the city council did not vote to recommend the man as an officer, and he took the news of the bribe to the mayor. Other police officers leaked that the majority of the city council and Mayor Sopris were also being bribed by the gambling and prostitution dens to protect their interests, causing police chief Hickey to comment: “I have been between two fires all the time; have asked the old man [Mayor Sopris] over and over again if I should close up the dens around town and he wouldn’t give me permission, therefore I couldn’t do it, and the next thing I was blamed for not doing it.”

Denver Mayor Richard Sopris. Courtesy of FindAGrave.

Denver’s Rocky Mountain News was owned by Democrat W. A. H. Loveland, and supported Democratic presidential nominee Hancock. As a democrat supporting the nativist white laboring class, Rocky Mountain News launched throughout October 1880 – a month prior to the presidential election – an increasingly agitating campaign against Republicans, the Republican nominee Garfield, and the Chinese population in Denver. On 28 October 1880, Rocky Mountain News wrote “There has been considerable talk about town the past few days about running out the Chinese. The flock is increasing every week, and they are not wanted.” A Democratic party parade was held downtown on the evening of October 30, and tensions were high between the two parties just prior to the election. On October 31st, two Chinese men and a white man were playing pool in John Asmussen’s saloon on Wazee and Sixteenth Street, when a group of drunken white Republicans entered the saloon and attacked the Chinese men. Soon a large, violent crowd gathered at the saloon and in the streets outside, and reportedly by 2 P.M. a mob of over three thousand men had gathered in Chinatown between Sixteenth and Seventeenth Streets and Blake and Wazee Streets.

Drawing of the 1880 Denver Anti-Chinese Riot, from “Denver’s Anti-Chinese Riot, 1880” by Roy T. Wortman.

Denver Mayor Sopris later reported that at the start of the riot, only eight police officers were on duty under pro tem Police Chief John Holland (roommate of George R. McClellan), and they could not control the mob. George McClellan, still under investigation, presented himself to the mayor volunteer his services and was later commended by the mayor for his efforts. McClellan joined the police and volunteers who attempted to quell the mob. The fire department opened its hoses on the crowd, which only served to further enrage them. Over the course of several hours, businesses and residences were destroyed, causing thousands of dollars of property damage that the city of Denver was later reluctant to pay. Two colorful heroes arose in newspaper stories following the riot, of the notorious gambler and saloon owner Jim Moon protecting his Chinese laundryman, and of brothel madam Liz Preston. One report said that “Jim Moon is a gamester who recently had a fight with the police, and who bears a character which is not be envied. I learn that he opposed single handed a portion of the crowd… he added, “This Chinaman is an inoffensive man, and you shant touch him, not a damn one of you.” At Preston’s brothel on Seventeenth and Holladay Streets, fireman William Roberts reported that “ten Amazonian beauties” gathered high heeled shoes, stove pokers and champagne bottles to defend their business, and 34 Chinese sought protection in their parlor. But laundryman Sing Lee was beaten to death and dragged through the street by the mob, the one death in the riot. Those who attempted to break up the beatings were threatened with hanging. A reported 400 Chinese had been placed in the Denver jail as a protective measure during the riot. Some rioters were arrested, but later dismissed, and the 1881 trial of Sing Lee’s murderers ruled them not guilty. The Rocky Mountain News blamed the fire hosing of the mob as a cause of the violence, while the Denver Republican blamed the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Democrats.


Notorious saloon owner Jim Moon, from “Denver’s Anti-Chinese Riot, 1880” by Roy T. Wortman.

On 10 November 1880 at City Council meeting, Assistant Chief Holland’s medical bills from the Moon affair in which his head was injured were deemed “exorbitant” by the committee of health, who moved to reduce the amount owed to Holland from $75 to $45, and no police chief was nominated. The anti-Chinese riot described as having 8 policemen actively on duty under Assistant Chief Holland. Although John Holland had been appointed chief of police pro tem on 29 October, during the riot the mayor appointed D. J. Cook as pro tem chief of police.

At an alderman meeting on 3 December 1880, former police chief Hickey was found “not proven” of the charges against him by the aldermen, including his handling of the Moon affair. George McClellan and several other officers were re-instated with the permission of Mayor Sopris, which caused a stir amongst several city councilmen who demanded to know why McClellan had been reinstated.

The Rocky Mountain News was soon reporting additional arrests made by Officer McClellan. On 4 January 1881: Among the arrests by the police last night were the following: .. John Francisco was locked up by Officer McClellan on a charge of d.d.; Lary O’Brien for making a disturbance, and George Heffer for larceny.” On 7 January 1881 : “Officer McClellan yesterday found a man named L. Robinson wandering on Wazee street, suffering from the effects of temporary insanity. He was taken to the city jail and will be cared for.

On 21 January 1881 the Rocky Mountain News reported a City Council meeting the previous evening, in which “The Police Mess” was discussed. Mayor Sopris was absent from the meeting, but sent the following letter to be read by the council:

  • “At our last meeting I promised to explain to you why officers McCarthy, Minart, and McClellan were on the police force at this time. At the time the Moon affair took place, McCarthy knew nothing of what had taken place except what Merrill told him, and after finding Dorsey and Robinson, Dorsey informed McCarthy that he would take the case in hand, Dorsey being the oldest officer and also in charge of the night force in the absence of Holland. Therefore none of the others had any right to interfere unless ordered to do so by their superior officer. Minart knew nothing of what had taken place in regard to Moon when he came there, and was not informed of what had actually taken place until after Moon left. Therefore I considered those two officers not guilty of violating any of the police regulations, and further, they were not heard in their own defense. Merrill was heard by the council and was discharged on his own testimony. As to McClellan, his name was included in the resolution offered by Alderman F. N. Davis, which resolution included Merrill, McCarthy, and Minart. Alderman Morris moved to strike out McClellan’s name and take a separate vote on discharging him, as he was not in the Moon affair, and had a different charge against him. Which motion prevailed, and resulted in the affirmative – and he was discharged from the force. After which the vote was taken on the other three, together with Chief Hickey, and resulted in their discharge. On the day of the Chinese riot, when I was in need of police, the first man who volunteered his services to me was McClellan. I put him on duty. He is a good and efficient officer, and by request of several members of the council I have kept him on duty, subject to the decision of this council, and in order to settle the matter, I will nominate him for confirmation on the regular force.”

The city council voted to place the letter on file, with no action until Mayor Sopris presented it in person. Since George McClellan had been appointed in December 1879 as a special officer on the police force, his recommendation by the mayor to the regular force (with better pay and position) was significant.


On 2 February 1881 ex-police officer Ramsey was called by the police committee to the mayor’s office for a secret meeting in which it was announced he was to receive a trial for receiving a bribe from a prostitute. 8 February 1881 the Denver police committee performed an examination of ex-police officer Ramsey, who had returned a stolen necklace to Holladay Street prostitute Lillie Thorp who offered him $50 as a reward. Thorp testified that the reward “was not a matter of choice altogether on her part”, whereas Ramsey testified that it was Thorp’s offer, and another prostitute testified that Thorp had insisted Ramsey accept the reward. Ramsey testified “He declined to take it, saying that there were two other officers right on his heels, and they would ‘squeal’ on him if he took it, whereupon the young woman said, “Well, you have acted as lawyer for me, and got me my property back, and I want to make you a present. There is $50.” Special Officer George McClellan was then examined and “swore that Ramsey had stated to him that [Ramsey] held the necklace, and did not propose to give it up until he got the reward.” McClellan reported he did not know there was a reward for the necklace until Ramsey told him. Officer Lawrence then confirmed McClellan’s statement. Republican Mr. Ziegenfuss then testified that McClellan and Lawrence “were angry at Ramsey  because he got the property and could therefore claim the reward, which they calculated to get themselves.” Rocky Mountain News reported “This significant remark on the part of Mr. Ziegenfuss was not lost upon the committee, who looked at each other, and adjourned soon afterwards, reserving a decision until the meeting of the council.” Ramsey was officially fired as a result of the investigation.


On 16 February 1881, an affidavit of prostitute Alice Morris was published in which she charged officers McClellan and Lawrence with crookedness. McClellan and Lawrence “both deny the statement in toto, stating that nothing of the kind the girl has sworn to transpired and that it is all a fabrication on her part. The chief, on being spoken to about the matter, treated it as of no consequence, and said that he should not pay the slightest notice to it whatever, believing that the statement of the two officers was far more reliable than that of a woman of the character of Alice Morris, who he described as one of the worst of her class. On the other hand it seems strange that the woman should make such a statement with no apparent inducement for doing so, and it does not follow that she is guilty of all the crimes in the Decalogue. The matter will probably go no further because the authorities seem to take the ground that because the woman is a prostitute her oath is valueless.”


On 18 February 1881, George McClellan testified in the trial of the murderers of Sing Lee, who was killed in the Anti-Chinese Riot.


On 1 March 1881, Officers McClellan and Lawrence took into custody three men who had been accused of robbing a man of $1000 following a bunko game, after Officer McClellan received a warrant for their arrest from police judge Whittemore.


On 4 March 1881, Rocky Mountain News reported the resignation of Officer George R. McClellan. McClellan told the News “that the resignation was purely voluntary. The charges against him he had asked the council to examine four months ago, and no investigation had been made. Within the past few days he had obtained employment far more compatible to his tastes than police duty, and so tendered his resignation.” The News then reported: “McClellan’s Last Arrest. Robert Claxton, a saloon keeper in Holladay street between Seventeenth and Eighteenth streets, was arrested by Officer McClellan at an early hour this morning on a charge of violating the midnight ordinance in keeping open his saloon. Justice Whittemore will hear the case today.”

It remains unclear if George McClellan truly voluntarily resigned, or if he was pressured to by the police force or city council. He certainly was targeted by numerous city councilman after publicly leaking the bribery scandals involving City Councilman Robert Force, Mayor Sopris, other councilmen, and McClellan himself along with other officers. And although his commendable service during the Anti-Chinese riot won him support from Sopris, it is clear that the council was eager for any chance to call his service into question [see the gleeful Rocky Mountain News commentary following his Ramsey investigation testimony]. The fact that his final acts as a police officer involved arresting prostitutes under the Mayor’s new push to criminalize prostitution make it clear that Denver’s City Council and police departments were no closer to eliminating corruption from their inner workings. How different was it when brothels and bunko men privately paid bribes to the mayor and councilmen in exchange for fewer police raids, from the police publically arresting prostitutes and gamblers and fining them for engaging in those practices? Sopris’ mandate to round up prostitutes was not intended to actually end prostitution, merely to fine the institution.

It was reported on 8 March 1881 that at the City Council meeting, “when the resignation of Officer McClellan was reached, Mr. McGilvray objected on the grounds that Mr. McClellan was not a policeman. Considerable by-play followed, Chief Cook stated that the gentleman had been drawing the pay of a regular policeman since his connection with the force. The resignation was looked upon as a communication, and placed on file. The matter of Officer McClellan’s resignation was recalled after a circus of twenty or more minutes, and his resignation was accepted.”

Perhaps as a result of the insinuations in the newspapers against Mayor Soper that Soper had discouraged Police Chief Hickey from closing down houses of prostitution, he appears to have encouraged his newly appointed Police Chief Dave Cook to round up prostitutes and charge them with criminal offences. Numerous cases appeared in the newspaper in early 1881 of prostitutes being arrested and complaining that their only offense were being prostitutes.

On 29 March 1881, “Madam Ulman and five of the inmates of her mansion of sin [including Alice Morris who had accused Officers McClellan and Lawrence of crookedness], were notified by warrant last night to appear before the police magistrate this morning and answer to the charge of being lewd women. The warrants were instigated by ex-officer McClellan.” The next day they were charged with lewdness, all pleaded guilty. The madam was fined $20 and the prostitutes were each fined $15 apiece. On 8 April 1881 a city council meeting was held which included a petition from prostitute Alice Morris regarding fines levied by ex-Police Officer George R. McClellan and police magistrate Judge Oliver A. Whittemore. The councilman reportedly laughed at the petition and passed it around as a joke. Thus apparently concluded the career of Officer George R. McClellan.

The Rocky Mountain News itself plays a significant role in the telling of Officer George McClellan’s career. It was vital to my research in helping to uncover many of the events of George McClellan’s time in Denver. It reported on the little moments of his police service, noting arrest statistics. Yet the newspaper itself was directly culpable for reporting the Moon affair in such a dramatic way as to call the City Council together to respond to the police’s role in the affair. When the City Council used the opportunity to slash the police force by a third, ostensibly rooting out corruption in the police force while protecting and hiding its own corruption, the News then railed against the City Council as corrupt. Denver’s City Council had been made aware that policemen such as George McClellan might publically announce the bribery scandal because a News reporter had notified them that they were investigating the story. At the same time, the News was printing racist articles against the Chinese in Denver and thus encouraged the Anti-Chinese riot, which could not be quelled due to the fragile state of the police force. And on a smaller scale, the Rocky Mountain News was also responsible for George McClellan’s resignation, regardless of whether it was forced or volunteered as a result of McClellan being sick of the media circus around his police service and toxic state of the city council against him.

Although clearly a problematic source, let’s end on The Rocky Mountain News’ report of ex-Officer McClellan’s character on 1 April 1881. “The News has nothing whatever against ex-officer McClellan. It believes that his characteristic energy, if turned in a good direction, would be productive of excellent results, yet holds that the enforcement of city ordinances, or their temporary suspension, should not be placed in his direction of that of any other member of the force, regular, special or simply tolerated. That sort of thing is all wrong. It opens the door for unlimited blackmail.”


Up Next: George and Imogene McClellan’s Life in Hanson, and George’s Disappearance

Previously: Part One: The Disappearance of George Roderic McClellan

Previously: Part Two: The Disappearance of George Roderic McClellan: His Roots

Previously: Part Three: The Disappearance of George Roderic McClellan: Success In Denver Turns To Smoke

Previously: Part Four: The Disappearance of George Roderic McClellan:Becoming Officer McClellan, the Farcical Moon Affair, and a Bribery Scandal in Denver


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