Several men crowded against the wall of a bar, staring into the space between paintings of hunting dogs and a woman in repose. They saw something there — I couldn’t tell what — that distracted them from the crush of college kids and the pails of chicken wings, from the beer-dispensing rhinoceros head and the rest of the ridiculous glitz that covers the Rock Rest Lodge.
I’ve been drunk before. I know it makes stupid things exciting. But my buddy and I sensed that these men knew something special.
One of the guys came over to explain. He may have been wearing a Giants jersey — but this story has taken a few months to unfold, so I can’t really recall. He told us he’d learned a secret, which — spoiler alert — is more mysterious today than when I started reporting.
There was a human foot in the wall, he said, behind the reflective glass of a window pane.
The guy said his friend who works at the bar had just showed it to them. It was stolen from Harvard Medical School, he said, in an unknown person’s gambit to join a secret society.
Well, I pressed my face against that glass like a drunk guy at a morgue. I shined my phone’s light through, and there it was: five curled toes, part of a fibula and everything in between. A real dead foot — or so it appeared.
We finished our chicken wings — which, like the foot, included more of the limb than you’d expect — and I rode the W Line back to Denver.
The foot stuck with me. I thought about it for weeks. What was it doing there? I pitched the story to my editor. I called Harvard. I called the sheriff’s office to ask about missing feet. I sent an email titled “Wondering about the foot — reporter,” and I got a response.
“We believe the story is a fabrication from other people that have been drunk also,” wrote Doug McClure, general manager of the Rock Rest, responding to my recounting of the Harvard story. “Always makes for good discussion, but no story here.”
For future reference, “no story here,” is a great way to get someone’s interest. I asked if he knew where the thing was from.
“I believe it is made of wax. Not sure from where,” he responded. At my editor’s urging, I asked if I could touch it. End of communication.
Now, I could believe that the Rock Rest has a very convincing replica foot.
But I could also believe it has a real foot. The place is steeped in folklore and encrusted with weird stuff. Over the years, the place has hosted everyone from Louis Armstrong to Keith Richards. The evidence of its long life is all over its walls, from Murray the rhino head (real, according to the bar) to the cannons outside.
The Rock Rest’s own history says that local legend put its founding in 1885, not long after Golden itself. It started as a trading post, according to the business, before expanding to include a lodge, ballroom and brothel around 1907.
After years of decline, the Rock Rest was “brought back to greatness,” by the legendary jazz orchestra leader George Morrison, the history continues, until the Ku Klux Klan drove him out with a threat to dynamite the place.
Its last owner, Max Heeley, supposedly disappeared after following his terrier into a cavern beneath the bar. I haven’t been able to find any contemporaneous newspaper clips, but, sure.
Nowhere, though, does the bar’s history mention a lost body part.
Something strange was afoot.
First, I got a response from Harvard. Ekaterina Pesheva, spokeswoman for Harvard Medical School, wrote me back: “looking into this but to be honest I have never heard of this. Let me pick a few brains around here.”
No word since then.
I started calling around to medical examiners’ offices to see if I could get a corpse specialist to weigh in on this thing. It was unsurprisingly slow going, but a series of phone calls put me in touch with Dr. Diane France, one of the foremost experts on human remains identification in Colorado and the author of “Human and Nonhuman Bone Identification: A Color Atlas.” (5 out of 5 on Goodreads!)
France, a forensic anthropologist with a PhD, is based in Fort Collins, but she told me she was coming down to Denver for supplies at some point — and, yes, she’d meet me at the bar.
First, I sent her the photos.
“That’s more than just a foot! That’s also at least a lower leg! It doesn’t look like wax to me — the skin looks as dried skin looks, and part of the lower fibula is showing,” she wrote back. She couldn’t tell how old it was, she told me later.
She even gave some credence to the possibility of the Harvard story. Medical schools don’t keep great track of “every bit of every body that they have in their dissection classes,” she wrote, and her own father had once taken part of a leg home from the University of Chicago for studious purposes. (Her grandmother buried it in the backyard.)
“Anyway,” she wrote, “I think this is worth investigating to figure out if it is real. I very much suspect that it is.”
We decided to meet at the Rock Rest this week for a closer examination.
At France’s suggestion, I emailed ahead to see if we might be allowed to open the window in the wall and get a closer look at the thing. I assured them, as France had told me, that it’s not necessarily illegal to have human body parts.
No response. So I got in the car on Wednesday afternoon to go meet France in Golden. Along the way, I received this text message:
“I’m here and it’s gone.”
I may have screamed a little. By the time I arrived and walked around the building (it’s really rather big), she was waiting on the porch for me.
She had been searching around fruitlessly for the foot when a manager approached her, she said. She pointed me to the gentleman, who turned out to be the manager I’d been emailing with earlier.
McClure told us both that just a day or two earlier he’d been notified that the foot was gone from its case. He said he didn’t know where the foot was, but doubted it was related to my emails
“We have people ask about everything in this place — where that’s from, where’s that from?” he said when I asked how much attention the foot usually gets.
France tried to reassure him that we weren’t there to cause trouble. “In most situations, it’s not illegal for a private citizen to have a body part,” she said, adding in her family story for good measure.
I asked him if he knew any of the origin stories for the foot. He knew the Harvard one. Also, this one: “There’s supposedly a ghost around here, which, if you work here long enough, you believe. Supposedly it’s the foot of the ghost.”
I didn’t know ghosts had feet. (More on the ghost story here.) France was really curious to smell the thing, as the presence of embalming fluid would tell us a lot more about how it was preserved, assuming it’s a human foot.
She also did, in fairness, inform the manager that they might run into some trouble if the foot was from a Peruvian mummy or if it might be claimed by any indigenous community in the United States. It was less likely that Harvard could or would prove that it wanted the foot back, she said.
McClure was an incredibly good sport about me bringing a human-remains expert to his bar, which I acknowledge is kind of a jerk move. He said he’d ask the Rock Rest’s owner of 21 years, Charlie Eirngher, to give me a call.
“I don’t even know if he knows it’s missing,” McClure said. Eirngher’s a pilot, he said, and he’s in the air a lot — so I might not expect a call for a few days.
He also suggested another plausible story: Eirngher’s dad used to own dozens of bars, McClure said, and his holdings included a former movie lot on the West Coast. A lot of the Rock Rest’s memorabilia came from that property — could the foot be a movie prop?
But there were no answers to be had that night.
So, France left and McClure kindly didn’t ban me from the Rock Rest.
I ordered a tub of chicken and waited for my friend — the same guy who discovered the foot with me. In the meantime, I made small talk with an older guy on the next bench over. He didn’t know anything about the room with the secret.
“I’ve never set foot in it,” he told me. “Pretty odd,” he agreed — but maybe not so odd as the peanut butter pizza on the menu.
Finally, my friend arrived and I told him the story. Had I ruined it?
How, he asked?
“I ruined it,” I said, “in the sense that you can no longer get drunk and look at a foot. But was I justified in asking about this foot?”
Yes, he agreed — because “it’s a pretty insane story.”
And, unfortunately, it has no resolution yet.
Where is the foot? Why did it disappear? Who has it now? Is it really real?
I haven’t heard back from the bar’s owner. I’ll update this story if I do. If you know more, or maybe you just want to let me know I’m a turd and you loved that foot, then email me.
Ultimately, France cautioned me, this story might kick off events that cause the thing to be confiscated by law enforcement and taken to the county coroner.
“I doubt that the bar owner would be in trouble, he would probably just lose the leg,” she wrote me after our visit.
“I have great respect for the coroner in Jefferson County, but I doubt that he would give the leg/foot back to the bar owner. The coroner might call me, in which case I would analyze it and then ask what I should do with it. Knowing the coroner, he would probably ask to have it back so that he could dispose of it properly (probably cremation). I have a couple of specimens at my lab that were sent by coroners who didn’t want them back, so I keep them around for teaching (they’ll go to a university when I’m gone). ”
Her best guess is that it’s either a very good prop or an embalmed leg. If it’s embalmed, it will be nearly impossible to get DNA — meaning we might never know whom this thing belonged to.
Meanwhile, at least you can get something useful out of this story: Pints are $2 after 8 p.m. on Tuesdays. Go check out the Rock Rest.