On Easter Sunday, 1902, a group of youths, hiking the western slopes of Ensign Peak in an area known as “Hell’s Hollow,” made a grisly discovery. Finding a pile of stones carefully placed in front of a small cave, out of curiosity, the boys removed the stones and peeked inside. Entombed within a cavern, stripped naked except for socks, was Samuel G. Collins, a veteran of the Grand Army of the Republic. Collin’s legs and right arm were tightly bound, his throat slit and an eye gouged out.
The frightened boys fled down the hill and telling of their find, the Salt Lake City Police were summoned. The police, upon examining the body, at first assumed suicide, however the coroner determined it was foul play and demanded an inquest. It was then discovered that Collins was last seen in the company of David Clyde Felt, scion of a prominent Mormon family.
Sixty-two-year-old Samuel Collins was reported to have been “a queer and mysterious character.” Records show while born in Ireland, at the time of the Civil War, Collins was a member of 61st Infantry Regiment of New York. The 1880 Census showed that later he lived in New York City as a night watchman, boarding with a single man Edward N. Bull, also a night watchman. By the 1890s Collin had moved to Salt Lake City. In Utah he worked as a miner and also as a night watchman at the old Wasatka Mineral Springs Company at 400 West and 900 North near the warms springs on Beck Street.
On March 24, 1902, Samuel Collin was last seen in the company Clyde Felt, 14-year-old son of David P. Felt, president of the Utah Press Association. Felt claimed he left Collins after he had given Felt a watch and another boy $5 to remember him by. Felt told the police that Collins was climbing the side of the peak to look over the valley for the last time before going back east. From Felt’s testimony the police speculated that perhaps Collins was robbed while on the peak sunset.
On April 4, nearly two weeks after the murder, Clyde Felt, having been caught in several lies, confessed to causing the death of Collins. “Did I kill old man Collins?” “Yes,” he said with no indication of regret. “I cut his throat with his razor. He asked me, begged me to do it and I did so.” The confession shocked and horrified the state. The Salt Lake Herald wrote, “The deed is simply without parallel or precedent in the annals of local crime.”
According to Clyde Felt, Samuel Collins procured sexual favors from Felt and two of his other teenage friends, Henry Potts and Clyde Woodward by paying them money and giving them gifts. The boys “enjoyed the old man’s confidence and friendship to a greater extent than anyone else in the city. Always respectful and heedless to the eccentricities of Collins, the boys endeared themselves to him in a way that made the trio almost inseparable. One of the lads usually spent the night with the old man, and shared most of his secrets and hopes. They were the recipients of many presents from their aged friend who tried in every way possible to show his appreciation of their friendship.”
Felt told an even darker tale to the police; that Collins had been coaxing the boys to kill him. They claimed the reason Collins wanted to die was “because he was sorry for what he had been doing to us boys and he was afraid someone would find it out,” but on March 24, he only thought he was going up to Hell’s Hollow for the purpose of committing a “crime against nature.”
Felt said, “I went with Mr Collins into Hell’s Hollow and for a long time he walked around as though looking for some place. When we got to the cave he undressed himself, took all his clothes off, and told me he was going to crawl into the cave to get some money he had there. Then he asked me to get in there with him and I did. When I got into the cave with him I didn’t know what he wanted to do. I was scared and he begged me so hard and said ‘Please kill me.'”
Clyde Felt’s family was devastated. His father believed that his son was a victim of “the baleful influence of a depraved moral degenerate and the evil effects of dime novel reading.” The father told the papers that “In my search about the house I looked underneath the building and found hidden below the rafters 11 dime novels of the “Dick Brady” and “Frank Meriwether” variety and a revolver, this latter, Clyde purchased with the $5 that he took from the old man’s pocket. I cannot understand it at all, except from the point of view that Collins exercised a hypnotic influence over the boy. I have never seriously thought of hypnotism as practical science or potent manner of exerting an influence over others but now I cannot possibly think of any other explanation of my boy’s conduct.”
It was clear from the empathic reports of the time that Clyde Felt was not going to be punished. “Letters of sympathy and offers of assistance were sent to the Salt Lake County jail from all over the country.” The Salt Lake detectives who took Felt’s confession would not even write an affidavit against the youth. Salt Lake’s chief of police finally had to sign the murder charge, which was later that year dropped because no jury was ever going to convict Felt, who had become a minor national hero.
The sensational sex scandal and grisly murder had Salt Lake City papers in 1902 advocating the formation of a society for the protection of children from “vices of that kind” — meaning homosexuality — “in every city, town and hamlet within the commonwealth.” “Ancestry or good home training will not save a boy from degradation, if his companions are filled with vice.”
The Ogden Standard warned parents: “Only the breaking up of the relationship of bad boys will prove a purifier and it is for parents to discover the unnatural and immoral conditions and then apply the remedy. Our opinion is moral disease requires the same treatment applied to physical disease. The bad should be placed in quarantine until their minds have had time to cleanse themselves. Isolate the impure and keep the innocent free from contaminating influences.”
The paper suggested that youths caught engaging in homosexual “be kept at home or under impressive moral lessons for about six months, not once in that period mingling with their old company or experiencing the degradating power of sin, the chances are all would emerge with healthy minds and firm resolves to enjoy life in wholesome thoughts, words and actions.”
Even Joseph F, Smith, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of latter-day Saints wrote an article in the Juvenile of the crime, warning the Church youth to avoid dime novels less they too become corrupt and depraved.
“We have learned of a recent terrible occurrence in this city where in a little boy was influenced to commit murder by a wicked man and the testimony of his friends was that it was brought about through reading dime novels and falling into diabolical habits taught by the wicked and ungodly among the Latter-day Saints.”
As for Clyde Felt, he eventually went on a LDS mission, was married in the Salt Lake Temple and moved to Los Angeles, Calif., where he died in 1973, at age 85.