The Madness of Jack Sumner


On May 24, 1902, exactly thirty-three years from the day John Wesley Powell and Jack Sumner launched their expedition for the great unknown, the Denver Rocky Mountain News, founded by Sumner’s brother-in-law William Byers, carried a bulletin:
Captain Jack Sumner Victim Of
Mysterious Stabbing In Utah
Special to The News. Grand Junction, Colo., May 23—Captain Jack Sumner, who left this city on Tuesday for Utah, was found about noon Wednesday near the town of Green River in an unconscious condition. He was brought to this city last night and taken to St. Mary’s hospital. Dr. Hanson was called and found that Mr. Sumner was in a serious condition from a wound in the groin. He has since been in a half dazed condition and from what he says at times he must have been drugged and then stabbed. Word from the hospital this evening is that the captain is resting easy and that if no complications set in he will recover.
An accompanying article, headlined “Poor Old Jack,” recalled Sumner’s life, and concluded: “What motive anyone could have had for stabbing him, except for purposes of robbery, his friends in this city are at a loss to understand. While as brave as a lion, he was as tender-hearted as a child…While he has possessed a rugged constitution, he has seen much exposure and endured many hardships,…all of which will render his recovery slow, if not doubtful.”
But there was more to this story, and it offers a deep look into Jack Sumner’s psyche. Exactly one-third of a century after Sumner set off on the bold hopeful adventure of his youth, an ailing and defeated Sumner set off for the Green River again. Upon seeing the Green River, he needed little imagination to see the ghosts of himself and Powell going down it. Yet while Powell’s river had carried him to great fame and power and security, Sumner’s river had led to decades of obscurity and broken dreams and poverty. Perhaps Sumner had heard that this January Powell had suffered a stroke, which in September would end Powell’s life. This third-of-a-century anniversary would seem to offer Sumner a powerful focus for assessing his own life and passing judgment upon its value. All we know for sure is that Jack Sumner, standing there quite alone, took out his knife, and took down his pants, and castrated himself.
He did an effective job of it too, judging from the notes Dr. Hanson made on his medical examination of Sumner four years later: “Both testicles have been removed by himself. Operation was very successful. Done at a time of supposed temporary insanity.” Given the severity of such a wound, and given Sumner’s apparent isolation, we have to wonder if this was actually a suicide attempt. Dr. Hanson may have been thinking so when he said the insanity was “supposed.” In an examination two years earlier, Dr. Hanson said simply: “He did this while in state of despondency.” Jack Sumner had good reason to be despondent about his life. Years of trouble had left him with little to show for it. At the end of the Powell expedition, Sumner went through ten months of trouble just to get back to Denver. William Byers had already sent Powell a scolding letter for leaving Sumner so far from home without any money, and when Sumner finally got back, Byers published a tribute to him and a denunciation of Powell:
Brave by nature, inured to hardship, and fearless in the face of all danger, he was during all that terrible voyage its leading and ruling spirit, the commander of the signal boat which led the way through canon and rapid and torrent…The expedition was a success, thanks to the dauntless man who led it, as much as to him who has clothed a portion of its history in the elegant diction of the lecture room…we promise our readers at no distant day a new unwritten chapter in the history of the Powell expedition which may demonstrate that truth may really be stranger than fiction.
Powell historians, eager to defend Powell against Sumner’s complaints against him and Sumner’s claims for his own importance, have held that it was only late in life that Sumner became embittered against Powell. But here in the summer of 1870 the Sumner grievance is already filed, and not by Sumner, but by a man who had been one of Powell’s most important backers. Sumner was only one of many who made a consistent complaint that Powell had no loyalty to historical facts or to those who served him. Because Sumner’s complaints and claims were often overwrought, he made it easy for Powell’s defenders to dismiss him, or portray him as a crank.
Byers never did publish his promised truth about the Powell expedition. Perhaps Byers, an astute promoter of Colorado who had cultivated friendships with major shapers of western expansion, recognized that Powell was emerging as a major shaper. For Sumner, the fact that even his own brother-in-law was reluctant to challenge Powell’s self-aggrandizing legend must have made it seem futile to hope for validation for his own leadership role. For the next thirty years, Sumner must have carried this frustration.

And the next thirty years piled on many more frustrations, many opportunities for Sumner to measure himself against the Colorado River hero he had been. Through years of trapping and prospecting, he seldom did better than survive, yet he remained loyal to the American frontier myth, with its promise not just of wealth but of heroism, loyal even after America had relegated the frontiersman to the nostalgia shows of Buffalo Bill and begun to worship inventors, Wall Street financiers, and industrialists.
An April 18, 1901 article in the Denver Republican perfectly captured Sumner’s status as a relic of a vanished era:
J.C. Sumner Hates Trains And Houses
And Is Worried By Changes In Denver
“If I can find my way out of these box canyons I’ll look up some of my relatives....I ain’t much used to these skyscrapers. Where is “F” Street?”
It was J. C. Sumner who wanted to know. He had just come out of the Equitable building when he made the inquiry. “Jack”, as he is known, has prospected all over the west, but has an aversion for railroads and towns, and prefers a camp in a snow storm in a muddy arroyo to a parlor suite in the finest hotel.
Any building higher than a Mexican adobe house reminds him of the treacherous box canons that are the terror of the old prospector. It is sometimes necessary to spend days in getting out after entering a box canon.
“A train’s bad enough, but these elevators make a fellow think he’s drowning and falling over a cliff at the same time....I wouldn’t get into that cage again if I had to walk to the top of Pike’s Peak.
“But what did they change the names of the streets for?..
“Or, say if you will just take me to W. N. Byers...I’d be all right... Mr. Sumner is on his way to examine a district in New Mexico, where rumor has it that rich ore exists in abundance.
“You bet I will go both ways on a burro—it will only take about four weeks longer than to go by train, and I never ride in the cars unless I have a broken leg....
The images of canyons and falling over cliffs and drowning are notable when applied to a man who had mastered the greatest of canyons and rivers.
Wallace Stegner spent years exploring the theme of what happens to a man who persists trying to live by the American frontier myth long after that myth has ceased to function. In his most ambitious novel, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Stegner portrayed his own father as futilely pursuing the frontier myth, at great cost to himself and his family, until he despairs and commits suicide. In Jack Sumner, Stegner had an identical character and story line and fate, yet ironically, when Stegner turned to writing Powell history, he too was eager to ignore Sumner.
Sumner’s life was hard on his family too . In 1884, Sumner’s wife filed for divorce, charging that Sumner “has become an habitual drunkard,” and had abandoned her and their children for a whole year to go prospecting when he could be supporting her through “ordinary industry.” Curiously, eighteen months later they got re-married, but Jack insisted that instead of signing her name Alcinda J. Sumner, from now on she had to use the name Jennie N. Sumner, an identity change that caused much confusion when Alcinda tried to claim an army widow’s pension. Soon after this re-marriage, Jack’s mother died and left considerable real estate to Jack and his Denver siblings. Yet years previously, Jack had signed a note leaving him in serious debt (Jack would claim a friend had forged his name), and to protect the estate from being seized for this debt, he signed his share over to his children. But the children were minors, who could not legally own real estate, so the entire estate was frozen into legal limbo, potentially for a decade to come. Jack’s siblings were furious with him, even more so when he disappeared for two months to go prospecting, and this legal mess dragged on for over a year. This disaster must have contributed to Jack not returning to Denver until the 1901 visit that made the newspaper.
Jack Sumner was a lost man in the modern world of technological and legal complexities. It must have been galling that after remaining true to the frontier myth, Sumner was forgotten, while John Wesley Powell, who long ago became a Washington bureaucrat, remained a hero of the frontier myth. Sumner felt that a promise to him had been broken, and if he didn’t have the sophistication of a Wallace Stegner to understand how national myths could break promises of wealth and heroism, he attached that sense of betrayal wholly upon Powell. Comparing himself to the Powell legend, Sumner felt, shall we say, emasculated. We are venturing into Freudian territory here, and perhaps this article is psychologically speculative enough without wading into the quicksand of psychological theory. But even if you have no use for Freudian symbolism, consider the value of literary symbolism. Wallace Stegner could not have invented a more potent symbolism for the end of the American frontier than a man who traveled a hundred miles in one day—Sumner must have taken the train!—to end his life beside the river in whose mirror he was still a hero.

Don Lago