The Spider Man of Denver: Theodore Edward Coneys
In 1941, a man named Phillip Peters was found murdered in his home in Denver, Colorado. The doors and windows to the house showed no signs of forced entry and were locked when neighbours discovered the body. Strange stories of odd sightings flew around the neighbourhood, with the attack becoming known in the papers as “The Denver ghost house slayings”. The truth however, was to be something far stranger and probably for most, far more terrifying.
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In 1941, a man named Phillip Peters was found murdered in his home in Denver, Colorado. He had been brutally beaten to death and the killer had managed to leave no evidence on the scene as to who he was or why he had committed the crime. Quite aside from this, police also had no idea how he had gained entry to the property, it was seemingly what are known as a locked room mystery. The doors and windows to the house showed no signs of forced entry and were locked when neighbours discovered the body. Strange stories of odd sightings flew around the neighbourhood, with the attack becoming known in the papers as “The Denver ghost house slayings”. The truth however, was to be something far stranger and probably for most, far more terrifying. This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
Phillip and Helen Peters
Phillip Peters was born in 1869 and was married to Helen Peters, who had been born three years later in 1872. In 1941, the couple lived in a modest brick house at 3335 West Moncrieff Place, Denver, Colorado, and had been their home for the past 40 years. Phillip had worked at Denver and Rio Grande Railway from 1891 until his retirement in 1930 as an auditor in the local Denver station, never applying for or being offered any sort of promotion. They had one son, named Phillip Peters Jr, who had grown up, married and lived in Grand Junction, Colorado. Both Helen and Philip were keen music lovers and Phillip played the mandolin and was a member of a local Denver musicians club for guitar and mandolin enthusiasts, organising small local concerts and practicing together. One can suppose the couple lived a peaceful, quiet and humble lifestyle.
In September of 1941, Helen Peters had taken a fall and broken her hip and was staying in the hospital to recover, leaving 71 year old Phillip at home by himself. He visited the hospital daily to see his wife and the neighbours kept an eye on him, helping him out around the house and inviting hosting him for breakfast and dinner. On Friday October 17th, he was due for dinner at the house on the opposite side of the street, owned by a Mr and Mrs Ross. On this occasion, however, he was late. Having not been late before, Mrs Ross crossed over the street to see what was holding Peters up and to check if everything was okay. Panic set in as she made her way to the front door and found no lights on inside the house. The sun was already setting, but the rooms in the house lay in a subtle gloom. She knocked on the front door. There was no answer. Mrs Ross asked a passing neighbour, Doris Berke to help her check to see if they might be able to gain entry through the rear of the house and the two boosted over the fence on the back porch to unlock the door. As Mrs Ross entered the house and switched on the Kitchen light, the scene that greeted her was one of horror. She screamed at the sight of blood spattered up the walls and trailed through the doorway into the front rooms of the house. Following the gruesome streaks on the ground, she came across the body of Philip Peters, lying face down in the front bedroom. The police were contacted and three patrol cars responded in quick succession along with Captain James E Childers, who made the initial sweep of the property in an attempt to collect any and all clues that might help them to better understand what had gone on in the Peters house, just hours earlier that same afternoon.
A Locked Room Mystery?
Phillip Peters had been struck 37 times with a blunt object. Blood had spattered across the walls in the kitchen, through the living room and into the downstairs bedroom where his body lay. Many of the wounds were lacerations to his forearms, suggesting he’d defended himself as best he could against an attacker and a walking stick, broken clean in half, lying on the floor next to the body also suggested he’d had a fair crack at fighting back.
During the search of the house, as police tried to piece together a picture of events, they found themselves becoming somewhat bemused, with little else to go on, especially concerning points of entry to the house. The neighbours had had to break in through the back door and all other windows and doors to the house were similarly locked and showed no sign of having been forced. The only moment of brief suspicion fell upon a small, 8” x 15” false panel in the closet in the back wall of an upstairs storage room, but after banging on it once or twice and finding it to be locked tight, they concluded that it was much too small for anyone to fit through and paid it no more mind.
Back in the kitchen, investigators had found fragments of a revolver butt on the floor and a cast iron stove shaker that appeared to be resting out of place. Assuming the poker to be the primary murder weapon, it was sent to a laboratory for fingerprint testing and any other clues it could possibly be hiding. Immediate thoughts for the detectives were that of robbery, though how the perpetrator had gained entry to the locked house was proving to be a point of contention and further doubts began to surface to that line of thinking when they found $208 in unchecked dividends and a further $24 in cash laying unhidden in the bedroom. Over the coming days, they continued to find small stashes of cash dotted throughout the house totalling almost $400. Robbery was seeming more unlikely with each passing day. Instead they turned to the idea of a revenge killing, but neighbours were quick to impress on police that the Peters had no enemies in the area and after having lived at the house for such a large period of time, were both well liked and respected in the neighbourhood.
The investigation, lead by Captain James E Childers, continued on as best it could and by the 20th November, police had a man in custody and were seeking two others for questioning, though in truth, none seemed like good suspects. The man in custody had been picked up by Weld County Sheriff Gus Anderson who had spotted him wearing a dark blue coat which seemed “Out of place” with the rest of his outfit, being of much higher quality. Detectives worked to link the jacket to Peters, but to no avail. Eventually the sheriff was resigned to tell the press
“He does not seem like a very likely suspect”
Besides an unconfirmed link to the murder, he was 64 years old, rather short and thus deemed as too frail to have made the violent and sustained attack on Peters. He was quickly dropped as a suspect and released. The two other suspects were equally tenuous. One was based entirely on hearsay of a man who had been going door to door in the North Denver area begging for handouts and when refused, was reported to have “Flown into a rage”. He was never seen or heard from again, so police had to assume that at best, he was simply a beggar that had moved on, out of the area.
The stove shaker was returned from the laboratory and although it had been found to have been cleaned of all fingerprints, they had found small spots of blood, enough to confirm to the police that it had been the murder weapon. This was one step forwards and two steps back for the investigation in many respects, as any theories of robbery were firmly struck off.
“The killer took time to wash his hands and to wipe off the murder instrument, so he could have taken time for the robbery.”
Captain Childers told the press and the fact of the matter was, if he had taken time for a robbery, they simply would not have found so much cash and so many valuables still left in the property, casually placed away, but not exactly hidden.
As the end of the year came and went and winter began to pass into spring, the investigation had stalled significantly. The police had no leads to go on and whilst it was an active investigation, had found themselves sitting at a dead end for some time. That was until Mrs Peters returned from the hospital and new reports took the police activity in a strange, new direction.
Helen Peters returned to the house on West Moncrieff Place on the 1st February, 1942. It was the same house she’d lived in for over forty years, but now it lay empty. At 68 years old and recovering from a broken hip, her immediate future was never going to be simple and so she enlisted the aid of two nurses to help her around the house. Mrs Edith Clark, the wife of a prominent former Denver Sheriff assisted her during the day and Mrs Hattie Johnson by night. It was a short stay at home for Helen however as she fell once again only a few weeks later and wound up back in the hospital with a second broken hip. She was able to return home once again at the end of April and with the aid of the two nurses, began her recuperation proper.
Edith Clark was the first to report unusual activity in the house to the police. She’d heard what she thought to be noises in the walls and at times, what she swore were noises that sounded like soft footsteps in empty rooms. Newspapers were missing from the front porch that she had seen earlier and trays of food left out for Mrs Peters were moved, or rearranged, whilst Mrs Peters swore she hadn’t yet touched them. She hadn’t been the only one to notice strange happenings either. Mrs Peters was hard of hearing so she rarely heard any disturbances, but Hattie Johnson too had had her own share of scares in the night, as the house creaked and thumped. Both nurses were now reporting on a semi-regular basis that they could hear peculiar sounds, but it wasn’t until her neighbour from the Voss’ stopped by one evening shocked to see her downstairs in the living room chair that she gave them much credence. The Voss’ had had a doorbell installed upstairs in Mrs Peters room with a buzzer placed on the wall next to her bed and the bell on the lower floor to allow her to alert the nurses or neighbours in an emergency. John Voss had heard the bell ringing and headed over to see what the problem was and to offer his assistance, but there was Helen, as surprised to see him and he was to see her, perfectly well and minding her own business, downstairs. It would have been quite impossible for the unstable lady who was bedridden for the majority of the day, to have rung the bell upstairs and made it back downstairs in the time it took him to cross the yard. Despite her protestations to the nurses complaints, Mrs Peters now had her own doubts that things in her home were as they seemed. Events eventually came to a head when Edith Clark encountered a figure in the stairway and immediately called the police.
.“Just a few minutes ago I heard a sort of tapping. I had heard it before, but I thought it was only the woodpeckers, but this time I walked into the kitchen and I saw the door to the stairway that leads upstairs slowly open. A foot came out and then I saw a thin white hand on the door. I screamed and the man ducked back into the stairway and I heard him running up the steps.”
The police responded and carried out a full search of the property and found nothing. Two police officers then stayed behind and remained in the house for a full 48 hours, though they saw and heard nothing that lead them to believe an intruder was in the home. It was enough for Edith Clark, however, and she promptly resigned from the position. Within two weeks, Hattie Johnson the night nurse who had repeatedly reported muffled footsteps to Mrs Peters also left, telling the press later,
“I wasn’t going to stay in no haunted house.”
Phillip Jr, Mrs Peters son, visited Mrs Peters in May and June to try to coerce his mother to leave the home and instead go to live with him in Grand Junction and though she was against the idea in May, she had little choice after the abrupt resignations of both her nurses, and so, in June, she reluctantly left her home and moved in with her son and his wife. She had the utilities cut to the house and left the police to continue their investigations. Once again 3335 West Moncrieff Place fell silent and empty.
The strange events didn’t stop with her departure however, and neighbours noted that the blinds were changing position in the windows. At times they would be pulled low and others, they would be opened up higher in the frames, allowing the sunlight to peer through into the vacant rooms. Police continued to receive several reports that the silhouette of a figure could be seen walking around in the house at night and seeing as how the house was the subject of investigation in a murder case that was going nowhere fast, police were keen to respond to the calls, but everytime, they were left scratching their heads as they found nothing but empty rooms.
For five straight days, two policemen were stationed out front of the house to keep watch on the reported activity, but it turned into five straight days of mundane boredom. By the end of the fifth, the stakeout was called off and the men returned to the station with nothing new to go on once again. Routine patrols stopped by and searched the property daily, sometimes after reports of activity through the windows and others just simply as a matter of routine. With the departure of Mrs Peters, the house lay vacant and still on every occasion.
It didn’t take long for the press to pick up the strange occurrences in the house and the papers began referring to the murder as the “Ghost Slayings” and the Peters house as “The Ghost House of Denver”, a moniker which stuck for the remainder of its life in the news. To the rational locals, this was purely the press spinning a fantastical headline in order to sell a good story, but the reality to the police at the time was that of an equal mystery. The murderer had been like a ghost, no one had seen or heard anything to direct them to who the killer might be, the investigation was running utterly cold and the question was still begging, how exactly was Peters killed in a locked house, with no signs of forced entry on any of the doors or windows?
Capturing the Spider
On the 30th July, 1942, Detectives Roy Bloxom and William Jackson were on patrol in the area of West Moncrieff Place. As had become the routine by now, they pulled over in front of the vacant property and went inside to search the rooms as usual. This time however, they both heard a faint noise coming from upstairs. The two men dashed upstairs through the bedroom and into the small back storage room. What they saw was enough to startle them for a moment, as a pair of legs scrambled up into a tiny entrance in the back of a closet. It was the same false panel they had found and disregarded in a previous search and grabbing the dangling feet, they heaved out a pale and emaciated man.
“Beetle browed, wide eyed and pale as a ghost. He hated sunlight and was the colour of a mushroom, or of a spider that scurries for darkness when discovered hiding under a stone.”
His clothing had rotted and were held together by string and rope. He held a .44 caliber revolver with a damaged butt in his hand, though he made no attempt to fire the weapon.
As detectives Bloxom and jackson took him down to the station, the man told them his name was Matthew Cornish and that he had come to Denver from Tonawanda city, New York, where he had worked as an advertising man. It was a story he kept up for only a few hours, just until after he’d been fed a hamburger, an apple pie and a coffee, when he gave in and admitted that his name was Theodore Edward Coneys and recounted the details of his life and how he had come to both know and kill Phillip Peters.
Theodore Edward Coneys
Theodore Edward Coneys was born on 2nd November 1882 in Petersburg in Menard County, Illinois where his father, Thomas Coneys, a Canadian immigrant, owned and ran a local Hardware store. His mother, Isabella, was a housewife and she stayed home during the day to look after Theodore. They lived comfortably as a new family until 1888, when Coneys father suddenly passed away. It was a deep shock to Isabella who moved with her son to a small farm outside Beloit, in Wisconsin. Life was made no easier when several years later Theodore was stricken with Tuberculosis. He had long been a rather sickly child and now, terrified of losing her only family, Isabella mollycoddled her son. He was fond of sports and dreamt of playing baseball, but instead, his mother pushed him into the much less physically demanding pursuit of music. As the local boys all swung bats in the school field, he sat at home wrapped in the protective blanket of his overbearing mother, learning to play the mandolin. Doctors had given him a bleak diagnosis, suggesting he would not see out his 18th birthday and he promptly dropped out of high school.
With a significant sum of money left from her husband’s passing, Isabella Coneys moved them to Denver where she worked as a housekeeper and Theodore continued his path of music. Unfortunately, not long after their arrival, she was taken in by a con artist who persuaded her to invest her husband’s inheritance in securities before taking off with every last penny. Theodore took a part time job to help put food on the table, though it was a meagre existence. Isabella Coneys died 3 years later in 1907 leaving Theodore penniless and alone. Still thin and sickly, he had at least long survived his 18th Birthday.
It was through music that Theodore met Phillip and Helen Peters. Philip was a member of the same Mandolin club as Theodore and the couple, noticing his struggles to cope after the death of his mother, befriended him, often inviting him to dinner and offering him some company. Theodores friends put him in touch with the Denver Gas and Electric Company where he began work as a Pipe Fitters helper and quickly moved into the position of pipe fitter himself. He was given his own helper now and the pair got along well. Together they devised a scheme to become Advertising men, and they left the Pipe fitting game to strike out on their own and start a business. Theodore Coneys was the public face of the company whilst his partner the brains behind the operation. Unfortunately, neither side did too well at their prospective roles and they quickly went broke. Coneys took off, leaving Denver and roaming across several states, trying his hand at several jobs, including insurance and advertising sales, but after struggling in the position, found himself slowly slipping away from society. In 1917 he attempted to develop cheap fuel leases in texas which ended in further failure and led him to become a full time vagrant and drifter. As he eventually found his way back to Denver in September 1941, his return was anything but triumphant. He was now little more than a homeless beggar and his first port of call would be to his old friends the Peters. It’d been almost 30 years since he last saw them, but he felt he could always ask for a meal, after all, they’d been so hospitable to him all those years before.
A Nest for the Winter
In September of 1941, Theodore Coneys, by now aged 59 years old, approached 3335 West Moncrieff Place just in time to see Phillip Peters leaving with a neighbour. He was on his way to visit his wife in hospital. Rather than waiting for his return, Theodore instead decided to swing around to the back yard and try the rear door. As fortune would have it, it was unlocked and so, he entered and stepped into the kitchen, helping himself to some food. He spent a while nosing through the Peters house and in an upstairs room that was being used for storage, came across a small 8” x 15” plyboard panel in the top of a closet that functioned as a trap door to a tiny, coffin shaped attic, 37” in height at the apex, 7’ long and 4’ wide. Instead of leaving, Coneys took to the tiny crawl space in the rafters.
“It looked like a good place to hole up for the winter.”
He later told police. And that was precisely what he did. For several weeks he lived in the small space in the attic, creeping about the house when Phillip was out to visit his wife in hospital. Coneys had no idea as to Mrs Peters condition, but the situation had worked out to his advantage.
“Every night I would listen at the hole until I heard him snoring then I would crawl out and go through the icebox and I would take just enough so it wouldn’t be too noticeable. I would carry it back to my nest and eat it there. I found parts of an old crystal set in one of the closets and a pair of earphones. I fixed it up so it would work and I listened to all the newscasts, music and everything. I used to beat it down to the bathroom and even shaved with the old man’s razor.”
This bizarre existence soon got boring for Coneys, who in time took to actually following Phillip Peters around the house, shadowing his moves, hiding behind doors as he passed, purely for entertainment. “It was sort of a game,” he said, “It gave me a thrill.”
It remains to be known what Coneys long term plans, if indeed he had any at all, were to be, but on the afternoon of Friday, 17th October, things took a sharp, downward, turn. Thinking that Peters had gone out to visit his wife in hospital, Coneys crept out of his tiny living space around 4pm and went to grab some food from the kitchen, as it turned out, Peters was only taking a nap and hearing noise coming from the kitchen, he woke and went to see what was going on. The two men met, probably both as startled as one another.
“I thought that I was going to lose my shelter – Peters didn’t recognise me though, I guess I’ve changed a lot in thirty years. I saw an old revolver hanging on the wall and I grabbed it and hit him on the head. He fell but got up and headed for the telephone in the dining room. He said he was going to call the police so I followed him and hit him again. I was trying to find a vase in which I thought he had hidden some money when I heard him opening a drawer in the downstairs bedroom. I picked up the stove shaker and went in there and hit him. I don’t know how many times I hit him. I just kept on hitting him until he didn’t move anymore. After that I got some food and went back to the attic.”
“Everything would have been all right and Phil Peters would have been alive today if he hadn’t caught me robbing the ice box. It was him or me.”
Coneys cleaned the Iron poker and rather than fleeing, he scuttled back to his hiding place. Two hours later, he heard the commotion downstairs as the neighbour from across the street, Mrs Ross discovered the body of Philip Peters. Later he listened to the news reports about the murder on his makeshift radio. He stayed in the house after the return of Mrs Peters and seeing as how she was hard of hearing, his life was made all the easier. His biggest troubles came during the times she was gone, it was so cold with no heating running in the house that he nearly froze to death, yet he remained in his “nest” all the same.
“I used to go down and look out the windows, and watch the postman come by. Nobody’s written to me in 25 years. Whenever I saw people on the street, I hated them and would go back to my attic.”
Unwittingly, Theodore Coneys had become the ghost of the “Denver Ghost Slayings”. When the blinds were noticed to have moved, the papers taken from the porch or movements seen in the windows by the locals, it was all Coneys as he crept about the empty house. With The constant patrols calling into the house however, his concealment could not last forever. He had lived in the attic space for almost ten months, much of the time living alongside the widow of the man he had killed, at times, he had even stood over her bed, watching whilst she slept.
The Spider Man of Denver
The next day, the local newspapers filled their front pages with bizarre descriptions of the “Ghost Slayer” who had “lived like a spider”. Captain Childers told them in a press conference of how Coneys “recoiled from daylight, as though struck a physical blow.”
In an 8000 word statement, Coneys told the police of how he had been sitting atop the small false trapdoor when they had discovered it during the initial search of the house on the 17th October and of how he had held it closed with his body weight as they knocked on it, before discarding it due to being simply too small for a human to comfortably fit through. He went on to describe his life in the attic of the peters in great detail in both his official statement to police and a press interview given on the 2nd August, days after his arrest.
“It was miserable hot in the summer and my feet froze in the dead of winter in that attic, but it was all part of the price I was willing to pay. I can’t tell you why I stuck it out. I guess it was mostly because it was a world all my own. I used to go down and look out the windows, and watch the postman come by. Nobody’s written to me in 25 years. Whenever I saw people on the street, I hated them and would go back to my attic.”
In the ten months he had lived in the tiny attic space, he had left the house only once at night to scoop up some snow with a toy shovel to fill a pail with water after Mrs peters had left and had the utilities cut.
“It’s been a nightmare, nearly 10 months of hellish terrible nightmare and now that it’s all coming onto the open, I feel relief. You can’t live like a creature damned without thinking thoughts that burn deep in your soul. You see, I had never committed a crime before, not even a petty one, yes justice will come to me, as it should…”
“So here I am, I don’t know whether I am crazy or not. I don’t feel insane, but if being a damned fool is any sign of insanity, I’m certainly not in my right mind.”
Despite being almost 6 feet tall, he weighed only 75 pounds at the time of his arrest. During his confession, police inspected the space that Coneys had been living in, describing the smell as so bad, that it made one officer vomit. Coneys had cut into the wiring and installed a small lightbulb but otherwise there was very little in the way of creature comforts, his bed had been an ironing board. Detective Fred Zarnow told the press as he left the house after the arrest.
“Cans of human offal lined the walls. A man would have to be a spider to stand it long up there”
Theodore Coneys pleaded not guilty for first degree murder. In court he was defended by the court appointed attorney Foster Cline, who commented that although they would not deny that Coneys had killed Peters, they hoped to avoid the death penalty, a demand that had been set up by the prosecution from the outset, given that the crime had not been premeditated and owing to Coneys mental condition at the time of the attack.
The trial proper began at the end of October, 1942 and lasted for 6 days, after it had been initially pushed back from it’s earlier date of 21st September when Coneys was taken to hospital suffering from pneumonia. During his incarceration awaiting trial, Coneys had undergone a psychiatric examination and deemed sane to stand trial, however on the 7th October, Cline appealed to the judge for an independent examination in an effort to provide evidence which would help him to avoid the death sentence. The request was accepted and Coneys was sent to Dr Leo Tepley to undergo a second examination with the results given to the judge. The results were once again that Coneys was fit to stand. The trial was otherwise free from drama and theatrics with Coneys remaining composed in the courtroom throughout.
On Halloween of 1942, the jury were sent out to deliberate upon a verdict, they returned within 90 minutes. Whilst he had avoided the death penalty, Coneys was sentenced to life imprisonment with physical labour at the Colorado State Penitentiary. After his verdict was read out to the courtroom, Coneys turned and commented to Foster Cline on his situation:
“Now I feel safe. I’ll have a better home than I have had in years.”
On 1st January 1943, what was now officially dubbed as the “Ghost Man Murder” was voted as the top story stemming from Colorado by the Associated Press for 1942, pushing out the Colorado General Election, an explosion in a mine that killed 34 men along with widespread flooding and a slew of big mine closures.
After the discovery of his attic “nest”, Coneys became known as “The Spider Man of Denver” though it also took some time for the press to stop referring to him as the “ghost slayer”. Coneys eventually died in prison hospital on May 16th, 1967 aged 84 years old. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Mountain Vale Memorial Park Canon City, Colorado.
Seventy eight years later, his tale as the spider man of Denver remains perhaps more terrifying than any ghost story, as iamges of a thin, pale murderer skulked about the house, living among the family of his earlier victim, unbeknown to all.