As regular readers may have guessed from my focus on the morbid and macabre, I’m a horror fan. So this month is like Christmas for people like me. In celebration of the spookiest month of the year, I plan to devote my posts this month exclusively to the darker, scarier side of history. While it landed before October, my post last week about crossroads burials was a good start.
This week, we will visit the 20th century to find a murder so bizarre that it reads like something from the mind of Arthur Conan Doyle, or perhaps Stephen King, than actual history. The killing, which occurred in Denver, Colorado in October 1941, was a real-life version of the mystery classic: the “locked room mystery.”
Phillip Peters, a 73 year old retired railroad auditor, was home alone the night of his murder. His wife had broken her hip in a fall and was staying in the hospital. One night he did not show up to visit his wife. A neighbor, fearing something had gone wrong, went to check on Peters but found the house dark. No one answered the door. She gathered a group of neighbors. They found every door and window locked. A girl was able to clamber inside the house through a loose screen she pried open. What she found inside was an awful site: the kindly Phillip Peters, covered in blood, bludgeoned to death in his own bedroom.
When the police arrived, they found a peculiar scene. There were no signs of a break-in, and nothing had been stolen. Two cast iron shakers were found in the kitchen, one dusty, the other clean. A damp towel stained with blood lay nearby. Nothing about the killing made sense—the killer could only have come from inside the house. And judging by the violence of the attack, it seemed it could only have been pulled off by a berserk giant of a man. With no obvious hiding place for a huge psychopath, the police were stumped.
Odd stories began to crop up around the empty little house. Neighborhood children whispered that they saw lights on in the upstairs. A neighbor claimed to have seen a ghostly face in the windows. Neighbors started to believe that the house, the site of such a weird and violent attack, was haunted.
Despite the rumors, Mrs. Peters, finally recovered from her hip surgery, wanted to return to the home she had shared with her husband for fifty years. One night, startled perhaps by a noise in the “haunted” house, Mrs. Peters fell and suffered another fracture. Rather than go back to the hospital, she opted to heal at home, and a nurse was sent to care for her. The nurse soon began to report strange noises in the walls and ceilings. Police investigated, but found nothing. Then one night the nurse saw the rowdy spirit on the stairs. It chattered its teeth at her. She resigned, and a neighbor took over care of Mrs. Peters.
The neighbor sighted the spook as well. One night, she heard a noise and hurried into the dark kitchen to see the ghost on the stairs. She reported it was a scrawny, filthy creature that seemed to vanish when she screamed. Mrs. Peters went to live with her son in Western Colorado, while police, skeptical of all this ghost talk, decided to stake out the now infamous ghost house.
It was July by this time. Two patrolmen were on duty staking out the house when one caught a glimpse of a face in the upstairs window. He nudged his partner, who looked up in time to see a fleeting glimpse of movement. The officers ran across the street and broke down the door. They searched the downstairs, noticing an odd stench permeating the house. As they were moving upstairs, more police were arriving. The two officers saw a door swinging shut in an upstairs room. They yanked open the door to find two dirty bare feet kicking in the air. One officer grabbed the struggling “ghost” by the ankles and yanked. Finally the ghost gave in, and soon was laid out unconscious on the bedroom floor, having fainted in his botched escape attempt.
The figure laid out on the floor was scrawny and clothed in filthy rags. Once the “ghost” was taken into custody, he revealed himself as Theodore Coney. He told a bizarre story. He’d met the late Phillip Peters when he was 17. The two were briefly acquainted through the Mandolin Club, and occasionally ran into one another throughout their lives. As Phillip moved on, got married, and embarked on his career with the railroad, Theodore became little more than a drifter, unable to hold a job and in poor health.
He drifted back to the Phillip house in September of 1941. He found the house empty, stole some food, and found the little attic room above the closet where he slept. The opening to the attic was about as wide as a cigar box, and it was overlooked in the initial investigation of the house because police thought no one could fit up there.
But Theodore managed to wriggle his way in there, where he stayed for months. He initially stayed quiet, sleeping when Mr. Phillip was awake and coming downstairs to eat when he was out of the house. Theodore grew bolder over time, and eventually started shadowing Peters from room to room.
The night of the murder, Theodore thought Peter Phillip was out and about, and came down to raid the ice box. But Peter had been napping, and came upon the scraggly interloper. On an impulse, Theodore killed his unwitting benefactor and escaped back to the attic.
After his confession, Theodore’s odd story hit the papers. He became known as the Denver Spiderman, for his long, thin fingers and odd manner. The Denver Spiderman was sentenced to life in prison at the Canon City Penitentiary, where he died on May 16, 1967.
Mayo, Mike. “American Murder: Criminals, Crime, and the Media.” Visible Ink Press, 2008. Pg 76-77
“The Spider Man.” Prisonmuseum.org. Retrieved using the Wayback Machine on 10/4/2015 http://web.archive.org/web/20040213070643/http://www.prisonmuseum.org/spider.htm