he shot the SHERIFF

Friday, Jan. 2, 2009 1:45 AM
Acting Marshal Jesse Stansel, right, sits in this 1904 studio shot with an unidentified man who may be Durango Marshal William J. Wickline. Stansel was tried, and later acquitted, for the fatal shooting of Sheriff William Thompson in 1906.

You wouldn't know it was there unless you knew it was there.

That could be said of the Animas Museum itself, tucked away on 31st Street and West Second Avenue. (More signs are needed on Main Avenue.)But it's even truer of the museum's wonderfully titled exhibit "Durango's Strangest Shootout: The Day the Marshal Killed the Sheriff." That is tucked away in the basement. And it's tiny, only two half-walls for photos and text and a small display case filled with playing cards, guns, a ballot box of the period and the Marshal's own star.

But they have a story to tell, and they've told it vividly in a compact area. The photographs are crisp and far from dull. They could have been printed in a larger size, but they're eye-catching as they are.

Sheriff William Thompson and Acting Marshal Jesse Stansel started a gunfight  on the morning of Jan. 9, 1906. Stansel shot four times, and Thompson died of his wounds. Thompson shot once, and the fighters smacked one another with their guns before they fell over.

Both men had spent the morning in several local taverns: An eyewitness said Thompson was drinking and Stansel wasn't.

Stansel said in testimony at his trial (which also appears in the exhibit) that he had never had trouble with Thompson before that day, but the two men were from opposite political parties, and two years before the shooting, Thompson had beaten Stansel in the election for the sheriff's job.

Stansel said, according to The Durango Democrat of April 6, 1906, "There was no ill feeling between Thompson and me. I did say ... in Claussen's place that I would not stand for anyone telling me to my face that I had taken bribe money without resenting it, as I had never taken bribe money from anyone."

Stansel was acquitted of the murder and The Durango Democrat was all for him.

"God hates a coward and man loves a fighter who fights as brave as Jesse Stansel fought, brave-unflinching, face-to-face for his life, fought to a finish with a courage that few equal and none surpass," the paper read.

The exhibit is a vivid treat worth seeking out for parents or teachers trying to capture children's imagination for history.

And the story would be gold for screenwriters. The Durango Independent Film Festival might run a side show to the exhibit.

If you go

"Durango’s Strangest Shootout: The Day the Marshal Killed the Sheriff," through October, Animas Museum, 3065 West Second, 259-2402.