Old Mose, king of the grizzlies, by James E. Perkins

Review by Abby Quillen

Wildlife – November 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

Old Mose: the King of the Grizzlies
by James E. Perkins
Published in 2002 by Adobe Village Press.
ISBN 0-9644056-5-2

The story of Old Mose, the King of the Grizzlies, is part of Colorado folklore. There’s just something about a good bear story, and this one’s been told and retold for almost a century in Central Colorado. But, for those of you who might not have heard the tale, it goes like this:

Old Mose was one of the last of Colorado’s grizzlies, and he was the meanest, fiercest grizzly known in these parts. He killed anything in his path, including three men and over 800 head of cattle, and he managed to elude even the best of Colorado’s hunters for more than 20 years as he “moseyed” around more than 11 counties in Central and Southern Colorado.

When James Anthony finally killed Old Mose in the Black Mountain area in South Park in April of 1904, the mammoth bear was 45 years old and weighed over 1,000 pounds. After the kill, when Anthony and fellow hunter Wharton Pigg rode into Cañon City pulling Old Mose’s corpse in a wagon behind them, the town was waiting in frenzied celebration. Finally, the residents of Central Colorado could sleep easy. The king of the grizzlies was dead.

Measuring 8’6″ from tip to tip, Old Mose dwarfed the men who hunted him. And, with 6-inch claws and 3-inch tusks, he was a sight for the more than 600 people who had gathered to see him on that rainy April day in Cañon City.

Old Mose’s flesh told the tale of his reign of terror in the Black Mountain area. He was pocked with old bullet wounds and scars, and he had two missing toes. There was no doubt: this was the legendary bear that had killed men and cattle and terrorized everything in his path.

Or was he?

The Denver Post was convinced. On May 15, 1904, it published a full-page spread celebrating the death of Old Mose, complete with photos, maps, and diagrams. As James Perkins writes, they painted Old Mose as the “devil incarnate.”

At first Old Mose: King of the Grizzlies, seems like a folksy recounting of the legend of the last Black Mountain grizzly, but then James Perkins surprises the reader by definitively answering the question of whether the grizzly bear James Anthony killed in 1904 was Old Mose.

The author’s research is solid, his documentation is superb, and he leaves no question behind. The ending is unexpected, delightful, and well worth the read. At only 106 pages long, counting the epilogue, appendix, and index, this entire book is enchanting.

Perkins is a natural storyteller, and his writing sparkles. He’s not content to merely recount the events; he makes them come alive. He fills in every detail of a scene; he says what the rain gauge measured at the Cañon City prison the morning Old Mose was wheeled into town, and what time the moon rose the night the first man was supposedly killed by Old Mose.

Perkins does the same thing with his characters. You’ll come away from this book intimate with several of the men in Old Mose’s life, and you’ll probably feel intimate with Old Mose as well.

At times, you might even find yourself rooting for the bear, and perhaps that’s the most interesting part of Old Mose. The book convinces you that if a grizzly bear was indeed the “devil incarnate,” then man was just as formidable.

Take Wharton Pigg, for example. Pigg started hunting Old Mose when he was 16 in 1884. But Pigg wasn’t just interested in hunting grizzly; he hunted anything he could shoot: deer, antelope, coyote, bobcat, mountain lion, badger, jack rabbits, and black bears. A photo in Old Mose shows Pigg’s den adorned with six mountain lion skins arranged symmetrically, their heads left on and their mouths gaping.

At only 18, while out hunting for Old Mose, Pigg killed his first two grizzlies, a sow and her cub, but Old Mose became Pigg’s main pursuit. Over the years, his desire to shoot Old Mose became more and more obsessive. Pigg sold his gold mine so he could hunt full time. He bought a huge ranch right in the middle of Old Mose’s presumed territory — where he tried to kill Old Mose any way he could.

When Pigg found one of his cattle dead and buried under some leaves and grass, he laced it with strychnine, hoping to kill Old Mose when he returned to feed. Instead, the poison killed 9 coyotes. Then, Pigg planted the bear trap that took off two of Old Mose’s toes.

At one point, Pigg even brought home a black bear cub which he chained outside of his house so that he could train his bear dogs to go after Old Mose. Eventually, Pigg ended up shooting the cub.

Sometimes, while reading Old Mose, it’s hard to tell who was on more of a reign of terror: Old Mose or Wharton Pigg.

Then there’s James Anthony, the hunter who ended up killing Old Mose. A photo in the book shows Anthony standing with his daughter in front of a wall covered with sixteen enormous bear skins (many of them grizzlies).

Today, with endangered species lists and reintroduction movements, it’s hard to identify with these men, whose livelihood came from trying to wipe out an entire species. Thanks to the obsessive hunting in early Colorado, the grizzly population here plummeted from 800 in 1880, to 400 in 1890, to about 100 in 1900. By 1980, there were no grizzlies left.

To be honest, at times I didn’t know who was scarier: the men who hunted grizzlies or the grizzly who hunted men. But that’s probably unfair. Although this book may make you feel for the poor beleaguered grizzly, it’s hard to imagine wanting Old Mose nearby.

Old Mose, the book, however, is another story. It has it all: history, adventure, fact, legend, and mystery. An engaging tale, Old Mose: the King of the Grizzlies is easy to read in one sitting, but you’ll probably find yourself flipping back through it again and again.