1910 tragedy highlights community helping neighbors in need

By Lisa Phelps
Posted 5/8/24

HARTVILLE – “My family’s time in Sunrise was eventful, tragic, and short,” Dave Walsh said at a meeting of the Sunrise Historic and Prehistoric Preservation Society’s …

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1910 tragedy highlights community helping neighbors in need


HARTVILLE – “My family’s time in Sunrise was eventful, tragic, and short,” Dave Walsh said at a meeting of the Sunrise Historic and Prehistoric Preservation Society’s meeting in April. 

Walsh, a Seattle, Washington resident, had spent the one day he had to spare in a work trip to the region, visiting the remnants of the mining town his great-grandfather lived and worked in. He agreed to share with the SHAPPS group the story of his family’s experience and the changes that happened in their lives after his great-grandfather, Riccardo Severini, was killed by a stray bullet from a drunk man’s celebratory shoot-out with wild shots from a pistol.

Riccardo and Teresa Severini chose to leave their home in Sassoferrato, Italy (110 miles north of Rome) after a scandal involving his part in recommending a friend for a job as an oil-lamp lighter whose subsequent conniving and thievery of city funds cast a shadow over Riccardo’s family. The family boarded the S.S. Vaderland along with others from Sassoferrato, stating their destination as joining relatives in Sunrise, Wyoming, according to the ship’s manifest. They arrived at a New York port, then travelled to Wyoming by rail.

“I think it’s fitting my ancestors from “Rock-Iron” (Sassoferrato in Italian) would have been here in Sunrise mining iron ore,” Walsh said.

The Severini family, consisting of Riccardo, his wife Teresa, and three children: Gano, Toselli, and Walsh’s grandmother Elsa) arrived at the company town owned by Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I) in December 1905. Their eldest daughter, Wanda, had pneumonia at the time so she stayed in Italy and joined the family the following year.

“Once in Sunrise, some Italian immigrants founded a branch of the Dante Alighieri Society, a cultural society named after writer Dante, who is considered the ‘Shakespeare’ of the Italian language,” Walsh explained. “According to the society’s meeting ledger held currently in the History of Colorado Archives, my great-grandfather served as the recording secretary of the Dante Alighieri Society. Other record book entries mention visits of Italian consular officials to Sunrise over the years.”

Another system organized by the immigrants, unfortunately came into use too often: a form of self-insurance to assist others in the community who were either sick, injured, or in the case of the Severini family, falling on hard times because of a death in the family. The self-insurance was a survival tactic formed because CF&I did not pay workers who were sick or injured. With the absolute control the company had over prices at the store and the requirement residents were to purchase everything there - and with hunting strictly prohibited - it was a lifeline.

The workers would collect $1 per month from workers in the Dante Alighieri Society, pool the funds and disburse them to those in need.

“To help stretch the budget, my Uncle Gano would hike well out of town to fish or hunt wild rabbits to ease the family’s grocery bills. Although hunting was strictly forbidden, and questions were asked at the store about why the Severinis bought so little meat, the resourceful Gano and his mother Teresa were able to successfully evade the company’s rules and accumulate savings,” Walsh shared of stories from his Uncle Gano.

Over the years, life became predictable in Sunrise. Walsh’s Grand Aunt Wanda wed a fellow Sassaferrato immigrant and blacksmith, Nazzareno, and life went on normally until May 1, 1910.

That day was Orthodox Easter. Some of Sunrise’s residents were celebrating in the manner that must have been commonplace in the rough-and-tumble town, as witness testimony later reported unconcerned reactions to the sound of gunshots.

“At around 11 a.m., my great-grandfather had met up with two or three other residents to play cards inside a boarding house in Sunrise. Outside the house, the witnesses heard five or six gunshots fired into the ground by Gus Panos, who was intoxicated, according to newspaper reports,” Walsh said. “As they resumed their game, the windowpane shattered, and Riccardo slumped to the table…an hour later he was dead from a single gunshot wound to his head.”

Immediately, word was spread of the incident. Gano Severini was playing outside when he was told of his father’s shooting. “The shock to the family was immediate and profound,” Walsh said.

The coroner’s inquisition was completed with the official cause of death from a single gunshot wound due to criminal carelessness. The death certificate called it “murder.” According to newspapers reports, there were over 300 people in attendance at Riccardo’s funeral – including Italy’s Consular Diplomat from Cheyenne. The sunrise band led the funeral procession on its way to the Hartville Cemetery, where Riccardo was buried. His cemetery plot boasts an ornate fence created by Nazzareno, which is still being commented on as a very beautifully crafted fence by current Hartville residents.

Following Riccardo’s death there was a growing outrage over the senseless killing. Both the Italian and Greek communities gave donations and sympathy to the Severinis as they faced an insecure future both financially and emotionally.

Following the trail of newspaper reports and prison records, Walsh discovered Panos, who couldn’t speak or write English, was swiftly taken to Cheyenne before being placed in the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins on May 10, 1910. He was charged with manslaughter and sentenced to 10 – 15 years in prison. Good behavior shortened the time by more than three months, but his inability to speak English or have an attorney when he was sentenced did not give him due process. To rectify that, the State of Wyoming modified Panos’ sentence to a minimum of three years. In 1913, Gus was paroled in Rock Springs and worked as a miner for the Union Pacific Coal Company. By 1918, the State discharged him and deemed his sentence fully served.

Years later, according to stories handed down in Walsh’s family, an “incredible coincidence” occurred. His Aunt Wanda was picking up a milk delivery at her house and saw the milkman, who she recognized as Panos. “Incensed, she chased after him, yelling, ‘You killed my father!’” Walsh recalled.

He said he doesn’t know if it was really Panos or the man just looked like him, but the timing of the incident fit to where it could have been him.

 After his death, Riccardo’s widow was convinced by members of the Italian community in Denver, Colorado, to relocate there and use the knowledge she had gained studying medicine in Bologna, Italy before she married Riccardo. Within 12 years, Teresa had built up a successful practice as one of the leading midwives in Denver. Walsh said his grandmother Elsa and her siblings adjusted well to life in Denver. “Toselli (now Joseph) became a successful athlete and attended Colorado School of the Mines, Gano became a proud naturalized American and served in the U.S. Army, Elsa graduated from South Denver High School and attended secretarial school – working for a few years at the war department in Washington, D.C. before her first marriage. Wanda and Nazzareno first lived in Denver then moved to California, the first of many of Riccardo’s descendants to move to California,” Walsh said.

“Sunrise and Hartville will be forever part of our family’s history and our family is literally a part of Sunrise and Hartville,” Walsh said. He visited Sunrise for the first time on the day of the SHAPPS historic presentation, spending a short time connecting the dots visually with the stories he has heard since he was a child. “Riccardo’s plot, surrounded by the low iron fence made by his son-in-law Nazzareno, is the end point of Riccardo’ journey from the old world to the new – from Sassoferrato to Sunrise. Years later, my grandmother, Elsa Severini Walsh would return to the place of her childhood: her ashes are scattered amid the chaparral on the hill outside Sunrise.”

“This place has shaped the people, and the people have shaped this place,” Walsh concluded.

Members of the local community asked Walsh questions and discussed memories of the Dante Alighieri Society and the ways it helped the communities of Sunrise and Hartville. Marian (Testolin) Offe was able to identify members of the society in a photo brought in by a guest at the meeting, as her father was one of the people in the photo. This led to a discussion about the Alighieri society’s activities. They hosted spaghetti dinners, dances with no curfew, and there was a youth group as well.

Discussion ensued and it was stated Hartville was the R-and-R place for the working miners. At first, they were paid monthly, then later in time it was twice a month, then weekly, and soon it became echoed by many: “Every night is a Saturday night, and Saturday night is New Year’s Eve,” Offe said.

The town has tamed a bit, and still boasts the oldest continuously running bar in the state of Wyoming, and is a very close-nit, family-oriented community. “In 1913 my father arrived with my grandma. I now live in the building my grandfather built in 1929,” Offe said. “We have a lively little town…we see younger families coming into town, fixing houses, and living here with their families.”

There are those who scratch their heads trying to figure out the lot system within the town of Hartville. It was explained at the meeting, no one could own land in Sunrise because everything was owned by CF&I, but if they could save a bit of money, people could get a piece of land in Hartville. Though there were some claims on the land around Hartville before the immigrants came, people sometimes built their homes wherever they wanted, causing a nightmare for many land surveyors over the years. It also explains the odd lots and road system and within the town.

Offe said people were drawn here from faraway places because of the advantage of a free and equal education for their children. She added, people may take it for granted today, but to the immigrants, it was worth all the hardships just for the hope of a future for their children.

The Severini family is an example of how, even though things were very hard at times, the immigrants came, worked hard, contributed to the communities around them and made a way for their children to prosper in their adopted country. They became an inseparable thread to the fabric of our local communities and our nation.