Meet Sam Howe, a detective in early Denver who was famous at the time for his cats. Today we remember his visionary recordkeeping that led to the first crime database in the country.
In the late nineteenth century, the city of Denver was enraptured by Sam Howe. Not for his work as Denver's first police detective or his uncanny ability to catch criminals, but for his tiny black cat.
Roxy the cat came into Howe’s life by happy coincidence. In November 1891, a trunk full of tailor’s goods was recovered from a pair of burglars belonging to the Simmonds gang. It was taken into the detectives’ department and opened in Sam Howe’s office. To everyone’s surprise, a small black kitten popped out of the case. She quickly endeared herself to Howe, who named her “Roxy” and allowed her to make the detectives’ department her home. She was well-cared for and doted upon.
Roxy fairly quickly came to be known to the public, and became the mascot of the entire Denver Police Department. Roxy was known to play fetch with the detectives, answer to whistles, and was considered “a reliable mouser” as well as a “look-out.” She also seemingly had a talent for differentiating between police officers and civilians. She was spoiled, with some news articles detailing her lavish dinners of sirloin steak and pints of cream. According to the Denver Times, “Chief Howe considers [Roxy] his mascot, and nothing is too good for [her].”
Needless to say, Howe was especially attached to her: Roxy once disappeared from headquarters while Howe was on a trip. When he received this news, Howe was wrought with concern and posted a reward for her recovery. She ended up returning on her own to the detectives’ department not long after, and Howe was telegraphed the good news.
Through newspaper articles about the pair, the public came to adore Howe and his cat. It was common at the time for newspapers to be sensationalist in their writing, and Roxy’s stories were no exception. When journalists wrote about Roxy, they used playfully exaggerated language and referred to her almost like a deity. One article in particular, titled “A Cat Descended from the Cats of the Salem Witches,” praised Roxy for her job as a look-out, stating that “she has not an equal in the best club rooms of the city.” It closes out with a particularly theatrical line: “Long live the black cat and may she by her subtle feline necromancy, perpetuate in power her ward, the genial chief of detectives.”
This statement paints Roxy in ownership of Howe, rather than the other way around, something most cat owners can relate to.
Despite the city’s infatuation with Sam Howe’s cat, today Howe is remembered for something much more significant: He created the very first crime database in the country.
Detective and Archivist
Sam Howe was one of the first thirteen police officers who made up the Denver police department in the late 1800s. He was Denver’s first police detective, and became the Chief of Detectives as the department grew.
Howe was wholly committed to his work, but found himself frustrated with the police department’s lack of record-keeping. To remedy this issue, he began a daily ritual of combing through local newspapers and clipping out every single crime-related article published. He compiled them into large scrapbooks for his own personal reference, organized by date and given unique, identifying stamp numbers. As the years went on, his collection grew and grew, and Howe created detailed indexes so others could cross-reference his archives. By the end of his career he had seventy-three books in total.
These books were the very first attempt at a crime database in the country, and revolutionized the Denver police department. Howe’s hand-made archives proved incredibly useful, not only to his own team, but also to officials from neighboring states who would request access when pursuing criminals who were thought to have fled to Colorado. Even after Howe’s passing, the Denver police continued his method of record-keeping for years. When it was eventually replaced by more sophisticated methods, the entirety of his scrapbook collection was left to History Colorado.
Thanks to funding from the Colorado Statewide Internet Portal Authority Innovation Fund, the collection is now in the process of being digitized to be accessible to the public online. I have had the pleasure of working with this collection, and I can tell you how easy it is to get lost in the pages of these books. As someone interested in true crime, it has been fascinating to read how criminal behavior and justice compares to modern day (today’s papers are decidedly lacking in train robberies and safe blowers). I've gained an immense amount of respect for Sam Howe while working in this collection. He not only had to be impressively strong to handle these gargantuan scrapbooks (some measuring up to nine inches tall), but the thoroughness and tenacity he displayed while creating a completely new archival system is admirable, to say the least. Through his organizational skills, investigative talents, and dedication to his work, Howe earned the respect of both his colleagues and the public.
These scrapbooks are also our main source for the antics of Roxy the Cat. She found herself the subject of a number of newspaper articles, all of which made their way into Howe’s scrapbooks, where stories of her antics broke up the usual doom and gloom of crime reporting.
Sadly, Roxy’s story does not have a happy ending. In November 1893, Roxy had given birth to a litter of kittens. Despite their best efforts, the detectives were unable to find homes for them, so Howe promised twenty-five cents to a janitor in the building to euthanize them. The janitor agreed, but when he moved to grab the kittens Roxy struck him with her claws in defense of her babies. Enraged, the janitor killed Roxy, earning the ire of Sam Howe, his detectives, and the secretary of the Humane Society.
The fate of the janitor as well as the kittens is unknown, but the police department was not to be cat-less for long. Roxy had a successor, another black cat curiously named Satan.
Nobody knows exactly how or when Satan came to the detectives’ department. She may have been one of Roxy’s kittens, but we don’t know for sure. Satan also came to be considered the mascot of the entire police department, and can be seen in an 1898 photograph, sitting at the feet of Sam Howe with various staff and reporters.
From what can be seen in the collection, Satan received much less press attention than Roxy, but still had her moments. Noteworthy examples came when she warned the officers of a fire in the headquarters cellar with a series of panicked meows, or when she had a tussle with an angry hawk in an alleyway.
Roxy and Satan were not the only civic mascots present in Denver at the time. Chaps the firehouse dog, Trix the watchdog, and Tom the pioneer horse all made appearances in local newspapers as well. However, Sam Howe played obvious favorites, and Roxy and Satan received preferential treatment in his ledgers. At least a dozen articles about these two cats are present throughout the books. And for the most part, with the exception of the article pertaining to Roxy’s untimely death, these news stories are very light and heartwarming. Roxy and Satan’s stories in Sam Howe’s crime ledgers present a bright juxtaposition to the rest of the grim tales. Howe clearly held these cats dear, or he would not have included them in what was meant to be a crime compendium and method of professional record-keeping.
This aspect of human nature, the need to find humor and joy among the seriousness of regular news, is completely natural and is something that has been part of our society for a very long time. Even today, people are drawn to stories and pictures of pets and the plethora of cat videos on the internet testifies to our ongoing obsession. It’s clear that this phenomenon is far from new, and it’s interesting to see this connection between our modern, digital age and that of Sam Howe. Regardless of the time in history, sometimes people just want a break from the harshness of reality to hear a story about a cat.
Howe knew this well, probably better than most. It’s easy to imagine him hard at work, hefting his immense scrapbooks off a shelf and flipping through the pages, chasing a specific clipping through a forest of robbery, kidnapping, murder–and pausing for just a moment when out of the grim tangle suddenly pounces a humorous headline and fading cartoon. A memento of his beloved cats.
Sam Howe’s scrapbooks were a revolutionary tool for his fellow lawmen, and today are a remarkable resource for historians. They capture life in nineteenth-century Denver in a completely unique way, and represent a turning point in law enforcement. But it’s important to remember, as historians, archivists, and casual readers, that these things aren’t just objects. They were made by human hands, and filled with human experiences and emotions. The scattered stories of Roxy and Satan are a reminder that Sam Howe, and all the people of Denver, were more than lines on a ledger, numbers in a census, or names in a headline. They were real, living people who loved animals, just like us.