Joseph A. Walker (1856 – 1907)
On November 3rd, a service was held in Block 8 of Fairmount Cemetery to dedicate a gravestone honoring Joseph A. Walker, one of the first Secret Service agents killed in the line of duty. Recently his family, especially Robert T. Walker, Joseph’s only surviving Grandson, tried to find his unmarked grave, and Tim Wilson of the Fairmount Cemetery Company was able to locate it for them. A suitable granite marker was erected, and many members of the family attended the dedication, which took place exactly 103 years after his death. In spite of his 89 years Robert T. Walker participated in the dedication, as well as two of Joseph’s great granddaughters, and some of his 19 great-great grandchildren. Also in attendance were members of the Secret Service from Colorado and the regional director of the Association of Former Agents of the Secret Service.
Joseph Albert Walker was born in Port Henry, New York in 1856, but moved to Syracuse at an early age where he received his education. After earning a law degree in New York City he joined the civil service where he was employed for 32 years. In 1888 he moved to the Secret Service which had been created in 1865 to suppress counterfeiting in the US. For a time he was on the detail guarding President Grover Cleveland. He later moved to Denver and became the first agent in charge of the Denver Field office, overseeing operations in several western states and territories.
In 1907 there was a very large land fraud investigation in southwestern Colorado concerning coal mining operations. Seventy citizens of Durango and La Plata County had been indicted by a grand jury. On November 3rd Joseph Walker and another agent, as well as a geologist and a miner left Hesperus, 12 miles west of Durango, to investigate a coal mining operation on land owned by a man named William Mason. While the other three descended into a mine air shaft on Mason’s land seeking evidence, Walker remained on the surface. He was confronted by Mason and a man named Joe Vanderwiede. They later claimed Joseph Walker had drawn his pistol, and Vanderwiede shot Walker in the back with both barrels of a shotgun. It was later shown that Walker’s gun had not been fired, and from Walker’s wounds he could not have been aiming at them. After an autopsy Walker’s body was brought to Denver where it was cremated at Riverside Cemetery and his ashes were interred at Fairmount.
Mason and Vanderwiede were tried for murder in Durango in one of the largest trials in Colorado history. Although the evidence against the two was overwhelming, they claimed self defense, and a jury of local farmers and miners acquitted them. They were re-arrested on a Federal Warrant, but a judge ruled this constituted double jeopardy and released them. Without Walker to testify all charges in the land fraud case had to be dropped.
As a result of Walker’s murder President Theodore Roosevelt had two laws passed. One provided Federal pensions to families of agents killed in the line of duty, and the other made it a Federal crime to kill an agent while in the discharge his duty. So Joseph Walker’s life, although short, over the past 100 years has still had an impact on the United States.
by Tom Morton