In the spring of 1886, four men set up camp on a wide gravelbar along the north bank of the Snake River in Jackson Hole to look for gold. Three of the men—Henry Welter, T.H. Tiggerman, and August Kellenberger, all German immigrants—had formed a partnership in Montana. The fourth, another German named John Tonnar, joined the trio later. That summer, Tonnar abandoned their placer mine and sought work at a nearby farm. The other three? A rafting group found their bodies half-buried in the Snake River.
The three men had been weighted down with stones, but the river’s flow had fallen enough to expose their bodies. Kellenberger had been shot twice in the back; Welter and Tiggerman bore gruesome signs of blunt trauma to the head, probably from an axe. When law enforcement officers apprehended their prime suspect, Tonnar admitted to killing his partners—but insisted that he’d acted in self-defense. His story: Intending to run Tonnar off and cheat him out of his share of the gold (though none was ever found there), the other three miners attacked Tonnar, forcing him to defend himself with his gun. And the head wounds on two of the dead men? Tonnar said the damage had been done postmortem when he rolled the bodies down to the river for “burial.”
“It’s very far-fetched,” says Caden. “All I can say is that it really reads as a murder.” Not only did Tonnar tell no one about the incident, he held on to money and a watch taken from his former partners. But without any eyewitnesses, a jury in Evanston (200 miles from Jackson Hole) acquitted him the following spring.
Did Tonnar get away with murder—three times over? “I think he murdered the three gentlemen in their sleep,” says Caden, speculating that Kellenberger (the only one to exhibit gunshot wounds) may have woken up to catch Tonnar, axe in hand, and run for his life before Tonnar gunned him down. “There was strain in their relationships, and there was never any gold discovered in the valley through mining. Maybe he was just cutting his losses. Who knows?”
The locals of Jackson Hole were equally convinced of Tonnar’s guilt, and his acquittal kicked off an era of vigilante justice. “People felt the trial was handled poorly,” notes Caden. “A distrust of the law came about after that.” Tonnar’s other lasting legacy: The site of the triple murder, now located within Grand Teton National Park, has ever since been known as Deadman’s Bar.
The Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum also owns a skull believed to belong to one of the victims—but unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your taste for the macabre), it’s not on display.
Paddle past Deadman’s Bar, halfway between Pacific Creek and Moose Landing on the Snake River, on a private or guided float.